(Important Disclaimer: There are places where ice forms many feet thick and travel on frozen lakes is perfectly safe for a good part of the season. In other places, especially during a winter like this one, ice conditions can change from day to day, even hour to hour.
The strengthening sun creates soft spots as melt water collects in the dips between expansion cracks, and a route that was safe in the morning merits a second look after lunch. Faint tracks mark yesterday’s trail, which puddled up and froze over last night, leaving a thin veneer over a foot of nothing but slush and at least a bracing dunk.
If asked, Quill Gordon will tell you no ice is safe, but if you do find yourself crossing a frozen lake, check ice thickness often and be aware of changing conditions.)
An overnight skiff of snow on the ice is like a clean slate. Any tracks or other signs of activity I see are recent, laid down only hours before my morning rounds. Otters, mink and squirrels are common, and I saw the tracks of a fisher cat last week but, far and away, the most common tracks I come across are those of coyotes.
It’s the time for pairing off and denning up, asserting dominance and proving worth, and the coyotes have been plenty active. Most are travelling in pairs, but a big, lone male has also been out and about.
Rain and mild temperatures at the end of January turned what snow we had to ice and conditions have been treacherous. Slip and fall injuries have been common in these parts lately and, even if the fall is averted, the slips can be painful. I suspect our lone male suffered just such a slip, causing him to drag a right foot and giving him a very distinctive track.
Open water is a draw, allowing mink and otter access to food such as crayfish. It is not uncommon to come across the remains of their meals at springs, seeps, and the mouths of feeder streams.
A leisurely snack in the predawn chill might seem as good as it gets to an otter or mink, but they are not the only creatures aware of the food potential of these spots. In the space of an instant, the eating can become the eaten, as an ambush is sprung or a mad rush pays off.
Three nights ago, two coyotes, working together, waited for an otter to dive for another tasty morsel, pouncing when she returned to the mouth of the stream (I am guessing female because a very large male is still making the rounds, right now working the drainage below the house). They pulled, dragged and chased the otter away from the opening, toward the other shore, where she didn’t stand a chance in the end, but it was quite a scrap while it lasted. The commotion was enough to attract the attention of a third coyote, the lone male with the limp.
It was a chaotic scene, with three coyotes fighting for posession of an otter fighting for its life. Tracks and skid marks mingled as the fight raged, and blood spread across the snow, fading to yellow in the faint warmth of the morning sun. Other than tracks by the stream and some stains in the snow, the only signs of the otter that I could find were a few small clumps of fur and one small leg bone, dropped in the scuffle as someone tried to eat on the run.
I followed all three sets of coyote tracks out of the cove, behind an island, and toward the north. One set was small, a female, and the other two were large, both males, including the gimpy loner.
Another scuffle ensued and the two sets of large tracks diverged, with the gimpy male eventually heading west. The blood drops stayed with the other male, fading as they went, and I started to think he was carrying what was left of the otter as he veered to the northeast.
The small female pursued the gimpy male to the near shore before turning east and intercepting her mate. There was nothing oblique about the angle as these two met which I took to be the approach of a familiar, comfortable pair.
Together, the two of them trotted across the lake, their battered prey in tow, eventually leaving the ice and heading over the hill to their (newly discovered) den at the base of a blown down tree on the edge of the swamp.
Two coyotes got away with at least most of their kill, while another limped off in search of an easier meal. The next morning, signs of the pair’s success were scattered around in the form of greasy turds, showing bone chips and hair.
Coyotes are adaptable, resourceful, and opportunistic, so the male with the limp most certainly did not go hungry.
He’s been down behind the barn, digging through the snow beneath the apple trees, getting drunk on rotten fruit and maybe scarfing down the occasional mouse. The scat he leaves behind shows the result of his fruit-heavy diet.
Coyotes in Vermont can be shot, day or night, any time of year, so they tend to be skittish and sightings around here are rare, especially with our thick woods. Their tracks and signs always tell stories, just as those of otter and mink, but it is only on the ice that I have seen those stories played out from beginning to end, and the most obvious lesson I take away from these encounters is that life in the woods involves a lot of death.
That, and I’m not the only gimpy old guy who appreciates the therapeutic benefits of fermented fruit from time to time.
(Eastern coyotes tend to be larger and heavier than their western cousins. Various theories as to why have been discussed over the years, including hybridization with dogs. Thanks to modern DNA technology and the cooperation of hunters and trappers, we know hybridization is indeed the difference, but it was not with domestic dogs. According to the feature article in the Fall, 2010, issue of Vermont Furbearer Management Newsletter, some populations of western coyotes moved through Canada on their way east, where they interbred with Timber Wolves, creating something in between the two.)
More adventures on a frozen lake, from November, 2010: On Thin Ice