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.

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