Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Fall Colors 2013: Gray, Black, Brown

Every October when the changing leaves are garish enough, we head to a high rock ridge with a warm southern exposure and gawk at the valley below. But this year we took more photos of the rocks than of the leaves.

Looking at the photos later, it struck me that granite has a fall color. A summer’s worth of sun bleaches it almost to the billion year old earth bone that it is.

After that distant view of the fall foliage, I went down to the East Trail Pond and sitting on the rocks there I saw dark-eyed juncos flitting through the leafless vegetation just above the pond water.

You might see one anytime of year where I live along the Canadian border, but in October they migrate through in bunches heading south and are more plentiful here during the winter.

A junco is two toned, black top and white bottom, a gray blur when it flits about in the bare trees.

Every year I take photos of the changing leaves reflected in the still beaver ponds.  But for 20 years now I’ve been trying to see the world through beavers’ eyes, and I don’t think beavers care at all about colorful leaves. Bark is another matter.

Beavers collect twigs, branches and logs into a cache for winter food. In a shallow pond like this, the pile rises well above the water level, a gray to brown ellipse spoiling the dancing reflections of the trees on the pond water.

Beavers in October and November have an eye for mud. They bury the greens on their dam with thick gobs that they push up from the pond bottom.

And late in the fall after a few freezing nights they carry mud up on their lodge giving it a black armor that will freeze hard for both insulation and protection from coyotes. Ten years ago the East Trail Pond beaver family lived in a small nearby pond I call Thicket Pond. I didn’t have to wait until the ponds froze to get a good close up of a mudded lodge. 

Back in November 2000, I got my best video of a beaver carrying mud up onto its lodge, though the still I lifted from the video is not that good. What looks gray was black with mud.

I must say, hauling mud up like that from the pond bottom is one of the hardest things for me to see through the beavers’ eyes.

Raised in the suburbs, the colorful descent of light leaves and their collection into heaps of crackling brown was the epitome of fall. Now that I know the swamps, the colorful leaves are the least of fall. Nature doesn’t heap them up like suburban boys do.

The essential sere heaps are not the leaves but the dense meadow plants and flowers. While the leaves fall on the pond water and sink to oblivion, the low, thick, brown vegetation hulks at every corner.

There are slices of delicate beauty to be found as tall grasses die

But most of the plants die with great gobs of colorlessness, gray beige brown anonymous beauty.

Are those pretty white pink pistilled asters become a grotesque dancing momento mori? 

In the meadows one finds the marching legions of decay

And in pits that were old beaver playgrounds a dance of death.

Some tall plants seem to become ghosts directly

Not that I can guess what they were in life -- goldenrods?

There are few falling leaves from these plant seemingly frozen in death.

At first blush the red fruits of the winterberry seem to have carved out a niche of vigor and life


But the woody shrub is only a spray in the sea of brown.

It dawns on you when you swim the meadows again and then again, that the decaying plants are persistent. They retain a buoyancy that should make the flighty leaves blush.

Yet the earth calls the leaves down and lets the meadow plants hulk in spooky waves of brown for the same reason, blankets to ward off the coming cold and make the comforting snow a little easier to bear.

There is no fall. The heat of summer is kneeling.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Ice Prints

We had a cold November and are having a colder December, but the average high temperature, which for both months is over freezing, will have its days. Because of those highs walking on the ice was iffy, if not slushy, until in mid-December when we had a string of nights around 0F and days in the teens.

Animals are not so circumspect and when they walk on the wet ice as it is freezing, they make an impressions that can last long after their cold wet walk atop puddle, pond, or river.

There is no better way for a beaver to remind us that along with an amazing tail, it has impressive hind feet. A few clicks on some photo editing buttons can make a beaver’s ice prints worthy of being encased in a museum.

Viewed in isolation one could spend hours calculating the size and intentions of the monster who left those prints. Look over the dam it was walking to and you see the water it dived into as it swam under water and under ice for home.

If humans had such flippers for feet more of us would be swimming under the ice from hole to hole.

When I see otter tracks in the ice my reaction is more visceral, though it's hard to describe what I'm feeling let alone what the otter was feeling. The first prints I saw in the ice at the edge of the Deep Pond showed an animal definitely not testing the waters. 

It wasn't walking, nor trotting, it was springing onto the pond, picking up speed

for a slide

It looked like the otter was heading for a little hole behind the dam. I walked around the pond (not walking on the ice just yet) and saw that the otter made a hole in the ice along the opposite shore of the pond, and danced on the ice there.

In the snow on the nearby shore was a generous piles of scats.

Easy to see that the otter got plenty to eat in the pond. Since the tracks in the ice are distinct and deep and the tracks around the hole in the ice indistinct and shallow, the air temperature likely dropped while the otter foraged under the pond.

I see the boldest displays of otter ice tracks on South Bay. In the section of the St. Lawrence River where I live on Wellesley Island the whole river from the Rock Island Lighthouse west to Lake Ontario and beyond
is usually frozen over by February. Because the current picks up at the lighthouse the main channel along much of the south shore of Wellesley Island stays open. 

The process of freezing begins in the bays. Beginning in late November and often continuing through December and the first half of January the ice front moves up and down South Bay depending on wind and warmth.

Otters commonly fish along and under that yo-yoing front of ice. Here is a photo from January 7, 2005, showing the tracks in the snow at the otters’ latrine at the entrance to South Bay.

I have never seen the otters fish there, but I can see their slides along the edge of the ice, clearly marking where they come out of and go back into the river.

Of course, otters navigate the ice when it is covered with snow as this photo from January 6, 2011, shows. Fresh snow on ice can create a slushy interface which can leave a nice frozen slide.

Otters have complete command of the water and the fish they want to eat are under water so my obsession with otters slides and prints on the ice looks at the  otter’s problem from the wrong side of the ice. Once on the ice of the bay heading for open water the drama of the chase is usually over for the otter. It demonstrates its genius for survival under the ice.

Otters know things about the freezing point of water that we will never fathom. During cold calm nights vast expanses of the river can freeze seemingly into one sheet of ice. On January 22, 2006, I saw an abstraction sketched on the ice or was it under the ice or through the ice or perhaps the otter or otters that made the impressions were oblivious to the nearly instant formation of ice all around it as it bore down on a fish?

The photos I’ve shared so far might give the impression that an otter faces winter out on the river alone. Some do but most don’t. On December 15, 2004, thanks to a layer of snowy frost on the ice, a group of otters showed that running and sliding on top of the ice, where there are no fish to be caught, is sometimes more than a matter of getting from one place to another.

My guess back then was that a family, a mother otter leading two pups, was up on the ice. One might suggest that they were playing but young otters have a very short time to be schooled for winter survival. The mother had to show them how to manage the ice which only got thicker in the coming days.

On January 13, 2005, the temperature hit 50F, softening the snow on the ice. On the 14th I saw slides all over the ice but it was too slushy to walk on the ice and examine them. Then the cold returned and I could walk out on the ice and get close to the slides. At first glance the photo below seems to show one otter coming out from a hole along the shore and running toward the middle of the bay.

But there are small prints next to big ones and a bit farther along the trail, the pup's prints separate from its mother’s.

Of course the pup did not make as great an impression but y
ou can almost gauge how much bigger the mother's tail is.

The pup did get in stride and hit speed enough to impress a perfect set of prints in the slush that soon froze solid.

While adult otters do stay in the river all winter even as ice covers all but a few areas of open water, mothers and their pups usually return to the beaver ponds where she reared her pups in the summer. On February 11, 2001, I saw the frozen slides of a mother and her three pups behind the dam of the Second Swamp Pond.

It's in those ponds that I have gotten some videos of how expertly otters manage to survive when water freezes.

Friday, December 6, 2013

First Snow

After six inches of wet snow, the temperature plunged. On the morning of November 29, it was sunny with no wind. We embraced the cold, 15F, by rowing the boat out into the river. The warmth of the sun raised a wind that blew the fog rising from the warmer water away from us.

The dip of my oars was the only noise until some whistlers flew over. The geese moved from us in orderly fashion and left a unfamiliar visitor behind, a grebe.

We’ve never seen one on the river before.

After an hour in that cold, we were inoculated against any weather November and December was likely to spread. Our long johns still on, we drove to our 52 acres on the mainland. The ponds there had been frozen for a week. Now they were snowed over.

Three days ago, if we had been quieter as we approached, we probably would have seen the beaver nibbling in a patch of open water.

We didn’t regret the deeper snow. It promised tracks everywhere.

But animals bide their time. Our snowshoes laid the first tracks

which was fine with us. We could keep our heads up and marvel at the red winterberries that seemed the only thing standing that shed the snow.

Deer are the largest animals around and seem least inconvenienced by the first snow. They are indefatigable in their search for something to eat and when their tracks lead to their supper,

it has the curious effect of warming me up.

Five days after the snow, there were still not many tracks, but I found myself crossing a coyote’s trail and following a raccoon’s. Where the latter stopped for a drink,

I wondered what it would be like to go through the winter without worrying about cold and wet feet. 

Wet snow softens the ice it falls on. Ice doesn’t keep beavers from getting to the food they stored for the winter. In the East Trail Pond I could see a trail of air bubbles under the ice between the burrow where at least some of the beavers were living and their pile of branches in the pond.

But looking over at their dam, I saw a patch of open water and knew that the beavers had climbed out of that hole.

Walking around the pond, I was able to look down at the beavers’ lodge. Air bubbles there too

And one beaver walked in the snow around the lodge. While I embrace the snow as a blank slate on which the animals will reveal to me their everyday wanderings, I know that the first snow can be as exciting to them as me. Not since last winter has that beaver had a chance to walk around its lodge, and for a good number of animals that was the first snowfall of their life.

These beavers had been cutting trees down preparing for winter for a few weeks. Just before the snow fell they had almost cut down another large red oak.

As I walked around the pond I saw that a large pine tree that the beavers had cut blew down along the north shore not far from their lodge.

Since there was snow on the downed trunk, it was probably blown down before or during the snow storm. Beaver tracks from the lodge went to and from the tree.

Since there was no hole in the ice, I don't think the beavers had tasted that pine since the last warm hours just after the storm. At two holes in the ice behind the dam, I saw the distinctive woody color of freshly nibbled sticks.

Some of the tracks from the hole slushed through the melting ice, but other trails led up the ridge northeast of the pond

passed fresh work, including two smaller trees cut down and branches and trunks segmented and dragged down to the hole behind the dam.

The beavers’ prints went higher up the ridge.

And two small tree were cut down on the plateau of the ridge, both the perfect size for dragging down the 50 yard slope to the pond.

Back on our land, I cut dead trees up on ridges and sometimes sled them down in the snow. I suppose beavers appreciate the slicker surface and they must appreciate the snow for weighing down and covering over small bushes that can make it difficult to drag things in the woods. But it was easy to see that one beaver was not obsessed with dragging branches back down to the pond. It strayed over to the edge of a high rock with a view and didn't drag anything.

While it is possible that the beaver was out before dawn and couldn’t see more than the snow below its nose, I think the beaver was taking a look around, scouting future meals. It is much easier to see trees when there is snow on the ground.

There is nothing like seeing the tracks of beavers working around their pond to make you feel like you accomplished something just by looking at them. Not that anything they did surprised me. I expected these beavers to be out. There are at least 6 of them in the pond. Meanwhile, the lone beaver living in the Deep Pond on our land spent the whole week after the snowfall under the ice or in its burrow.

Finally, I always have my eye for tracks that get my heart beating faster than beaver trails, but I really didn’t expect to see signs of otters. I saw one very briefly in the East Trail Pond in August and not one sign of it being there since then. Plus the usual otter latrines along the north shore of South Bay had not been visited for a few months.

Because of the wet snow, a power company crew drove an ATV on the South Bay trail to see if the power line there that feeds neighboring islands was in jeopardy. I hate those power lines but that inspection meant that I had an easy walk on the trail and my eyes could wander and look for tracks in the woods or out on the ice of the bay.

At the end of the north cove of the bay, I saw unmistakable otter trails on the ice, including some long slides.

I didn’t go out on the ice but instead trusted that I’d get a better view of the slides as I continued walking up the trail. But I didn’t. The ice got thinner and exhibited all those streaks and holes that make pond skaters nervous. None of them looked like an otter made them.

The impression I got from the slides were that one otter came in and then went out. I stopped at all the latrines and saw three small scats at the first, and one scat at the next. Scats on the snow had melted down into the snow and there were no tracks on the snow. The otter probably made its tour when it was still well below freezing which also accounts for almost all the impressions it made on the ice disappearing. On the protean ice of a wind blown, sun drenched bay, tracks can be short-lived.

Then at the last latrine up on the ridge overlooking the entrance to the bay, the otter left its mark.

It had dug through the snow down into the dirt and squirted out a couple scats.

Ten to 15 years ago I sometimes had upwards of 11 otters to keep track of and took many photos of otter scats, often seen in bold relief thanks to the snow. But these scats were now on bare ground.

Indulge my passion. Come closer.

The otter had probably been dining on crayfish.

Back in 1997, I took a hike around South Bay with my family just after the for sizeable snowfall of the year. We saw fresh otter tracks at the end of the north cove. Back then the beavers had created a pond just up from the bay. We walked over a slight ridge and saw the otters.