Wednesday, April 3, 2013

March 15 to 21, 2013

March 15 once again Leslie got the great notion of walking across the ice of South Bay. A ferocious west wind greeted us and we had to keep our head down to keep our eyes from watering to the point of blindness and to watch our step. There were patches of bare ice in varying conditions.

And on a closer look the ice was worth staring at, especially after I juiced up a close-up photo of it.

Leslie and I couldn’t figure out what etched the ice like that, and it was too cold and blustery to study it. I suppose the wind disrupted the usual circular patterns of melting ice and then the cold locked that disruption into art. Then a snow squall hit. I took one more cold photo and hurried to the protection of the woods along the north shore of the bay.

We usually enjoy mink tracks and tunnels in the snow along that shore but ice conditions seemed too harsh for that so we didn’t linger in the wind. I didn’t check otter latrines. We headed up to Audubon Pond which was protected enough from the wind to allow us to have a leisurely walk around it. I haven’t paid too much attention to this pond since we got back in February figuring that at best there are only two beavers here, a seemingly infertile couple who have been here for several years. I have looked down at the bank lodge where they spent last winter and saw no signs of life. Today I saw two small holes in the ice next to it probably made by minks, not beavers.

I had only seen this lodge when snow covered it. Now I could see the sticks and all of them looked old, put up there for last winter. There were no signs of preparations for this winter. On the nearby west shore there is a downed shag-bark hickory that the beavers cut last winter and that they never trimmed the branches off, cutting off just two as I recall. All last year it was the symbol,to me, of the beavers petering out. Cutting shag-bark hickory was their last meal so to speak which they never mounted the energy to eat. The snow squall made the untouched tree look even more melancholy.

I thought walking around the pond would be quick work. I soon saw that I was wrong. A large tree, probably a red oak, had fallen across the trail that ringed the pond and almost all the bark had been gnawed off.

Porcupines could do that, but seldom do, and on closer inspection I saw that branches had been cut off and deep gnaws made into the smaller of the branching trunks.

Only beavers do that. But they hadn’t just worked on it because there were no holes in the pond ice. When I was last here, all of this gnawing could have been covered by snow. I walked along the west edge of the pond toward the bank lodge, looking for holes in the ice that beavers might have used and beaver work on shore. I didn’t see the former but I did see fresh gnawing on the exposed roots of a clump of hickories on the shore 20 yards from the lodge.

The beavers often find shag-bark hickory roots to gnaw, and, they also cut the shag-barks down. A nearby tree had a neat 2 or 3 inch cut gnawed into it.

Looking toward the lodge, unused by beavers as far as I could see, I saw more trees gnawed and girdled and one shag-bark cut and fallen into the pond.

Last year the people running the park put nesting boxes for wood ducks around the pond, assuming that a straight shag-bark hickory was a sturdy tree. The beavers proved them wrong.

I checked the crown of the tree and saw that beaver had cut at least two of the larger limbs.

I was getting the definite impression that the beavers hadn’t abandoned this pond, and that the shag-barks, which beavers usually ignore, were paying the price. The shag-barks around the pond seem all about the same size, about one foot in diameter at the base of the trunk, and all straight and tall for their width. As the beavers move from one to another, they hardly have to adjust their incisors. All the trees are the same.

Last summer they did most of their tree cutting along this shore well into the woods, but they did cut and strip an ash near the pond. Now a hickory that they cut fell almost touching the ash. They cut the branches off the hickory but gnawed off only a few patches of the trunk.

The trees are roughly the same size, equally convenient to the pond. The hickory bark is obviously less palatable than the ash. I saw a couple more trees being cut more in the woods but conditions were deteriorating for evaluating beaver work. The snow squall was covering up the evidence. I hurried over to the west end of the north shore where Leslie found some trees cut. One trunk was almost snow covered,

and I couldn’t be sure of what type of tree it was, ash probably. I was impressed that the beavers left a chunky log next to the trunk. It doesn’t look like they cut it off the tree it was laying next to.

A few yards away there was a choke cherry trunk down next to a stump that appeared to be bleeding sap.

There seemed to be nothing living in the two bank lodges, save for minks, so we walked out to check the lodge in the pond just off the north shore. Some twigs from a possible cache of branches were peaking out of the ice far from the lodge.

And there were stripped logs on the lodge which looked like they might have been added in the fall.

The beavers are probably living in there. Last summer, they cut down quite a few ash not far from the lodge in the northeast corner of the pond. I walked over there but didn’t see any fresh beaver work between the snowflakes.

In the afternoon we went to our land and with the snow losing its ferocity, we went down to the Deep Pond via the Third Pond. That meant we walked toward the pond along the path in the snow the beavers had made when they went foraging from their hole in the northeast bank of the pond. When the snow was deep I had difficulty seeing what they had cut. Today we could see a line of small stumps, and not honeysuckle bushes. Leslie identified them as nannyberry bushes.

The beavers seemed to favor the smaller trunks.

Nannyberry is not one of their favored meals and in the past we noticed they cut only them as a last resort. When I turned around and took a photo looking back at the pond, it was easy to see that the beavers had a limited choice. One large nannyberry clump remains and honeysuckles.

There are ironwoods, elms, ash, basswoods and apple trees between the pond and the ridge just a few yards from these nannyberries, perhaps too far away in this snow. Of course I am not sure when they cut these trees and some could have been cut before the snow got deep. There were no fresh tracks coming out of the hole in the bank and when I got down on the pond, I saw that the hole was completely exposed and no longer safe for a beaver to stay there, not that it was that safe when it was almost completely covered with snow. A nosy coyote might be able to dig down to get into it.

As always there were some coyote trails on the pond, as well as the tracks of browsing deer.

At the low end of the southeast shore, directly opposite the hole in the bank, I saw a well gnawed log peeking out of the snow. It was the largest log I have seen beavers here gnaw in the last two years.

Thanks to our on again off again thaw the inlet creek has been running. It was iced over today.

I could see some beaver gnawed sticks frozen in the ice.

There were also snowed-over and half thawed tracks around the area that had been open water. I didn’t see the tracks leading to any major work. One went over to the nearby brush and the beaver must have nipped something to eat that had very little heft because I couldn’t see any remains of it next to all the large sticks the beaver left standing.

Then I checked out the dam, where of late I have seen the most evidence of beaver nibbling and gnawing. I could see where the thin ice had been broken and plenty of bubbles under the ice.

A beaver must have been eating there last night or this morning because some of the nibbled sticks were half up on the ice.

It crossed my mind that a beaver might have been collecting sticks to patch a hole in the dam. There was still water flowing out of the dam, but not at that particular spot. There was a bit of mud where water would have flowed there, or is that where an animal dug into the dirt of the dam?

Being away for four months, I missed that story. But if a beaver did patch the dam, it did so rather sparely. So I don’t think a beaver patched the dam there because beavers usually over do their repairs. Standing below the dam, I took a photo of the whole pond,

just to show how far the thaw has to go.

March 18 we went up to Montreal for the weekend and walked along the St. Lawrence River up to the Lachine rapids where they have wrapped trees with chicken wire because beavers have moved into two large side pools which are surrounded by willows. I saw the stump of a smaller beaver cut willow right above the raging edge of the huge rapids. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera. Today we went to our land to collect sap and despite the cold temperature and wind we almost got a gallon to boil. I went down to the Deep Pond and picked up where I left off, analyzing the clearer ice right behind the dam. It looked about the same.

The cold didn’t prevent the beavers from breaking out from under the ice where the inlet creek flows into the pond.

There were some trails from and back to the inlet but it wasn’t immediately apparent what they went out and back for.

We could see what looked like thin stalks and wee twigs on the snow, and the clumps of bushes a few feet from the inlet looked well browsed.

We didn’t see any drag marks suggesting that the beavers took anything more substantial into the pond.

One trail going up from the inlet to the bushes just to the west was quite fresh and I could count the beavers toes.

I followed the trail and couldn’t exactly tell what the beaver went off to get.

The cold temperatures the last few days made the pond easy to walk across and as the snow retreats more of the bank hole the beavers had been using is revealed. It’s rather nondescript and I still won’t risk kneeling right in front of the hole to get a photo looking into it. When snow covered the area the beavers must have had access to the pond there so the ice might be thin.

Before we left in September I saw that one of the beavers here, at least, was building a mound of sticks over a very low burrow on the low northeast shore that I had once seen muskrats use. When I came back in early February snow covered the shore and I saw no sign of the lodge. Now as the snow thaws I can see that bank lodge.

It certainly did not look like the beavers added more sticks to it since September. Many of the sticks over the burrow over at the highest point of the shore where I had noticed a vent opening looked like they were recently nibbled. But that area is still covered with snow. When I see the beaver, I expect to see it swim back into that burrow. Last March the beavers had open water behind a hole they made in the east end of the dam. There was no open water there now and evidently no hole.

I forgot to mention that when I walked on the parts of the dam that lost their snow cover, I looked for otter scats. I haven’t see any. So my guess is that the beavers made the holes in the dam and this year picked new spots to dig through.

March 19 last night we had 4 or 5 inches of wet snow and this afternoon I got the great notion of walking to the East Trail Pond to see how the beavers reacted. It was above freezing and wet snow often makes it easier to open new holes in the ice. However it was not easy snow to walk in. We couldn’t cross South Bay because the ice along the north shore has melted leaving a band of slush. So we had to take the long way around the bay. Of course, I hoped to see the beaver outside a hole in the ice behind the dam again. There were brown lumps there but the binoculars revealed the lumps as earth. Leslie took a breather on a downed trunk and I walked around the west end of the pond on the trail. When I got half way up to the plateau I saw some gnawing and cutting I didn’t see the last time I was here, but there were no tracks in the snow. So much for my hunch that a beaver would come out after the snow.

The small angled trunk the beaver cut looked like the most convenient meal imaginable. Beavers were up here two years ago foraging but missed that morsel. A straight small tree nearby, probably a red oak, that they cut proved to be too tall and it was still hung up.

In the background center and left in the photo above, you can see the work I saw when I was last here. To the right, you can see the pond. I have no idea if the beaver took that easier slope but I suspect it climbed up over the plateau. The trees that I saw cut the 12th were in the same state. They are probably too thick for double cutting at this time of year.

Then I saw wood chips on the snow around another red oak that they had been cutting back on the 12th. A beaver had come out this morning after the snow.

I could see tracks in the snow coming to the tree and following them back I saw where a beaver had just cut a pine tree (with a red trail marker on it.)

Then I followed the beavers tracks from the red oak that headed over to the precipice going down to Shangri-la Pond. Incidently when this beaver family was in that pond they sometimes climbed the steep cliff and cut small trees on this ridge.

The beaver seemed to wander over there to get nothing in particular. There was no gnawing on the trees there. I did see what looked like a wood chip or two in the snow at the base of a large ungnawed tree trunk. Perhaps the beaver was nibbling the needle-less pine bough lying there in the snow.

There were meandering tracks back to the red oak the beaver gnawed and I saw that the trail went to and from the little pine the beaver cut up on the slight ridge in the middle of the plateau.

I went up to the pine stump and fancied I could see exactly how the beaver did it, cutting the pine without any hesitation

Then it cut off two of the smaller lower branches.

Looking at the trail going back down the ridge I could see the drag marks.

I have never gotten down on my hands and knees in the snow and parsed the comings and goings of a beaver. Obviously the beaver approached this pattern of trees differently than I did and I couldn’t tell if it cut the pine and then resumed gnawing the red oak or vice versa. But I think the beaver cut the pine, took the boughs back to its hole in the ice then came back and went over the knoll for a taste of red oak, then wandered a bit and returned to the pine to take back another bough. Let me quickly add that I like to plod around like that in the woods, I like to poke about, it suits my personality. I don’t walk fast down trails lusting for vistas and counting the miles. The beaver took its usual route down to the usual hole.

The pond water was up to the brim in the hole. Since the water level in the pond was so low back in February this suggests to me that the beavers are patching some of the holes in the dam.

I didn’t see pine branches around the hole which suggests that the beaver took it back to the lodge. I didn’t walk out on the pond, not trusting the ice along the north shore. I walked back up the ridge and I noticed that the beaver didn’t follow the lowest direct path to the pine. It went up the knoll like it was going to look for a branch on the big pine that blew over months ago from which it has trimmed a number of branches.

Veering up on the high ground also seems prudent since it would quickly reveal what was happening up on the plateau. But I tend to think that if a beaver worried about possible predators every time it went up a snowy ridge, then that beaver would be so paralyzed with fear that it would starve.

March 21 the first full day of spring dawned well below freezing but with brilliant sun. That hardened the wet snow we had two days ago. Plus we keep having lake effect snow showers and that light snow over hard snow can make for good tracking. We headed across the golf course bound for the Lost Swamp Pond and had to pause to admire the stampede of goose tracks on the fairways.

We seem to have more geese than other springs. Probably 50 to 100 are in our cove most days and nights. We can hear them from our bed at night but their arguments are mild compared to what it will be like when they battle for and defend nesting sites. We assume that these are migrating geese but the human war against geese is on-going and perhaps the local geese have determined that the ratio of people to lawns is better for them at this time of year when there are so few people about since almost all the houses are empty. The usual complement of turkeys was on the golf course but some of them surprised us by flying up into trees and then flying off as we trudged closer to them. Once up walking through the plateau that forms the entrance to the valley down to the Big Pond, we were gratified to see that it was a good day for tracking. It was easy to see a fisher’s trail as it made one of its characteristic adjustments to its almost never-straight trail.

Last time we were here a week ago, we saw a porcupine den and trail in the snowy rocks east of the valley for the first time since we got back in February. I feared that because of a complete thaw we wouldn’t get back to the valley this year and wouldn’t know if we were seeing fresh tracks or old tracks revealed because of partial thawing. Today we could see a new porcupine trail coming down from a higher rock den. The photo below scarcely shows it.

The porcupine is still using the den in the low rocks just up from the Big Pond and as I followed its trail, I bumped into Leslie, now a bit bored with porcupine trails, who enjoyed some fresh squirrel and bird tracks in the snow.

We have seen chipmunks around our house, but not in the woods. I took a photo of the porcupine’s trail which as usual seemed to go farther than necessary to get a bite of bark.

I am not sure if the tendency of animals to go to the farthest extent of their range to forage arises from fear of other animals moving in or if, at this time of year, they are entranced by the ease of walking about and they go as far as they can. The Big Pond looked to be all ice and snow but we were careful to avoid the pools which we know had melted. Most winters we get a pretty good sense of how many coyotes are patrolling these swamps and what they are excited about. Usually we can account for 3 to 5. Last year I saw 3 at once. But judging from the tracks this year there are only two and they don’t seem to be together much. When we saw some more delicate looking rounded tracks we thought a bobcat might be about but with a closer look decided a coyote had the same trouble we were having, sometimes making a light impression on the snow and sometimes sinking into it.

We figured this was our last chance to see rabbit tracks where we often see them in the woods between the Big Pond and Lost Swamp Pond. None were there. Last time I came to the Lost Swamp Pond, I decided that the otters had left. Often at this time of year when otters are mating and mothers and pups separate, otter tracking can be at its wildest. Every pond can be crossed by slides. And last years I was astounded when the otter family stayed together until May. That fueled a crazy theory that one otter was adapting totally to the remnant ponds and now extensive beaver meadows. So much for that theory, there were no otter tracks or slides on the snow of the pond.

All was flat and I suddenly switched my tracker’s hat with my art curator’s hat and motioned Leslie to look at the winter sculpture garden.

I must confess however that every year more dead trunks are biting the dust. Art is enduring but not, I am finding, in beaver ponds. We also didn’t see the usual parallel mink trails rushing toward the dam. I saw that one mink did duck into a slit through its old hole in the ice on the shore just before the dam.

The once roly-poly ice behind the dam was now almost perfectly flat. Water was still flowing out of the hole in the dam, but no otters seemed to care anymore.

There were some tracks at the foot of the rocks just west of the dam, all from deer browsing what plant matter than thaw revealed.

Back tracking home, we paused at the lodge in the middle of the west end of the pond.

Last summer the pond had very little water but there was still depth and plenty of underwater vegetation between this lodge and the dam. I saw muskrats and snapping turtles using the lodge but something kept piling cut honeysuckle branches on top of it, and only beavers do that. The July 21 photo below shows how the lodge looked one the honeysuckle leaves all died.

Beavers generally don’t eat dead leaves nor honeysuckle bark, so I assume the branches simply blew away. But if a beaver is not there now or if one doesn’t move in this spring and patch the dam, this pond which I have enjoyed so much since 1987 will be almost completely dry. While it is certainly no sign of spring, a lichen flourishing in the pervasive spring thaw damp, even on sunny days, certainly looked happy.

We kept seeing insects, mostly flying, and also a snow scorpion. The day was so beautiful we were in no hurry to get home. As we went up the valley Leslie looked like the thoughtful tracker she is.

Even though we went back the same way we came, our excitement was not over. We were sure we crossed fresh porcupine tracks that were not there as we walked down the valley. And sure enough we followed the tracks, mostly with our eyes, and saw a porcupine up in a pine tree above the rocks forming the west side of the valley.

When we got up to where we saw the fresh fishers trail, Leslie went off tracking it. I warned of a long winding ordeal, but then I saw a fresh porcupine trail and following that can sometimes provide instant gratification. I soon saw a big rotting trunk, now more or less a glorified stump, with porcupine poop scattered around the snow below it.

When I looked around it, I saw fresh tracks and the small porcupine who made them. It quickly climbed up into a gaping hole in the trunk.

Meanwhile Leslie was seeing crisscrossing fisher trails

and they crossed fresh porcupine trails.

I have never seen such a dramatic juxtaposition of fresh porcupine and fisher tracks, and the latter is one of the animals that can kill the former, but the porcupine, as I had just seen, was still kicking.

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