The foot of snow in the woods was deep enough for a porcupine to make a respectable trough.
That graceful trail came down from the rock dens half way up the steep slope on the east side of a wide ravine. At the other end of the woods there was another porcupine trail coming out of a den in low rocks completely covered by the snow.
Standing on the rock ledge looking down at the den has been my first sure stop in the winter woods for many years. Sometimes a porcupine was looking back at me. Not today. Then I faced the Big Pond. When it was indeed a pond, it was generally easy to cross in the winter because the west wind blew most of the snow off it. But now I faced a meadow.
The snow is always deeper in meadows and tracks are not easily seen. I miss the old days when I often saw tracks in the inch of snow spared by the winds that revealed the capering of coyotes. The Lost Swamp Pond was easier to cross. When I left the pond on the 2nd, I had the impression that the otters had breached the dam. So I expected the ice on the pond to have collapsed here and there as its water drained out. However, the snow was deep enough to smooth over any appearance of collapsing save where I saw a pool of slush beside the lodge which marked the new level of the water below the ice, perhaps a foot lower than it had been.
As I walked on I crossed the trail left by two deer as they investigated that low point, probably to get a drink of the water puddling there. Of course, I kept looking at the dam where I expected to see otter slides. I soon saw that there were none to be seen.
There was a depression in the snow behind the dam that went down to the new water level but it certainly didn't look like anything had used it to get under or out from under the ice. Because the beaver here doesn't forage for trees to cut, it hasn't had much interest in building up the dam and keeping the water level high. So the hole in the dam has been draining water out of a pond that did not have a high water level to begin with. For that reason, I expected the otters to live in the dam where muskrats over the years have fashioned dens. Several years ago otters breached the dam in December, went somewhere else and didn't return until late January, or so I recall without checking my journals. But otters keep sashaying around ponds and the river in December. When the cold hits in January, and we've had nights near 0F, otters get serious about settling down. I saw that water was still flowing out at the bottom of the dam.
Often the otters that made the hole keep tabs on it, but no signs of that. When this pond did have plenty of water and the otters breached the dam, they often found a den at the far west end of the pond; I suppose because the ice was thinner and easier to break through. So I walked down there. I saw deer tracks where I used to see otters coming out of holes in the ice. Not sure what the deer was after.
Then I saw a well used hole along the north shore of the pond up in the bank. I'd never seen otters here use a hole like that before but it immediately made sense to me.
Ideally otters like a den that offers them both access to the under ice world where they get their food and a place under the sun where they can poop and get a breath of fresh air for a few minutes. Since muskrats had often burrowed into the bank, I knew the otters could find a nice den there but with the pond so low, there was no easy access under the ice from there. However muskrats specialize in surviving in shallow water and they can mole their way under the ice leaving a nice little trench going from the bank out to a deeper part of the pond. Maybe the otters were taking advantage of that. No way I could tell until the next thaw, but I could document the otters' very brief dance outside their hole. There was a trough going a few feet along the bank to the west
And that's where an otter scatted.
Then there were two forays down the slight slope and out on the snow covered ice. The foray angling right ended at a small dead stump sticking out of the snow.
My hope is that a family of otters is using the den, which means a mother and pups born back in April 2014. It was easy to see the prints of an adult otter.
Only in the foray angling slightly left from the hole could I see evidence that there was a least one pup with the mother. One trail was too narrow for an adult otter to have made.
There was enough jumping about in the snow to suggest that there are two pups. At the usual otter hole in the ice, I used to thrust my camera down in it and get a look see that way. But this hole might lead directly to their den which should be kept a bit more private than their running room under the ice. I'll get a photo later when I think the otters moved to another den, as they surely will, to get closer to the pools of water left under the ice as water drains out of the dam. That's where the fish are. But that comes later in the winter. Fishing under the ice is a new experience for the pups which probably takes getting used to, but once they master it, they have to learn more about the roving ways of the otter. Traveling in the snow is an otter's forte. The hike out on snowshoes had not been easy so I backtracked to get home. Next time out we might use cross country skies and pressing down again on the same trail might make skiing easier. I don't mind going back the way I came because I usually see something I missed on the way out.
Today I saw a tree bent down for a porcupine's dining pleasure.