Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Chapter Four

Blue Water and Drought


The beavers moved back to Beaver Point Pond. On March 28, 1999, the valley seemed normal again, well, normal if you can call seeing a beaver up in a tree normal. As I came up from South Bay onto the granite outcrop between the two dams, I saw that a beaver had climbed up a half downed tree trunk that was hanging up on another tree making a 30 degree angle over the northwest corner of the pond. The beaver's tail dangled three feet over the water. Its front paws clawed into the bark and its back paws squeezed the trunk. Its teeth ripped out chunks of bark and then scraped the creamy inner bark as the chunky gray bark dropped to the water. To dismount, the beaver backed down a foot or so, turned and dived into the water - the most daring thing I'd ever seen a beaver do.


Then I saw the rest of the family under a blue sky sitting or floating in clear water showing the pond's brown bottom surrounded by white snow on the remaining ice in the pond. The wet matted fur of a beaver with its back to me had the appearance of the back of a human head - a brunette just out of a bath.


I took a video of a grooming beaver and later counted 39 strokes with its right back paw as it scratched one spot beside its saggy belly. Then came 10 strokes with its front paw moving over a small patch of fur. Then it worked on its tail flat on the ice. Since it sat on the folded tail only a slight bow forward allowed front paws to preen the furless expanse. Then it gnawed a pinch of belly flab, scratched the top of its head and its forearm, and then dived back into the water. 

I noticed what I had noticed in the fall, the tendency of a beaver to move over to gnaw a log another beaver had just left - that silent system of sharing that they have. Only a yearling noticed me and slapped its tail. None of the other beavers reacted to that feeble noise. Then two yearlings started sniffing at me. One swam in nervous circles over by an adult who didn't respond to the yearling's mewing. The little thing came back toward me, got up on its hind legs and with its little paws held up sniffed some more. 


Then it grabbed a twig. Somewhere behind me some pond ice cracked, the yearling flinched and finally the adult slapped its tail. The yearlings fled. The other two adult beavers kept eating. The exercised beaver kept slapping its tail and I retreated as quietly as I could.

The family seemed to be as large as it ever was suggesting that the otters digging into the lodge during the winter didn't do it to find a meal other than their usual fish. I crossed the granite outcrop to its south side and checked the dam. I didn't notice any leak in the dam on the north side but that had never amounted to much. Patching a dam preserves the paradigm and makes the otters' impulsive winter engineering nugatory but there was no evidence that the beavers were preparing to repair the otter damage to the south side dam. (I blamed otters because as usual during the winter when I saw fresh otter slides around the dam I heard more water flowing deep through the dam.)

The water coursing through the dam flooded the small pond below. As was their wont the beavers had made small dams about 30 feet below the Beaver Point Pond dams. The new dam on the south side of the granite outcrop formed a small pond below a 20 foot high squarish granite outcrop. 



It was the perfect natural feature to anchor the end of a dam. In the winter we saw trails to the outcrop, climbed up, looked down into the gaps between the granite and saw a porcupine extend its sharp quills like a dowager opening her fan. So I had a ready name for the resulting pool below the south spur of Beaver Point Pond dam: Porcupine Hotel Pond.

That's not to suggest that porcupines owe anything to the keystone specie. They don't benefit from beaver ponds. Porcupines usually don't deign to take bark from fallen trees nor move into a beaver lodge nor want a den protected by water. Their quills provide all the protection they need. They find ready made dens in little dry caves formed by fallen rocks or the hollowed out bottom of large tree trunks, usually preferring live trees, never a tree flooded to death by a beaver pond.



That early spring I didn't notice that the water in the little pond below Beaver Point Pond dam was high enough to flood the lobby, if you will, of Porcupine Hotel thus driving the porcupines out. I also didn't notice that the flooded hotel provided even more possible otter dens than the crumbling granite cliff on the southwest end of Otter Hole Pond.

In April I did notice otter scats on the high moss covered granite forming the south shore of Beaver Point Pond. I'd never seen scats there before which is not saying much because I didn't get into the habit of looking for scats until August 1998, even though otter scat is hard to miss. Otters poorly digest the fish, frogs, pollywogs, and crayfish they eat allowing the curious to see undigested bits and pieces of what they have been eating, IF you have the nose for it.



There's a fishy smell to be sure but with an added pungency, an edge which evolved perhaps because otters need to attract the attention of other otter noses that have spent much of their day underwater. An otter might scat in prominent places to, among other things, inform other otters that he reserves the nearby pond for the dining pleasure of his family.

I don't want to intimate that one can become addicted to smelling otter scats, so let's say I kept coming back because black ooze laced with silvery scales can look quite striking on thick green moss and maybe I could see the otters doing the scatting. I had never seen an otter in April.

On the 21st as I walked down from the ridge above Otter Hole Pond I saw an otter swim up Beaver Point Pond. He crossed below me in the water, bounded up the slope, repeatedly sniffed the moss, stopped, turned, glanced at me, stamped his back feet and let fly as his tail waved in the air. 

click link below to see video

When he got back into the water he kept looking at me, frequently snorted and then dived into the water. I saw him swim up toward Otter Hole Pond. Perhaps he swam through the still unpatched hole in that dam.

Then a few days later a howling wind blew me up from the South Bay trail onto the outcrop in the middle of Beaver Point Pond dam. Storms huff and puff on the river, but the blue sky day after a storm is when the wind vents all its enthusiasm from the southwest and runs the river ragged against the headland of the island. So when a beaver in the pond slapped its tail, I didn't take it personally. This was the day to make noise. The blackbirds up in the oaks along the south ridge seemed to be trying to go an octave higher than howling wind.

Then as my ears adjusted to the decibel level, I realized I was hearing the screech of an animal, a wavering screech not the whine of a porcupine. I sat on a rock below the dam affording me some cover and trained the camcorder in the direction of the screech. I was able to focus on the sound and saw the lithe black body of an otter. The camera captured two otters and after a brief tussle one swam off into the pond ending the screeching duet. There was a coda of brief taunts from the otter on shore whose tail kept flicking. The other otter surfaced on a log some 20 yards behind the dam, mostly out of the water, in a relaxed eating posture gnawing on something. Not looking like a man who had lost in either love or war. The otter tore some grub off with his teeth and gargled it down his throat. He looked my way a couple of times, didn't react, then swam off eventually heading up pond but not showing any interest in fishing.

With beavers I felt I at least had all the pieces of the puzzle before me. Although I couldn't see what happened in the lodge or underwater or in the dark of night, I saw evidence of everything the beavers did, dams, lodges, downed trees, canals, kits in the spring, etc. The main thing I missed was seeing when the young beavers left their family and where they went.

Every time I saw an otter I seemed to know less about them. When I saw the otter boldly swim up the pond, a rolling stone that scats on moss, I was impressed by the force of his audacity but I wasn't at all sure of what he was doing. I sent the video to Jan Reid-Smith, a zoo curator getting her Ph. D., an expert I met on Otternet, and she confirmed that he was a male. Otter females are 25% smaller than males and don't show their pregnancy. No expert on Otternet could explain the fight. When I suggested it was mating, wildlife biologist J. Scott Shannon who had studied 13 generations of otters around Pt. Reyes, California, warned that it could also be two males fighting over territory.

While I was content to wait for beavers to reveal their world, I began reading everything I could about otters. A Swedish study found that male otters range 6 miles a day. I still sat by the beaver ponds hoping to see an otter, but inspired by the swagger of the male otter I saw, I also set out to find the rest of his range. Where are the otters before they invade the beavers' world?

Obsession with the beaver ponds on Wellesley Island did not cool my love for the river. For years Leslie and I had paddled along the rocky shores of the islands. Starting in the Spring of 1999 I combined gawking at the pink granite and hoping to see a mink dance along the rocks with looking for otter scats. 


Seeing scats would show me where I might see otters. Seeing otters in the river where one would think they should be most at home (they are called river otters after all) might explain their behavior in the beaver ponds.

The scientific monographs and papers I began reading suggested I was on the right track. An otter's range must encompass more fishing grounds than provided by the many ponds I watched, even factoring in South Bay would not provide the miles of shore needed. Otters also needed secluded places first where mothers gave birth to pups, from one to four pups every year, and then dens near secluded water where the mothers taught pups to swim. So I explored the shores of Murray, Picton and Grindstone Islands and the northwest shore of Wellesley Island. 

Those four islands surround Eel Bay. That name alone suggests an abundance of fish. The down river power dams now keep the eels from coming back to spawn but the perch, pike, and bass were always there. In the early spring I saw hundreds of perch swimming from South Bay up the current through the Narrows heading toward Eel Bay.


Most of the otter latrines I found were on the shore of Picton Island facing Eel Bay. That made sense because there are only two cottages along that half mile long shore. The 207 acre island surrounded by more amenable islands was never anyone's first choice for settlement. So the stone of its high granite ridge on the east end of the island was quarried to build mansions on other islands and the facade of the Museum of Natural History building in New York City.

The next owner mapped out building lots along the shore of the whole island. Fortunately he died soon after and his brother, an entomologist, left the island largely undeveloped priding himself on discovering a beetle unique to the island. Otters appreciated preservation of the natural habitat and gravitated to what remained of the quarry. 


The quarry can't be much more than 10 to 20 acres in extant and probably would have been forgotten save that the quarrymen left a fall of rubble along 50 yards of the remaining ridge. Another 50 yards of the quarried ridge has somewhat recovered with scrubby vegetation. Quarry rubble and stray granite blocks and boulders seemed to offer a hundred places for otters to den both high above and half in the water. I saw a high rise of possible natal dens. Thanks to a drought in 1999 when I first explored the island shore, the water level was three feet lower than usual revealing cracks, crevices and holes in the old granite quays. In the water below still 4 to 8 feet deep I saw perch swimming in and out of the nooks and crannies below. What a nice place for an otter to fish!


I also found scats on a moss covered granite slope on the only portion of the northwest shore of Murray Island without a cottage. That latrine was a third of a mile away across open water from the Picton latrine to the northwest. Standing beside the latrine ten yards up from the shore on Picton's granite slope, I could see the Murray Island latrine which was also ten yards up on a granite slope. I felt like the Duke of Wellington overhearing a conversation between his two generals, not.

 View of Picton from the otters' Murray Island latrine

I was then and remain today under the spell of the islands and have seen and experienced the way islands energize those who travel between them. In 2006 I saw a coyote who had a lame left foreleg swim from Murray to Picton then race up the Picton ridge. In 2013 Leslie and our son saw an otter swim to the shore and race up the Picton ridge. 

When I went out at dawn and paddled 45 minutes to Picton, I never felt tired. Even when I faced wind and waves, the island was like a magnet. I didn't race up the ridge. I stopped dead in the water and as the sun rose behind me trained my binoculars on the dark rippling water looking for a wake.


Huge shallow Eel Bay opened up just east of a deep channel between Picton and Grindstone creating currents that otters might master at the expense of fish. Given the granite quarry shore offering space for dens and the huge bay almost surrounded by Wellesley Island, Eel Bay was a replica of Otter Hole Pond blown up a few thousand times complete with currents like those caused by a hole in a beaver dam, and there were no beavers patrolling the bay. Perhaps when their fishing was compressed into a small area like Otter Hole Pond, otters who experienced vast Eel Bay had to act like bulls in a china shop and vex the beavers.

I soon saw my first otter off Picton, my first ever sighting of an otter in May. I saw it dive and not pop right up like the otters I saw in the beaver ponds. So it must have dived deep. Then I saw it climb onto the shore


 me in the river and an otter on Picton shore in 2013

and as it ran along the flat granite I heard an otter screech higher up the ridge. I crowed in my journal: “Needless to say I was quite excited and proud of myself. This wasn't a case of luckily being in the right place at the right time. I went to where I calculated the otter must be and there it was.”

For the next ten years I kept trying to connect the Picton otters to the beaver ponds which I could only conclusively do in the winter. But the evidence left in the snow was equivocal. I saw otter tracks coming from Eel Bay to South Bay. But I also saw tracks coming to South Bay from other direction, both from the main channel of the river 


and overland from the east of Wellesley Island, probably from the Lake of the Isles (Capt. Owen's Lake Waterloo.)

I didn't give up trying to connect the otters I saw in the river with the otters I saw in the ponds. But in the river even the biggest otter looked rather small. I never saw more than four at once. In the 1840s John James Audubon counted some 40 otters fishing at the mouth of the Neuse River in Pamlico Sound in North Carolina. The fur trade killed off otters just as it did beavers. The depletion of fish makes a full recovery by otters unlikely. They will never be a common sight especially when, as where I live, they are legally trapped six months a year. I was lucky I saw them in the beaver ponds. Fortunately I would see much more of them there, enough to tell their story, enough for them to make history -- at least in my book.

In mid-June 1999 I set out to try to see the first appearance of the year's beaver kits. The year before on an evening too dark for video while sitting by the Big Pond I saw a kit hitching a ride on an adult's tail. It was much easier to see beaver goings-on from behind a tree on the outcrop in the middle of Beaver Point Pond dam.

Thinking that beaver kits might be first exposed to the shallowest water, I sat below the dam beside Porcupine Hotel Pond, the same spot from where I saw the fighting otters in late April. I first took the animal swimming toward me for a muskrat. The muskrat's head is a small replica of a beaver's head so its wake through the water is narrow. The muskrat's rotating rat tail punctuates the middle of the narrow wake much the way an otter's tail does. 
 
 a muskrat with tail poised
I had learned by then that muskrats are fearless (or can't be bothered) so I wasn't surprised as the little thing swam right below me, well not so little. Then as it went up a well worn trail between two shrubs, I saw the broad based tail of an otter. I saw it go into Porcupine Hotel.

I discovered the den of an otter mother! I knew it must be a mother because she swam right in front of me as I sat beside Porcupine Hotel Pond. When an otter has to get something done, it forgets the usual huffing and puffing at my bothering presence. The otter that swam right by me had to protect her pups.

Scott Shannon, the wildlife biologist in Pt. Reyes, California, (where trapping otters is illegal) explained why the world of otters seemed different around Picton. He had observed 13 generations of otters. Because all the otters visited a commercial fishing dock, he got close enough to identify individual otters. He recognized that except for the act of mating, otters segregate themselves by sex. To raise their pups otter mothers enlist the help of sisters, daughters or their mothers, never a male. That explained the groups of gruff male otters I saw fishing off Picton Island and harried female otters I saw in the beaver ponds.

Evidently the otter mother did not worry about the beavers who arranged their lives so that the shore of the granite outcrop across a small pond from the Porcupine Hotel Pond was the main ring of their three ring circus.

I may have seen possible concessions to alarm by the beavers. They cut down two trees on top of Porcupine Hotel, take that otters!, but truth be told the beavers seemed rather cool and collected. One late afternoon I lounged on the granite at Beaver Point and for an hour young beavers entertained me.

I was greeted by a beaver tail slap when I got up to the pond. But the slapper was a goofy little yearling so I just sat down and waited. I got some more splashes and then another little guy came by sniffing me. Then a big beaver came slowly toward me and I reckoned that if I got a splash from her, for I assumed it was Mom, then the jig was up. She sniffed and sniffed, raising her nose out of the water, and then paddled off, down along the dam, without a splash. 

This seemed to give the others license to inspect me. Four little beavers were around me. Mom and a midsize beaver paid me no heed. Never have I felt like I was such a focus for beaver imaginings! In the hour or so I was there I had three episodes with them. First, after the tough guy act, they ignored me and I got a good video of a beaver eating a root - which it eats like we eat a carrot. Judging from the noise the root is almost as hard as wood but the beaver did not handle it length wise like it does a stick.

In the next episode two of the kits seemed to delight in coming back as if they just discovered me, the intruder in their domain. They kept repeating that forceful, menacing serpentine approach ending with a splash. In the final episode I did a little uhhing at them. When I did that one kit rushed toward me. When I said "little beaver" that same beaver motored away, a shock wave of water under its chin.

I wound up lying flat on my back with camcorder stabilized on my chest affording me video perfect for extracting stills that I put on a web page with only this to say: "their wakes playing on the reflections of the dead trees."



I had a mind to write much more but I never have, struck dumb by the beauty of it. But aesthetics has no place in history (spare us paragraphs on the beauty of war) so why did the parents let their yearlings display themselves before me? Perhaps to distract them from bothering new born kits not much more than a month old and still in the lodge. Judging from what I saw later I don't think there were more than two. 

And also perhaps to train for how to approach otters: steady as she goes, chin up confrontation, tail slapping and retreating with honor but never fleeing. The usual behavior when I was around was different. A young beaver was often the first to notice me. Then it checked with an adult. If the adult did nothing all the beavers went about their business ignoring me. If the adult took umbrage and I didn't leave or move, the beavers disappeared at least for 10 minutes before reappearing in the pond and ignoring me. As I was to see several times, the cardinal rule for beavers when otters were in their pond was not to disappear and play it from there.

Despite that stout beaver resolve, as far as I could tell, Porcupine Hotel Pond did not become the site of a beaver-otter confrontation nor a shared school room for otter pups and beaver kits. But there may have been significance in what I didn't see. I had seen several instances of beavers making much of the small pools below their large dams. I first noticed Porcupine Hotel Pond when I saw evidence of beavers gnawing bark of trees they dragged into it. In the summer of 1999 I noticed that the beavers began cutting trees in and dragging trees to the pool forming behind a small dam they built below the north section of Beaver Point Pond dam.



Porcupine Hotel Pond seemed less useful in that regard and may have been conceded to the otters.

But I didn't see an otter again in Porcupine Hotel Pond, how did I know they were there? Sometimes I smelled otter scats in the “hotel” and when I squeezed into the largest crevasse,

 
I saw fresh otter scats. I also saw a possible otter print in the mud pointing down to South Bay. One historical fact making this history difficult to track: you can trust beavers to stay in their ponds but you never know when otters will leave.

Otters were certainly still around. On June 24th on a rock slope on the southwest shore of the Lost Swamp Pond, I sat next to otter scats fresh enough to attract flies. Then when I got down to Beaver Point Pond I saw otter scats so fresh that a butterfly was feasting on it. 


On the 29th another strong wind off the river blew me up toward the Porcupine Hotel. Ten feet away from it I heard an otter snort. I walked up to the rocks and got a video of an otter nose peeking out of a small gap in the rocks trying to snort me away.

Tracking animals I became a bit like one of Pavlov's dogs. I began to associate a strong wind off the river with otters in the ponds. After suffering through three or four of them, I now associate strong winds off the river with drought

In 1999 it slowly began to dawn on me that otters and beavers faced what I thought must be an existential problem for them. The drought of 1999 began in April and lasted through the summer. I had learned enough about the resiliency of beavers and otters not to expect them to simply escape into the deep river. So as the drought deepened I paid closer attention to the drying ponds. The rivals in the ponds, if you will, faced a common threat. I was amazed to see them adjust by simply playing by the low water level winter rules. The holes in the dams saved them from having to crawl over dry hills that during the drought were four or five feet high above the pond water.

On July 22 as I sat on the shady south slope above Otter Hole Pond,  there was a semblance of a pond behind the hole in the dam, the lodge and a channel to the rock dens below me. The upper pond heading to the Second Swamp Pond was dry because not enough water backed up behind the Beaver Point Pond dam through the hole in Otter Hole Pond dam. The flat up toward the East Trail was just wet and choked with vegetation. During a drought the exposed mud and lingering shallows are the only areas with bright green vegetation.

Then I was amazed to see an otter swam through the hole in the dam making a beeping sound, which I had never heard before, and high chirping. She swam right below me and into the rock dens. A few seconds later she came out and headed for the now extensive shallows where the grasses were thick. I saw two otters there who swam straight to the lodge. There their mother corralled them and in a tight bunch led them through the hole in the dam.

The beavers had lost interest in that lodge and were using the lodge in the northwest corner of Beaver Point Pond but that lodge was soon high and dry. Although there were plenty of cut trees ungnawed and other trees to bring down, on July 19 I worried that the beavers would have to leave the pond. But a month late at least six of them were still there. 

Beavers build their lodges behind their dam and that's why beaver ponds are so striking. Beavers prize a good depth of water around their lodges for safety. They build more lodges behind the dam for the convenience of getting to more trees more easily, careful to build up their dam to increase the area of their pond. But responding to the drought, the beavers committed a sacrilege. On August 29 I saw that they started to build a lodge on Beaver Point Pond dam. Usually beavers stack branches below the dam to help brace it against the force of the water upstream. Now I saw branches behind the dam pointing upstream.

 

The otters also adjusted and showed me they could break it down in the shallow beaver ponds. On August 23 I saw two otter pups in Otter Hole Pond wrestling and then climbing up on the exposed stumps of willows and leaping onto to each. The action was so fast that my 12 year old son who was with me was sure that there were five otters. Meanwhile the pups' mother searched the shallow water for food and then worked her way like a snake through the wide apron of almost orange mud around the pond.

I saw them work the ponds three times in the next month. In my journal I revised my take on otters:

After five years of seeing otters operate in relatively deep ponds, I was not prepared for the fury of shallow pond fishing. Because of the sinuosity of the otters' movements, I can't say it was like a fist moving through the water. There was some water deep enough water for dolphin like swimming, but the rhythm of coming to the surface and the angle of their dives were different. And with much less water in the pond all the energy of the otter was translated into forward motion. The otter, the water and at times the mud of the pond were a united force. 

This might have proved my otters-as-rolling-stones-revved-by Eel-Bay theory except that I am certain the otter pups had never been in Eel Bay.

Perhaps the beavers noticed the energetic otter family. Despite the drought they expanded their comfort zone in the only way they could, by building a new dam below Porcupine Hotel Pond and the nameless little pond below the north section of the Beaver Point Pond dam. It was a natural spot for a dam between rocks just before the creek, then a trickle, plunged into South Bay. 

 
As the drought slowly broke, water slowly puddled under a half acre stand of small trees affording much food for beavers and little for otters. Fish and frogs had spent their creative powers and would not move into the new pond, which I called the New Pond. Beavers didn't mind the lack of water. Since July I had been noticing that beavers seemed comfortable with just enough water to cover their tail.

looking down from Beaver Point Pond dam at the Porcupine Hotel Pond and the New Pond below

Otters did need more water than that. Now and then I saw otter scats around the Lost Swamp Pond. Most of that huge pond shrank to half its size with only the old creek and some beaver channels showing the glint of standing water. But thanks to its 12 foot high dam there remained a basin of water between the dam and the lodge 30 yards behind it that on average was about 4 feet deep. With the drought I began to see much more scat around the pond.

On August 25 I got up to the Lost Swamp Pond at 11:30 when beavers are almost always in their lodge and otters are prone to nap. But I always sit for at least 20 minutes. Then I stood up to continue my melancholy tour, most other ponds were dry or almost dry, 

 northwest end of Second Swamp Pond, the pond below the Lost Swamp Pond, in the drought of 1999

when I saw three otters swimming toward me fishing along the way. I thought I was out of the wind and I was in the shade but as they approached the mother got a whiff of me and while the pups continued to fish she snorted at me, raising herself out of the water. One of the pups mimicked her and then nuzzled her. They turned back but not in great alarm.

I lost them until I heard a loud splash. Then I saw that the otters were on the lodge behind the dam and two or more beavers were swimming around the lodge, quite unhappy. I began moving closer. A few otter screeches drew me closer and I videoed a beaver swimming toward the otters skulking low on the lodge. The otters didn't move or make a noise, the beaver turned back. Then the otters climbed to the top of the lodge. They nuzzled and dried themselves. They soon swam off the lodge, swimming back to the northeast end of the pond where fish were likely trapped in pools of shallow water.

In 1997 the Otter Hole Pond beavers confronted the otters and kept them off their main lodge just behind the dam. But as far as I could see the otters continued to nap and play on the Lost Swamp Pond lodge despite the beavers' protest. At that time the Lost Swamp Pond beavers had three lodges: the one behind the dam the otters were on, a lodge off a rock just beside the dam, a lodge well up stream 200 yards away relatively high and dry during the drought. Because of how the pond was set up, having otters in the lodge behind the dam was tantamount to giving them entre to the lodge beside the dam.

photo taken of the Lost Swamp Pond dam during the drought of 1999 while standing beside the lodge beside the dam

Even with the drought the depth of water behind the dam was probably six feet deep and probably 2 feet deep at the lodge 30 yards behind the dam. Otters could swim that distance underwater from one lodge to the other. What better place to perfect the deep water swimming of pups before leading them into the depths of the St. Lawrence River?

It crossed my mind that although I was seeing three otters in both ponds, they might be different otters. Each group behaved differently. The otters in Beaver Point and Otter Hole ponds were often playing even the mother, and the otters in the Lost Swamp Pond fished without distracting themselves and instead of wrestling on a lodge were prone to groom and nuzzle. But although I saw the otters frequently in both ponds through October I never saw otters in both areas on the same day. So I had to conclude that since Otter Hole Pond had about a foot of water and Beaver Point two feet, the same otters behaved differently than when they were in the Lost Swamp Pond with its deeper water. I also decided the otters usually slept in the Lost Swamp Pond likely comforted by the deeper water there.

I got the impression that the otters bothered the beaver families in both ponds. On October 7, 1999, I saw the otters finishing up their fishing in Beaver Point Pond and head toward Otter Hole Pond dam. They stopped and turned as if they had forgotten something. The pups still went after fish but mother led them directly to Beaver Point as I called the outcrop in the middle of the dam. Soon one after another they scooted up on the rock - like black toothpaste squeezed from a tube - let fly with their scats and just as quickly swam back toward Otter Hole Pond. I had frequently sat on the outcrop to watch beavers but never saw otter scats there until October, which as I knew from what I saw in 1997 was a contentious time of year for otters and beavers.

Up at the Lost Swamp Pond I saw the otters make a show when they scatted on the rock right behind the beavers' lodge next to the dam where the beavers seemed to be denning. One otter even screeched which I never otherwise heard otters do when they were scatting.

It would be logical to assume that the beavers on both ponds were related since the Lost Swamp Pond was on the upper end of same creek which joined with a creek coming down from the East Trail Pond with the combined creeks filling Otter Hole and Beaver Point Ponds. But I don't think the beaver families were related.

In 1999 most of the the Lost Swamp Pond was low enough or bone dry enough to reveal how the beavers had built the pond between 1986 and 1991. They did not come up from South Bay and the Second Swamp Pond, but down from a curving valley on the private land to the east where beavers had slowly moved up a creek draining into Lake of the Isles. After making a series of ponds up that creek, the beavers crossed a slight ridge and began damming the creek that flowed to the west toward South Bay.

The usual beaver challenge is to create a wetland. These beavers had to rationalize a wetland. Going over their first dam and taking shrubs and roots in the wetland below, they found where outcrops of rocks narrowed the wide valley enough to build a dam. After creating a sizable pond there and perhaps tiring of eating shrubs in the wetland that years ago had soaked my sneakers,


they began cutting trees in the woods below the dam and then discovered a deep gully that they blocked with a 12 foot high dam. Plus, as I plainly saw during the drought, they had built a 100 foot long 2 foot high dam forming the northeast shore of their new pond so that the water rising behind the dam didn't find another outlet to the valley below. 

So it seems I saw how two unrelated beaver families reacted to the same family of otters. I have some sympathy for the notion that animals have so many bottled up instincts that they don't have free will. That doesn't mean they aren't free from worry, free from history. I think their building a lodge on top of their dam showed that the beavers in Beaver Point Pond, late of Otter Hole Pond, were thoroughly familiar with otters. Maybe those dam-breaching, lodge-sharing nuisances were new to the Lost Swamp Pond beavers.

The Beaver Point Pond beavers were out often in the late fall eating bark as long as the pond stayed open. I watched them amass a cache of branches behind the dam lodge and then carry mud up the dam and then up onto the lodge.



Rains returned in the fall and all the ponds without compromised dams filled up. What drought?

But if the otters foraged by winter rules all summer, capturing fish and frogs in shallow pools and rooting through mud, was there enough to eat in the ponds during the long winter under ice? In the late fall I found fish heads on the dams. When a fish is over six inches long, otters commonly leave the head. On December 3 I saw how minks handle fish. I was walking down the south shore of Beaver Point Pond and a mink popped out of the rocks below me, maybe that mink who entertained me last winter. A fish dangled from its mouth. Minks cache their food and I saw it run down the length of Beaver Point Pond and take the fish into the dam, evidently where it was living.



The Beaver Point Pond beavers didn't seem to mind as they gnawed logs in the open water behind the dam. I also saw the remains of freshly gnawed logs behind Otter Hole Pond dam.

There was fresh scat on the dam so I assumed otters were around too. (Mink scats are small, hard and twisted not like an otter's looser effusions.)  We had the usual early December series of cold nights and warmer damp days. The ice remained on the ponds with generous open patches that dilated in the fog often revealing ghostly shapes of gnawing beavers.



But these were the worst conditions for tracking otters. Any snow fall at night melted in the morning. I found otter scats at the Big Pond, Lost Swamp Pond, Otter Hole Pond and maybe a squirt on Beaver Point Pond dam. All seemed equally fresh.

In previous Novembers and Decembers I saw pairs of tracks enter and leave the ponds. I assumed that the otter family I saw in the fall left the ponds and then a pair of adult otters took their place, foraged a few weeks and went back to the river before it iced over in January. I assumed the same thing in December 1999: family of three left and a pair of adult came in. 

The snow finally stuck in mid-December. The first day out I saw no signs of otters. The next day I saw the slides, prints and tail marks of otters in Otter Hole Pond between the lodge and dam.



I decided at least four trails were going in the same direction leaving the lodge. You can usually distinguish the slides of pups from adults in firm snow but this was wet snow. I did see smaller goofy tracks that I assume were made by an otter that was having its first experience with snow on ice.


When the snow melted around the pond I had to rely on scats to nose out where the otters might be. 

By that time I had learned to identify otter scent mounds. I assume all otter scats have meaning. Otters don't poop where they habitually forage, tree to tree like land bound mammals, but on the high points. Remember Captain Owen and Buzacoe Head that I mentioned in the Introduction! Otters usually scrape up the grass then let go but sometimes they seem to make sure that the grass is tufted and stained by black scat and brown urine.

 

And as was the case in mid-December 1999, otters sometimes vomit white mucous on the melange. 


I have no idea if the beavers in the Lost Swamp Pond noticed the three otter scent mounds high on the slope of the ridge forming the north shore of the pond. But I think they were wary of the otters.

The Beaver Point Pond beavers didn't seem to make any effort to keep water open behind the dam by swimming around to keep water from freezing in January but the Lost Swamp Pond beavers did. Coming from the Second Swamp Pond on January 7 I walked up to the Lost Swamp Pond (always my thrill of thrill walking from the dry bottom to acres topped with water) and a beaver surfaced in the open water in front of the lodge, raised its head to look at me 


and then dived without slapping its tail but making as much noise as it could otherwise. I always thought that was a beaver's way of showing me that I was a nuisance hardly worth noticing. I bet tail slaps were reserved for otters.

I kept listening for leaks in the dams and to my surprise by late January I only heard flowing water through Beaver Point Pond dam under the beavers' lodge. As I learned my first winter watching beavers in the First Valley, they can appreciate a gentle flow of water through the dam that made it easier to keep a patch of water open just above and below the dam. That made it easier to forage on shore for winter snacks. The beavers also evidently breached the Porcupine Hotel Pond so the water kept flowing into the New Pond where the beavers continued to fell trees. So in a sense the beavers fulfilled the illustrations in books about beavers: their lodge was comfortably behind a dam but on top of another dam.

Then tracking became difficult in deep snow often deepened by snow squalls and showers. I reminded myself that otters didn't have to come out from under the ice of the pond. There were no fish swimming in the snow. Some days the best we could do was check South Bay for tracks. The constant winds packed the snow so that it could be readily etched by otters. On the 21st at sunset, I saw beauty, otter slides:



Alas the slides were heading west. The sun was setting behind Murray and Picton Islands but the tracks did not go toward what I had supposed was the otters' Mecca. They curved to the south toward what open water remained in the main channel of the river. 

After a day devoted to minor hockey, I backtracked the otters. I found a scat on the New Pond dam but the otters did not come down from the string of ponds to the east. As far as I could tell, they skirted the south shore of Murray Island and then scaled the cliffs of the Narrows where they are highest. Up there "I stood at that point where I could see across Eel Bay to Canada and two feet below me were the otter slides!" I couldn't be sure if they stayed in the Duck Pond but otherwise they climbed and slid up and down the ridges between the string of ponds in that valley and South Bay. Their seemingly brief visit to the New Pond was their only nod to the valley I was watching.

At the time I ascribed the brief visit to mating, two males chasing one female. Now I think it was a family looking for a pond to spend the most ice locked time of the year February and early March. They found the Duck Pond too deep. They had been foraging in the deep water and wanted a break. At the New Pond they learned from scent that the congenial ponds to the east were already claimed by an otter family.

For the next month I saw otter slides around the New Pond, the East Trail Pond, the Lost Swamp Pond and back through the Second Swamp Pond, Otter Hole Pond and Beaver Point Pond and the New Pond again. Ha! Words always impose an order on nature that simply isn't there. In the winter otters don't take a cruise. They struggle for survival and the evidence I saw of that was sporadic. Beavers struggle too: in late January a beaver in Shangri-la Pond dug a foot long foot wide hole through solid ice and then climbed 40 feet up the ridge to cut small trees and drag logs and branches back to the hole.

Sometime later in January a hole was dug through the Lost Swamp Pond dam. Proof that the landowner didn't do it was that the hole was an inside job made from the back of the dam with the digger working under the ice. I didn't notice the flow of water through the hole until the ice behind the dam and around the lodge collapsed. Otters I assumed also dug a hole deep in the Shortcut Trail Pond which I didn't discover until I walked on the ice over the creek in the middle of the pond. One leg went through and down three feet, but only a foot of water in the creek. That meant the pond was virtually empty.

The hole in the Lost Swamp Pond wasn't such a catastrophe. Because of silting behind the Lost Swamp Pond dam, it probably widened backwards two feet in 9 years, the otter could only make a hole low enough to lower the depth of the water by two feet, leaving plenty of water behind. 

I still swear by the paradigm that beavers are the master engineers, man's only rival, but what the otters did in mid-winter, if it wasn't engineering, was a hell of a job of irrigation. We had a long thaw in late February and I saw how water rushed out of the hole in the Lost Swamp Pond dam and streamed down through the ponds below.

Forget about the stillness of winter. On February 29, 2000, a cold day after a longer than usual thaw, I had to dare myself to walk on the ice of Otter Hole Pond. Warm temperature before the end of winter was the half of it. By keeping water flowing through the valley the otters had kept the ice in the middle of the ponds from getting thickening as snow weighted it down. The flow of water from the hole in the Lost Swamp Pond dam was key to keeping the ice thin. Why keep it thin?

I saw a brown blur pop out of a hole in the ice ten yards from me. The hole was between the trunks of two small trees. I first thought the animal was eating bark. Then I saw the otter head, and only the head. It came up several more times. One time snorting at me so I thought it would leave. Then two minutes later it came up with a rock bass which it devoured as I watched.

 
A half hour later I saw two otters below the hole in Otter Hole Pond dam. All I thought at the time was Beauty! Talk to me! Now I think I saw two pups adjusting to life without their mother who was off somewhere mating.

For otter watchers the end of winter is a sobering time. It's as if the physics teacher erased the board just when all the formulas and vectors he chalked out were beginning to make sense. But in this book I have a simpler task, just a history of how the beavers and otters shared the valleys based on the ebb and flow of water in a series of ponds. To continue the story I did not have to know where the otters were, seeing two at the end of February was enough. Beavers emerged from under the ice and as they repaired the dams they affirmed their historical claims to the ponds.

But despite all the hours of video I took, reviewing a day's worth at night and once the 8mm tape was full transferring all of it to VHS tape for further reference, I had precious few frames showing a beaver and an otter in close proximity much less confronting each other. Still I sensed that more was going to happen between beavers and otters. I discussed 6 otter-beaver encounters in the paper I gave  before international otter experts in 2004. As of March 2000 I still had five more of those significant encounters to see. Go to Chapter Five





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