Monday, December 30, 2013

December 30, 2013

Winter has returned to Lake Wicwas, and just in time for people to enjoy the holidays and extended vacations.  This past weekend there were lots of people out on the lake - I saw hikers, skiers, people ice fishing, people snowshoeing, and the first snow mobile tracks on the lake.  Sunday night brought our first heavy, wet snow of the season, what I call cement snow.  It tends to stick on the trees even after the inevitable northwest winds that follow a New England storm blow through.

It gets plastered to everything, and freezes on hard, bending branches and trees, but making for beautiful winter scenes.

The contrast in light makes things stand out that I have missed even though I likely walked right past them the day before.  Here I saw a tree that has been freshly harvested by the Pileated Woodpecker, searching for the eggs of carpenter ants left to hatch this spring.

And Linda caught this Red Fox trotting across the lake, taking a short cut to one of its favorite hunting grounds. 

This is the time of year when red fox pair up - they have been solitary since raising their kits, but now they are preparing for their courtship in late winter.  Their coats have built up their full winter thickness which allows them to hunt on cold winter nights, although on nights like this week, when it may get below zero, they may may spend more time in their den.

I recently learned that red fox are not native to North America.  It seems the British were getting frustrated hunting the indigenous gray fox - because they can climb trees, which rather defeated their whole hunting strategy using dogs and horses.  So they brought over some of their favorite red foxes rather than having to adapt their sport to the local fauna.

Here we are, not even out of December, and already well into the depths of winter.  Meredith Bay on Winnipesaukee is already frozen over, which is good news for the fishing derby and the New England Pond Hockey Classic.  We probably won't see the ground again until late March or April, especially if the weather pattern keeps bringing us snow twice a week!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

December 22, 2012

I had a great adventure tracking a Fisher Cat today, as the soft snow and warm weather made fine tracks to follow.  I noticed the tracks when I was skiing yesterday, and went out on show shoes to follow their story.

Fisher Cat Trail
I don't know whether it was a male or a female, but based on the size of its stride and its body, I'm going to guess it was a female.  The distance between her strides when she was moving in open space was about 42" - a good length, but a full grown male will bound up to 52".  Of course, it could be a small male as well. 
42" Between Prints

I followed her tracks for several miles, sometimes in open areas, sometimes in dense trees, but always going from tree to tree.  She would frequently dig around in the snow looking for a squirrel or mouse, and occasionally she would tunnel under the snow or under a tree stump.  Here she tunneled along under a fallen tree for a good 12 feet.
Searching for Rodents under a Fallen Tree
She favored large pines and hemlocks, climbing up them for who knows how long.  It does make it little harder to follow a fisher track than a fox or coyote, as I had to search around a bit to find where she came back down on the ground.  Sometimes it was quite obvious, as she would occasionally jump out of the tree, leaving a full body implant, sometimes with even a tail print. 
Imprint from jumping our of a tree

This is how I could estimate the size of this fisher cat (the largest member of weasel family that lives in New England).

In one instance I could see that she had leaped onto a tree as well, as blown snow had stuck to the side of the tree, and she left four clear paw prints in the snow where she landed before jumping higher up on the trunk.

Fisher cats have a swivel joint in their rear ankle (reference Rezendes, "Tracking and the Art of Seeing") which lets them climb down trees head-first as well as up them.

She led me on quite a tour of the south east side of Lake Wicwas:  up hills, along ridges, to the shore line (where she hunted for mice under a tree blown over by the July 2012 storm), along streams and across marshes.
I never found any evidence of her catching her prey, but I did find where she had climbed up some winterberry bushes to eat the berries.  She left a few scattered on the ground....

But it's clear that she did have some luck in her hunting, proven by her scat.  She left a couple of markers for the other animals - in obvious, well visible locations.  This sample shows lots of evidence of vegetable matter, including some undigested winter berries.

This sample however, had feathers in it:
Perhaps she caught a chick-a-dee in one of her excursions up a hemlock!

In a large stand of hemlock trees, I believe I found either her home territory, or a favorite hunting ground, as there were tracks everywhere.  And I could see why - there were signs of red squirrels everywhere as well, with debris from pine cones, and lots of holes where squirrels live and hide.
I even followed her trail up a rocky ledge where she crossed some porcupine trails that led into the porcupine's den - but she didn't seem interested in meeting up with a porcupine in its own home.  A fisher cat will take on a porcupine, but that, along with the deer tracks I found, are a story for another day. 

I'll close for now with the satisfaction of knowing that all the bird feeding (and squirrel feeding) that we do finds it way up the food chain, whether it's fox, hawks, or fisher cats!
Downy Woodpecker
There is plenty of entertainment around Lake Wicwas, in winter or summer!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

December 21, 2013

Ski season has arrived at Lake Wicwas.  I saw the first skier out on the lake last weekend, and I took my maiden voyage this weekend, before the rain came.  The snow was perfect: soft and bright, firm enough for a good kick, and slow enough to handle the downhills with ease.  I tracked out my favorite trail,
First Ski of the Season

and also trekked across the ice a bit, but a layer of slush has formed under the snow already, making it not as pleasant as on the trails - and that was before the rain.

I came upon a set of mink tracks coming out from under a tree trunk at the water's edge.
Mink Tracks

I'll watch for more tracks in this area this winter.  Mink keep several dens, usually living in one for a few days before moving on to another.

I didn't see any fox or deer tracks in the deep snow, even several days after it fell.  I expect now that I've set some ski tracks the fox will find them soon enough, as they like the easy traveling that the packed trail allows.  I might see deer tracks as well now that the warm weather has thinned out the snow cover.  I had a report of a deer killed on the ice near Bryant Island.  I'm not sure I'm ready to trust the ice enough to venture out in that area, especially with the warm weather of the past few days.  Let's hope we get back to winter soon!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday, December 8, 2013

December 8, 2013

The ice on Lake Wicwas did survive the warm weather this week, though it took a toll on it.  The hard, black ice softened, and lost a half an inch of depth, down to about 1-1/2" thick.  The rain that fell covered the surface creating a reflecting pool above the ice.

Then a miniscule amount of snow came and fell on the ice, creating an opaque surface after it froze, transforming the visual appearance of the lake more towards its typical winter character.

It may look stronger and more secure than black ice, but it's only a deception!

On a walk along the shore I found an area that divulged the multiple stages of the lake freezing over.

The inner part of this cove froze first, with two more periods of cold extending the ice out each time.  The final freeze came after a south wind that blew leaf debris up against the ice where it will probably remain captive until spring (this was before the snow fell).

If you're on the NHLakes email list you received a nice description of the freezing process of New Hampshire's lakes - you can find it here:  How Lakes Freeze

The cracking on the lake last weekend was influenced by the lake level being drawn down, lowering the lake surface while the ice was anchored to the shoreline at a higher level.  This introduced cracks all along the shore.  This week, the rain brought the lake back up again, which raised the ice and allowed water to flow up through the cracks, over the ice sloping upwards towards the shore. 

On my walk along the shoreline I came across fresh signs of deer around the lake, so it looks as though some survivors will make it through the end of hunting season.  The squirrels are also digging in the still-soft ground as well, collecting food for winter.

I also noticed buds on the beech trees, already prepared for their new growth in 2014. 

Perhaps this is what lets them be one of the first trees to push out leaves in the spring.  It is also interesting that beech are among the last trees to lose their leaves in the fall (many are still hanging on, even with snow collecting on them).

I wonder if the deer and squirrel feed on these buds during the winter.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Nov 30, 2013

Lake Wicwas is frozen! 
Ice in:  29 November 2013
The cold night on Thanksgiving did the trick, with a solid layer of ice across the entire lake on Friday morning. Most of the surface is smooth, with only a few rough areas that froze up in windy conditions.  If this holds, it will tie a record for the earliest ice-in that I have seen.

The ice was not even an inch thick, but it was crystal clear and sturdy enough to bear my weight (a foot from shore that is). 

Standing on it, I could see the ice flex, pressing down into the lake and pushing water up over the surface from gaps along the shore line.  On Friday night the temperature dropped into the single digits (the average low for today is 22 degrees) and the ice was already cracking loudly enough to wake me up in the night.  The dam is drawing water out rapidly from the lake, so the level is dropping which likely adds to the stress on the ice.

I woke up to ice also forming on the porch windows.

These ice formations on the glass always intrigue me, with their widely varying designs. 

Sometimes they form sharp, dagger-like shapes, while in close proximity there can be smooth, curling shapes.

But they are always fascinating.

After the cold night and continued below-freezing temperatures during the day, the ice had increased to two inches thick by Saturday noon - I stepped out far enough to cut a hole. 

A few chips of wood had blown out onto the ice, and it appears the water they absorbed during last week's rain was being extracted by the cold, forming even more fantastic ice crystals shooting out of the porous wood.
Ice Crystals on Wood Chips

I think Lake Wicwas may be frozen over now right into spring, as it would take a pretty long stretch of warm weather to thaw out two inches of ice with no open areas to let the wind and waves participate.  Only time will tell.  But with a little luck from the weather, maybe we'll get some skating over the next few weeks.