Snowshoe Adventure (Part 3)

(I swear this is not an April Fool’s Day post. I tried and failed to think of something clever for April Fool’s Day. This is just the continuation of Part 1 and Part 2 of last week’s snowshoe adventure.)

Okay, so we maybe, possibly found evidence that there have been Black-backed Woodpeckers hanging around Inkpot Lake this winter. Did we see anything else worth mentioning? Yes. Yes we did.

In February I wrote about a previous expedition to Inkpot Lake and included a photo of a tunnel in the snow that, judging by the tracks leading to it, had been made by an otter. This time we found the edges of the lake heavily crisscrossed with more otter tracks and belly slides. Clearly this is a popular spot for them.

Snowshoe hare tracks on the left, otter belly slide on the right.
Snowshoe hare tracks on the left, otter belly slide on the right.

So, as we left the boggy area behind and worked our way back around the canoe launch, I kept pausing to examine every dark dot on the far side of the lake with my binoculars. I found a lot of stumps and bushes, but finally I found a dark dot that moved. Ready for a really terrible photo of an otter?

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Ta-da!

Actually we counted three otters total, frolicking around on the opposite side of the lake from us. It was pretty great. After I commented “Wow, it’s a whole pile of otters,” Leanna wondered what the collective noun for otters really is, so I looked it up and according to Wikipedia one word that gets used is “romp.” A romp of otters! Perfect!

We declared this adventure to be a huge success.

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Otter Tunnels on Inkpot Lake

Image from Google Maps
Image from Google Maps
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Click to see panorama full size

One of the lakes on our campus has the evocative name of Inkpot. Unlike the rest of them, which are clear, pristine, eutrophic kettle lakes, take a canoe out on Inkpot in the summer and you’ll discover that it’s surprisingly murky and full of aquatic vegetation. Part of the reason for this, according to one of the science teachers here, is that it’s at a slightly lower elevation than the other lakes; another reason is that a sluggish stream flows through it from a nearby spring, meaning it’s the only lake on campus with any current. There’s even an old beaver dam at the outflow, although it doesn’t appear to be actively maintained by beavers anymore.

The current means the ice is thinner on Inkpot than on the true kettle lakes, and I’d heard that last weekend someone saw otters there, coming and going through a small patch of open water. Today a friend and I skied out that way, and while we didn’t see otters or any open water, we did see otter tracks of varying ages criss-crossing the surface of the ice. At one point an older set of tracks appeared to vanish at the lake’s edge, and I managed to push my skis through a snowdrift to get a closer look.

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So yeah, today I learned that otters make snow tunnels just like mice and squirrels do!

One other small point of interest: getting out to this lake, at the far western end of the property, required skiing a much longer, hillier trail than I’d done before, and actually getting to the edge of the lake required leaving the groomed trail and going down a slope through a couple feet of fluffy, unpacked snow. And then back up it when we were done. On skis. There was a lot of screaming and falling. Leanna, the friend who went with me (and the person in the panorama above), composed a haiku about the experience that she wanted me to share with you.

On an adventure
Otter tunnels in the snow
Sp-lat on my back

She is adamant that “sp-lat” should be pronounced as two syllables.

Otters at Play

Okay, I didn’t actually see the otters themselves, but this is almost as cool. This week I’ve been teaching my students the basics of identifying animal tracks. (I’m hardly an expert on the subject myself, but I know enough about it to teach a short lesson, anyway.) In the woods near one of the lakes we found this odd groove in the snow, as though something had been dragged.

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Can you see it? I’ve been having trouble getting tracks in the snow to show up well in photos.

It was a bit of a mystery until we followed the trail down to the edge of the lake.

003 (768x1024)An otter had been playing in the ice and snow, running around and doing belly slides. What looked like a trail left by something being dragged through the snow was actually from an otter pushing itself along on its belly. I love that otters seem to enjoy playing in the snow every bit as much as people do!

Speaking of people playing in the snow, you haven’t lived until you’ve watched a group of teenagers play snowshoe kickball. Snowshoe kickball is just like regular kickball, except it’s played in the snow while wearing snowshoes, and there’s generally a lot of falling down.

Have a good weekend!

Gratitude

I know, I’m a week early for Thanksgiving, but I want to tell you a story.

Remember, you can always click on photos to view them full-size.

Just before I left to go on my walk this afternoon, I received an email with some bad news. Don’t worry, nothing life-altering, just enough that I was feeling kind of sad when I set out. I took my binoculars with me because coworkers and students at lunch had told me about seeing White-winged Crossbills and Pine Grosbeaks on campus in the past day, so I wanted to keep an eye out for winter finches.

I walked out to the same section of bog that in the past has yielded my first Gray Jays here, my life Boreal Chickadee, and last spring a gorgeous look at a Blackburnian Warbler. A Gray Jay appeared almost immediately, and I thought to myself, even if I don’t find the crossbills that’s still a nice bird right there. Then, while I was watching it, two enormous dark birds flew in low over the spruce trees. Crows–no, bigger, must be ravens–no, eagles! Two adult Bald Eagles swooped low overhead and then chased each other out over the lake, calling the whole time. Yes, Bald Eagles are pretty common here, but if you ever become so jaded that a sight like that doesn’t make your heart pound a little, you have my pity.

Following the Bald Eagles with my eyes led me straight to the male White-winged Crossbill perched in full view in the sunlight at the top of a tree. After posing long enough for me to get a good look he followed his flock deeper into the bog. If you’re not sure what a crossbill is, Google them, they’re very cool.

On a whim, I walked further along the lake to a little boat-launching spot at the far edge of the school’s property. I don’t go that way very often, because the trail basically dead-ends there, but there were ducks far out on the lake and I wanted to see if I could find a better vantage point to watch them. As I walked down to the lake’s edge I heard a splash. Must have scared away a muskrat, I thought. But as I was pishing at the chickadees in the bushes–I can never resist stopping to gossip with chickadees–I saw a face watching me from a hole in the thin ice around the lake’s edge, around twenty feet out.

An unmistakable face. A river otter face.

I had never seen a river otter in the wild before. Sea otter yes. River otter no. And now one was staring at me.

Believe it or not, that black dot is the head of an otter.

After a minute it slowly swam away across the lake, toward the raft of mergansers bobbing in the open water. There were more crossbills foraging in the trees around me. The eagles were still chasing each other on the far shore. Waiting for me when I got home from my walk was a snug apartment, a nice dinner, and friends who’d be excited to hear about my latest wildlife sightings.

What could I possibly have to be sad about?