Friday, May 14, 2010

May 1 to 6, 2010

May 1 by pooping right at the two spots where I often sit and wait for them to appear, the otters threw down the gauntlet, so to speak. I was out early to find them. Favored by a light wind from the east, I went to the Big Pond dam first, and soon saw that they weren’t in that pond and probably had not been to the latrine that morning. I saw a couple scats that were not there yesterday, but they didn’t look especially fresh.

A few weeks ago I saw a mallard and two geese contesting a nearby muskrat lodge as a nesting site. Today the duck was all alone on top.

I hurried on to the Lost Swamp confident that the otters would be there, but I only had one stray ripple to ponder and that proved to be a stick in the shallow water. I sat next to the scat on my vantage point above the mossy cove latrine and waited. As far as I could see there were no beavers out. Did that mean the otters had come and gone and the beavers relaxed their vigilance? Looking down at the latrine below I saw at least one possibly fresh scat, but for the moment I scanned the pond. I had brought binoculars and the camcorder and with the former I could count the deer browsing in the shallows of the far southeast end of the pond -- up to six, and one deer waded in not far from me near the big rock on the south shore where the otters sometimes latrine. Ten years ago, actually eleven?, I saw an otter enter from that way -- in May, too, coming from the Big Pond. There are a few small ponds above the Big Pond and though I’ve never tracked any otters using that route at any season, otters could go from those upper ponds over to the southeast end of the Lost Swamp Pond. Then just after I gave myself ten more minutes to watch before taking a close look at the latrines, I saw the otters fishing in the shallow near the far southeast shore of the pond. They were about 200 yards away. The only virtue of the video I got with the camcorder is that it showed the juveniles playing and the mother apart from them fishing. Not that it didn’t take me awhile to be sure there were four. When they got to the lodge up there, I saw two on the lodge and two in the water. It was high time they took a rest, but luckily for me, they only stayed on the lodge for a few minutes. But when they got off, they didn’t swim toward me but over to the far northeast shore of the end of the pond.

Looking through the binoculars, they seemed close to the browsing deer but they were probably far away. There were also geese out there but neither deer nor geese seemed concerned about the otters. I saw the otters fish behind the lodge and then I lost them for about five minutes, until I saw all four of them hopping on shore where I assume they also scatted. They were on the far southeastern shore perhaps marking the spot where they came in from the small ponds above the Big Pond. Then they swam down toward me. As they approached the heron that had been up in the tree flew down low over them then landed on the south shore. I had to retreat as they got closer and hid behind a big tree. I took a video clip with my camera as they swam below the point of the peninsula.

Then I used the camcorder which meant I focused on one otter at a time. Two painted turtles, one half mounted on the other, didn’t budge as an otter bobbed in the water near them. The otters seemed to stay under the water longer and I am not sure if that means they were catching less and had to stay under longer, or that they were seeing more to eat and were loath to come up for air. Then I finally got a good look at the four together. The mother went up on the latrine by the dam and the three juveniles came up too. When they got up on the ground, they each seemed to have their own program. The mother was either rubbing her chin on the grassy stubble or doing some serious sniffing. One juvenile came up turned around and scatted. I thought another just waited for a change to get close to mother. Unfortunately for my viewing pleasure, they didn’t seem as animated as they were the last time I saw them, no racing up and down the slope or wrestling. But once back in the water they showed some hijinks, seeming to play around a long trunk in the water.

Then one went back to the latrine and it looked like it was eating something.

The other otters were soon up on the latrine, too, but not to try to horn in on the feeding.

At least one scatted, two kept going back into the water then came out and there seemed to be some cuddling.

And then as they swam off, I saw three smaller heads in the water following the mother, then two juveniles broke off and had a brief tangle with each other near the shore.

I was positioned perfectly to get video of them if they went up on the mossy cove latrine, and the wind seemed to always be in my face. But I made one mistake. As I moved around to find spots to better observe them, I left my coat and my camera bag up on the rock behind the mossy cove latrine. Perhaps the mother noticed that, and it was a light wind, and first one and then the others swam away, with mother, I presume, propping herself on a log and craning her neck to make sure the others responded to her alarm. They regrouped behind the lodge in the middle of the pond, and then they swam underwater around the peninsula and back up to the southeast end of the pond. The good news is that I am seeing otters at a time when I usually don’t. The bad news is that this mother obviously did not give birth to a new litter of pups. Thus she had no reason to break up last year’s family. And perhaps I am seeing proof of what I’ve always thought: most otter pups don’t want to leave the family. From my tracking in the snow, I’ve seen what I thought was clear evidence that the mother left the pups in February or March. Not this year. Seeing the fun this family seems to be having confirms many of the sentimental notions I’ve had over the years while watching otter families. Hard lessons are taught and learned but there is a glue of love that I never see in beaver families. I think this is necessary for otters because fishing as a group is so much more productive. But who knows what will happen next. The experts say siblings part sometime in May. I stopped tracking the otters, and went around the pond to check their fresh scats. I was right about fresh scats in the mossy cove latrine. A blue butterfly was loath to leave the juicy goodness as I moved closer for a photo.

This scat was four feet up from the water. There was an array of other fresh scats just up from the water, not quite as big as the enormous production above. I had just seen the otters scat at the latrine by the dam, and it looked well worn, not much greening vegetation there.

But I did find juicy black scats on the fresh green of spring.

Many of the scats I’m seeing now are so big that I fancy I can see a ghost of the fish or pollywog in the fecal spread!

When all these scats are cleansed by rain and dry out, I’ll take a close look at what remains. I have no idea what the insides of a pollywog look like. The other question is how do the otters manage to avoid the scats when they roll and rest in the latrine. I don’t think the scats have been flattened by them.

I headed home with much to think about, even wondered why turtles start dropping in the water when I walk by on shore

But stay put when otters swim right by them. Fortunately, I wasn’t lost in thought as I crossed the granite plateau at the end of the Antler Trail, a coyote crossed in front of me, pausing briefly to look at me, and then hurrying down into the woods.

We went to our land to spend the night, and after a brief much needed shower, I went out to check on the beavers a little before 6pm. I took a chair with me and planned to sit on the slight ridge over looking the Last Pool wallow but after twenty minutes, I got restless. In the damp gloaming the wallow, etched black, drew me down to it -- trying to sneak a photo before any beaver might come.

But once down I had to take a look around. It was easy to see that a beaver had dragged something down into the wallow from the trail above.

And I penciled walking up the trail in the morning,

but for now I thought I’d sneak down and hope to see the beavers before they saw me and then retreat back to my chair. When I got down to the channel coming up from Boundary Pond, I saw heavy ripples and thought it must be a duck, or muskrat. I had time to retreat but didn’t. The beaver saw me before I saw it and as it swam back down into the pond proper, it slapped its tail. I retreated quickly, hoping that by obeying its orders, it would soon go about its business as usual. Then as I walked up the valley, I saw that the beavers had begun gnawing on a poplar bigger than the ones they had already cut down.

Assuming that this was their project of the moment, not a wise assumption, I decided I might have too long a wait sitting in my chair. I was due for dinner in a half hour. So I headed down the ridge. On the way I saw more new beaver work, half way up the ridge. I didn’t go down to check the tree, but was impressed with how high the beaver cut it off. Perhaps they cut in the winter standing on the snow and didn’t gnaw off the bark until now.

I stayed high on the ridge because I could see and hear that beavers were coming out of the lodge. I counted three of them and all of them moved upstream in a timely fashion. The last one did some humming as it left the lodge which suggests that there was another beaver at least still inside the lodge. I waited a few minutes to see if another came out and then headed up stream to see what the beavers were doing. An adult led the way followed closely by a juvenile, and as they moved into narrow part of the pond, another juvenile, I think, was fishing around for sticks to gnaw in the shallows east of the channel where the pond was wide.

I kept inching closer trying to get video of the two beavers. The adult headed upstream and when I tried to find the juvenile I must have made too much noise because it dove into the water and swam down the channel underwater for as far as I could see, evidently scraping bottom because it raised mud the whole way.

The other beaver nonchalantly swam up the channel. I moved up the ridge and saw the adult gnawing on the birch that fell into the channel.

The late time I looked for beavers here, I saw a beaver gnawing the same log. After dinner we walked around to hear the peepers. Quite loud and everywhere we expected them to be. Heard a few toad trills but couldn’t place where they were, and there were a few grays tree frogs. I sat by the Third Pond -- peeper central -- and heard a muskrat like splash, then frog splashes, and then I saw a muskrat’s wake. One May the muskrats put on quite a show here. The Deep Pond was quieter and nothing swimming in it. There were glow worms along the road at the bottom of the hill. A whip-poor-will treated me to a long song and then we didn’t hear anything until we went to sleep.

May 2 We were hoping for rain in the night but there was none. The peepers kept up most of the night. Two whip-poor-wills called right next to our house. A barred owl called in the distance. After morning chores I walked around the beaver pond, first checking the trail going up from the wallow. It was easy to see that a beaver had dragged branches out, but not easy to show in a photo.

Where the drag marks stopped I saw the stumps and wood chips of three small trees, but the sap coating on the stumps suggests that the trees were cut a while ago.

But on the other side of the beavers’ trail, I saw where smaller birches had been cut. I think this is what they are cutting and hauling now.

This work is a few feet from a pool of water, that usually keeps water until August. No signs that the beavers have wallowed in that while they were gnawing on the nearby birches.

I walked down the east shore and saw some yellow and blue violets together

and white violets a little farther along.

I took a more studied photo of the big poplar they are starting to cut.

I should add that the cutting of the tree is the least of what they’ve done to the tree so far. The stripping of bark and the more delicate gnawing of the upper crust of the bark have occupied more of their time. I suspect there is more new work along this shore. Early in the spring when there was still ice on the pond this shore was less accessible so it makes sense that they’ve turned their attention to it now. As noted above, this is the time of year when tree stumps bleed sap and the darkened wood of the stump makes a strange contrast with the dry white wood chips of the tree left behind by the beaver.

I’ve probably already taken a photo of the birch tree cut to a point that is leaning up on neighboring trees, but now the stump bleeding perhaps making the scene a bit more poignant.

I walked on top of the dam today which was instructive. The dams I see in the swamps of Wellesley Island are primarily made of mud. There is precious little mud in these woods and the beavers have made a dam of the hemus and forest litter which they have weighted down with logs. On Wellesley Island the beavers push logs over the dam. The beavers here did that but also left big logs on top of the dam.

Many of the thicker hop hornbeam trunks were put on the dam with no evidence that the beavers gnawed much of the bark off for food.

Meanwhile they kept pushing muck up behind the dam, continually widening it, and they are starting to do that again.

I must say that my opinion of this dam and the beavers who made it is changing. I first thought the dam was a makeshift and that the beavers would either try to make another farther up the valley, go up to the Teepee Pond, or abandon the valley. Now I think that the growing solidity of the dam and the dredging of the channel behind it will allow these beavers to hang around for a number of years. Hope so. I took a photo of the lodge just behind the dam to show that most of the logs put on that have been stripped for food

A good bit of that done during the winter. I also took a photo looking below the pond. I thought when they first moved up here that the beavers deepened the channel just below the dam and used the two pools they fashioned as a place to eat and maybe even coach the kits on how to swim, though I never saw that. Now the little stream below is just that, a little stream largely ignored by the beavers.

There was a nice presentation of trillium on a ledge on the ridge west of the dam, and also the first columbine that I’ve seen, off to the left.

Meanwhile, we are awaiting the arrival of the rest of the birds: hermit thrushes and yellow warblers are aboard. I thought I heard a black and white warbler.

May 3 we went to our land about 4 pm, too hot to work so I parked myself by the bank of the Third Pond to see if any muskrats would appear. No, only frogs jumping in the pond. This is also a good place to see yellow warblers, but the west wind was pretty stiff. Then after dinner I headed down to see the Boundary Pond beavers. I didn’t head down there until 6:45 and I thought they’d be out so I tried to sneak down the ridge. But all was quiet in the pond. So I slipped down behind the well sodded stump of a tree the wind blew down years ago that provided enough cover for my body and a perfect view of the birch trunk that one beaver at least always went to first thing in the evening.

I had a perfect vantage point for taking video of a beaver gnawing the trunk. But I couldn’t see much of the pond below

Or above, for that matter. But I had something to entertain me: mosquitoes and lots of them.

Anyway I waited an hour and no beaver appeared. I could scan parts of the lower pond with the camcorder and should have been able to see some ripples from beavers swimming down there. Finally, a little before 8pm I saw a beaver swimming in the lower pond, on the west shore, same shore I was on. Then it swam toward the channel but not up it. It went up on the east shore and seemed to be browsing under the hemlocks where there is not a blade of grass. I would have liked to get a close look at that but I was left hoping that it would soon continue up the channel. But it didn’t. Meanwhile another beaver appeared below me along the west shore, that I could just see through the camcorder. It nibbled little sticks. Too bad I wasn’t up on the ridge. Finally I had to go, so I stood and walked down the ridge to where the action was, but both beavers disappeared. As I stood there wondering why beavers that had been coming out around 6pm were now coming out around 8pm, I saw a beaver swim up from the lodge, dive and then surface under a log so it could sneak a look at me. Perhaps they knew I had been up pond and refused to parade before me. There was a smattering of peeper calls and sometimes a chorus. No ducks flew in and no hermit thrushes sang, which surprised me. I was keyed up, but nature seemed subdued tonight.

May 4 Ottoleo is coming down for a visit so I went out this afternoon to see if there was fresh otter scat around the beaver ponds. I keep expecting these otters to leave, think I see signs that they have and then find them out in the ponds. Today I didn’t fine any fresh scats in the latrines along the Big Pond dam, and maybe only one new scat that looked a couple days old. I was last here on May 1. Meanwhile a beaver finally heaved some mud up on the dam where the principal breech in it had been.

But there is still a hole three feet down behind the wall of the dam at that point. Beavers always seem less interested in filling gaps behind the dam with mud. They usually push logs up and over the dam but the beavers here have few logs to work with and not too many trees left to cut down. There were other fresh mud heaves along the dam plugging most of the little leaks over the top, but I think the water level has dropped too. Once again they smoothed the mud in the last leak in the dam along the north end of it, one that they seem to have purposely kept open.

There were no otters in the Lost Swamp Pond, and no fresh scats, but once again otters went up the rock above their mossy cove latrine and scatted where I often sit when I wait for them and watch them.

The last time I saw them, I stood behind a nearby pine tree, but I had left my camcorder bag and my jacket up on the rock. If the scats had been fresh, I would have been hard pressed to find a congenial place to sit up there. I found two scats new to me, but not fresh,

at the base of the rock where an otter has been scraping the dirt.

They could have scooted up onto the rock from that direction. I saw plenty of new scats over at the latrines by the dam. The latrine a bit away from the dam where I have seen them scat and roll a few times seems to have been browned by otter urine and wrinkled with old scats.

If there are some scats deposited since May 1, it would be hard for me to tell. Closer to the dam, a favored latrine last fall, the grass is green but I saw new scats in the grass and on the rock next to the water.

Meanwhile the beavers were not out. Perhaps they know the otters are gone and that they can now rest easy in the their lodges. The nesting goose was still on the lodge in the middle of the pond. I walked below the Upper Second Swamp Pond dam. Last year the otters had latrined in the grasses and cattails below the dam, but not this year. The pond remains very low since no beavers have patched the hole deep in the dam. No beavers tend the Second Swamp Pond anymore either, but parts of that dam are at least 35 years old while the upper dam was fashioned about 5 years ago. I walked down the north shore to see if the otters latrined there, and I only found some relatively old scats along a short canal next to the lodge.

There were four geese fighting as I walked down the shore. Not sure if or where any geese are nesting in this pond. My impression is that there are fewer geese nesting in and around the ponds, and more nesting along the river shores, which may be a response to the increased activity of coyotes and fishers. And I think the otters took one last scrape and poop on their extension of their latrine below the dam along the outflow from the dam.

Hard to gauge if just one of the otters went down here or all did, certainly not as many scats compared to their piles and spreads just below the dam. I can’t say that I saw a path going farther down into the old Otter Hole Pond, which is more or less a meadow. But a little rivulet does snake its way down to South Bay through a series of pools that beavers had dredged years ago.

Meanwhile a thunderstorm was moving east just north of me and the fresh green of the leafing trees still in the sun shimmered with storm clouds behind and the dark spruces in front.

I went home via the Big Pond with my ear cocked for orioles and rose breasted grosbeaks but I didn’t hear any. The former are around the house.

May 5 I walked out along the north shore of South Bay to check the otter latrines and then the beaver activity in Audubon and Meander Ponds, on a rather warm but breezy afternoon. Usually at this time in the summer, if not from otters, I at least see signs of animals going up an over the little causeway at the end of the south cove. The grass there easily betrays animal trails, but not this year. Perhaps because the water in the cove is so low. Likewise there was no activity at the end of the north cove. I only saw an old scat, laced with crayfish parts, at the docking rock latrine. Before checking the latrine at the entrance to South Bay I went up and walked along the Audubon Pond embankment, judging from how muddy it is, the beavers are active in the pond they fashioned below the embankment, which is fed by the new drain pipe system in Audubon Pond.

They are girdling and cutting a huge ash in the middle of their new pond,

But I didn’t see much cutting around the pond. Then I went down to the otter latrine. The dead grass in the shady part of the latrine looked like it had been raked over a bit

And I did find a few otters scats there

And down on the granite rock below the latrine, there was a scat on a mound of grass.

While all these scats were new to me, they all looked at least a couple days old. So I don’t think these scats were left by the otter family I’ve been seeing. I don’t think they left the beaver ponds and moved down to South Bay. If they had I should have seen much fresher scats. I continued walking on the trail going around to the entrance to the Narrows and on the flat rocks there where otters sometimes scat, I saw no evidence of them being there recently. I walked up the woods to Audubon Pond and saw my first rosebreasted grosbeak along the way, singing up in the trees. Otherwise blackbirds foraged in the woods. These woods are often wet but seemed dry this spring save for the usual vernal pools in the lowest areas. Back at Audubon Pond I didn’t see any evidence of the beavers using the bank lodge on the west shore, nor cutting any trees over there. However, right in front of the park bench on the shore near the lodge out in the pond

I saw a nice meal of stripped sticks -- a variety of woods that I am always too lazy to take the pains to identify.

Otherwise I didn’t see any other evidence of beaver munching along the shore. I assume they are gorging on grasses. When I walked up to the park bench, I saw a muskrat swim away with its mouth stuffed with grass. As I walked along the north shore I smelled something dead and soon saw that something had torn into the dead porcupine that I first saw here a month ago. I saw one paw

Detached from the rest of the carcass.

The skull looked ready to take home, so to speak, which attests to the good scavenging of raccoons, bugs, and perhaps crows, though I think if birds were involved the remains might have been carried off. I also saw some wild geraniums blooming along the trail around the pond.

Then I headed toward Meander Pond and followed the trail the beavers made from the alder patch southwest of the dam, say 50 yards from it, up to the dam. This part of the meadow was largely dry. Right before what water trickles down the middle of it, I saw that a beaver left a cut alder.

Don’t know why. Up at the dam I saw another cut alder perpendicular to the pond.

The wallows below the dam are in good order, but I am not sure beavers have been wallowing in them.

I have to get out and see these beavers in operation. I stayed on the south shore of the dam and didn’t walk over to gauge if any beaver climbed back up on the leaning red oak. Viewed from afar it is perhaps easier to see how a beaver was lured to go so far out on the leaning trunk 15 feet above the ground. If the ground was level, the trunk would not go very high at all. The ground falling away creates the drop. It’s likely a beaver came to the tree as it walked along the slope parallel to the pond, as I’ve often seen them do.

Right along the shore of the pond I saw some lush patches of violets.

Some bunched with horsetails and others with pussytoes.

Meanwhile I don’t think the beavers have returned to gnaw or further trim the ash they cut down, nor have they renewed their cutting of the two ash still standing next to the one that fell.

I really couldn’t see any evidence of their being out along the south shore or along the little ridge south of the pond, which always raises the possibility, have they left? Did they drop those two alder sticks and say let’s move on?

May 6 I took Justin and Ottoleo out to see the otters. In 1997 when they were 10 years old, I took them out and we saw an otter family. But that was in the fall when an otter mother with a few pups has fewer options. Today, I didn’t expect to see the mother and her three juvenile otters. I didn’t see fresh scats around the ponds two days ago, and we didn’t see fresh scats today. We didn’t linger at the Big Pond, but did sit at the Lost Swamp Pond for a half hour and no otters appeared. Today was a day for reptiles. When we came up to the mossy cove latrine and as I was looking for otter scats, Ottoleo saw a snake swim along the shore.

And then as I was inspecting the latrine by the dam for otter scats, Ottoleo saw a baby snapping turtle swimming right below me

And Justin saw another snake. Then as we crossed along the Upper Second Swamp Pond dam, Justin saw a big snapping turtle swimming up the creek below the dam

Nice having young eyes along on a hike. The turtle kept coming closer to us, and since it seemed to keep its head down in the water, we thought maybe it was on a mission our presence would not deter its progress, but then it disappeared into the mud and vegetation below the dam. Near some rocks in the marsh below the dam, I saw a nice clump of columbine,

And one blossom was upside down so I didn’t have to put my camera under a blossom and blindly point it up to the flower.

Then we headed over to Meander Pond going via Shangri-la Pond. These guys remember the days when the beavers were there. Beneath the bridge below the pond, I saw those white flowers I first saw here last year. Of course, I’ve forgotten the name.

The north channel of Shangri-la Pond is obscured by the grass.

The west channel looks like it could support a snapping turtle, as it often did when it was a pond, but looking down from the ridge we didn’t see any.

At Meander Pond I took them to the red oak trunk that a beaver had climbed high up to gnaw bark

And spent most of the time lecturing about beavers rather than looking at their latest works. As we came up to the pond we saw an osprey swim off clutching a fish that it probably caught in nearby South Bay and brought over here. We headed home going around the east end of the pond and I was able to get a good photo of the dam in back of the pond that the beavers had worked on earlier in the spring.

If the boys had been here last week I could have shown them more excitement but it was a pleasant hike all the same.