Wildlife Pond at Beaver Brook Reservation
December 22, 2016
As soon as I enter Beaver Brook Reservation from the parking area off Route 130 and meet Dam Road, I see bounding eastern chipmunk tracks crossing the path. It’s about forty degrees and sunny today, so this chipmunk is probably out taking advantage of this beautiful weather to take care of a few errands.
Wildlife Pond is covered with snow; and, with coyote tracks. Now common in New England, coyotes were first noticed in New Hampshire back in 1944, according to Maine Wildlife Biologist, Henry Hilton.
Most of these tracks lead from the very edge of the pond out toward the center, sometimes in a straight line, sometimes in a shallow arc, leading back to the shore. Coyote tracks have a very different feel to them as compared with a dogs. You can see the determined gate of the coyote; while a dog moves in free-wheeling turns, expending energy without a care in the world, the coyote conserves energy, traveling the shortest distance from point-A to point-B; it’s looking for food and wary of its surroundings.
I do notice one interesting set of tracks right off Center Bridge, alongside the beaver dam. These coyote tracks run in an orderly manner along the north side of the dam. I’ve seen meadow voles in this area and perhaps that’s what the coyote was looking for. I do see smaller sets of tracks near to these coyote tracks, but they belong to a red squirrel. The tracks lead for several yards and then turn north and head toward the middle of the pond in a smooth arc. A second set of tracks leads toward me, from farther along Center Bridge and also moves straight along the dam, but suddenly cuts back, makes a sharp five-foot diameter loop and heads over and down the dam. Did it spot an animal, perhaps the red squirrel, as it was walking alongside the dam?
I follow still another set of coyote tracks that lead over the embankment that leads to Center Bridge and along the edge of the snow-covered pond. At the cove alongside Wildlife Pond Loop Trail, I see squirrel tracks and coyote tracks crisscrossing each other. There’s a spot on the pond where there appears to be some sort of scuffle, but it might just be the coyote slipping on the ice.
Continuing to follow the coyote tracks, I bushwhack off the Loop Trail to my right, in a southeasterly direction. I walk under hemlock and pine trees, through mountain laurels, following the coyote tracks to an area below a hemlock bare of snow but covered with slender branches and pine needles. Several tracks go to and from this area, which has apparently been used a resting area for these coyote.
I continue southeast, and, at length, I exit onto an open marsh southeast of Wildlife Pond. It’s several acres of open space, once a loose pine forest with a brook running through it that emanated from Wildlife Pond.
When beavers dammed the brook, the trees died and others were cut down by the beavers. Before long, this loose woods became a beaver pond. There are two beaver dams in this marsh, but they look as if they’re no longer occupied. Most likely, the pond was abandoned by the beavers. The dams were no longer repaired, and the former beaver pond drained out, giving wetland plants and grasses a chance to take over. These plants include leatherleaf, wool grass, cat-tail, swamp loosestrife, water horehound, common nightshade and tussock sedge.
This is my first visit to this marsh, so I don’t know how deep it is, but, I’m assuming it’s pretty shallow. The water’s frozen over and today it’s covered by a light layer of snow from last night. This light snow creates perfect animal tracks, and there are many sets of coyote tracks throughout this open land. A coyote pack consists of two mating adults (coyotes mate for life) and offspring. I’m guessing, but there appears to be a half-dozen different sets of coyote tracks, some males and some smaller females. Coyotes typically mate in January and four to six pups are born in March or April. There are typically four to six pups to a litter. At about nine months, when the parents are ready to mate, the fully grown young are chased off the home territory to find their own home base.
[I later sent photos of the tracks and area to New Hampshire Fish and Game and soon heard back from Wildlife Biologist, Patrick Tate. Tate also believed that a family group or pack was using this marsh. He also noted, from the pictures I sent, that there appears to be either gray or red fox tracks mixed in. “Wetlands are used at a very high rate during winter months by canine species,” Tate wrote, “and other predator species, as it allows efficient travel and abundant rodents on the marsh edges.”]
The number of tracks I see here is what I’d expect to see at a popular dog park. But, these aren’t dog prints; and, there aren’t any human footprints except for my own. I believe this is at least part of a territory. Territories are included within what’s called a home range. This open area with denser surrounding woods and abundant sedge tussocks seems ideal as what’s called a core area within a larger territory.
I continue to follow the tracks, testing the ice, and I soon see coyote scat that appears to be from sometime last night. It’s grayish-brown with pieces of yellow kernels of corn. This coyote, perhaps the entire pack, most likely visited some nearby farm and ate from the remnants of this summer’s crop. Coyote mark their territories with urine, but they also use scat; so this might be an attempt to indicate that this territory is off-limits to visitors.
I ignore this warning and move forward across the snow-covered ice. I don’t know what it means for a human to ignore a coyote warning. I’m not worried about being attacked. I’m more concerned that I’m upsetting the pack’s hunting ground. Will they return when they sense that I’ve been here? Would my scent in the air and boot marks be enough to indicate that I’ve been here? Are they resting in the adjacent woods and watching me at this moment? I continue toward one of the beaver dams.
These tracks show several types of trails or gaits, including a typical walking pattern, a straddle trot (the front and hind feet diagonal and close), bounding (according to Mark Elbroch in Mammal Tracks & Signs, 2003, this can indicate one coyote catching up to a playmate). Each gate potentially tells a story; most likely, I’m seeing young coyote’s playing and adults hunting mice in the tussock sedge, perhaps looking for deer at the woodland edge.
The tracks lead around the beaver den, but they don’t lead to the top of it as I might expect. Though this den appears to have been abandoned, coyotes don’t typically attack beavers anyway; they’re just too big and strong.
I continue toward the second den and notice that they do climb up and over this den.
There are some red berries of climbing nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) dangling from the side of the den, but they appear untouched. Though poisonous to humans, many animals do eat these fruits. I imagine the young coyote playing on top of the den, chasing each other over it and maybe trying to squeeze between the beaver cut branches. One of the benefits of not having a script is that I’m free to imagine my own activities and dramas from the evidence at hand. And, from the multitude of tracks, the various gates, the tracks crisscrossing and running together, the slides and apparent resting areas, I imagine a lot of activity.
Beyond this second beaver den, I see a large patch of snow, about two hundred square feet, at the far edge of the marsh, that’s totally covered by overlapping tracks; there’s barely an inch of undisturbed snow. This seems to have been a resting place for the pack.
Circling the perimeter of the marsh, I see another pile of scat toward the outer edge of the marsh toward where I first entered. This orangish-tan scat consists mostly of seeds, including carrots, apple seeds and tan-colored climbing nightshade seeds. So, apparently, they are eating the nightshade fruits I found on the beaver den. The most common coyote scat found in winter consists of the fir and bones of small rodents. But, this early in winter, there would still be easy access to leftover fruits and vegetables left out at local farms.
I return to the spot where I entered the marsh and notice a three-inch diameter hole that reaches deep inside this relatively healthy eight- or nine-inch diameter red maple.
It could be a former woodpecker nesting hole or even the current home of a flying squirrel. I knocked on the tree, but there was no movement, so I assume that it’s not inhabited at this moment. Now that I think of it, I’ve read how the flying squirrel population in Massachusetts has been decimated because coyotes ate them all (In Search of the New England Coyote by Peter Anderson, 1982).
I step into the pine woods and return to the Wildlife Pond Loop Path and circle counter-clockwise around the pond. When I reach the northernmost end of the pond, I notice several birds fliting about the edge of the pond. From the way they’re flying together from tree to tree and from the flash of blue, I know they’re bluebirds. I follow them along the edge of the pond and see the duller winter blue and brown feathers.
Each year, more bluebirds seem to remain north through the winter months. On the one hand, it’s a treat to see these beautiful birds year-around, their blue plumage against the clean white snow. On the other hand, we’ve lost an important harbinger of spring. These bluebirds are chirping quietly as they move about, all moving in unison.
A bird’s knocking on the pines or oaks in the woods to the right of the path. I follow the sound and see a downy woodpecker circling an oak tree. Then, I see a red-bellied red woodpecker.
I’ve seen, and more often heard (they can be quite noisy in fall), these beautiful woodpeckers in these woods beginning about October. For my taste, the red-bellied and flicker are our most attractively colored woodpecker. The red-bellied isn’t very appropriately named, however. It has a black and white streaked and dotted back, a red head-dress that reaches down the back of its head, and, otherwise, it’s white, including its belly. But, the combination of bright red and black is exquisite.
Though once non-existent in our state, red-bellied woodpeckers have moved north over the past twenty or so years.
- 1883: Elliott Coues in New England Bird Life, wrote that “the Red-bellied is the rarest of all the New England Woodpeckers, being in fact only a casual summer visitor to the limit of the Carolinian Fauna, or slightly beyond.” Coues mentioned one early record in Connecticut in 1843.
- 1982: Kimball C. Elkins, in A Checklist of the Birds of New Hampshire, listed the red-bellied woodpecker as “very rare to casual.”
- 1990: A Beaver Brook Association bird list identified them as “Uncommon to Rare.
- 1994: The Atlas of Breeding Birds in New Hampshire mentioned that red-bellied woodpeckers seem to be increasing as summer residents; and from that time on, their numbers began increasing in the northeast.
- 2001: The Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count for New Hampshire listed 21 red-bellied woodpeckers.
- 2004: Audubon, updating Elkin’s “Checklist,” listed red-bellies as “uncommon to fairly common.” Today: They’ve become more common in the southern sections of New Hampshire throughout the year.
I’ve been watching the red-bellied woodpecker for about fifteen minutes, but now it’s time to return to the parking area off Route 130. It’s almost four o’clock and the sun is quickly setting. On my way, I saw a human family of eight walking on the ice-covered Wildlife Pond with two dogs, where they were apparently taking a Christmas photo. I suppose, I’d prefer to see the pack of coyotes walking, bounding and trotting about, but it’s nice to see that humans enjoy this place as much as the animals for whom it’s been protected.