Saturday, March 10, 2018

Chapter Six

Why Did Two Beavers Families Leave Their Lodge, or Would You Want an Otter Family Living Next Door During a Long Winter?

Otters in the East Trail Pond

With the freeze fast approaching, the ponds prepared. The vegetation that almost turned the ponds green in the summer shrank under the dark water. Leaves fell, most birds and all insects disappeared. With fall rains the water rose under the dejected air.

Beavers packed mud on the lodges where they planned to spend the winter. The beavers in the New Pond left their new lodge in that pond and just as they did the year before, they moved into the lodge on top of the Beaver Point Pond dam.


Unorthodox, but otters might think twice about putting a hole in the dam. The mated adults of that beaver family had put up with otters since 1996 (see Chapter 1), so I respected every move the beavers made.

The beaver families in the Duck Pond, Shortcut Trail Pond, East Trail Pond and Big Pond prepared for winter in the lodge where they had spent the late summer and fall. But the Lost Swamp Pond beavers, whose lodges an otter family preferred to use, moved out of their pond.

Because of the Duck Pond beavers' confrontation with screeching otters dancing on their lodge, climaxing the last chapter, I spent more time observing that pond. On November 29 two beavers sat on the Duck Pond lodge grooming each other in the late afternoon, just the time the otters fancied grooming.

At the same time a beaver stared at me as it floated in the icy water along the shore. I wrote in my journal "I can't help but think that what brings these beavers out is a campaign to keep otters away from their lodge and pond."

Well, that's perhaps a pointless observation in November. In the late fall before the freeze beavers have to be out in the afternoon. They have branches to collect before the pond freezes at night. (Let's not exaggerate the amount of time they spend cutting and hauling. The typical beaver activity in the late fall is waddling ashore and gnawing the bark of any big tree they had cut down. The best way to prepare for winter is to fatten up.

The Beaver Point Pond beavers dined on a maple trunk. The Duck Pond beavers stripped a huge ash tree trunk.)

We had a rather cold November, below 0F on Thanksgiving Eve, which I thought was a good reason for otters to leave the ponds for the bays and river. Despite having watched otters for only seven years, I had the notion that otter families always left the ponds in November. Seeing the ponds they grew up in freeze at night and thaw during the day must be quite a shock for otter pups. Ice is rare in the river until January and the bays take longer to get thick winter ice than the beaver ponds. So to ease the shock, mother takes them to the bays and river to further perfect their skills without ice getting in the way.

But judging from the scats I continued to see, the otters remained where the beavers weren't, east of Beaver Point Pond dam and into  Lost Swamp Pond. Since the beavers had left the latter pond, I assumed the otters spent most of their time there. So I sat staring at the pond when there was any open water, but saw no otters. Then as I walked down to Beaver Point Pond just below Otter Hole Pond, I saw something frisking in the pool of open water behind the dam where the beavers lived. I forgot all assumptions and expected to see an otter but instead a beaver climbed up on the ice to sniff the air.

He wasn't looking for otters, more likely wondering why the hell I was bothering him at that stressful time.

Then on December 5, I saw the slides of three pups, their mother and her female helper, in snow along the shore of the Lost Swamp Pond.

On their way to South Bay they ducked into Otter Hole Pond, ignored the Beaver Point Pond dam lodge, made a feint toward the Porcupine Hotel and finally explored the New Pond. When the beavers were there that small pond seemed exempted from the fishing the otters did in the fall. Now, because of the leaky dam, there were holes in the ice that the otters couldn't resist.

Thanks to the snow and ice I could clearly see that the lodge beside the Lost Swamp Pond dam had been the otters' headquarters.

There were otter scats on the lodge and on the snow around it. I took those scats and a small hole high up in the dam as tokens that they planned to come back. With thinner ice behind the leak, it would be easier to make a hole through the ice.

That same day I took a photo of the Big Pond beaver lodge but not because of any otter scats around it. That lodge showed the classic profile of how the beavers prepared for winter with mud on top and a cache of bark all but sank in front of the lodge extending 20 feet into the pond. 

Big Pond Lodge in December 2000 (two muskrat mounds along the back edge of the pond)

The beavers' efforts to keep water open around the lodge made the ice there gray. I saw a beaver stick its head up in the pool of open water just before I took the photo.

So why bully beavers out of a pond? Shouldn't the open water in front of the Big Pond lodge be more attractive to otters than the ice, already probably five inches thick, around the Lost Swamp Pond's lodges? On December 12 I was able to ski around the pond perimeter and absolutely saw no signs of beavers.

Life takes odd turns. In the late summer of 1992 the Lost Swamp Pond was my just discovered beaver-made Paradise for which in anticipation of symphonies to come I moved to the island see Introduction Continued. In December 2000 all was quiet save for water flowing through the otters' hole in the dam. The beavers left our Paradise. 

Were they driven out by the otters? As I tried to explain in my Introduction, thanks to 400 years of trapping, beavers and otters were strangers in their own land and strangers to each other. Working out a way to share the beaver ponds took time.

I knew that the otters had bugged the beavers in the Lost Swamp Pond. In the fall of 1998 I saw the otters move into the lodge behind the dam, despite the tail slapping protests of the beavers then using that lodge. The beavers moved to the lodge beside the dam. I heard otters screech as they scatted on it. Telling the beavers off, I thought. During the warm January in 2000 I saw beavers in the open water, but not eating. Were they on the look out for otters? Then later that year when Otter Hole Pond was too shallow thanks to the beavers' neglect, an otter family made the Lost Swamp Pond lodges their preferred dens.

From the beavers' point of view, the trouble with otter families is that bigger families get bigger still. A mother with two pups can manage by herself. In 1999 I needed binoculars to see if they were sleeping on a lodge. A mother with three pups gets help from sisters or past daughters now adults. In 2000 the mass of otters on top was almost as big as the lodge below. 


And too many otters were especially troublesome in the Lost Swamp Pond even though it was the biggest pond in the western swamps of the island.

The geography of the Lost Swamp Pond caused the crisis. The dam flooded a gully about 50 yards long. The beavers built a lodge at the top of the slope where the creek drained into the gully. All the pond behind that lodge, about 200 yards long, was shallow with a network of pools and channels dug over the years by beavers and muskrats. Their other lodge was at the east end of the dam on the precipice of the steeper side of the gully. To the east of that lodge was another shallow network about 50 yards long. 

The two Lost Swamp Pond lodges during the drought of 2012

Between the two lodges and behind the dam there was a deep pool of water probably six feet deep on average, at least 3 feet deep even with a deep hole in the dam. In all the ponds I watched, there were no two lodges arranged to make it so easy to get from one lodge to the other quickly and quietly. Beavers would not be comfortable in one lodge if otters were in the other, especially during the winter. Beavers usually take a very long nap during the first cold weeks of winter, a well deserved rest for all their fall labors. Do they want otters barging in? So in the fall of 2000, the beavers left the pond.

But I had to wait for the otters to return and figure out where the beavers went before I could make more sense of this possible new chapter in beaver-otter relations. If the otters didn't come back to the pond, why blame them for driving the beavers out? And if the beavers wound up in a better Paradise, more power to them. 

Meanwhile I was distracted. Otters delighted me by showing up in the river. On the morning of December 9 otters paid their respects to little Goose Island in front of our house. They came up on a snow covered rock that faced the main channel of the St. Lawrence River.

We also saw otter slides, tracks, scats and fish remains a half mile around the headland on the ice along the Narrows between Wellesley and Murray Islands.

But it was a very cold early December. The bays iced over. Some otters returned to the ponds. I saw scats and slides of two otters at the Big Pond dam on December 18. 

I didn't see otter tracks anywhere else and I make that claim with confidence. Once we had enough snow, I toured the valleys on skis. I could go anywhere flat and up any ridge not too steep. After crossing the golf course behind out house and getting up a wooded ridge, I skied down a vernal creek through a rocky porcupine haven that got me into the woods south of Big Pond. I made a ski trail through the trees, mostly red oaks and hickory and a few 150 year old oaks that used to shade the Ayrshire cattle. That trail brought me out at the midpoint of the pond.

 the Big Pond late winter taken from the dam (I could no longer ski over it)

I could ski past the beaver lodge on the north shore of the pond on my way to the surveyor's trail that led straight through more woods to the Lost Swamp Pond. 

 otter slides cross my ski tracks (Lost Swamp Pond 2003)

Then I had an easy ski over three large beaver ponds, Second Swamp, Otter Hole and Beaver Point Ponds, and down over the New Pond to the back of South Bay,

a big chunk of my easy ski, from Second Swamp Pond dam looking up toward Lost Swamp Pond dam
or after skiing down the Second Swamp, I veered to the right and up to the East Trail Pond. Then it was a easy ski over Thicket, Meander and Shortcut Trail Ponds 

otter trail going from Shortcut Trail Pond up to Thicket Pond
all the way to the Duck Pond which put me half way up the north shore of South Bay. (Easy as both routes were, by the end I appreciated simply skiing across the bay and through Thousand Island Park to home.)

My winter route took me to the Big Pond first almost every day and as luck would have it, I entered the pond just where the beavers decided to buck the take-a-long-nap-at-the-beginning-of-winter tradition. On December 16 as I skied out of the woods aiming to angle across the mid-section of the pond and check the beaver lodge on the north shore, I saw a beaver on a fresh trail in the snow obviously made by beavers bringing branches down to the south shore of the frozen pond. 

The beaver retreated as I noiselessly moved on my skis. He stopped next to a hole in the ice and began munching on sticks. I tried to ski around him but he dived into a hole in the ice. 

I angled back toward the pond and heard beavers mewing from under the snow. I recalled that there was an old lodge there. I didn't take a photo of it because there was nothing to see. The typical muskrat mound cut more of a profile.

So what were the beavers doing on the south shore 75 yards from their classic Beaver Lodge Ready for Winter on the north shore? On the 20th I stood by that lodge and heard beavers humming inside. On the 21st I heard "at least" two beavers gnawing in the hole on the south shore and heard "two or three" beavers swimming under the ice nearby.

My first explanation for the evident plethora of beavers in the Big Pond was that the Lost Swamp Pond beavers moved into the old lodge on the south shore. Invading another family's domain is not what beavers are supposed but I had gotten used to strange things happening in the winter.

I always assume beavers' plan ahead and move to improve their situation. So: it was easy for them to open the ice on the south shore because of a spring there a few yards from the old lodge.

the south shore spring in January 2003 marked by a pipe put there back when the valley served as a pasture

With the thaw in March I could see the channel going from the spring passing the old lodge and curving toward the main channel.

the old collapsed lodge on the back left edge of the photo was convenient to water from a spring flowing from where I was standing to take the photo

But I was also impressed by how difficult it would be to commute from the lodge on the north shore. It wasn't a straight shot in a deep pond like going between the two Lost Swamp Pond lodges. Plus there was a more copious spring on the north shore 20 yards east of the new lodge. Indeed the beavers used it the previous winter. And that spring was close to woods along the north shore.

But forget geography, the two lodges in the Big Pond were not at all equivalent. I became somewhat of an expert on the viability of beaver lodges. I am too stout to get inside one but I knew where to find abandoned lodges suitable for my son and others to explore. 

There has to be holes in the top of the lodge so you can see. The tunnels to the lodge, once under water, have to be bone dry, relatively straight, and the crisscrossing timbers above it can't be rotten or you get a dirt shampoo if not worse. 

Peaking into lodges I've never seen the lower drying chamber or the upper chamber cluttered or fouled with anything. The lattice work making the tunnels to the chamber and its roof give way to smooth floors curiously inviting just as dirt flattened by a thousand and one nights of soft fur should be. (Beavers sleep on their backs.) But without upkeep by beavers, after three years the lattice work of logs begins to rot and collapse.

I wasn't then and still don't know why the beavers left their perfect lodge for a flattened heap of logs with no cache next to it. Since in this history I am focusing on the relations between beavers and otters to best elucidate the history of the habitat I loved, I will make the case that otters had something to do with it. 

But before doing that let me confess that the beavers' ill-considered move was great for me. They had to forage in the nearby woods almost every day in order to survive. To make a wonderfully long story short ( a long story is just what you need in winter) insatiable curiosity about the beavers kept me going out every day I could. The groups I took out to see what the otters did also had to stare down at the beavers' hole.

Standing 10 yards away I got good close-ups with the camcorder. Although they were rather wide eyed for animals who should have lowered their metabolism to survive the long winter, all the beavers' motions were slow. Forget nibbling, here were the seamless embraces of the connoisseurs of brown bark, stripping and dropping wee cream colored sticks in the milky ice water and pristine snow.

When it was very cold, I looked into the hole they fashioned and saw the nose, whiskers and hot breath of a beaver. Looking down on their clandestine comfort I had to wonder who was fooling who.

But with my next step they ducked into the brown water and swam back to the flattened lodge that I couldn't fathom. 

I saw them range the woods for likely trees and I tried to buck myself up for a scientific study: how far did they range, what trees did they prefer, what was the heaviest logs hauled, how much bark did they gnaw in place? But without leaves on them I couldn't identify the trees, often saplings with protean bark. Except when fleeing me, the beavers never walked a straight line. We can only make sense of shoppers at a Mall by what happens at the cash register. Beavers who eat where they cut and also haul branches away are more complex. But what dumb simple pleasure I got when I saw them rear up in the deep snow and cut down a tree.

Then the beaver dragged branches past standing trees that looked exactly like the one he cut down but closer to the hole in the ice. 

After pausing to watch them I pressed on and the beaver lodge on the north shore of the pond that was right in the way. That soon presented another piece of the puzzle.

In the winter there is a way to tell if beavers are in a lodge other than listening for humming and gnawing inside the lodge. There is almost always a small vent hole on top of the lodge frosted by the animals' hot breath below. (The old lodge on the south shore that had not been packed with mud was an exception.)

I heard beaver noises in the lodge until January 5. Then nothing, yet I saw a large vent hole on top of the lodge often frosted throughout the rest of January and half of February. That justifies me in asking: were otters sleeping in the lodge and did they prompt the beavers to relocate to the south shore?

On December 18, I saw the tracks of two otters at the Big Pond dam. On December 20 I heard a gush of water through the small dam above the Big Pond. The two otters who had just moved in probably dug a hole through the dam. Doing so would ease their way as they fished under the ice of the three small ponds up creek from the Big Pond.
Yes, the beavers appeared on the south shore on the 16th, two days before I saw the otter slides. But I didn't see slides coming into the pond which likely means the otters moved into the pond before the 18th.

It goes too far to accuse winter of having a sense of humor, but there is irony under a frozen pond. The beavers who built the pond, dug its channels and extended its reach with canals seem quite constrained when it freezes, hence the paradigm with a snug lodge and a store of winter food right next to it. 

Otters wire a series of ponds in the winter, especially a still growing family. I soon saw how they do it. The otter family moved back to the ponds on December 28, twenty-two days after they left. The irrepressible family showed me how otters can cut a swath in the winter, but one that is mindful of beavers. 

Since beavers don't stray far from their pond, on my winter tours of the ponds, I tried to think like an otter. That made it easier to sense that while the beavers didn't react to the otters, in most of the ponds the otters did adjust to the beavers being there. 

Back tracking the trails the otters made on December 28, I saw that they slid down from the west from the ridge forming the Narrows, and scooted around the Duck Pond. They went up on the lodge and then went to the bench on the nearest shore, their old latrine, but left no calling cards there this time. Then they bounded up the chain of ponds too small to bother with and up and over the Shortcut Trail Pond dam. They checked the two beaver lodges there, dug into the one closest to the dam, then stopped without getting in. Were they deterred by a beaver grunt? Then they took the shortest route over beaver-less Meander Pond and over the ridge to the New Pond.

how otters get over a log

I got the impression that they denned in the Porcupine Hotel and didn't go under the ice except behind Beaver Point Pond dam. 

However they stayed away from the lodge and went directly up to Otter Hole Pond dam. They probably denned there or in the abandoned lodge just behind it. I came out the next morning and saw tracks going from the dam up to the East Trail Pond.

Up at that pond, the beavers lived in a lodge right beside the dam. Still the otters skirted the dam, climbed over the lodge where the beavers were, and nosed around the large rock I hid behind when I saw them there in October. Then they bee-lined to a lodge in the middle of the pond, 

just after otters checked the East Trail Pond lodge in January 2003

nosed around it, and then, with a few zig-zags, made their way to a small lodge on the other side of the creek that came down from nearby Shangri-la Pond. The beavers only used that lodge in the spring. 

The otters didn't stop there. Their slides led me to a hole in the ice, right next to the cliff that divides the upper East Trail Pond from Shangri-la Pond. All around a hole through the ice that they probably dug themselves was an array of scats.

The north shore of that section of the pond was a granite cliff that probably reflected enough sunlight to keep the ice along it relatively thin.

Then the tracks led across the pond where there was another hole with tracks all over, but no scats. And that appeared to be the end of the story. I later saw that there was a remnant of a bank lodge there.

The moral of the story is that otters are from Missouri: show me! In October 1997 I fancied that beavers confronted otters and negotiated terms for use of Otter Hole Pond that forbade otters from using the beaver lodge. The next day, the mother checked the lodge to see if the beavers were in it. 

So in December 2000 the otters checked the lodges where just weeks before they knew beavers slept. And remember that otter pups were still being schooled. The mother had to remind them that as they string the ponds together on top of the ice, find holes, and then find fish under the ice, to never forget: when entering a beaver pond cherchez les castors.

That's probably best done by sniffing the lodge. When swimming down an under ice channel honing its senses for fish, an otter would probably prefer not to bump into a beaver.

two views of the world under the ice

But let me add a caveat which I observed that winter. Whether beavers are in a pond is of far less concern to otters than whether other otters are in the pond.

On December 31, during a gentle snow storm I tracked an otter from the Lost Swamp Pond down to Otter Hole Pond. (No sign that it spent time in the Lost Swamp Pond.) On January 7 I followed an otter's trail from Otter Hole Pond to the East Trail Pond dam and there I saw a hole and several slides at the west end of the dam, and slides behind the dam going to a hole near the beaver lodge. There were what I described as "long brown slides" meaning that otters had been under the ice in the mud. One slide left the pond. 

It struck me that perhaps the four otters in the upper end of the pond discovered the intruder when they fished under the ice behind the dam. That led to all the scurrying about, and the intruder thought it best to leave. 

The beavers didn't get involved, no signs of them stirring since the pond froze. (They came out on to forage for bark on January 17.) But the otters who remained in the pond didn't move next to the dam where there was likely an old den in the pile of granite east of the dam. That was too close to the beavers. There was only one scat on the ice outside a hole behind the west end of the dam where another touring otter was likely to approach the pond. After all the to-do, the otters still slept up pond. Outside a hole in the middle of the pond there was a fresh array of the usual scats. 

That was not their original den. There was a small hole in the dam and water had probably drained away from the otters' first den in the upper pond. So they moved down pond but still at a respectful distance from the beavers.

I could use the Big Pond as another example of the otters' respect for beavers. The otters first scatted and probably denned at the dam, far from the beaver lodge up pond. 

But if the otters were so respectful then how can I suggest that the beavers moved from one side of the pond to the other because of the otters?

Geography might have influenced the beavers' decision. The beavers' north shore lodge was relatively close to the main channel under the ice, the old creek. As they swam up pond looking for fish the otters swam by the winter cache extending from the lodge. But if the otters used the lodge so conveniently situated as a place to rest after bouts of fishing, why didn't I see otter scats around the lodge? 

That lack of scat explains why at the time I didn't think the otters were lording under the pond. After checking on the beavers in the Big Pond, I skied through the woods to the Lost Swamp Pond and saw how otters can do a number on a beaver pond. Beginning January 11 every time I went I to the Lost Swamp Pond  I saw fresh tracks and scats on the snow.
The otters seemed to run wild and judging from their scats were well fed. That raises the question: why didn't the otters go directly to the Lost Swamp Pond where they had occupied the beavers' last active lodge and presumably knew that the beavers had moved elsewhere?

In all the annals of the Struggle Against Nature little is written about water's struggle against ice. A flash freeze leaves waves suspended in air above the river; a cold night turns drips into pendants dazzling the sunlight. Cold destroys the very nature of water, just ask a frog frozen in the pond ice. Water finds an ally in snow, that amorphous state between ice and water. During a cold winter snow is a heat wave. Snow melts at the bottom softening ice. Simply put the otter mother waited for snow to pile up and do half the work of opening holes in the Lost Swamp Pond ice. After all there were no beavers there to do it and no beavers swimming under the ice waking water up softening the underbelly of the ice.

When the family moved to the Lost Swamp Pond. I thought conditions perfect for them. On New Year's Eve we had snow, then bitter cold, and then 32F. Snow melts from below mollifying the ice. There was another round of snow, bitter cold and 32F and then the otters moved.

How to describe the silly joy of coming out of the snowy woods facing a trackless white expanse and knowing just where to ski over to see an arc of slides in the snow funneling into a hole. That's the way otters hang out a Home Sweet Home sign. Add the joy of sometimes tracking their forays -- literally four rays that winter. I got the impression that the mother challenged her pups to hone the technique of scooting around a pond looking for weak spots in the ice suitable for opening a hole. Freezing and thawing creates gaps along the rocky shore and around the trunks of dead trees in the pond.

I saw prints and tail slides etched in the ice which gives them the aura of profound significance, like evidence from prehistoric times. Having seen how fast otters go around a pond, I knew their whole dance may have lasted no longer than a few minutes.

I found my Winter Paradise.

After a week exploring and, judging by scats seen outside holes, making temporary dens in various corners of the pond, the otters began to trench the small hole in the dam that they had made in December and they dug another hole in the dam. Half of the dam was on private property and in April 1996 the land owner dug a three foot long trench in the dam. But he dug down from the top of the dam. Otters dig through the dam and then trench it down. I was always able to walk on the dams over their trench, and otters could sit up there to keep an eye out for fish. Plus otters always dug their holes on State lands.

I knew that I first heard the water gushing through the dam not long after the otters did their trenching because I saw that the stream of water on the ice below had not gone far down the Second Valley.

I could also catch of the odor of sulfur dioxide from the water that had been cheated of oxygen since the ice cover. The otters kept trenching the hole deeper in the dam and by mid-January, looking from below the 6 foot high dam, water poured out of a hole half way down it.

Lost Swamp Pond dam leak on January 24

With collapse of the ice, again judging by their scats, the otters made the lodge by the dam their headquarters once again. Nick of time: with the ice collapsing the lodge looked like a flying saucer about to take off.

As the water drains out of the pond, otters can disappear under a pond. But the otter family was out so often I was sure they were planning to leave. They stayed for 31 days. They were so steady I took four groups of people to show them why otters put holes in beaver dams. 

Thanks to my patrolling every corner of the pond (easy when I was on skis) to make sure the otters hadn't left, I finally found where the beavers moved. They built a huge lodge in what must have been the long abandoned and much smaller pond above the Lost Swamp Pond, where beavers lived before they created the huge pond.

When I discovered the beavers' refuge, I also saw otter tracks below holes in the pond below the small dam. The beavers didn't escape the otters. I saw scats on the beavers' new lodge. There were also two round holes in the dam which effectively drained most of the pond. 

Still, the beavers seemed quite content in their new home. I heard beavers humming in the huge lodge, continued to see stripped sticks around it, and with the thaw saw that the beavers cannibalized much of their lodge. Their winter cache was as much on and in the lodge as it was in the deep pool of water around the lodge, which I took as token that they planned to move back to their old lodges as soon as possible.

Discovering that refuge was a relief. If I had to blame otters' moving in for the beavers' moving out of the pond then at least they did not go far and could easily move back. Seeing more otters in the pond made the history that entranced me. (The State of New York was still publishing maps showing that there were no otters in the St. Lawrence River.) But I knew only the presence of beavers saved the ponds from a Decline and Fall. 

So, do I have to blame the otters for driving the beavers out? Am I over interpreting what I saw, making too big a deal of accidental instinctual reactions of the animals to each other? In monographs describing the behavior of beavers you usually find nothing about otters. 

The Lost Swamp Pond beavers' move in the fall of 2000 was not like the Otter Hole Pond beavers moving down to Beaver Point and the New Pond, nor was it like the First Valley beavers moving from the Lowest Pond back to the Big Pond. The Lost Swamp Pond family revived the meadowed remains of an old pond which situated them farther from shrubs and trees. The Otter Hole Pond family flooded trees creating new beaver habitat. In regards to the beaver-otter rivalry I can only argue that making the move made it easier to raise kits without otters around. (See Chapter 5.) The First Valley beavers returned to a pond surrounded by three patches of woods that they would harvest for another ten years. Beavers never revivified the meadow above the Lost Swamp Pond again. Beavers still remain in the Lost Swamp Pond as I write this in 2018, although they haven't flourished there since 2010.

In 2001 the beavers moved back to lodge beside the Lost Swamp Pond dam as soon as they could in early April (that was a long winter.) By that time, as far as I could tell, all the otters had left the ponds for the river. Except, I hoped, the mother otter about to give birth to a new litter of pups. But I knew the wide open Lost Swamp Pond was the least likely place for her to be staying.

Given that I thought the Lost Swamp Pond was Paradise, I was sure the beavers would adjust to the otter problem and stay, but I had to wait until next winter to see how that would play out.

Meanwhile throughout the winter the otters that I supposed were in the Big Pond did almost nothing as far as I could see. Two adult otters don't advertise their presence in a frozen pond the way a family of otters does, but I knew the otters were active.

On January 11 I saw an otter slide at the upper dam and two slides at the lower dam. On the 20th I saw slides at the upper dam and the vent atop the lodge was moist. Then snow covered the vent. But a few days later the vent "melted open." I usually heard no noises from inside the lodge save one day when I heard something swim away under the ice. In mid-February I saw otter slides and scats by the upper and lower dams and around the beavers' hole on the south shore.

I build my case that the beavers in the Lost Swamp Pond moved out because of the otters on how I saw the animals react to each. I had never seen them react to each other in the Big Pond nor in the small ponds between it and South Bay. Nor can I argue that the Big Pond beavers needed time to adjust to the otters. In the fall of 1994 I chased five otters from the Lowest Pond to the Big Pond and saw otters in the Big Pond.

In January 1996 otters moved into one of the lodges the beavers built between the Big Pond and South Bay. I called it Pine Tree lodge since it was built around a pine tree in a rather small narrow pond.  It was just above the Lowest Pond that first pond I observed in the winter of 94-95 that showed me that all winters don't go by the book. 

Did the otters using Pine Tree lodge prompt the beavers to abandon those lower ponds? That winter the beavers lived in a bank lodge in the small pond below the Big Pond dam, right in the otters' way. 

In November I saw that the otters were living in that lodge and the beavers built their new lodge on the north shore of the Big Pond, the lodge they abandoned in December 2000. 

I wasn't a good enough tracker especially back in the 1990s to analyze and assess the effects of otter demographics. But I did track the otters from the Pine Tree lodge over to Otter Hole Pond where they began digging a hole into the dam there. I can argue that once they discovered the virtues of Otter Hole Pond and the Second Valley, the Big Pond and the First Valley became back water for otters. Then in 2000 the otter population using the ponds doubled if not tripled forcing the Big Pond beavers to put up with otters again. Add to that the beaver population was booming too.

That said, in March as the long thaw began, the beavers seemed in a hurry to return to the lodge on the north shore even though they had improved living conditions on the south shore. They dug into the bank behind the old lodge. Beavers can gnaw through ice so they can burrow into frozen dirt. To defeat the water in their holes freezing at night, they dug a hole coming out of the burrow onto their path to the woods. That struck me when I saw an adult beaver pushing a branch down the hole even though there was open water just below where we were both standing. He wanted the convenience of having food without having to deal with ice that night. 

But recall the paradigm: coming down from a high and dry chamber in the lodge, swimming under the ice, and fetching one of the logs sank in the pond beside the lodge. That's the comfort they returned to in early March. They finally dined off their winter cache which gave me the impression that their move and return was a well thought out plan to maximize their food consumption and forget lowering their metabolism and the paradigm.

I also discovered that when beavers upscale they don't turn their backs on burrows. When they moved back to the north shore lodge I saw a beaver disappear down a hole 15 yards from the lodge. Investigating I saw that they had a channel from the lodge to the burrow that tunneled back and breaking out about 5 yards from the usual shore of the pond. I also saw old otter scats around the hole. Then I saw sticks and dirt pushed into the hole, presumably by a beaver. To keep an otter out?

a nine year old makes it through a beaver burrow in good shape

But that was an old scat. The otters were long gone. After the thaw the beavers repaired the dams and despite a spring drought the ponds filled enough to settle my nerves.

But maybe not the beavers'. 

In spring I expected that if I saw an otter it would be brief and fleeting and maybe give me a glimpse of the mother of the future family that would engross me that fall. I assumed that otter females were off caring for pups and the males were mainly in the river though occasionally marking their territory. 

I saw fresh scats on the Big Pond dam on May 15 and May 31, which I took for evidence that for two weeks the otter was elsewhere. On June 2 as I walked on the dam, a beaver came out of the grasses in the pond and simply floated in the water below me. I didn't suspect it was watching for otters.

Beavers might not mind leaving the lodge during the day while nursing kits were the center of attention. I had observed beavers scarfing up pollen floating on the pond and that spring the Big Pond beavers seemed more attentive to their dam periodically pushing up waves of mud. 
mud on Big Pond dam imprinted by an otter's tail

Doing either would seem to me, if I were a beaver, more pleasurable in the bright sun.

On June 5 I walked up the creek from South Bay to the Big Pond, I thought I saw a fresh trail in the grasses. I had seen geese parading goslings there but this trail seemed more eager so I hoped it was made by an otter. I knew a scat on the dam might tell the tale. On the dam I saw otter prints in mud that a beaver had pushed up. I also saw a lone beaver behind the north end of the dam floating aimlessly. Then I heard a noise below me and saw an otter cruising up the creek headed right toward me.

When it got to a fan of cattails below me it veered off but still came up and over the dam, swam into the pond, started periscoping up and snorting at me. With absolutely no cover I simply stood there camcorder running and responded to his snorts with civilized banter. After a minute of that I looked up from the lens to see what the beaver made of us and I saw it swimming toward the otter.

The otter forgot about me and the two animals warily eyed each other closing the distance between them. Then the otter turned and the beaver followed despite the otter's rearing back and screeching. The beaver was relentless. 

The otter swam faster still looking back but not screeching and then swam away underwater. It surfaced closer to the north shore, looked back at the beavers, dived again and I assume swam up pond. This link opens another tab with an edited but still almost 6 minute long video of the encounter.

Over the years I had learned that tracking is not a one day affair. You can learn much about what you saw today from what you see tomorrow. But what can you learn months later?

The beaver wasn't protecting the lodge where kits were likely being nursed. The beaver engaged the otter behind the dam and sent it on a course up pond toward the lodge. In the video, you can barely see the lodge way up pond. 

So how can I say that this encounter in June has any bearing on whether otters prompted beavers to leave their lodge back in December and January? In the winter the beavers were out of sorts and the otters were in control. In June the otter was screeching and the  cool and collected beaver didn't even slap its tail. 

But if under ice geography gave all the advantages to the more agile, more awake otter, then this is exactly what we might expect to see in June. As the otter tried to go about its business, the beaver exacted what revenge it could for the indignities suffered during the winter. This is my pond. Go away.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Chapter Five

Why Beavers Prefer Not to Raise Their Kits Where Otter Pups Get Their Lessons

One breezy spring day from his boat anchored next to the cattails in South Bay, Old Ernie explained to us that it was easiest to catch the spawning bullheads when the water was "riley." But in 2000, we could have caught them with our hands as they flip flopped up rocks toward the leaking dams of the lower ponds. It had been a wet spring. The river was high and the ponds overflowing. The bullhead run ended my worry that the drought depleted the fish stock in the beaver ponds. I didn't catch any and trusted that raccoons didn't eat them all.

That left plenty for otters. I hid in the brush beside the two creeks but saw no otters. On April 12, 2000, I saw two napping on logs behind Otter Hole Pond dam. One swam toward the lodge behind the dam and the other ducked through the hole in the dam and went into Beaver Point pond. I watched the nearer otter fish and scat on a log. All the while it was making a beeping noise and getting beeps in return from the otter in Beaver Point Pond.

Unlike the otters I saw in the spring of 1999 these two gave no impression of being on a mission from Eel Bay. And I didn't fall for the implication that two otters together in the spring must be mates. Beeping when separated from each other is behavior I associate with pups separated from Mom. And where was she? I began working on the hunch, informed by my reading, that she was behind me in the woods somewhere raising a new litter of pups. Audubon had found a mother and her pups in a hole in a tree trunk. I never found the like but the anticipation warmed my hikes through the chilly brown woods.

As with several other small mammal species, evolution has increased the North American otter's chance for survival because the embryo conceived in the spring does not implant in the mother's uterus until the next winter. Delayed implantation guarantees that otter pups will not be born too late in the spring to learn all the skills assuring their surviving the coming winter.

With otters seemingly distracted in one way or another (I had no idea if and why siblings separated), I had my own delayed implantation. In the spring and early summer I didn't sit on the banks of ponds with good views of beaver lodges where I might see otters snuggling. That would come in the fall, but even then, thanks to my reading, I steeled myself to view it with a colder eye. There was no analogy between otter families and mine.

The year's delay between conception and birth dampens any paternal instincts. After mating, female otters avoid males and hide so they can bare and raise their pups conceived a year ago. She won't put up with the voracious appetite of an adult male around her small charges.

OK, but what a pity. Seeing otters snuggling on top of a beaver lodge for an hour left plenty of time to warm my brain with memories of me with Mom, Dad and my two brothers lying on a blanket at Fenwick Island beach or of Leslie and me and our boy between us deep in a soft bed in a friend's stone house in a Medieval village in Italy's Abruzzo region.

For otters spring is the season of separation and concealment. Just before or just after mating with a touring male, the mother has to tear herself away from one litter to raise another hidden somewhere on dry land. Unlike beavers new born otters do not know how to swim. Mother has to fatten them up for a few weeks and then move them to shallow water and get them wet.

So I was left with those who made the ponds and lured me to my paradise. Beavers were everywhere.

As the ice retreated behind the lodge on Beaver Point Pond dam, there was a flotilla of stripped log behind the dam, say 10 big logs and 100 small ones. Seeing such a compression of leftovers, fruits of the paradigm, made for an aesthetically pleasing thaw. A few days later I saw a beaver up on the outcrop nibbling sticks. By mid-March the New Pond opened up for business and I saw six beavers. I was quite taken with how some stretched up from the ice just reaching a half downed trunk with their teeth.

By mid-March I also saw beavers in the East Trail Pond and Big Pond. On March 19 when half its ice cover was gone I saw 5 beavers in the Lost Swamp Pond. In April I figured out that the Meander Pond beavers who were forced to live in a 60 foot long channel between bank burrow and lodge to survive the drought

  Meander Pond during the drought
moved to the small pond at the top of the watershed, Thicket Pond. 

I saw no signs of beavers in Shangri-la Pond. Those beavers made the most dramatic escape from under the ice by sculpting a foot long hole through the ice. But not only was the pond too far away to keep track of during the winter and soggy spring, in 1997 the Nature Center staff put a eight inch wide pipe through the dam (I saw them do it) to keep rising water from flooding the East Trail boardwalk. 
 Shangri-la Pond in 2000 with pipe through the dam

The beavers thwarted that so in 1998 the staff set the pipe deeper in the dam. The beavers mostly defeated that but there was always a diminished but steady flow through the pipe. So I kept expecting the beavers to leave and thought the dam unnatural, not at all the same as when otters or beavers themselves made a hole in a dam. 

But no matter the trials of far away beaver, in 2000 I had all I could handle in the Second Valley. On the evening of May 17 as I sat by the Lost Swamp Pond, I felt like I was in nature's Rome, the trails of all species seemed to lead to it.

A little beaver near the shore dived for and ate stringy roots. Across the pond another beaver etched a golden wake. A muskrat with teeth just above the water carried greens back to the point below me. Another sniffed a log as it walked down its length. Another dived and brought up what I couldn't quite see. 

The more exciting show was put on by the common terns. Four worked the large pond frequently squawking at each other. Their flight is not unlike a flight of fancy but their splash is so definitive! Then a splash followed by a cackle - the kingfisher. The setting sun shined on its red belt. The great blue heron flew out and then back and perched on a dead tree across the pond. It looked so conspicuous with its elegant angles amid the dead branches, but it was the exact color of the dead tree.
A few moments later an otter streaked, yet also fished, up near the old lodge and then to the lodge by the dam and then swam up into the shallows in the northeast end of the pond, moving at twice or thrice the speed of the muskrats and beavers. Two muskrats nearby made a great flutter in the water just off the point. About to fight? No. A reaction to the arrival of the otter?

A beaver swam over and started splashing. A red squirrel chattered at me too. Orange moon rose. A ripple out on the far end of the pond turns into a wood duck with a dozen ducklings who stayed so close to mom that she seemed to have expanded to comical dimensions.The beaver near me splashed some more, my cue to leave. Then I saw a wake in the northeast end of the pond that materialized into three otters swimming relentlessly right toward me.

One scooted up on the point below me; another followed with a long beep (I had been hearing strange noises from the far end of the pond, come to think of it) and then the third came up. That large log they were wont to scat on was in front of me so I couldn't see what they were doing. They started grooming and wrestling each other. 

It was like a puppet play. They emerged from behind the log, otter heads each smothering the others with biting kisses (I guess you could call them kisses.) Then one head worked itself free. No! They all nuzzled again and fell back to the ground - a paw and then a tail was all I saw. One jumped over to another log and draped over it to survey the pond.

The other two danced over and around scatting. Then after another brief tussle, one slipped into the water and then the other two. They swam off to my right fishing. A beaver swam right by them coming the other way and heading back to the lodge and didn't give me nor the otters the time of day.

The otters had a brief family reunion and the beavers let them go on their merry way. Did the mother of the two otters who stayed in the ponds take a break from her pups? I didn't see three otters together for the rest of the year, not in the Lost Swamp Pond nor anywhere else. But as for the supposed nursing mother near by, I didn't see any otters at all for almost two months and just a few scattered scats along the shores of all the ponds in the valley.

I was patient. I just knew a mother was off raising her pups and one day she'd reveal them in the ponds. I expected to see them in Otter Hole Pond. The beavers didn't repair the hole in that dam so there was once again a shallow expanse ideal for otter pups to learn their stuff (not that at that date I had clearly seen an otter pup learn anything.)

Meanwhile the march of beaver history continued: a progression from the Second Swamp Pond, to Otter Hole Pond, to Beaver Point Pond and now the New Pond. 

 The New Pond

In July 2000 I didn't credit the otters for influencing the beavers' recent history. The beavers moved down stream to get to trees easy to cut down and debark. 

As I write now I think the otters had something to do with the timing of the beavers' pond hoping.  There was nothing inexorable in the beavers' creating and moving down to a new pond. The beavers in the First Valley after moving down to the new Lowest Pond in 1994 moved back to the old Big Pond in 1995 even though there was plenty still to eat around the Lowest Pond. The parade of otters up the narrow creek through the Lowest Pond and other small ponds up to the Big Pond (remember I fell on my face chasing five of them) may have prompted that quick retreat back to the much larger Big Pond.

Since I hadn't seen a beaver and otters face to face in a meaningful way since October 1997, I can't boast my conceit that otters and beavers negotiated a mutually convenient arrangement to share the valley. But I saw that as the beavers in the New Pond raised their kits, the last thing they needed were otters in that pond too. So keep them in Otter Hole Pond.

I first got a full measure of the year's kits on July 30 and an old friend from high school was with me. He was vacationing from his job in the White House budget office. In high school we both sat in the back of our two hour long advanced physics class where I wrote satirical poems and he embellished his history of a colony of flamingos in a magical corner of the Okefenokee Swamp. Just where the East Trail headed up from the South Bay trail, we walked up a slight shady ridge that led to a knoll overlooking the New Pond. 

One kit was out in the pond and others humming inside the nearby lodge. The kit mimicked the adults in the pond, even tried to take a branch back to the lodge. Then the kit got a lesson in diving. An adult beaver pulled it underwater by the ear. Kits can swim from birth but they have to be taught to dive. The adult dived under with the kit, but they surfaced separately and away from each other.

Seeing an adult tug a kit underwater was an exception. Largely the adults ignored the kits and rarely fawned over them. Kits learn by imitating, to a degree. When imitations get too cloying, too stupid, really, adults push a kit away. I did once see, in another pond, an adult, a yearling and a kit line up side by side and eat bark off a log about four inches thick. But a kit sidling up to an adult gnawing a thinner stick gets pushed away because the kit can only get in the way of incisors several times bigger than his and can only retard the bark gnawing adult's quick manipulation of the stick.

In mid-September I saw a kit very much learning the ropes on its own. It went to a freshly stripped log leaning at a slight angle above the pond, and tried to hoist itself up to gnaw the bark - that didn't work. 

It tried to swim under the log and twist around to get its mouth on the underside of the log - that didn't work. It went to the end of the log, sat briefly, and then dived and came up with a snout full of vines and leaves. It didn't seem to get real satisfaction until it clutched a big leaf and gobbled that.

Yet throughout this assertion of self, all beavers get into a rhythm necessary for their survival as a family which basically boils down to repairing the dam, maintaining the lodge and bank burrows, finding food not only for the moment but for the winter ahead, and in this family one of the beavers was blind. It seemed to have no eyes.

It bumped nose-first into trees and floating logs. Other beavers threaded the maze of trees and logs without trouble and with evident anticipation. The blind beaver helped me keep track of the family. I later saw it in Otter Hole, Beaver Point and the Second Swamp ponds.

All ponds have the same rhythm but each pond has its own history, so to speak, its own crises, and that sets the lesson plan for kits. The Meander Pond beavers survived the drought by dredging and several years later I saw kits in that family dredging mud out of channels in other ponds. I never saw the New Pond kits dredge.

The crisis in the New Pond was the pond's rocky bottom. The creek that lazed down from the center of the island picked up speed as it flowed down between the Porcupine Hotel and the granite outcrop in the middle of the Beaver Point Pond dams. There was around a 10 foot drop in about 50 yards of loose stones on top of granite. 

Creek below the New Pond dam
Over in the First Swamp, the creek made a similar tumble over rocks but after a sharp turn and behind that turn silt had settled allowing beavers to make a competent dam, at least for two winters, creating what I called the Lowest Pond. In the Second Valley the creek ran directly to South Bay.

So kits soon joined in bringing what sticks they could to the dam though they couldn't push the sticks up on the dam much less over on the backside of the dam as the big beavers did. Not that more sticks and logs made much difference.

The beavers needed mud to keep the dam from leaking and there was no mud to dredge, only rocks. Meanwhile, the beavers set out to cut every tree they could in the pond.

In every other pond where I saw beavers, they cut likely trees within 30 yards or so of the pond and trimmed branches and segmented trunks and dragged them to the pond. The New Pond beavers rarely did that. They cut the trees flooded by the pond. At first I didn't think that at all remarkable. I assumed beavers knew exactly what they were doing.

The basswood or linden tree is not a beaver favorite but the New Pond beavers took a liking to basswood leaves provided they were still green. So getting down a small basswood with yellowing leaves became a priority that September. I sat on the bank expecting to see a beaver expertly and methodically bring the tree down. Since the tree was in standing water and leaning into another tree, the only way to bring it down was to keeping cutting off sections of the trunk. That's what the beaver did but once when the tree slightly shifted, the beaver fled in panic splashing away in the water.

Over the years I learned how seriously beavers took the peril of falling trees. I saw a beaver swim from the far end of series of small ponds making a point of bumping noses with every beaver out in the ponds. Then a very tall poplar crashed down in the far end of the pond. In December 2007 just off Shangri-la Pond I saw a dead beaver flattened under a red oak cut down, I assume, by that same beaver.

Earlier I had seen a beaver in that same pond, Shangri-la Pond, run away when it had cut a maple to that point where the wind could (and did) blow it down.

If only in 2000 I had been alive to how concerned beavers were to keep clear of falling trees! It's the difference between natural history and the history I am trying to write. In 2000 I assumed beavers had the instincts to solve every problem, including falling trees. 

Now I think that the increased pressure from otters in their ponds forced the beavers to make changes at their peril. When the adult beavers cut down trees in Beaver Point Pond in 1997 and 1998, the younger beavers waited in Otter Hole Pond to be fed. In 2000 in the New Pond the obvious solution would have been to keep kits and yearlings in Porcupine Hotel or Beaver Point Ponds while the adults cut down trees in the New Pond. 

The sure way to lure beavers from a hazard is to give them something to eat. That summer I never saw fresh beaver cuttings or nibblings in those upper ponds. Meanwhile I saw more and more otter scats around Beaver Point Pond and heard an otter and saw its nose between rocks in Porcupine Hotel. Perhaps beaver parents deemed leaving the inexperienced beavers in ponds where they might be exposed to the distracting behavior of otters was more of a hazard than falling trees.

All that said, the otters weren't quick to take advantage of the New World Order. At least I whiled away many a summer afternoon without seeing otters. Then on a hot July afternoon I saw how distracting otters might be to beaver kits who learn by imitating and then trying to fathom the pond and the vegetation in and around it on their own. 

On July 19th when I got to Otter Hole Pond, a muskrat was swimming behind the dam. Since muskrats always seemed respectful of otters, I take that as a sign that otters aren't around. Then a few minutes later two otters ventured out from the hole in the dam which was framed with lush vegetation. There was about a two foot gap between the water and the top of the hole and another two feet of hard mud to the top of the dam proper. 

I was disappointed seeing just two otters because I was expecting an otter family. These two had thick adult otter tails so I hoped they were two females, a mother and her daughter from a previous litter recruited to help care for pups. They retreated back into the hole, then a few minutes later swam back out of the hole and this time swam almost past the lodge. Then they turned, went back to the dam, seemed to jaw some grass from off the dam, and swam back into the hole.
Then the water back in the hole began to roil. That roiling came out into the pond like a flying saucer landing and materialized into three swirling otter pups chasing each other. A big otter tossed them up out of the water. I saw the hind legs and tail of one pup sticking straight up into the air. 

Suddenly they were under water and I didn't see them. The roiling retreated into the hole again, then roiled back out.

The pups were so often underwater that if they were being taught something, it was not obvious to me. I saw chaos: legs, tails, noses up and down willy-nilly. This was not at all like the simple dunking a beaver parent might impose on a kit. The otters roiled back into the hole again. Then evidently taking time enough to compose themselves, all five otters launched out roughly in a row all swimming furiously over and under each other up the pond to the edge of its grassy shallows. Then they stopped and looked up pond. The two adults' bodies towered over the heads of the three pups lying low in the water. 
One adult snorted and then they all dived back toward the dam and disappeared. 

I was ecstatic, but would beaver parents want such behavior in the pond where they were going about their lackadaisical way of raising kits?

As in previous years I began seeing otters frequently in late September principally in the Lost Swamp Pond, and once in the Big Pond and Otter Hole Pond. But I didn't see the family. I saw an adult otter in Otter Hole Pond on September 27 and it seemed to make itself at home, diving in the shallow reaches and then caught a fish in the deep channel in the middle of the pond. After gnawing that down the hatch, it fished around the lodge, and then through the gap in the dam. Down in Beaver Point Pond it caught a big fish and then scatted and pranced on the outcrop by the dam. Then it dived down along the trunks of the dead trees in far end of the pond and I lost it. 

When I didn't see otters but saw their scats, otters became creatures of my imagination. More scats fueled more imaginings and on October 3 I saw so many fish fins glistening in gooey black scats on the shore of the Lost Swamp Pond that I imagined the exhausted and sated otters napping somewhere in the tall grasses around the pond and on the beaver lodges there. I moved on to Otter Hole Pond knowing the otters wouldn't be there. But there I saw a slithering black tube, an otter, then another, then another, all slithering in the shallows. The otter family, mother and three pups, were alive and well.

They soon made their way toward the dam - one went off on a tear and I couldn't tell if it was to catch a fish or to start a game of tag. They slithered behind the dam and then swam through the gap into Beaver Point Pond. The three pups especially worked a few clumps of grass sticking up out of the water. Though their presence could not be unknown to fish or pollywogs, they managed to catch at least three fish leading to a masticating frenzy. Otter pups have very white teeth.

They couldn't fish without playing, cocking heads, rolling bodies and thrashing tails. At times one otter or another would periscope up, but only to see where its playmates were. They also made a high squeaking noise, and an occasional snort, not at me. Finally another otter swam over purposefully and periscoped and snorted.

It was mom and she didn't like the smell of me. The four of them swam off together on the surface of the water, fishing some of the way, to Otter Hole Pond dam. The pups did not fish like adults. Nothing methodical, every dive was an adventure.

Three days later just as Leslie and I got to our usual perch above Otter Hole Pond, we saw the otters in the shallow areas across the pond. With my eye glued to the camcorder, I saw four otters. Leslie had the binoculars and counted five. At first they headed away from us, then, fishing furiously all the way, came right toward us. I had never seen otters so successful in getting fish. This was very much group fishing. The otters were often together, almost seemed to be competing. Frequently getting up out of the water as if to see what their mates might be up to. Two or three times, the pups fought over fish or a fishing spot, complete with brief growls and screeches. 

The mother was in the thick of it. After looking at the video, I saw that she caught a fish, a pup swam by her going the opposite way and suddenly that pup had a fish in its mouth, and the mother was off fishing again. The smallest otter seemed to stay close to her, somewhat imitating what she did. One time the mother caught a fish, then the pup came up with one behind her. Perhaps the mother crippled the fish and let it go so the pup could get it. The pup almost climbed on her back as it tried to use her as a prop to help keep the fish in its mouth. 

Several times I saw the pups with their paws and mouth using the vegetation all around as a kind of plate on which it could try to keep control of the fish. 

Then they got wind of us and the mother led the pups away from the rock dens and into the beaver lodge in the middle of the pond. I wrote in my journal: “This was the most exciting sighting of otters I've ever had, mainly because they fished in such shallow water. Even when they dove, it was easy to follow them, and with the wave of their dive compressed, they seemed more energetic, they seemed like total energy.”  

Ten days later I saw them again. There was less fooling around as they foraged, though the pups still fished playfully and one otter still used mom's back as a plate. Put it this way, when they mounted a big chase now, plowing through the shallow water, it was usually to catch a fish and not another otter.

Then what beavers had wrought, the otters overwrought. They all scatted on the once sacrosanct Otter Hole Pond lodge and then they all climbed up on the dam over the hole, and scatted there. I counted five otters and then a sixth swam down the pond. Then they swam through the hole into Beaver Point Pond. I sneaked down then noticed a pup looking at me. I've noticed this in beavers too, the young have better senses.

They swam back, fishing along the way and capering on logs, but still looking and snorting in my direction. They swam into Otter Hole Pond but were not to be seen. In my journal I speculated that “they were snug in their lodge.” 

“Their lodge!” The grandest beaver lodge I would ever see became, in my mind, the otters' lodge. I had been watching the pond for three months and that a beaver might come up from the New Pond to the lodge they had used from 1996 through 1999 never crossed my mind. For three months I had seen why an invasion of otters would disrupt the education of beaver kits. In October I saw why otters might prefer to raise their pups in ponds that beavers had left so their concentration on fish could not be broken.

There is no reason for an adult beaver and an adult otter not to get along. They don't compete for food. But they raise their young differently. Pushing a branch with leafy twigs in front of a kit seems the epitome of decorum when compared to the scramble for fish with the mother tossing them at the pups or crippling them so the pups can try to catch them.

Not that the way beavers and otters divided the Second Valley ponds was a pattern found elsewhere. The otters spent more time in the Lost Swamp Pond and at first it seemed that the beavers there didn't mind. In late September 2000 when I came out at dawn, I saw a pair of otters and perhaps a third fishing along the edges of the pond while the half dozen beavers in the pond swam back to their lodge beside the dam. I assumed the one tail splash I heard was for me. The beavers seemed to ignore the otters.

Throughout the fall otters used the Lost Swamp Pond lodge not just to conceal themselves. They groomed and played on the lodge, crawled all over each other and even seemed to kiss, as it were, in a jaw open fashion. In October I saw the family sleeping on top of the Lost Swamp Pond lodge. Thanks to the lighter fur of the pups, I soon made out the five otters, three pups and two adults. 

They were still for at least a half hour. The adults woke up first, scatted and then crawled over the other otters.

Needless to say, the tail waving, an integral part of the art of scatting, was diverting. One adult was quite active in grooming, first doing the other adult and then the pups. That got the pups active. They had been sleeping curled onto each other. Now they squirmed and nuzzled. The pups liked to push and roll another pup on its back, but without a hint of aggression. Beavers groom each other but I never saw a beaver family showing the same joy in being together.

Again, I am certain this was the family that riotously fished Otter Hole and Beaver Point Ponds. One evening I saw five otters fishing in the Beaver Point Pond, which they accomplished in a more orderly manner than at the beginning of October, and tracked them back to the Lost Swamp Pond. There the three pups nuzzled down to sleep on top of the lodge behind the dam while two adult otters continued to fish.

From my tracking I knew that otters visited all the ponds in the winter. But since changing leaves kept the hiking trails busy, it never crossed my mind that the otter family would use the Duck Pond and East Trail Pond in the fall. The former was surrounded by a hiking trail and the latter half surrounded.

All I read about otters gave me the impression that they raised their young in seclusion, definitely off trail. In the summer and fall I checked on the ponds ringed by hiking trails only to see if the beavers were still there. The First and Second Valleys were a secret I shared with the otters. Once the East Trail was re-routed in 1994 only the New Pond had a trail flanking it for a few dozen yards, and otters didn't seem to care much for the New Pond.

State Park map showing my Second and Third Valley, the latter in the network of hiking trails the other left to me and the otters

True, I did first see otters on the island while walking with my family and brother-in-law along the network of trails around the Duck Pond and Shortcut Trail Pond. But that was in the early fall of 1992. In 2000 as I calculated the history I was observing, the otters I saw in 1992 were touring males just discovering the expanding beaver developments. So were the five otters I chased up the First Valley in 1994. Then especially after 1996, female otters put the more secluded ponds to better use and, as I've described, perhaps persuaded the beavers to keep out of Beaver Point and Otter Hole Ponds.

I learned how wrong I was in the fall of 2000. On the evening of October 26 I tied my boat on the north shore of South Bay planning to hike down to the New Pond and take video of the beavers there. But the camcorder battery was low so I went up to the Duck Pond instead. I saw that beavers had been preparing the one lodge in the pond for winter by packing it with mud. 

As I walked around the pond I also saw lots of otters scats. Obviously I had to expand my search for otters. On the 27th I checked the East Trail Pond for otter scats.

On the way to the relatively short five foot high dam that connected two well wooded ridges, there were beaver-cut trees including a maple with flaming leaves hanging up in the air embraced by another tree. And there were otters in the pond. 

One was fishing right in front of me and the others to my left. They moved on quickly and didn't scent me. Surely four of them, and I saw some climb onto the beaver lodge in the center of the pond. One kept fishing. I sneaked around the dam aiming to get to the rocks on the other side where I would get a better view of the lodge. When I got to the rocks, one otter was still fishing, giving a fine display of its thick adult tail, probably the mother. Her pups nestled in the dying grass on the old lodge. Judging by the stripped sticks and logs outside it, the beavers were living in a new bank lodge along the rocks between the dam and the big rock I hid behind. 

Then a class of school children came down the trail to the pond. The pups showed some initial interest but no panic. From my video I extracted a photo of three otter pups looking toward the school kids. 

Then as a Nature Center naturalist began lecturing, the pups dropped down to nuzzle and nap on top of the lodge. I think I saw an adult climb up on the lodge, work her way through the pups, and slip back into the water. The kids left chattering up the trail, then the otters cleared the lodge. So much for otters hiding their pups from people.

On November 2 I saw the otter family making itself at home on the beaver lodge in the Duck Pond, napping and scatting on it.

I came back the next day later in the afternoon. Coming up to the pond from South Bay, I saw the otters dancing on the opposite shore behind the beaver lodge scatting with glee (no other animal like otters in that respect.) Then they swam purposefully out onto the pond, like a flotilla. A beaver swam away from the lodge following them. Beavers can't swim as fast as otters. I followed the otters who successfully fished behind the high embankment along the west shore of the pond and while swimming over the deep middle of the pond, two otter pups porpoised almost completely out of the water.

But when they swam back toward the beaver lodge, an otter dived and the beaver swam right over it, like a destroyer hunting a submarine. Then an otter popped out of the water right in front of the beaver. That didn't stop the beaver, it cruised right after them, and like that, the otters seemed to disappear seemingly warded off by the beaver except there was an underwater wake speeding toward shore. It was dark enough now that I could only see what was going on through the video camera. Moments later I heard the screeching of otters that seemed to come from the shore; then the screeching seemed to move inland. Had the beaver scared them that much. Then I thought I heard screeching that seemed to indicate that the otters were moving away from the pond heading up to the upper ponds over land. 

I began walking toward the lodge, and then I heard screeching from the lodge. I could see that one otter was there, then another. They were not screeching at me but the beaver who, out flanked in its effort to protect the lodge, was swimming toward the lodge. There was a splash in front of the otters. The screeching continued and a whimpering sound. It was too dark to see much more. As I walked away the screeching calmed down. A beaver swam into the upper pond where there were other beavers and I heard gnawing behind me.
I could grasp what I saw, though I didn't understand why only one beaver confronted the otters. I was unnerved by what I heard. Early in the edited video clip of the encounter you can hear me laugh as if I regarded the beaver's policing more like a game of tag. The otters screeching, their taunting the beaver as they stood on the lodge, was not funny though one interpretation of it might be that the otters were laughing at the beaver. 

Why unnerved? Our written and visual explaining of wild animals accustom us to take even the most cataclysmic occurrences in stride, provided we can stride away from them ourselves. To be sure we have an ample fund of sympathy for any suffering animal, but the struggles of animals form part of the beauty of nature which serves so often as a balm for our own suffering. I could have accepted a beaver and otter in mortal combat and found beauty in it. Wasn't that what I was originally expecting to see back in 1997 when I bought a camcorder? But the sneering, contemptuous screeching of the otters, the back stabbing insinuation, the ganging up -- three reasons I was glad to leave Washington. 

Go to Chapter Six.