Monday, April 1, 2013

March 8 to 14, 2013

March 8 We had a very light snow last night and it dawned a cold morning. I knew no beavers would be out at the East Trail Pond, so I walked up the golf course aiming to get to the Lost Swamp Pond to check the otters. I probably didn’t need them but snowshoes kept me going at a steady pace, and the light snow on top made them a little less noisy than usual. I hoped that the new snow would be enough to record fisher tracks, yes, but proved only by the fact that I saw squirrel tracks. I didn’t see any porcupine tracks in the valley and no tracks from the porcupine den in the low rocks just south of the Big Pond.

Perhaps the plunging temperature kept the animals in their dens last night. The last time I crossed the Big Pond there was brown ice in the upper end, soaked by muddy thaw water. There seemed to have been a blockage in the narrow creek that links the upper and lower part of the pond because the lower part was still white. Today I could see that while the upper ice of the pond was all white again, the lower part had a grayish tint.

The thaw had finally trickled down into the lower pond. I didn’t see fresh tracks in the narrow woods between the Big Pond and Lost Swamp Pond and as I approached the latter pond, I worried that the otters were gone and I wouldn’t see anything new. Indeed, I wasn’t greeted by the usual pair of mink trails heading toward the dam, but I did see impressions on the pond. The question was: are these new or just old tracks covered by the light snow?

I saw a raccoon’s trail heading across the pond, and that was new to me.

Then I saw a hole in the snow bank now forming the north shore of the pond and it appeared to be a hole used by minks, which I think I’ve seen before.

The mink tracks coming out of it looked rather faint and at least a few days old. Then as I got closer to the dam, where I have grown accustomed to seeing otter tracks, I saw what looked like otter tracks and slides.

I have seen slides in this flat relatively snow free area before but the slides were a few feet farther out in the pond, and today I could also see slides and a prints making another trail. But nothing that I saw looked like it had been made since the light snow fall of last night so I was seeing tracks new to me, and I haven’t been to this pond since March 3. I got no sense of where the slides were going and when I looked at the hole which a few weeks ago was the principal hole the otters used, I saw that it was closed for business. Instead of a dark gap in the hole, I saw a narrow gap between two slabs of ice.

Ice gives the illusion of being locked in place but it is always changing. So animals who chose to live under it have to keep finding a way out so when the ice starts dripping or water starts flowing they can get out from underneath before the water displaces the air they breathe under the ice. I walked out on the dam and found fresh otter tracks in the fresh snow coming out of the hole in the ice behind the middle of the dam.

I couldn’t strictly interpret the tracks: was it two otters going out and coming back to the dam, or one otter dancing on the ice behind the dam? What fresh snow had been on the ice behind the dam was gone so that told no tales,

unless I interpret the darkened ice as dirt brought up by the otters. I walked down on the pond to get a closer look at the slides which allowed me to see some fresh prints pointing back to the lodge. But what looked like a sharp right angle turn was puzzling. The prints there looked to sunk in the ice.

With the weather we’ve had, today the deeper the print or slide the older it is. As I walked out to the beaver lodge just east of the dam, I saw the otter slide I saw back on the 1st and, making less of an impression, I saw another otter slide that must be more recent.

The older trail veered over to the brush north of the pond, this new trail pointed toward the peninsula to the south. I turned back to get a photo of the slide coming from the hole in the dam, which is just to the right of my snow shoe tracks. That slide struck me as being not connected with the tracks I saw behind the dam and I got the impression that the otter had been heading to the dam.

But I seem to always get the impression that the slide is going in the direction I am looking. Then I turned and followed the trail toward the peninsula, and I got the impression that the otter was still heading toward the dam.

When otters go out on a frozen pond they often nose into stumps and edges where they might find a way under the ice. This otter went by a stump with a possible hole without any investigation. So I think it knew that a hole was waiting for it back at the dam.

I followed the trail to the peninsula where I lost it in the brush. I walked around the point and then up the south shore of the peninsula and I didn’t have far to go before I saw a trail going into the brush -- no sliding here. The otter had to get up a slight slope.

On the flat ice the otter made short slides and it looked like it had come from the beaver lodge in the east end of the pond.

The trail crossed what may have been a pool of melted water when the otter was on the ice. At least there were no tracks on that low pool of ice. The otter may have also nosed into the old shrub stumps near that pool.

Then the otter did not go where the ice dips down where the main channel is. It came straight down from the lodge on the higher ice.

The pattern of prints and slides gives me the impression of an otter going as fast as it can. When I got up close to the lodge, I could see that the otter at least looked for into it for a hole and perhaps found one.

The only way I could be sure was to walk up on the lodge but I saw more low ice without any impressions suggesting that it had been a pool of melt water if not open water. Neither presented that much of a peril in a pond from which most of the water had drained out, but I was on snow shoes and getting them stuck in the ice can be bothersome. So I chickened out. I walked around the low ice around the lodge, which was rather extensive, and when I picked up otter slides on the other side, the slide look a good bit older, so maybe the otter stayed in the lodge a while.

But when I got closer to some dead stumps from which the slide came, I saw another bolder otter slide, which looked to be made by an otter that would have been coming toward me.

I continued walking to the east until I thought I saw otter trails side by side. The slides to the right were easy to see but the strides just to the left of that were hard to follow.

The logical explanation is that one otter went up pond and then came back, but, to me both slides seem to be heading down toward the dam. I turned back hoping I could see the trails side by side and going in the same direction which would suggest a mother and her pup, but I only found one slide which looked to be coming up from the lodge.

What pleasurable confusion. I headed home, and because Leslie was anxious to get to our land to check the sap buckets, I followed my trail back, doubtlessly confusing any otter who might want to track me.

Our main job at the land is tending our sap buckets, and I always go get the one along the road down the hill which takes me almost to the Deep Pond. Of course, I check to see what the beavers have been up to. I could see that a beaver had been up on the ice around the patch of open water behind the hole in the dam.

Several thin and long stripped sticks had been left on the ice.

There were also tracks on the relatively soft ice -- the temperature was above freezing and the sun was out. I came back later in the afternoon when the sun was brighter and at my back to get better photos of the beaver trails.

Unfortunately the snow not mellowed by the ice underneath didn’t show the tracks. I couldn’t tell were the beaver went, and given that some of the tracks were circular perhaps the beaver was going no where in particular.

One warmish winter day at Wildcat Pond, I saw a beaver walk a big circle around the snow covered pond, rather slow going and little doing, but no better cure for cabin fever. There were also turkey tracks on the pond and it looked like their had been some strutting if not courting.

There were no signs of beavers coming out of the bank hole. However, when I checked on the pond on the 9th, most of the sticks had been cleared away from the ice behind the dam.

The water behind the dam also looked higher to me. A cold night made it easier to walk on the pond without sinking into deep slush, so I walked out to the hole the beavers have in the bank and it looked like a beaver had been out there.

I didn’t climb up in the still deep snow to investigate because I didn’t have my snow shoes on.

March 10 as I walked down to check on the Deep Pond, I saw what looked like a just nipped sapling. Wood chips were on the top of the snow.

As I stepped down to take that photo, I heard something dive into the open water behind the dam, something big, obviously the beaver. I still approached the pond cautiously and at respectful distance that still gave me a full view of the dam, I waited for a beaver to come back out of the water. None did. It looked like there were several saplings collected on the ice, most of them yet to be stripped by the beaver.

It was beginning to rain so the close-up photo I got of this newly collected meal was not too good, certainly not good enough to identify exactly what the beaver cut.

Leslie has seen two blue rabbit pee stains in the snow, the residue from a meal of buckthorn bark.

I usually don’t go out of my way to see and photograph this familiar late winter sight, but we had interested visitors today and had to find an example.

March 11 yesterday’s rain kicked off a serious thaw which kept us from hiking much save to pick up sap. When I went down to Deep Pond, I saw what 50 plus degrees and a half inch of rain had wrought.

Such changes did not keep the beaver from nibbling the bark off all the sticks it had collected on the ice around the open water behind the dam.

I expected the thaw to be more violent but the lack of sun and what I thought were relatively small rain drops kept much of the ice and icy snow still intact.

March 12 while the thaw continued the temperature dropped back down to the 30sF. I headed off to check the East Trail Pond by taking my old route via the Antler Trail and the South Bay trail. I feared the ice on South Bay would have a good bit of water on top of it. The slopes facing the south were clear of snow. The plateaus had patchy snow and it was easy to pick a snowless path. The slopes facing the north were icy, quite treacherous. But only when I had to cross the raging creek feeding the north cove of South Bay did I have to get on my hands and knees. The new footbridge on the trail was flooded

and hopping across on rocks was out of the question.

The ancient oak logs, supplemented last year by an elm log I threw across next to them, were out of the water but slippery. So I crawled across them. Once over that the rest of the way was easy enough. During a thaw even the snow that survives loses a good bit of its moisture. That’s what I had to deal with the rest of the way until I got down to the slush of the East Trail Pond. I sat on a downed trunk just up from the pond to contemplate the thaw. The slope north of the pond was bare brown while the pond, save for a slice of open water behind the north end of the dam, was still locked in winter.

Leslie got a new pair of binoculars for her birthday, a gift from our son, and fortunately I had them around my neck. I checked the brown lumps along the dam, expecting that all were the butts of old beaver cut logs, and instead I saw a beaver hunched up in a munching position just behind the dam. I got out my camcorder which has better magnification than my camera and took a photo with that.

I took video too, but thanks to the distance from where I sat, I couldn’t see the beaver move. I kept switching back from the camcorder and binoculars and while doing that the beaver suddenly splashed the water and disappeared. I scanned all the open water but as far as I could see through good binoculars, it never surfaced. I walked gingerly out on the pond and stayed on the far western end of it knowing that if I went through the ice there would be very little water there. Then I went up the slope north of the pond at a point that was steeped enough to prompt me to use a big downed trunk to keep me from sliding back down the slope. Looking up I saw two red oaks, both about a foot in diameter, cut enough so that the next strong wind might blow them down.

Looking up in the other direction, to my right, I saw a larger well gnawed red oak, but it needed more gnawing to bring it down.

Looking back down at the pond, I didn’t see any open water or broken ice. So I didn’t think any beavers climbed up to those red oaks taking the same route I was.

When I got up to the top of the ridge, I saw another red oak about the same size almost cut enough to blow down.

These beavers cut some smaller trees up here in the late summer. This area of the woods is rather park like. Usually the terrain seems to help chose what tree the beavers cut. On this plateau the beaver had equal access to every tree, or so it seemed to me now with all the snow melted.

The beaver did all this gnawing since I was last up on the ridge a couple weeks ago. However, when the beaver stands on snow the cuts into the tree are higher than usual, and there was one cut that now makes it look like a beaver had to stretch up to gnaw it.

Meanwhile I took photos of everything, seduced by the beauty of the gnawing and the trees. As I focused on the largest red oak gnawed so far up here, I also saw a small cut pine lying on the ground next to it.

When I looked down at that pine trunk into pointed me to another cut pine.

I didn’t see branches nipped off but a beaver could have collected pine boughs and the trunks were somewhat segmented. The beavers evidently took them down the ridge to their hole. Then looking up a rocky knoll in the middle of the plateau I saw another thin pine peaking up over the knoll. The portion falling up this side of the knoll had been segmented and taken away.

The fifth photo above showed, in the middle of the picture, the stump of a large pine blown down without any help from the beavers. When I tracked the beavers work while this ridge was covered in foot deep snow, I saw that the beavers cut off a few branches of this big pine that was probably mostly dead when it fell. Now I saw just about every branch cut, though I had to puzzle over whether some of them simply broke in the fall.

I was kicking myself that I had not come out here more times in the last two weeks. I lost the thread of the narrative of this foraging. I took a photo of the small grove of pines that the beaver had cut back in the middle of the winter.

Compared to what this area looked like over a month ago, it looked like the beaver did a lot more cutting,

But some of the smaller stumps might have been covered in the snow. All to say, that I couldn’t jump to the conclusion that all the beavers in the pond came up here and just did all this work. The almost catatonic state of the beaver I had just seen in the pond is typical for beavers after a long winter. I looked down over the precipice of the ridge and saw open water in the pond, but no signs of beavers using it, must be very shallow there.

Then I looked down at the pine cut on the ridge that tumbled down onto the pond ice below. The beavers probably wished every tree they cut on the ridge had done that because it was easy trimming off all the branches and bringing them to a hole in the ice.

A few weeks before the beavers cut the pine that tumbled onto the pond, they cut one next to it and I never saw the trunk. Now I saw that it was right next to the stump and had been buried by the snow. The beavers trimmed off the branches and cut off the top of the trunk.

The hole in the ice that the beavers used to get out of the pond is just a convenient slide down the rocks from that trunk. Given the amount of gnawing and cutting up on the ridge, one would expect a jam of logs in and around the hole much wider now thanks to the thaw. But there were just a few stripped sticks there, and only three with much heft.

And one could conclude that the smaller cut sticks there came from the winterberry bushes around the hole.

I could no longer safely walk on the ice. I knew from experience how thin the ice was around those bushes. When my feet went in before the thawing there was no water below. Now the water was probably over my boots. So I took a photo of where the last beaver hole was on the south side of the bushes. I saw stripped sticks there still but couldn’t tell if they were the same ones I saw there a week or two ago.

Last year as the ice thawed the beavers found a series of holes opening in the ice closer to the lodge they were using in the middle of the pond. The ice was thicker last year and seemed to fracture into more gaps caused, I suppose, by the freezing and thawing which seemed a bit violent last year. We’ve been more or less in a cloud for the last three weeks or so, without much sun and even when the temperature warmed above 50 there was no sun beating down on the ice. I really don’t know what I am talking about because at this time of year I keep anticipating the absence of ice don’t pay enough attention to its last two, three or four weeks of existence. The survival of the animals who live under the ice might depend on their clearly understanding what is going. Having missed the fall and first half of the winter, I still don’t know where the beavers are denning. In the large lodge in the middle of the pond, or the small lodge closer to the north shore?

Since all of the openings in the ice are in the north extreme of the pond, I should probably conclude that the beavers, maybe just two of them, are in the small lodge which hardly registers in the photo above. As I walked along the north shore, I got a better angle on the lodges and the smaller one looked more plausible as a den than it first did when I saw it revealed as the snow on it retreated.

Here is how it looked on September 10 just before we left for four months.

This family usually makes a big lodge for the winter which suggests that if this is the lodge they are using this winter, it is no longer a very big family. As I continued along the north shore I saw a pine trunk with all its branches nipped off and I also found a collection of nipped boughs all with green pine needles.

Was this a meal left on the shore, or bedding? The beaver obviously organized the neat pile for a purpose. I climbed back up on the ridge to get a better view of the dam. The first hole I had noticed in the dam back in early February seemed be at the north end of the dam. If one was there, it now has been patched and now there was a major leak in the dam more toward its middle.

Judging from the streak of mud behind a hole in the north end of the dam, what I thought was a hole might have been a burrow.

There was a bit of foam backed up where the water was now rushing out of the pond. Yet, it was difficult to see any holes and at the same time it did not look like the dam was simply falling apart. It looked solid and was firm when I walked on it.

I was standing at about the same spot where I had seen a beaver about a half hour before. I had not seen where it swam after it dived. Looking back at the pond I saw a sheet of ice slanting down from the center of the pond and now flooded over with water. The ice was more broken toward the left and that likely marked the channel that the beaver swam up under the ice, probably a more convenient route to the big lodge in the middle of the pond.

Looking ahead along the dam, I saw another place where there was a hole in the dam though less water was running out of it and there was less open water behind the hole. Was the beaver simply making holes in the dam every 20 feet or so? Was that its way of hurrying the thaw?

And then I saw another hole, smaller still with less water running out and no open water behind the dam. Those long sticks lying across the dam remind me of what I saw on this dam last March when the beavers began patching the dam. So maybe this is a case of an old hole in the dam opening up again.

Walking on a narrow dam with so many evident holes is perilous no matter how frozen and firm it feels. The imperative is to keep moving so I stopped trying to count the leaks. But when I got toward the south end of the dam where I knew that what water was behind the dam was relatively shallow, I paused to take a photo of a mink hole in the ice and snow right behind the dam.

That reminded me that the first impression of this dam on February 3, after I had not seen it for four months, was that only a few minks were still using it. Snow and ice conceal a great deal and one has to patiently wait for the stories working themselves out under it to be revealed.

March 14 on a cold morning with a brisk wind we managed to get across the golf course and then headed down the valley where at least we were out of the wind. We thought it might be our last chance to cross the ponds on the ice. Once we can no longer do that going down the valley is quite out of our way if we want to get over to the Lost Swamp Pond. That’s where I wanted to go to see if there were any signs of otters. After two very warm days with much thawing I expected that the otters would have left the pond, and also that it would more or less impossible to tell if they were there or not, unless I saw a fat wet scat out on the ice. But even that might not be conclusive. Old scats thawing can look wet and fresh. As the snow and ice melts, old tracks can be revealed. We puzzled over that in the valley. On all our hikes here in February and March we didn’t see any porcupine trails on the east end of the valley nor did we see any dens up in the jumble of rocks like we usually do in the winter. Today, we saw a pile of porcupine poop up in a rock den and we saw what looked like a cascade of tracks, roly-poly snow, coming out of the hole and down the slope.

Did a porcupine just start using this den or were these tracks made early in the winter and frozen into a layer of snow that since February has been covered by snow and for the same reason we didn’t see the poops in the den? I scanned the rocks forming the east wall of the valley and saw one other similar trail.

My hunch is that I am over thinking this and a porcupine just moved in. If I come back later and see fresh gnawing on the trees then there will be less doubt. But I probably won’t come back. The snow and ice are disappearing. I suppose I could doubt the freshness of all the animal signs I saw today. Maybe the poop I saw right in the front porch, so to speak, of the porcupine den just south of the Big Pond had been under a layer of snow for months. I could easily see the poop but not any fresh tracks, but there were no tracks because the snow hardened up during the cold night.

Despite the cold we had to scout out a good route over the Big Pond ice. I choose the upper part of the big lower pool of the pond just below where the creek narrowed under the ice, and we had no trouble. The Lost Swamp Pond was still mostly snow covered. There was gray ice where the creek ran down the middle of the pond and a hint of brown ice. I got the impression that the creek might have been briefly ice free during the thaw. We certainly didn’t walk on that ice.

The lower part of the creek is wider and there is still enough water to form a pond behind the dam. I checked the clearer ice for bubbles that an animal swimming underneath might leave and, while there were some bubbles, I didn’t see any convincing bubble trails.

On the way to the dam, I could just make out some mink tracks. Then standing on the pond bank just west of the dam, I could see that the thaw had melted the snow bank into which the otters and minks had made holes. Everything was flatter and harder. The pond ice no longer had the ups and downs caused by the water draining out of the hole in the dam.

Not that the pond was once again within its banks. There was still a rush of water draining out of the hole in the dam, and judging by the icicles above the flow the water had been higher yesterday before the freeze.

There was still snow cover in the area just behind the dam where I had been seeing otter tracks and slides, but there were also blotches of melting. I didn’t see any tracks.

There was no snow on top of the dam and I looked for scats new and old, and didn’t see any. However, I did see a hole on top of the dam and when I looked down in it, I thought it opened up into quite a cavern. I tried to get a photo showing that but I couldn’t quite get the camera into the hole.

That hole was right above the hole in back of the dam that I knew the otters had used. I got down on my belly and I tried to get a photo looking into that quite large hole. I saw that the hole did not go straight back to that cavern I discovered but went to the side, angling to the hole through the dam.

I also took a photo of the ice and snow behind the hole and I saw no otter tracks or scats there.

My hands were rather cold now and I put the camera away. We headed home first circling behind the dam. Again, I saw no otter signs. Of course, soon I’ll want to see signs that a beaver is here. If that dam is not repaired, there may not be a pond here at all, just a creek.

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