Wednesday, January 7, 2015

January 2, 2015

I went out the day after hunting season ended. Not worried about being shot by a Nimrod in a tree stand, I could walk with my eyes down looking for tracks in the snow. So I missed the barred owl in the tree in front of me. He flew off to my right but didn't mind my following him.

Obviously there is no better way to begin a journal entry. I saw an owl. How wise is that. But I saw the owl back on December 15, two weeks ago and about 20 months after my last journal entry. I didn't come out looking for owls. I was checking on a beaver trying to tie up loose ends, or, rather, to see them tied up for me. Most of the beaver ponds I used to watch have matured into beaver meadows, a nice way to put a sad fact: the beavers that built the beautiful ponds that entranced me since 1994 were gone. Back in the summer I saw that a beaver was still in the Lost Swamp Pond. I hadn't been out at pond since late September. So I came to see if it was still there.

After the owl flew off, I turned and walked down to the Lost Swamp Pond and I saw immediately that the beaver was almost surely still there. All the pond was iced over except for an open pool of water behind the beaver lodge.

There were also enough thin branches sticking up out of the ice on one side of the lodge to pass for an adequate winter cache for a beaver or two. But I didn't see anything cut along the shore of the pond. For years chronicling the winter lumbering of the beavers fueled my journals. This beaver did nothing to chronicle. For the last three winters it had survived in the pond without cutting a single tree. But I was glad it was there. It meant that I might come out to the pond during thaws on chance that I might see the beavers and thus prove that it is there. Then I thought I saw a beaver floating in the pool of water. I didn't have my binoculars so couldn't be sure. I took a photo.

Then as I walked over to the dam, the beaver floating in the pool of open water slapped its tail.

Periodically this beaver had worked on the dam, especially when it had a companion. Unfortunately, I didn't see any activity along the dam but I took a photo so I'd have a before photo if something happened after worth writing about.

The few inches of snow we had soon melted. No white Christmas but it did get cold a few days later. Checking frozen ponds when there is no snow cover is one of the pleasures of winter, especially early in the season when the ice is not scarred and made opaque by the incredible contortions water is put through during a long winter. Unfortunately the ice was not thick enough to walk on. I tried and saw water seep into the long crack made by my tentative steps. So I couldn't go out and see how many bubbles were under the ice near the lodge.

I did see bubbles under the ice as I walked along the north shore of the pond heading up to the dam.

Under the ice and bubbles I could see sticks stripped by a beaver, but, of course, the sticks could have been stripped long ago and the bubbles under the ice might have been made by muskrats. A few feet farther along the shore, I saw a new muskrat pyramid of grass, an airy place for it to catch a breath and warm up.

But that white blob of a bubble was one big bubble for a muskrat to make. Bubbles primarily come from air escaping from the fur of mammals swimming under water. That leaves a nice trail of small bubbles in the case of a muskrat, larger for a beaver. That big bubble however looked like the upshot of a huge exhale of air. Up at the dam there were more big bubbles under the ice

and there were craters, if you will, of holes in the ice that had frozen over.

This certainly looked like an otter had been swimming under the ice behind the dam and cracking up for a breath of air. But beavers do that too. I checked the latrine where otters usually scat when they visit this pond, and saw a bit of scat, but it did not look that fresh.

I had a good bit to think about as I walked home but I didn't start writing a journal. I was excited enough to tell Leslie and after a fresh snowfall on New Year's Day she woke me up on the 2nd with the cry of "let's go see the otters." I pooh-poohed such boasting and off we went.

After 20 years of checking on beavers ponds both my brain and the terrain are wired with a circular route that takes me to each of the dozen or so ponds I used to watch. So even though the Lost Swamp Pond is the only one that still has a resident beaver, we had the Big Pond to contend with first. Though no longer "Big", it did have a few pools of water, freshly frozen, and the inch or two of snow gave some relief to the brown of the all the vegetation in and around the pond. I saw some muskrat lodges that I hadn't noticed before.

These whirls of dead grass generally last one winter. When the Big Pond was big, I once walked on the ice and counted 13 large muskrat lodges. Muskrats generally live in burrows in the bank, or in beaver lodges that are protected with mud and sticks. But they also prepare places to get themselves out from under the ice as they browse for greens to eat. Coyotes and minks invariably dig into these grass lodges. Indeed a coyote had already dug into the biggest of the four we saw around the pond.

The coyote left its prints and pee in the snow and probably got nothing to eat because the muskrat could escape out in the pond and swim to another pile or into a burrow in the bank. There were bubbles under the ice around the pile the coyote had dug into.

I have great respect for coyotes but mammals who operate under the ice are a higher order of being, muskrats especially. Beavers and otters usually make sure they can operate in relatively deep water. Their skill at swimming is well known to all who watch nature shows on TV. Ponds can freeze solid so operating in water too deep to freeze is important but not to muskrats. When the ice freezes thick down to the pond mud, they make trails in the mud under the ice. Sounds easy until you try to visualize it, and then you get a headache. As we walked up the pond we crossed a snaking crust of ice where water rushing into the shallow pond after some rain had bubbled up through a crack in the ice and froze as the temperature plunged.

We were able to walk on the ice of the Lost Swamp Pond but we stayed away from the beaver lodge, it being too early for my annual plunge thru thin ice.

Of course we didn't walk directly up to the dam either for the same reason. We went up on a roll of granite, just a billion years old, and from there saw the ephemera we longed to see.

In the snow all animals make tracks, otters write journals so enigmatic that the only way I can decipher them is by writing my own journal.

The wide deep troughs in the photo above prove an adult otter couldn't resist bellying down in the snow. Back in 1997 I saw two adult otters play in the first snow of the year but they didn't mess around like what I was seeing in 2015. We strained to see sure proof that a mother and two or three pups had just been up on the ice. The mother otter hunkers down with her pups in beaver ponds for the long winter and now and then they come out from under the ice usually at dawn and.... you look at the mess they left and try to figure it out.

We didn't walk over the tracks and look for small prints even though snow or thaw would soon cover or clean up the mess of slides. It had been so long since we had seen something like this that we didn't want to mar it. Since otters live off the fish in the pond, they don't look for anything to eat on the ice and rocky shore. But they do have to leave their mark to warn other otters away. We saw a huge black scat, two small brown squirts and generous pee stains in the snow.

That doesn't necessarily add up to a mother and two pups. Otters often do a dance before they poop, rolling around in the snow, then sniffing the spot first, then turning around and letting fly. In the photo above a big print is easy to see. I think I see a small one too. But Leslie and I were both struck by the shapes in the snow with lines left by an otter's fur.

An adult otter would flatten the snow. A lighter pup might caress it in just that way.

If adults made all the slithering slides, they might leave this pond and go anywhere, back to the St. Lawrence River, for example, where we have seen scats along the shore during the fall. But a mother and her pups will probably stay. We could hear water rushing through the dam maybe just from the freezing and thawing, but probably because mother otter is letting water out of the pond to make it easier for her and her pups to find fish. Time will tell. And with an otter making holes in the ice and draining the water out of the pond, we might soon see that beaver come out at the dam, not to repair the dam but to get some fresh air.

I was already writing future journal entries in my brain. I've watched this unfold many times over the years. I'm back being schooled by otters. As usual, with the senses livened up other things begin to fall in place. Leslie dared me to go home by a very old route up the grandest granite slope. At the base of it I stumbled over fresh porcupine poop and got a glimpse of its steamy den.

Up just beyond the crest of the granite, a flock a cedar waxwings were nipping buck thorn berries or sprucing their feathers in the cold wind.