Thursday, January 29, 2015

January 24, 2015

We headed off to check the Lost Swamp Pond on the 17th, a rare warmish day, just below freezing for the past 36 hours. Those conditions might get otters out of their holes. Despite their reputation for being playful, during a cold January like we are having this year, otters only come out from under the ice every few days or so to sniff around for a few minutes and poop. The amount of poop suggests how active they are under the ice. Meanwhile the pond changes, drastically. We noticed the hole in the dam on January 2. When we checked on January 11, the pond was just beginning to respond to its loss of water. On the 17th there was what looked like an open wound in the ice next to the beaver lodge.

Despite the day's warmth, there was ice under the original layer of ice. That original ice looked to be about 4 or 5 inches thick and it looked like there was a drop of well over a foot to the new level of the pond ice.

There were no signs of anything like a beaver or otter coming out of that opening. On the way to the dam, I picked up a mink's trail

Minks can manage to get under the ice without otters around, but minks can't resist taking advantage of the holes the otters make. I followed the mink to a hole just behind the middle of the dam

While the mink used the hole, it didn't level about a shovel full of snow just outside the hole. An otter did that and left a couple prints. But I had hoped for more and at least a scat left in the snow. Standing on the dam, I looked down and saw that there was still a good flow of water coming out of the hole or holes the otters made.

Looking behind the dam I could see that the pond ice lowered uniformly except where the ice was braced by the dam, an old beaver lodge and tree stumps. All the old tracks behind the dam were probably left by deer.

Usually collapsing ice leaves a more roly-poly surface so I was a bit disappointed. A week ago I saw the tracks and scats otters made when they came out of a hole high on the bank about 30 yards west of the dam. I headed down there and saw that the pond in that direction was a bit roly-poly but more like a gentle wave, not the slash of ice planes I expected.

On the 11th the hole in the bank that the otters used was a couple feet above any water under the ice. Now it had to be even farther removed from the otters' source of food and the otters obviously stopped using that hole.

I was sure that the otters would suffer no inconvenience if I stuck a camera in the hole. I've taken these blind shots for years and the images I got this time were not very good. It looks like muskrats took advantage of rotting tree roots to make a den. I had often seen muskrats swim out of the bank around here, never any beavers. My guess is that the otters found the muskrats' old den and then dug a hole out to the open air. More snow and ice will have to melt before I can prove that.

In January all the stories the swamps tell unfold slowly. On January 24 I hiked out alone, again taking advantage of warmer temperatures and mindful of a chance of snow. We have not had much snow this month. Usually after a general snowfall of 6 inches we keep getting in an inch or two of lake effect snow every few days so that snow mounts. But this year we are losing snow very slowly from melting and sublimation. That's bad for otter tracking but it's good for seeing how the pond ice responds to a hole in the dam. When I got to the Lost Swamp Pond late in the afternoon I could better see the conflicted ice.

The otters apparently didn't squeeze out what holes cracked open when the ice sheet of the pond collapsed around those dead tree trunks. But the ice held up by shrub trunks next to an old beaver lodge, which would be an excellent place for the otters' to den, told a different story.

Getting closer, I got one of my best photos of ice showing bubbles likely left by otters swimming under ice now locked in a block of clear ice hanging high and dry over the current level of the pond ice that showed air bubbles made by the otters swimming under that ice.

The tracks in the snow around and on top of this ice platform were harder to decipher and I didn't see any otters scats in the area. Behind the other end of the dam there was another ice platform where some animals messed around.

Otters did much of the messing in that snow because I could see an otter slide in the ice between a gap in the ice right behind the dam and the ice platform.

In the upper left hand corner of the photo above there is what I hoped was a pile of otter scats, but it turned out to be coyote poop. The otters latrined on top of the dam,

leaving a muddy choppy trail in the snow all the way up to a generous pile of scats.

I didn't examine the scats too closely but it looked like the otters had been eating small fish, shiners, pumkinseeds, not the bullheads that used to make many an otter's meal in this pond. Between the scats and the pond ice, I saw a thin stick that a beaver had nibbled. Perhaps a beaver used the holes in the ice behind the dam too and came out in the cold fresh air for a snack.

All the activity I saw looked recent but since what could have been open water was all iced over, and since the bubbles under the ice were white and not pulsing with fresh air, and since there seemed to be no water flowing out of the holes through the dam, I couldn't positively say the otters were still there. When there were several active beaver families on this end of the island, otters moved from pond to pond, often traveling in late January. But this pond is about the only sure spot for a meal of fish within a mile so the otters might stay here all winter. It looked like they were having a good time so far. I'll check the pond again after we have some snow that will whiten the slate clean, so to speak. Heading home through the woods, I saw spots of blood in the snow.

I followed a trail of blood but no prints to the underside of hanging log. Such light footed work in the dawn hard snow, a weasel probably made the kill.

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