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December 11 yesterday we had freezing rain and mist but the temperature reached 32 and the precipitation brought enough warmth to relieve us of what ice had accumulated. Then it snowed, giving us about an inch or two, then that somewhat dissolved into a wet crust. Finally at about 1 pm today, the temperature dropped below freezing by two or three degrees and when I headed across the golf course, it was snowing lightly. While not perfect for tracking, blurs in the crust revealed what animals had been about, and once in the woods every angled tree, every downed trunk, quite a few branches were armored in white making the wet woods the least lonely place in this north country. The dams suffered the cacaphony of running water. Indeed, all the recent mud work of the Big Pond beavers was being mocked, all but undermined for good. There were signs that the beavers had been there, no mud nor sticks to bolster the dam, but the water was open in a broad swath from the lodge to the dam,

and along the edge of the ice were stripped sticks. It didn't seem that beavers had been up the paths at the ends of the dam. The ice had holes at both ends, but all was so wet making it hard to tell if beavers had been out. The Lost Swamp Pond was much more open and I plopped my hat on the ice covered log I usually sit on and settled down to contemplate the open water. Then I noticed a broad otter slide in the ice and slush going along the shore of the pond, and I immediately got up to examine that. If the game was afoot, I did not want to delay it. It appeared that one large otter had mostly slid along the ice of the shore,

heading toward the northwest corner of the pond. I immediately got the idea that this was the boss male checking his farflung territory. Then when I walked along the mossy cove, which showed no evidence of a visit, I saw otter slides looping along the shore there.

So the otter had made a circuit, foraging as always, not on some dominating mission. I didn't see any sign that the otter went out of the pond, and it crossed my mind that the long slide to the muskrat burrows

might have been its race home. I've seen the otters use the burrows as a den. Assuming that the otter had merely looped the pond, and the game was not afoot after all, I settled back to see what the beavers might do. I gave myself about 15 minutes to wait for something to happen, and not long into that interval, I saw a black blur flip some ice up way down at the their new lodge. I forgot to bring my spyglass. I was certain one beaver was out and thought I saw another blur, but when you begin thinking that way, you begin seeing blurs all over. Now I settled back to see if beavers from lodge would come down to me and the still leaking dam, or, even better, go down to the Upper Second Pond. Of course, I kept glancing down at that pond and soon a glance revealed a black lump between the pond ice and the dam. In short order another beaver swam into view and both kept active. Indeed, one went over the dam. That got me up off my rock, though I didn't hurry down to get a better view because I saw a wake heading down toward me from the upper end of the Lost Swamp Pond. That proved to be a muskrat, so I moved on to see if the beavers were actually going down into the Second Swamp Pond or just checking the dam. I saw a second beaver go over which encouraged me to think the beavers had renewed their interest in the lower pond. The pond after all was quite full. But soon I saw first one then the other beaver come back over the dam. I think they were worried about the dam, though I couldn't see them work on it. I was able to see what one beaver did in the Upper Second Swamp Pond. It frisked up and down in the water, then swam to the north behind the dam, as if inspecting it. Indeed I saw it, I think, climb up on the dam, though I couldn't see if it was making repairs or nibbling sticks. Then it swam back and from the south end of the dam, took a bushy branch in its mouth. It dove under the ice, and then resurfaced further down along the ice just behind the dam, then dove again. I couldn't see if it went to gnaw on the branch, or use it to patch the dam. The former I think. I got some video of this, despite the wet snow. Meanwhile I think I saw a beaver head to the upper shore of the Lost Swamp Pond. I thought of going back to the Big Pond to see if those beavers were out, but thought I best check the Second Swamp Pond dam in case the beavers had repaired it. I didn't expect to see otter slides there, since I didn't see slides going out of the Lost Swamp Pond, but there was a slide going along the shore.

Down at the dam, I could see how the dam was still leaking generously. There is simply too much water. I also saw otter slides going from the dam to the lodge on the north shore.

I walked over there and saw slides crossing straight across the pond. Just as in the Lost Swamp Pond, the otter made a broad loop. I didn't see a companion slide, so I still think this is a single otter not the mother and pup I usually see. But it is possible that that small but happy family broke up. The pup seemed pretty capable the last time I saw it. I went to the East Trail Pond and didn't see any fresh slides. I saw some old ones. I headed home and saw no sign of otters along the New Pond knoll. The snow stopped and the gray clouds broadened into balls, the wind stopped, South Bay was calm. I was treated to a peaceful gray sunset, quite beautiful compared to the mist, fog and lowering clouds we've been having.

December 12 we had a bit more snow freshening up what was on the ground. At the land we saw that there was both more snow there and more ice. The trees, bushes and grasses were quite bent over, and all was white. We walked down to the Deep Pond straight away and saw that something had opened some ice over near the muskrat burrow, but the ice behind the dam had not been disturbed. So we assumed that a muskrat did it, and then in the open water below the inlet pond we some something furry put its head above the water and we assumed it was a muskrat. Then there was a trail across the ice and signs that an animal had gone up on the bank, much like otters would do. But as we walked around to investigate, I expected to see mink tracks and a bit of left overs. Instead we found otter scats, prints and slides, all quite fresh.

One scat was scaleless and deep black

and the other gray and filled with scales and bones not from fish amd perhaps crayfish parts

There were two foci of activity so we thought we were dealing with two otters even though there was only one slide across the ice. We walked around the pond toward the inlet creek noting possible old slides in the snow. Then in the open water below the inlet creek an otter popped up and growled. I scrambled to get my camcorder going in the cold. The otter just looked at us and at one point was comfortable enough to cock its tail in the air. Too soon, it dove and we saw ripples in the open water behind the muskrat burrows in the dam area. We waited about ten minutes for it to reappear but no such luck.

We didn't any slides going out of the pond, or into it for that matter. Then we went up to check the beavers in the First Pond, and went via the snow and ice covered field which was quite beautiful even without the sun shining. Then we saw a worn path between the Teepee Pond and the valley pool, a regular beaver route. Instead we saw otter prints and scats. Most of the scats were black and wet, and there were several of them.

It looked like a pile of otters went into a small hole in the valley pool, as I call it.

Leslie continued around the pond going below the dam, and I went back to walk around the valley pool. I don't think there are fish in this pool, perhaps some frogs. The otters came out at the other side of the pond where the beavers often go. At first glance I thought they just put a nose out, since the path, though the snow had melted away and looked unused. Then I pushed through the tangle of ice encrusted bushes and found otter prints and slides heading further into the bushes, though one print came back the other way!

I continued around the pool, saw some ice broken along the edge of the pond, but not slides coming out of it. Then I moved on up to the First Pond and saw some blood on the beaver lodge. The snow on the lodge was worn down, but I didn't see any scat. Meanwhile Leslie came up the other side and reported that at one spot she could smell the fish harvest. She led me to that area and we passed little flurries of otter tracks and scats along the edges of the pond. Where we could smell the fish, we saw blood on the snow

and the remains of one fish in the water. Below the dam she saw where the otters seemed to have come in and gone out. At one point we saw four slides side by side.

Both trails led down to the road roughly along the outlet creek but we could not see any tracks along the road, across the road or on the road. We walked up to the intlet rivulet that comes from the road and saw no sign of otters there. So it seemed like the otters looped down to the road. We went back to the valley pool and followed that trail which looked like it was made by one otter, two otters maybe. The otters picked up a little rivulet (the source, we fancy, of Mullet Creek which eventually flows into the St. Lawrence) and followed that for about 50 yards, then moved over into an old tractor tire ditch and followed that for another 50 yards and then cut to the right and headed up over a small rock cliff. Such flights to the heights I expect in the mating season, but not now. The otter reached the top of the small cliff, and then turned left taking a gentle way back down into the valley. Then the otter crossed the valley and picked up the rivulet of a creek again and we tracked it to one of the frozen valley bogs. There was a bit of open water, but no sign that the otter dove under, nor any sign that it scampered across the ice. This would not be the first time we lost the trail of an otter. Of course, we headed back to the Deep Pond. Leslie went to check around the dam and I went to the inlet creek to see if an otter came in that way. That creek is not in the Mullet Creek watershed, but if an otter went over a few ridges from the Mullet Creek rivulet, it could find its way to the Deep Pond. I didn't see any sign of otters coming in that way. I walked back around the pond and saw confirmation that an otter had been in the pond yesterday. There was a half digested fish up on the bank without any prints in the nearby snow.

Then I walked behind the dam and saw one certain perhaps another old otter slide coming into the pond coming up from the creek flowing down to White Swamp. While this pond's dam had been leaking mightily for a few weeks, judging from the drooped ice around the fringe of the pond, the otters might have dug a bit more out of the dam. Indeed at the breach I tried to patch in the summer, all the mud the beaver had packed on it, not to mention my feeble effort, was gone.

I could see an otter print in the nearby snow. I could also see the muskrat burrow that runs along inside, and does so much to undermine, this dam. Perhaps the otters live in that burrow. If there had been a beaver still here, keeping up repairs, I could blame the otters for breaching the dam, but things had been falling apart well before they moved in. This is all quite exciting especially because it is evident that there are two groups of otters, and that one, at least, is still at the Deep Pond. It's possible that this morning there were two otters in the Deep Pond and four otters in the First Pond, though I would be content to have one otter in the former and two in the later. Needless to say we will check back tomorrow.

December 13 It began snowing at about 6 pm last evening and predictions had us getting 2 to 4 inches of new snow, but by midnight the snow changed to light rain, and by morning the snow we already had melted back a good bit. We continued to get some lake effect rain showers. At the land there was still enough snow about to tell if otters had been out. At the Teepee Pond we saw two fresh slides, not near each other, so at least one otter had been in there. We saw no fresh activity around the Deep Pond. Because of the melting I did see another pile of dead fish remains. Evidently the otter took out the big fish early in his foraging because the remains were covered with snow. The ice was dripping off the trees. A cold front is blowing through and it will be nice if the ice drops from all the trees before temperatures plunge into the teens.

December 14 we had enough snow last night as the cold front moved through to promise good tracking for today. We went to the land first and directly to the First Pond where we saw no signs of otter. The ponds were iced over with thin wet ice at places along the shore and near the beaver cache, but nothing appeared broken in otterly fashion. Nor did we see any beaver trails coming out of the pond. It was 15 degrees as we walked around the pond. We walked below the dam on our way to the cabin and saw rabbit tracks, then fresh deer tracks. When we reached the valley we saw two does, one larger than the other, leaping along into the woods. We walked down to the Deep Pond dam and here too we saw no signs of otters. Here there was a good bit of open water behind the gap in the dam and below the inlet. We walked around the pond and saw no signs that anything had come out, crossed or been under the ice of the pond, save for one possible hole in the middle of the pond ice.

When we got back home at 1 pm, I went promptly out to the park ponds. Clouds were thickening and there were some flurries. I didn't want tracks to get covered with fresh snow, and, tracking otters can take a bit of time. I headed to the South Bay trail and as I walked in on that trail I back tracked a flock of turkeys coming out. The turkeys had stayed on the trail, moving straight along. Somebody is probably feeding them in TI Park. They have a rendezvous with food, no need for foraging as they go along. At the creek coming down from the New Pond, I saw otter tracks heading out to South Bay. There were two impressions going over the pipe there. So I headed into the ponds to backtrack the otters. At the rickety bridge across the raging creek, I saw fox and squirrel tracks. The otters ignored the bridge and went directly into the creek after they came down the hill from the New Pond knoll. However, I didn't see classic otter slides and fox tracks also confused the trail. Up atop the knoll, I saw one otter trail, no scats, and more fox prints. I did see two slides in the ice behind the dam

but they were short and there were no slides or prints up the ice. There was enough water in the pond for the otters to swim under the ice, but I also saw what looked like a trail up from below the dam. So I thought perhaps the otters simply came up to the knoll, smelled another otter's territory, and went back to South Bay. I continued up the ponds, deciding not to check the Beaver Point Pond dam because there was no ice, all the meagre water in this once mighty pond, was running and open. Meanwhile, a porcupine has been doing some neat gnawing on the maples along the old bank of the now dry pond. These maples were rather ravaged by the ice storm in 1998. The porcupine work, ironically, made the trees look lively and warm. Up at Otter Hole Pond I realized how saturated the ground was. The ice of the pond extended to the old shores of the pond, though the ice was thin, and still the dam had not been repaired and water rushed out of the gap in it. I saw fox tracks and evidence of what I take to be a fox sliding on the ice. I think a mother fox was teaching her kits how to handle the ice, which accounts for fox tracks all over and near the otter tracks. The kits were probably quite curious about that odiferous business. At the dam, I did see what could have been otters heading down stream, but there were no slides to be seen on the ice. So I checked the Second Swamp Pond dam. Here I have consistently been seeing scats, really since last winter, but there were no scats to be seen. Again there were fox prints, no slides and it was more of a stretch to see otter prints in the scuffed snow near the gap in the dam. Of course, the way I look at things, the Lost Swamp Pond is the only viable pond for the otters to be in. I angled up to it so I could get a full view of the pond as I walked down. Most of the pond was frozen over. The area where the muskrat and beavers are active had black ice, the rest of the ice had snow on it. There were only a few open pools of water out in the middle of the pond, which could be taken as a sign of otter activity, but other than the slide I saw the other day, there were no otter slides on the pond. I walked around the pond to the dam, appreciated a large bird poop, but saw no signs of otter nor beaver activity for that matter. I did see new activity around the Upper Second Swamp Pond dam, though I should hedge that a bit. The beavers are cutting a cherry that is closer to the Lost Swamp Pond dam. There were no tracks in the snow explaining which way the beavers came. The Upper Second Swamp Pond dam looks very fragile,

too much mud and not enough branches, really just a mud and grass wall about three feet high holding back ever welling waters. There are many leaks in the dam, quite soggy to walk below it, and many areas where the beavers seem to be trying repairs with what sticks they can find, but they simply don't seem to have major lumber for the job. They are cutting more trees, including two elms, but in their usual slow fashion.

Even a deep freeze which may come tonight might not still the flowing waters. Meanwhile, I can see four muskrat lodges from the dam. With a freeze I will be able to get a close look at them, though with all this flowing water, this will be a dicey year to walk on ponds. I headed down to the knoll over looking the Second Swamp Pond lodge, out of habit and on my way to check if the otters had come out of the East Trail Pond. As I started up the knoll I crossed some beautiful otter prints coming up from the pond, impressed on a smooth granite boulder.

I went higher on the knoll and saw two slides coming from the lodge and none going to it. Then I went back and tracked the otters. They did not take the usual route to the East Trail Pond, more or less the way I go up the ridge to the pond. Instead they went straight to the huge, high humping rock that dominates the landscape between the second and third swamps. One otter, at least, made such a habit of walking along fallen tree trunks that I began to wonder if I was tracking a fisher too. And when it came to gaining the top of the rock, they took the most vertical route. I must say however, that for the first time in my experience, judging by the prints, when they got to the top, they turned around,

or at least one of them did, to scope a view

of the other otter coming up, if not the Second Swamp Pond far below. Then it was down the other side of the rock, mercifully not as steep. And they took a direct route to the small pond offset from the string of ponds that I call the Third Ponds. I saw slides across the ice

and no sign they got into it. A few yards beyond I noticed drops of blood in a print on a rock and I wondered if I might be tracking fighting otters. Then a few yards beyond that point, I saw two dead frogs,

frozen and bloodied on their chests. The otters evidently ate the hearts and left the rest. Now they were on one of my ancients paths over a pine shaded rock and down to the biggest of the third ponds just at the point where years ago beavers had burrowed. I saw a slide on the windblown ice but it didn't extend for long and as I walked along the dam of the pond I didn't see any slides coming in, only some muskrat tracks going the other way. I walked half way up the north shore of the pond wondering if the otters scaled the huge cliff behind me or headed east into another watershed. I didn't see any tracks and walked back to the dam and followed the little rivulet flowing down to the East Trail Pond. Soon enough I picked up otter tracks. Their propensity to romp on downed trunks made it easy to follow them.

They seemed to follow the rivulet directly to the pond and then headed for the dam I walked around to the high ridge on the east end of the dam to see what I could see. The wind swept ice showed no slides, and I was about to be satisfied to have the tracking end in a mystery, then I looked down and saw that an otter had come up to where I was standing,

and where otters had gotten into the habit of scating. It dropped a wet scat on a log, the only scat I'd seen so far today, and then went back down to the pond. I then saw two faint slides going to the other side of the dam, and there I tracked the otters up the ridge, the royal road to Otter Hole Pond. Now it was fast approaching 4 pm, I was tired, and the light would soon rapidly dim. And it was pretty clear that these otters headed down to South Bay, makes sense too. I went down the East Trail to South Bay and could visualize some of the bumps in the ice made by otters, but I saw no slides, nor scats at their new latrine by the old dock. A nice afternoon's tracking, quite warming me up, though the temperature remained in the high teens. My guess is that the otters had been denning in the Second Swamp Pond and on the way out the mother decided to test her pup's climbing ability, and then they picked up an old foraging route along the small ponds, to the East Trail Pond, a frequent home, and then they went down to South Bay, perhaps to stay in the marsh, perhaps to go who knows where along the river.

December 15 very cold night with a bit of light snow early on. I went down at 10pm and seeing that snow made slush at the dock was about to freeze, I cocked my outboard motor up out of the water. In the morning the water froze to the end of the boat. So we could have gotten out to look for otter slides on farflung shores, but it was 10 degrees and wind blown ice fog would have made seeing slides difficult and bone chilling. So at about 10:30 we headed off for a walk around South Bay to see if we could see what the otters had been up to. The sundrenched day made for a pleasant walk and the large flakes of last night's flurry electrified the ice. South Bay's ice extended out to the Narrows. There were broad strokes of gray relief caused by fissures but no signs of otters until we got to the docking rock along the South Bay shore. I didn't see any slides but there were new scats and two, one on the sloped looked and one of the rock, looked fresh, but since there were no tracks it was probably from yesterday before the light snow. One scat looked dirtier as if from an otter who had been dining on the bottom.

There were several other scats on the rock that weren't there a week ago when I was last here. They were laced with scales like most of the scats I've seen this season. Then we went up to Audubon Pond and saw two old slides across the small causeway. Since we didn't see any slides on the smaller pond to the east, one otter may have made them going up and back. They were probably made early yesteray. We never saw a good slide elsewhere in Audubon Pond but we saw that otters visited the muskrat burrow set back from the bench, the walking bridge in the northwest corner of the pond, and perhaps near the drain, which by the way is quite frozen up high and tight, though, of course, the water is still draining out through the pipe below. My guess is that these otters came up from South Bay not down from the other ponds. We walked further up South Bay to see if we could see any slides. We flushed a heron from one of the open pools along the shore. Then out on the South Bay ice just beyond the rocks that flank the outlet creek coming down from Audubon Pond we saw a riot of otter slides.

I saw something like this back in March one year and ascribed it to the excitement of court ship. There should be no courting now, and these slides were so aimless and wide ranging that it must have been otters playing.

I have seen the choreography left in the pond snow after an otter fight, basically a short chase, quick swirl and separation. Nothing below us seemed that pointed.

The only curious thing was that one otter evidently went up over the ridge after visiting a latrine, one I've never noticed before, high up on the ridge overlooking the pond above some rounded rocks and some of those still had ice on them. Its possible the visit to the latrine was not associated with the frolic below because I couldn't see slides in the snow coming up to it. At the edge of the ice we saw four slides coming in.

No telling if the group was made up of the two mothers and two pups I've seen this year, or this was another family, or that group of four males that I noticed last year. Since I saw the trails of two otters leaving the ponds yesterday, it stands to reason that two of the otters involved here were them. I walked further on around to the Narrows, where I kept seeing fresh beaver work, and where I saw two slides coming up on the flat rock along the Narrows. Ice clogged the Narrows, much broken because some boat had broken through. I could see well down into the green water, but saw no fish. Well, this was all exciting but very much a play in white and shades of gray. On the way back we were rewarded with a close look at a pileated woodpecked,

a touch of color. We also heard a raven, and chickadees, of course.

by Bob Arnebeck