Wednesday, October 23, 2013

August 2013: Deer Glowing Behind the Beaver Dam

I was sitting on the ridge waiting for the beavers to come out, when I saw a deer browsing along the far end of the beaver dam getting her nose down into the delicate floating vines just behind the dam.

Deer are fat with beauty in August. There is too much to eat and their fur blushes over their supple muscles.

She waded out in the pond and I spotted the bobbing nose of another deer, and yet another deer came over the dam into the pond.

A buck raised his head and his antlers under wraps until rutting season. Meanwhile the browsing doe was herself browsed by some attacking insects.

She stepped back, twitching, muscles bulging. The video I took confirmed the impression I got that she was bigger and probably stronger than the buck. And did they bump noses briefly? Perhaps he is her son, not a potential mate.

I focused on the buck as he coolly stepped where the doe had been and then he recoiled from the insects without losing his cool. Bucks are more prone to stand their ground.

It’s easy focusing on a buck. His antler is a lightning rod for metaphors best avoided.

There’s nothing remarkable about seeing bucks anywhere now. Last July I saw three in the front yard of my father-in-law’s house in suburban Philadelphia around nine o‘clock at night.

But there is something about a beaver pond that seems to bring antlers down to earth and enhance the beauty of all deer, especially in August.

The ponds are more or less the low points in the deer’s world.

The hunters tell me that the deer know when it’s hunting season so perhaps the deer enjoy the ponds in the summer because they know they can’t be shot at. But the ponds are also shallow then and the deer can wade out and get some wet vegetables just at the time when plants on the hills begin to dry out.

Because of hunting which lasts 3 months in the fall in most of the state park (quieter bow hunters usually), I don’t track deer. I’d hate to make them feel like they are being hunted all year. I just bump into them and ask how they are doing.

Deer are too sensitive for their own good. Their eyes are big; their nose too; and their ears are huge and flexible. Such awareness might make them skittish and prone to run, but instead, especially in the woods, they seem to use their senses to double check the danger with a long look, smell and listen.

Running in the woods is often their downfall. Almost every winter I will find a full grown deer dead on the down slope of a wooded valley, probably because coyotes chased it and it slipped.

But August is not the time to talk about dead deer. They are radiant in August. I think deer should be made America’s sacred cow and August the holy month to worship them before they get their dull brown but more serviceable winter coat.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Underwater Memory: To Halifax and Back

For a week we toured Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the lands where rocky shores are submerged every 12 hours and where the Bay of Fundy is rocked by 30 foot tides.

My wife and I got quite obsessed by that ebb and flood.

Of course we were safely ashore with no greater worry than camera angles.

Coming back from Nova Scotia we spent one night 250 miles down stream from our island home in the St. Lawrence River. We sat on a river side balcony in a motel in Berthier-sur-Mer, Quebec, sipping wine as the rising tide covered the braille of rocks below us.

When we woke in the morning we saw rocks we lost sight of the night before and already had a hard feeling for which rocks had been just been washed over.

Night falls quickly in October, and I think with more light and wine, I’d have made drunk correlations between the mountains along the north shore of the 10 miles wide river and the rocks forming the south shore.

Then it struck me. My vacation was the opposite of what it should be. Instead of the unfamiliarity of new worlds engendering sentimental memories of the home I know well, these reiterations of rocks began to shake my confidence. I got the feeling that I knew those rocks on exotic tidal shores better than those at home in the magnificent but relatively placid river I frequently ply. Keeping tabs on them requires some doing because no tides refresh my underwater memory.

Where we live on the St. Lawrence River there is, thanks to dams, never more than a 4 foot yearly variation in the water level.
A graph of the river water levels near where I live makes it look like we get one tame ocean swell a year. No Mississippi flooding here.

On our trip the only place I felt somewhat on similar terms with a large body of water was in and along Halifax harbor,

but it has a daily 6 foot variation in water level which an old painting in a quay side museum made clear.

Of course, living out of the reach of tides is commonplace. Most of my life I never thought of them, and it is a relief not to have to think about them.

If you have a boat in the tidal St. Lawrence, you never stop thinking about them.

As summer lazes into fall the water level at our dock slowly drops. Once or twice a year I realize I forgot to loosen some lines to keep boats bobbing sprightly. Many rocks in the river slowly emerge, otherwise no harm done by being oblivious to them unless you sail or pick up speed in your motor boat.

When I sawed up the 14 foot sailboat and leaned its 4 foot cast iron center board on the shady side of the house, I stopped thinking about the rocks that don‘t emerge, most of whom my centerboard met. Now I usually just kayak. In the bays at home, my kayak wimps over the rocks making lily pads the hard cheese of the river.

My style of kayaking is the equivalent to walking the beach, but one that is slow to change. On our vacation I gawked at all the tiny things briefly detained in tidal pools.

Back home I ponder the aphids’ parallel universes on a parade of lily pads.

Even when the wind kicks up some waves, the aphids hang on for a couple months. Along the sea the vegetation sharing rocks with the barnacles spends its 6 or so hours in the sun looking completely exhausted.

River vegetation can get a heavy look as it swells with flowers and seeds but there is always a spring to it, best exemplified by the water celery.

The water lily can be fickle, but only when the sun doesn’t shine.

For years I've used my 14 foot aluminum boat with a 6 horsepower motor like a kayak, just fast enough to some distant shore and then I row. At my slow top speed I trust shoal markers distributed by a non-profit and avoid areas where cormorants seem to be standing. 

That’s a perilous way to identify rocks. Imagine a Maine mariner navigating the 30 foot tide pushing back the St. Croix River by looking for seals basking on the rocks.

But at the end of this summer we bought a new engine for our son's 16 foot aluminum boat considerably increasing its speed. On this vacation, what the tides kept saying to me is that I have to start remembering where the rocks are. Underwater memory where I live is not easy.

More or less the same granite beds the northern rivers and seas, but this beautiful hard bottomed river has become as soft as a bayou to me. I now have a livelier sense of the Nova Scotia beach where we sat for a few hours,

Than I do of more familiar shores on Wellesley Island where we live.

I only see that beach of rocks from October until it snows. Those rocks don’t shimmer anew with every daily low tide.

In Nova Scotia we had perfect calm weather, but there I was bumping my imagination with rocks. All bodies of water with rocks sport that feel safe, the lighthouse. The day we visited Peggy’s Cove south of Halifax we had a clear view of the iconic beacon. But I wouldn’t be fooled and took a more accurate photo of the danger inherent in that coast.

The Rock Island light is across from our house and we see it everyday if there is no fog or a blizzard and really not a day goes by when we don’t see it. I rarely take photos of it and when I do I emphasize its peaceful insignificance.

I can no longer be so dismissive of local dangers. There are rocks everywhere. Half the view from my house is of Granite Slate Shoal. I've never taken a photo of it. I just walked down and took a photograph of the first rock in the river off my dock which began winking at me a month ago after being a hidden danger since spring.

The tides and waves make the sea a constant lesson. Study the shore. In 12 hours there will be a pop go the rocks quiz. The waves drive you  into them. The St. Lawrence River has been simpler at my paddling and piddling speeds. It is where the rocks aren’t.

I feel an evolutionary tug that this view of the river is just fine. It must be the way a fish feels the river. The best definition of a river is that it is not a rock. Most everything not a rock simply becomes the river.

This summer we swam off our dock everyday from June through September. In summers when I was less persistent the rising river weeds struck me as alien. This August I began to get a fish like feel for them. They made the water feel softer and move slower. They stretched time.

I did see some sparse patches of tidal grasses, but the ubiquitous sidekick of the tides in the Bay of Fundy surprised us, mud everywhere.

The river has wind, waves, and a rare surge that might raise some silt but nothing in the river is battered into all consuming liquid rock by the too huge and timely tides. Or should I say nothing is jarred, especially my underwater memory.

The river is freedom, and freedom, when you really think through it, is life without memory. I don‘t have to check the tides. I can live superficially, unless I push the throttle forward....

A memorable vacation reminding me of home dangers, bow bending memories lurking just out of sight.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Summer 2013: Muskrats

Trapping season starts in November and the local media often celebrates the men and boys who go out into the swamps and riversides to kill beavers, otters and muskrats.

Last fall, 2012, the big news was a rise in the price paid for muskrat pelts. When I started noticing pelt prices 15 years ago, a muskrat pelt sold at auction for under a dollar. Here is a photo of muskrat before prices started climbing.

At the beginning of this trapping season, a good pelt might get over $10 at auction. That rated this headline in the Watertown Daily Times: Muskrat Love: North Country Trappers Step Up Their Game As Prices for Pelts Rise. Here is a photo of a muskrat after the value of its fur increased 10 fold.

A little joke of mine. The muskrat hasn't changed. As articles about trapping go this was better than most, short on the romance and long on the business side and the fostering concern of the state wildlife biologists: 

“Last Sunday, Mr. Devan, a retired state DEC wildlife biologist, had 375 muskrat pelts bagged for Mr. Edwards. They were turned inside out, with the skins facing out, the way fur buyers prefer to purchase muskrat pelts, according to Mr. Edwards.”

Mr. Edwards is the shipping agent for the Fur Harvesters March auction in Seattle where, he explained, the Chinese would buy most of the pelts. The Chinese trim and dye the fur, and for $1,783.00, voila:

DEC doesn't stand for "Direct Exports to China." Chinese demand means nothing, according to the DEC. Keep an eye on gasoline prices. The article continues:

“Trapping tends to self-regulate for a lot of species,” Mr. MacDuff , the [not retired] DEC biologist, said. After reviewing some survey results done by trappers, Mr. MacDuff said statewide harvest of muskrats swing between 84,000 and 214,000. No breakdown is done by region. “It’s often weather-dictated or, often, things like fuel prices will fall into it,” Mr. MacDuff said.

In the United States wildlife biologists rarely study the affects of trapping or effectiveness of trapping as a method to “regulate“ “a lot of species.” Less said the better because that keeps the politically powerful sportsman’s lobby happy and the meager fees from trapping licenses help fund the state conservation agencies.

Several years ago, the price for muskrat pelts jumped to almost $7. I was told by the local beaver trapper that thanks to that new muskrat traps were all over the wetland below our land. For the next few years after that muskrats were scarce.

Muskrat traps are relatively small and cheap. This Duke Coil costs $4.75:

Trapping one muskrat pays for two traps. I began fearing a muskratless Summer of 2013, which was a gloomy thought.

In the fall of 2012, my wife and I had to be away during the early part of trapping season to care for her father so we missed getting a feel for how many muskrats had been killed. We didn’t get back home until early February. 

We were soon reminded of the peril muskrats faced. As soon as the ice melted along the St. Lawrence River, perhaps the most beautiful time along the river,

an outboard motor boat propelled two snugly clad guys from island to island and dock to dock. Once I figured out their schedule, I happened to be on our dock one sunny morning. 

They claimed they didn’t need permission to set traps in anybody’s dock or boathouse but would ask for it if they found out that person was around. They claimed to be experienced trappers who do it every year, but it was the first time I ever saw them and their traps looked new. As for the two muskrats in our cove, they said they “took” one. Perhaps, but we haven’t seen the other since. The trappers stopped visiting our cove.

At the end of March a 14 year old kid put traps in the big pond on our land, which we got him to remove before our beaver and pair of muskrats were killed. But he had permission to trap on our neighbor’s land and in the huge wetland below us.

At the end of trapping season, April 7, we found the tails and other remains of three beavers on the dirt road that flanks our land. 

The unfortunate result of high pelt prices for muskrats is that many trappers, especially the rookies, go gung-ho for beavers and otters, too. 

Fortunately, 14 year old trappers aren’t that good. The beaver in my pond that I saved from the traps went down into the huge wetland for the last week of trapping season, but it returned and repaired the dam that kept the pond’s water level high. The two muskrats who spent the winter in the pond were soon out and about as the ice melted.

In the late spring and early summer muskrats collect and eat grasses. It was a pleasant pastime, watching them carry bouquets of greens to their burrow in the east end of the dam.

The time elapsed between the first and second load in the video was 5 minutes.
Then I got one of my best videos of a muskrat eating.



This was a promising beginning to muskrat watching season, but after years of trying I have decided that it is impossible to keep track muskrats. The much larger beaver not only keeps fairly regular hours, it is easy to see the next morning what they ate the night before. If I knew every blade of grass and every weed in and around the pond, I still probably wouldn't get a general idea of what muskrats are doing. 

In June and early July, I often saw a foraging muskrat when I paused on my morning walk to sit by the pond. Then sightings became rare: briefly in the afternoon on July 29, a fleeting glimpse as it got dark on August 19. Strange. Where were their babies?

I knew the muskrats were still there only by the muddy bottom outside their burrows.

I reasoned that the muskrats might be avoiding the heat of the day -- in August pond water gets warm, so I made a point of checking the pond as it got dark, but I still didn't see them.

Last year I frequently saw muskrat kits in the early evening. Kits are always skittish and I noticed that whenever a shiner jumped out of the water near them, the muskrats made a furious dive. Finally on August 22, 2012, I got video of that.

The photos below lifted from the video reveals the split-second life of muskrats, who, by the way, have no interest in eating shiners (nor do shiners eat them).

Summer ended and I figured that despite surviving the trappers and a promising June, the muskrats fizzled and didn't have any kits.

Then on the afternoon of September 25 I was dozing in my chair enjoying the warm sun and the damselflies on my knee

When I heard a splash along the far shore of the pond. I looked up and the pond was full of muskrats. I saw two going this way

and two going that way

As the video below shows, they had no interest in eating

The muskrats separated and seemed to stand guard at different points in the pond. For example one was beside the inlet creek

and one was almost in front of me.

Another was probably at the dam and I saw another on the far shore near where I heard the first splash. Finally a muskrat swam to all the burrows around the pond. The video below shows it checking out one of the oldest of the several around the pond.

I watched the muskrats stay on guard for about a half hour. Two of the larger did momentarily scratch themselves. The smaller ones were ever vigilant until something spooked them (me for example) and they dived with a wild twitch. 

I've seen this twice before. Once I saw the mink which caused the alarm in the pond. That was in a much smaller pond and the vigilance of the muskrats was not as well choreographed.

Mink are the principal predators of muskrats and from what I've seen muskrats defend themselves by facing the mink and trying to chase it away. Minks prefer attacking from the rear. Here are two videos showing that:

Back to 2013: as the threat of a mink attack receded (I never saw a mink but there were too many muskrats sniffing the air for it to be a drill) the muskrats began moving around the pond each seeming to go to check burrows themselves, at least with a sniff.

Trapping season is around the corner again. I am sure the DEC wildlife biologists, trappers, fur auction scouts and Chinese furriers know all anyone needs to know about muskrats. The more I watch them the less I know. They are incredible little animals 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

August 2013: River Otters

I pushed off in my kayak an hour before dawn on August 5. I didn’t mind that it was the coldest dawn of the summer, dipping into the 40s. The chill would delay the sweat I was bound to get. I had a 45 minute paddle to Quarry Point on the east end of Picton Island.

I soon decided it might take longer because the west wind began picking up. I was heading with the slowly rising sun an hour away from being at my back.

I like paddling into darkness. The gulls and terns flying above impressed me as celestial objects. The heron standing on a rock in the Narrows didn’t flinch from its gargoyle pose as I paddled by it. Of course the gulls, terns, and heron trained their hungry eyes toward the light. When I turned around and saw how bright it was in the east, I dipped my head toward the dark water and paddled harder.

I needed light to see the otters but I wanted to be still, low and quiet in the water as the light revealed their black dives in the suddenly green and then blue river.

I went to the area off shore where I always go, and wouldn‘t even be diverted even by my own theories.

The last few times I had come out at dawn, in 2012 and 2011, I had noticed a goodly number of seagulls in Picton channel flapping over the water where the otters were fishing. Based on that experience, I theorized that a good strategy for finding otters at dawn was to follow the gulls. The gulls I saw at dawn August 5 were not going toward Quarry Point nor Picton Island.

Forget gulls, I ducked closer to the dark water and out of the wind that wouldn’t quit, and stayed my course. That didn’t relieve me of gloomy thoughts.

I had been out of the zone for years. From 1997 to 2005 I had a feel for where the otters were. I made about $1000 taking people out to see otters on Wellesley Island. But that was when mother otters used the beaver ponds to raise their pups.

Then the beavers ran out of bark to eat. Six large ponds became six large meadows. Only three ponds remain. I see evidence that an otter visits, but no evidence that any otter lives there like in the old days.

And then there’s trapping. About 10 years ago the price the Chinese paid in auction for otter pelts tripled. The State of New York offers a six month virtually unregulated season to trap furbearers including otters with no bag limits. You just can’t shoot them but many do.

Finally before I venture out at dawn in my kayak, I usually scout the shores of Picton from my 14 foot motor boat looking for fresh otter scats. This year I saw week old scats now and then, but never a fresh scat. For the past 12 years fresh scats in the summer and fall always enticed me out at dawn. Not this year.

I suppose I went out on August 5 without checking the day before because I didn’t want to cloud my resolve with negative anticipations as I made the long paddle.... Sweat and no gulls didn’t help.

The wind slowed me down, and I’m getting old. It was so light as I approached Quarry Point that I could see a deer drinking along the rocky shore.

I had no theories about whether seeing a deer improved the odds of seeing an otter. The west wind made it harder to see otters in the river, but at least blew my scent away from where I expected the otters to be. I saw a splash in that direction.

I had been hearing lazy fish splashes all morning, but this one looked and sounded more dynamic. I thought I saw a black head in the water so I dropped the binoculars and trained the camcorder on the area.

I saw at least two otters, maybe three, all diving and swimming toward and then along the shore. Perhaps because they sensed me they all headed toward the rocky shore. I heard the characteristic snort and looked in the right direction but focused on the water. The center of the photo below, lifted from the video I took, shows where I looked.

The video provides a brief glimpse of an otter on the rocks in the upper right quadrant of the video. Then I stopped hearing snorts and saw nothing. Then what I thought was a shadow in the rocks began to move,

And snort. I’ve come to appreciate many things otters do. Seeing them catch fish ranks as number one. Punctuating their swimming with porpoise-like leaps in the air comes in second. But, for me, the earth stands still when an otter poops.

It evidently means a lot to otters too. This one turned to me, as its tail continued to pulse and wave, as if it was quite proud.

But perhaps I flatter myself. The snorts were surely directed at me. I’ve heard many snorting otters and interpret the sound and accompanying gestures as more dismissive than defiant. Otters don’t think we are in the same league. When is the last time you jumped in the river and came up with a fish in your mouth?

But the otter might have been looking beyond me. The sun had just risen.

All our gadgets mark the time. According to my camcorder the otter pooped at 6:16. The same gadget stamped my photo of the dawn 6:17. The otter retreated into the rocks. I continued to hear snorts, but didn’t see the otter among or on the rocks lining the shore.

I wasn’t exactly back in the zone, but I felt in good odor with otters again. As I paddled along checking rocks for fresh scats or, in the case below, fresh otter urine

I saw a mink scampering along the shore. A mink looks quite small after seeing an otter.

Then I paddled toward the dawn.  I heard loon calls out in the expanse of Eel Bay.

But not in the direction of my breakfast.

While I was elated, I didn’t see enough of the otters to know who they were. The grand tail raising poop is characteristic of a male and the smaller otter or otters seemed more capable than pups born around April, as all North American otter pups are.

Ten days later I walked around the East Trail Pond in the middle of the day. I knew I probably wouldn't see any beavers but I wanted to walk around and see what they have been up to without disturbing them.

Then as I was sitting up on the ridge north of the pond I got a glimpse of an otter swimming past the lodge the beavers abandoned and heading toward the dam.

Trying to take a photo and get a video, I missed seeing the otter go over the dam. Nice seeing an otter in one of the remaining beaver ponds, but this was the pond where I used to watch a mother otter teaching her pups how to be otters, like the lesson below on a rainy afternoon in early August 2003.

The otter I just saw was probably a touring male, perhaps the same otter I heard under the ice of the pond back in the winter. It seemed to be alone then, too.