Sunday, March 19, 2017

March 19, 2017

Winter has received a generous extension from mother nature in the form of a mid-March storm, and what a storm it was, the biggest of the season.  14 to 19 inches of snow fell in the Lakes Region, accompanied by strong winds out of the northeast which left tens of thousands of people in New Hampshire without power.  Parts of Moultonborough and Center Harbor were without power for days, at least 400 of whom were still not restored as of yesterday.  This video shows some of the damage in Moultonborough along route 109 (courtesy of Sue Mangers and Sheila Adams.)  Fortunately Meredith seemed to be shielded from the worst of the winds and suffered mostly minor outages.

This snow layered on top of that remaining from prior storms pretty much buried all the undergrowth and formed large drifts where the wind blew the snow across the lake, dumping it on the western shores.
Blueberries and mountain laurel are buried
The ground here grades smoothly to the shore - that mound on the right is all snow

I took a short snowshoe trip the day after the storm to see who had been out and about, and I found a treasure trove of animal tracks.  I first came across the tracks of a coyote bounding along through the deep snow.
Coyote Trail
 A bit later I saw this sign:
A mark dropped, not sprayed

Those of you who saw the bobcat post on February 19th will know that I'm guessing this sign in the middle of its track makes me think this was a female coyote.

The most prevalent tracks I saw were from weasels - they were everywhere.

A pair of weasels traveling along the trail
Weasel prints

I didn't follow any of these tracks, rather they just kept crossing the trail, often following right along the trail for long sections, sometimes revealing the appearance of a pair traveling together (weasels tend to remain as a pair throughout the year).

Here one of them dug down into a hole to look for a mouse, their favorite food, though they will take any other small animal they can find - they are ferocious predators. 
It looks like it came up empty
At one point the trails of predator and prey coincided.
A mouse preceded the weasel here

I know that otters love to slide along on their bellies in the snow, but this was the first time I had seen such activity by a weasel.
Weasel slides

I was intrigued by the marks on either side of the main slide which look like perhaps their feet drag along beside their body.  As we'll see in a moment, this is not nearly so evident in otter slides.

In one area I think there was a set of bobcat tracks following along beside our weasels.

Bobcat on the left?

Not much farther along there appeared the tracks of the much larger River Otter, the size difference perhaps not evident in pictures but striking in comparison to the weasel.
The much larger otter slide

They are certainly fun-loving creatures, even creating their own roller coasters complete with twists and turns.
Otter roller coaster

Note there is no evident foot drag beside the belly slide of the otter.

Coyote, bobcat, weasel, otter - all of these animals were present within just a half-mile stretch of trail near the lake.  It makes me appreciate what is meant by a "co-occurrence" area and why it's so important to protect these special places.

This last storm put us over the average snow fall for New Hampshire and will keep winter activities in good shape for some time. What a difference a year makes:  today, the lake is in full winter dress.
March 18, 2017

While last year at this time we thinking about fishing, boating, and swimming.
March 18, 2016

The warm winter of 2015-2016 gave us the shortest ice season ever, with ice out on March 18th.  This year it's looking like we'll be much closer to our typical date around April 15th.  Only time will tell.  Spring arrives tomorrow!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

March 12, 2017

I returned to the lake this week to find bare ground on south-facing slopes, and open water where currents move through the lake.
Open water reaches far up the lake from the outlet

The melt and freeze cycles of the past weeks were evident in the rock-hard, treacherous surface of the snow that remains, as well as the frozen ruts left in the thawing and freezing surfaces of unimproved roads. 

Our initial greeting of warm weather was quickly revoked over the weekend as the temperature fell below zero and the northwest wind plunged the wind chills into the negative 20's.  Saturday was the second coldest day of the winter, the only colder day was way back in the middle of December.  Mud season will be pushed off for at least another week now, and I wonder how the maple sugaring season will respond.

All fall and winter I've been watching the stream that drains Lake Wicwas in to Lake Winnisquam rise in level due to beavers building up dams somewhere between the two water bodies.  At this point it is noticeably higher than a year ago, and I wonder if it will pose a flooding problem for Meredith Center Road when the spring freshets come. 
On the other side of the dam beavers are raising the mill stream

There is not a lot of snow left to melt but if we get significant rain, especially before the frost is out of the ground, it could get interesting.

I have seen very few tufted titmice over the winter, but this week they have arrived in good numbers, with many of them visiting the feeders now back in place, confident the bears will continue their slumber though this cold stretch.
Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)

The Lakes Region is at the very northern edge of even the "uncommon range" of the titmouse's habitat (they do not migrate), but they are now spreading northward as the season warms.  (It also appears that their range is creeping north as the climate warms.) 
Range of the Tufted Titmouse;  light blue is "uncommon"  [Ref:  Audubon Society]

Titmice stay in family flocks during the winter, but as mating season approaches they pair up and will keep together as a pair throughout the spring and early summer.  The male will select and defend a breeding area of 15 to 20 acres.  Both parents will feed and tend to the young, which will stay with the parents and become a new family group through the following fall and winter.  [Ref:  "A Guide to Bird Behavior  Vol II,  Donald W. Stokes and Lillian Q. Stokes]  The well known peter-peter-peter call is starting to be heard now, given mostly by the male as it forms it territory and advertises for a mate.  Titmice make many different calls - you can listen to them here.  As the season progresses, look for males feeding their mate as part of the courtship process, and again as the female incubates the eggs.  [Ref: ibid]

Another nice behavior of titmice:  unlike many other birds, most notably the greedy nuthatch which shovels seeds onto the ground in search of the biggest, fattest seed in the feeder, titmice eat the tiniest seeds in the mix.

I'll close this week with a really neat picture that someone on the snowshoe tour two weeks ago sent me (thanks D&G!).  It's a photograph of an albino porcupine taken in Canterbury near Hackleboro Orchards.  All the farmers out there know how much porcupine love orchards!
A rare albino porcupine in central New Hampshire

Sunday, March 5, 2017

March 5, 2017

We were away from the lake for much of last week, visiting family and enjoying the sights of another winter playground.
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Impossibly blue skies behind Lodge Pole Pine and Aspen Trees
Colorado is beautiful but it doesn't have a monopoly on blue skies - this is from Ragged Mountain, right here in the Lakes Region, during our short spell of winter back in February:
New Hampshire has it's own bluebird days that rival anyone

Crazy cycles of weather have roiled the whole country the past couple of weeks;  in the Lakes Region  warm temperatures really took a bite out of the snow, but it also provided great opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.
Evidence of fun times on Lake Wicwas

Being away I don't have a lot to report on what happened around Lake Wicwas this week, but here are a few sights I found over the prior couple of weeks.
Woodpeckers working on a rotted stump near shore
An American Tree Sparrow dines in a light snow

A casualty of the winter's storms
A chick-a-dee grabs one last seed before the feeders come in to avoid the bears
Beavers doing more un-licensed logging - this time of pretty white birch

Back on January 1st when the bobcats came and took a couple of gray squirrels out of circulation I mentioned the squirrels would soon provide replacements with their first of two annual breeding cycles coming in late winter.  Well, I can't be sure this is mating behavior, but it sure looks like it:

It could be a couple of males chasing a female, or it could just be animals fighting over the food supply in the yard as their natural sources become depleted in late winter.  Either way, it's fun to watch, and the timing is about right for mating:  Gray squirrels usually give birth to a litter of 1 to 4 blind babies in March after a gestation period of 44 days.  [Ref:  New Hampshire Nature Notes, Hilbert R. Siegler, pg. 105]  Did you know that squirrels are considered a game animal in some states?  Hunting of gray squirrels was banned in New Hampshire between 1915 and 1935 but is now allowed from September 1st through December 31st.  [Ref: ibid]  I did find one small snack that some animal squirreled away in a little hidey-hole.

I wonder if the owner will ever come back to claim it.  Or if an oak tree will grow out of the middle of a Maple.  Now that would be something to ponder if one came across such a sight ten years from now.

It was cold at the end of the week, but we are into meteorological spring now, and one can feel it in the warmth of the sun, even on those crazy days in late February when the temperature hit 60 degrees. 
Not the usual lake surface for sunbathing
It won't be long now....

Saturday, February 25, 2017

February 25, 2017 - Snowshoe Tour

Today the Lake Wicwas Association held its first ever Guided Snowshoe Tour, in the Hamlin/Eames Conservation Area.  A hardy group started out in what looked like dreary conditions, but as soon as we departed from the trailhead the sky cleared and the sun shone through, giving us a beautiful warm day to tour the beaver ponds. 
Morning sun burning off the fog

We hiked the Four Ponds Loop, including a stop at the old Stanton cellar hole, and a couple of spur trails to beaver ponds.
The result of warm moist air encroaching on the cold snow pack of a beaver pond

The snow was soft but firm enough underfoot for good traveling.  We stopped at the bridge on the Blue Link to the Yellow Trail to observe the back side of the beaver dam.
Bridge below the beaver pond
We also went onto the pond to see the front side of the dam, as well as the beaver lodge.
On the beaver pond
The lodge is the white mound on the left, the dam the longer, lower mound in the shadows on the right

We then continued on to complete the Four Ponds Loop.  Along the way we saw tracks of squirrel, mink, fox, porcupine, and even fisher! 
Fisher Tracks

We found that stream crossings are good places to look for tracks, as animals frequent the open water to drink.  Someone noted the lack of deer prints - they tend to not travel very far when the snow is deep.  Even with all the warm weather this week there is still a deep snow pack in the forest.
Only the flowing streams have melted through the heavy snow pack

We also saw signs of porcupine dining in the hemlock trees, the snow below littered with dropped hemlock branches, and talked about how porcupine have very little fear of other animals with the exception of the fisher.  The brave, strong, quick fisher is one of the very few animals that will take on a porcupine.  A desperate bobcat or coyote might try but not have good time of it.  And then of course, a domestic dog that has lost enough of its original wolf DNA to have forgotten to avoid this prickly attraction.

All told, we toured 1.9 miles of this winter wonderland.  Here is a map of the route we walked.

By the time we returned to the parking lot, tired, yet invigorated, the sun had melted enough snow that there was noticeably more water running underneath the bridge at the trailhead.  We were tired, but a great time was had by all!  Many thanks to everyone who participated and provided their contribution to our knowledge about this area and its wildlife.  Shall we do it again?
The gallant LWA Snowshoe Team

Sunday, February 19, 2017

February 19, 2017 - The Bobcat Returns

More snow this week - it's beautiful around the lake now, and definitely winter!
Got Snow?

After seeing the bobcat return last week I decided to go out and follow its tracks to see what I could learn about their life in the wild.  The first thing I discovered is that they don't follow the direct, straight line path that a fox does.  He (I'll call it a "he" for reasons to be explained in a minute) tended to wander on a more twisty-turny path than the fox.  It walked to and around lots of trees, under low hanging branches, in general, making my life difficult!  At one point the trail ended at a small hemlock tree with no indication of where he went next.
A dead-end trail

I searched for exiting tracks, even checking neighboring trees to see if he jumped over to another tree, but nothing.  Finally I realized I hadn't noticed that the trail I was following was actually a two-way trail.  He had turned around at the hemlock and walked back using the exact same footprints, the only clue being foot drag marks on both sides of each print.  So I went back to the tree to see why he went there, and found the answer.  Look at the picture - he had a nice blind to hide behind with a peep hole out to a clearing where squirrels travel frequently.  He probably laid there for a while, looking to see if this would be his lucky spot that day.

Retracing the trail I found the fork where he left his double track and I picked one of them to follow.  Perhaps a third of mile along I came across another spot where he had set up shop to work on lunch.
Hiding atop a small bluff (that's my snowshoe print on the far left)

Here there was a round bed melted in the snow right at the top of a ledge, where once again, he had a well-hidden spot with a wide view.  But again, no indication he found anything to go after.  Continuing along I came across the sign that led me to believe this was a male bobcat.
Marking his territory

Although hard to see, it's the tell tale sign of a male marking territory:  a sprinkle of urine in the snow on a hemlock branch.

Becoming more acquainted with his habits, when his trail approached this turn-around I knew what I was looking at.
A blind for watching wildlife that a duck-hunter would be proud of

All told I followed his trail for about a mile, learning where he travels and how he hunts for food.  The literature on bobcats state that rather than stalking prey they tend to hang out in hiding spots, waiting for their food to walk by and then pounce, and my observations are consistent with this.  But not surprisingly, I have evidence they use whatever method suits the moment.

The very next day, the cat came back.  (Hmmm, maybe there's a song in there....)  He was moving slowly this time, creeping carefully along towards the bird feeders where a couple of red squirrels were feeding on the ground.  He crept slowly and carefully.


He slunk to the base of tree where a squirrel had disappeared.

Then pounced!

He dug deep into the snow for over a minute, but those squirrels have great tunnels, and it was long gone out to another entrance - we saw it scampering up a tree right above the cat.  The bobcat did pop his head up a couple times to look around.

I don't know if he didn't see the squirrel - hard to imagine - or whether he knew he couldn't catch a red squirrel by the time it was up in the dense branches of pine and hemlock trees.  So he sat in the hole he had dug, waiting to see if anyone else dared to come by.
Here he is, in yet another hiding spot

I can picture him sitting like this in each of the spots I found on my earlier hike.

I was a little surprised to see birds still flying to the feeders with a cat in the yard - you can see one approaching the feeder in an earlier picture - but neither bird nor cat seemed to pay any attention to each other. 

After a few minutes he went on his way along the lake following the shoreline.  Another effort that went unrewarded.  It's a good thing they have nothing to do all day but hunt.

I enjoyed my time learning about these secretive creatures first hand.  Books are great, but there's nothing like experiencing animals in their natural habitat.  It's just another reminder of the importance of protecting special places.