Dogs and Drift Ice

Twenty years ago my dog Tundra and I spent the winter on the northern tip of Cape Breton Island, house and dog-sitting. The owner of the handbuilt house and of Max the dog warned me that the roaring and pounding of the nearby ocean would start to drive me crazy after a while. Then one morning I’d wake up to … silence. That silence meant the drift ice was in.

It happened exactly as he said. I started by loving the sound of the ocean but eventually I wondered ‘Will it ever stop?’ Then one February morning I woke up and … dead silence. The dogs and I walked onto the beach and gazed across a vast expanse of ice where wild waves had been just the day before.

Tundra contemplates drift ice for the first time in her life: ‘Where did all the water go?’
Max is a local and has seen it all before. That’s Cape North in the distance.

The pooches and I spent many hours on that shore. The ice, formed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, breaks apart and drifts, blown about by the wind. Some days it crowded up against the shore, other days the wind blew it offshore until it was just a brilliant white line on the horizon. At times it was so tightly packed you could walk on it, but often it was broken into pans, or clampers, that shifted and jostled with the ocean’s motion. Clamper jumping is a sport of sorts, but only for The Young and the Reckless ;-)

One thing these photos don’t capture is the sounds the shifting ice makes. More that once I was spooked by the ghostly moans and shrieks from grinding ice. It put me in mind of those explorers, like Franklin and Shackleton, whose ships became trapped in the ice. The sounds (which included their ships being crushed) must have been hair-raising.

I’ve never been to the Arctic (see ‘bucket list’) but that winter, when I turned my back to the forested highlands and stared across the ice extending all the way to the horizon, I imagined myself there, alone in the arctic. I had a profound sense of my smallness and insignificance in the face of that vast white expanse. Of course, unlike those unlucky explorers, I could turn my back on the ice and head up to the house to warm up by the wood stove.

all alone

Unlike the Arctic Ocean, the open Atlantic rarely freezes. Salt water has a (slightly) lower freezing point than fresh and the constant mixing motion of waves, tides and currents inhibits freezing. Harbours and bays are more protected and they do freeze over. Seasonal ice also forms in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Strait of Belle Isle (between Labrador and Newfoundland). When the ice breaks up it finds its way to Cape Breton’s shores, usually arriving in northern Cape Breton in February and staying until April or May. Ice passes into the Cabot Strait between Cape Breton and Newfoundland, arriving here on the North Shore around March. That is, if it comes at all. With milder winters and warming oceans, there are years when there is little to no sea ice in the Gulf.

(Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, the North Shore is on the east side of the western peninsula of Cape Breton, just south of the area called ‘Down North’. Got it?)

This beauty, pretty in pink, is stranded on a bed of seaweed. Its drifting days are done.
Oh no! I’m falling apart!

I’d heard that the pinkish-red tinge often seen on the snowy ice is a souvenir from Prince Edward Island’s red sandy beaches. But it turns out to be Chlamydomonas nivalis, a unicellular green alga that contains a red carotenoid pigment called astaxanthin. Or, if you prefer, you can skip all the jargon and just go with the delightful name ‘watermelon snow’.

‘The Ice is in!’

The arrival of the ice is something of an event here (we lead quiet lives). Word gets out. There are photos posted on social media and comments about the sudden silence. But drift ice is more than just cool to look at (ha ha). Sea ice forms a protective barrier against winter’s heavy storm surf and reduces beach and cliff erosion. Loss of seasonal ice due to climate change removes that barrier and accelerates coastal erosion.

Where does the beach end and ocean begin? The ice protects the cliffs from winter storm surges.

The ice is also a convenient means of travel for all kinds of animals, including the human kind. It has become more treacherous for people and their heavy vehicles to traverse as our winters warm, but many animals still travel on the ice. I saw coyotes out on the northern drift ice a few times. It’s a convenient shortcut and easier going than deep snow. When coyotes migrated from the mainland to Cape Breton they didn’t need the causeway – they just sauntered across the ice. Drift ice is also a hunting ground for coyotes on the lookout for a seal meal.

No, that’s not a coyote in the shadows on the lower left, just a Tundra, cruising easily on the drift ice. Max, with built-in crampons, had no trouble scrambling around the icy boulders.
Tundra demonstrating how coyotes travel on ice.

Ice is the nursery where seals pup and nurse their young. Years with low or no ice can force seals to give birth on the shore, with greater exposure to predators. Or, as in the picture below, thin ice platforms might fragment before the pups are old enough to survive in the water.

A whitecoat all alone on a small floe in March 2011. I sure hoped mum was nearby.
Female grey seal on the North Shore, March 2006.
Note how the ice is protecting the beach from the heavy winter surf.

Drift Ice Gallery

What I love most about the ice is the astonishing array of shapes and forms it takes. Last December I posted Winter’s Art Gallery, a photo essay of winter’s beautiful creations of ice and snow. I omitted drift ice from that gallery since it deserves a page all its own. Now, combing through dozens of photos taken over the years, I’m finding it hard to choose. But here are the finalists. Click to see full-size versions of these any of the photos on this page.

The Beauties …

And the winner is …
Reflections
Upside down mushroom cloud
Right side up pink mushroom on a bed of seaweed
Mushrooms galore!
View north to Cape Smokey with mini icebergs, called bergy bits or growlers.
One more for the ‘dogs and drift ice’ department: Neighbour dog Mya with more growlers in 2008.

… and the Beasts

In March 2012 an ice wall formed along this beach. Waves jumbled and tumbled ice chunks and also froze in place to form these strange shapes. Do you see sea monsters too? Or is it just me …

Enter the monster gallery if ye dare …
Winged sea monster rising from the deeps.
Meeting of the Monsters. Big Mouth on the left and Sea Sasquatch standing waist deep on the right.
Creepy Face!
Ice raft of the doomed.
Ice bears awaken and look out to sea.

And then we go from the sublime …

Canada geese drift past drift ice


… to the ridiculous

The flying saucer has landed
The alien emerges on its floating watercraft and waves hello

The drift ice has already come and gone along the North Shore but I spoke with my faithful correspondent and there is still ice down north. So who knows? Perhaps the ice will drift over for one more visit before it goes into a final meltdown. But by July it will be us, not ice, floating about on the ocean.

Not quite lobster season yet but coming soon to a wharf near you!

One final note: I’m a transplanted Albertan and my knowledge of the sea, sea ice and sea-ice terminology is limited. If I’ve made any mistakes or if you have any observations to add, please feel free to let me know in the comments below. I’m always keen to learn.

Sue McKay Miller
April 6, 2022

In memory of Tundra, my faithful traveling companion on the road and in life (1991-2007)

Meet the Mystery Mammal

Last October I introduced you to a few of My Wild Neighbours. This month I want to focus on a newcomer to the neighbourhood, first encountered in April 2020. The tale begins with a tail: a long, round tail attached to a long-bodied, short-legged critter diving over a roadside snowbank. I only saw the backside of the furry animal, but the size and shape and that long round tail suggested an otter from the nearby river.

A few days later I was snowshoeing through old spruce forest and saw some unusual tracks. In The Secret Lives of Animals I wrote about my favourite winter activity: following animal tracks on snowshoe. Tracks tell me who is out and about and where they go on this land we share. I’d been following tracks for some 15 years at that point, so I was familiar with the usual suspects. And these weren’t any of those.

Hmm … Who have we here?

I recalled the otter-like animal I’d diving over the snowbank. Otters are water weasels. When they visit, they slide along on their bellies, leaving distinctive grooves, and head straight for the pond, dipping under the ice into the frigid water. These strange tracks were in a dense stand of trees up beyond the pond. And not a belly-slide in sight. I began to wonder if there was a new kid on the block.

Otters like water!

I soon found out. I was lingering over coffee on a sunny Easter morning and looked out the window. An animal was loping along on the far side of the frozen pond, very dark against the brilliant white snow. I grabbed my binoculars and got a good look. My suspicions were correct: It was a fisher! He – or she – did a circuit all the way around the pond before heading up into the woods.

Now this was exciting! I’d seen a wide variety of mammals in the Holler over the years, but this was the first time I’d seen a fisher. What a thrill, after so many years, to see a critter for the first time! Later that afternoon I was bundled up, sitting outside. I heard the strangest sounds coming from the woods on the far side of the pond. My go-to animals when I hear weird noises are crows – they have an astonishing repertoire of vocalizations – but this didn’t quite fit the usual cacophony of a crow mob.

Mystery solved a moment later. A fisher came barrelling out of the woods onto the ice with a second fisher hot on its heels and making those bizarre growly sounds. Growly chased the other fisher across the pond and up into the woods. A minute later he came back down, loped back across the pond and headed back up into the forest. A very exciting Easter Sunday here in the boonies!

(Above photos taken in 2021)

Fishers are members of the weasel family (Mustelidae) which includes otters, minks, martens, and ermines, plus off-island species such as skunks, badgers, wolverines and other weasels. The name fisher is misleading. Unlike their water-weasel cousins, otters and minks, fishers rarely fish. These carnivores feed mainly on hares, rodents, grouse, and, alas, the occasional small pet. We don’t have porcupines on Cape Breton Island, but mainland fishers hunt these prickly prey. Fishers prefer mature forest habitat and are remarkably adept tree climbers. Like all members of the weasel family, fishers are fierce and punch well above their weight.

Don’t mess with this character!

Those first sightings were in April, 2020. Fast forward to winter 2021 and once again I strapped on the snowshoes and began checking out local animal tracks. In February I posted a photo of some mystery tracks in The Secret Lives of Animals. The snow was too soft to form a clear impression, but I found other mystery tracks soon after, possibly from the same creature. After that I started seeing these new tracks all over the place – near the house and through the woods and all over the pond. As you can imagine, I had my suspicions as to the likely culprit.

And what about these? Tracks can look very different, depending on snow conditions and gait. When the hind foot steps onto the forefoot track, it can alter the shape. Very confusing.
Running track typical of weasel family; hind feet register in the front tracks. (Ruler is 46 cm/18″)

A track is evidence but a sighting is proof. One day I looked out and there he was, poking around in the snow beside the house. My compost pile is under there so he may have been rooting for root veggies. On the other hand, the local squirrels have a network of snow tunnels there too, so he may have been hunting something more appetizing than rotten banana peels.

Like coyotes and other carnivores, fishers patrol large territories. Based on all those tracks I’d been seeing, it looked like my home was smackdab in the middle of this fiesty fellah’s new territory. (After seeing Growly in action, I’m going with ‘he’.)

My new neighbour had no qualms about inviting himself right up onto my deck. I think these predators, like Ollie the barred owl (Hoots in the Holler) and the great horned owl (My Wild Neighbours) like my deck for the same reason humans like hunting blinds in trees – all the better for spotting prey. Plus fisher’s nose may have led him up onto the deck after squirrel’s scent, since squirrel seems to think I built the deck purely for his pleasure. One thing for sure, fisher is just as able to climb posts and trees as his wily prey. Watch out squirrel!

Fishers, known locally as fisher cats, are not unknown in this area. Some of my neighbours (the human ones I mean ;-) have seen them now and then, but they aren’t common. It does seem that there have been more frequent sightings of fishers around the island lately, so perhaps they are making a comeback. (Fishers virtually disappeared from Nova Scotia about 100 years ago due to trapping and habitat loss but were reintroduced to the eastern mainland in the 1960’s.) Or, as someone suggested, maybe we are seeing more fishers around because ongoing clearcutting is forcing them to find new territories. The current population and status of this animal seems to be yet one more mystery.

So now here we are in 2022 and it’s snowshoe time again. I haven’t seen a fisher-in-the-fur lately, but I have been seeing tracks in the woods and on the frozen pond as fisher prowls his territory. He’s not a mystery mammal anymore, or even the new kid on the block. He’s just another one of my wild neighbours, hanging out here in the Holler.

Sue McKay Miller
January 31st, 2022

p.s. Please share your own fisher sightings and observations in the comments. As always, I welcome any corrections or additional information – I’m still learning!

Just moseying across the pond.

Funky Frogs

I became fascinated with frogs soon after I moved to Highland Holler. It was hard not to – I’m surrounded by them here. There are green frogs, leopard frogs, pickerel frogs, wood frogs, toads, spring peepers – making a racket, hopping around, laying eggs, hatching into tadpoles, morphing into froglets and other such froggy business. But in this, my first frog-blog, I’m focusing on those heralds of spring: wood frogs and peepers.

I’m fond of all frogs but my favourites are wood frogs, first out of the gate in the great mating frenzy of spring. Wood frogs are amazing amphibians who can actually freeze solid during the winter – how cool is that? (Below zero cool!) They accomplish this astonishing act by flooding their cells with cryoprotectants, like glucose. When these frogsicles thaw out they initiate the spring singsong.

Wood frogs crack me up. These little fellas quack and cackle rather than croak, sounding like a coven of demented ducks. They can be quite vocal during the day. One sunny afternoon, soon after I moved into the yurt, I had the great good luck of watching wood frogs from my deck above the pond. The scene looked so idyllic, so serene, so blissful. Frogs were floating in their funny froggy way, heads above water, forelegs floating just below the surface, hind legs dangling. Basking in the sun … and then – bam! One frog scooted across the water and rammed into another from behind. The rammed frog dove to safety, replaced by his rival. Then they just all floated for a while. Until another frog abruptly turned torpedo and slammed into a floater. From my deckside view I could see a frog initiate his stealth attack and the ensuing amphibian collision.

Watching frogs play bump-em cars made for a very amusing afternoon, but I’m sure it’s serious business for the frogs. I presume (but don’t know) that this behaviour is the wood-frog equivalent of rams butting heads or moose wrangling antlers, i.e. males vying for females. The fellows woo the gals with their sexy quacks and then dominate their rivals by head-butting them out of the way. As with many animal species, it is the male frogs who sing (or peep, croak, quack, twang, snore, trill, and so on) to woo the females.

Spring peepers usually start in earnest a few days after the wood frogs. Spring and peepers are synonymous here in Cape Breton – there is even a ‘peeper report’ on our local CBC morning show where people call in when they hear the first peepers. (Gotta love living in a place with a peeper report!) As I related last month in the second verse of my Spring Ditty:

Well the other night I heard a little frog peep.
     No one replied so he went back to sleep.
But the ice is melting and it won't be long
    'til that froggy pond
     is filled with song!

And that is how it happens. Early in the spring there is the odd tentative peep followed by silence. I can’t help but think of these ‘early-bird’ peepers calling ‘Hey, anyone else awake yet?’ or maybe ‘Anyone else thaw out yet?’ – because these wee frogs can also freeze solid. But as the ditty relates, it isn’t long ’til that froggy pond is filled with song’ – and then what a cacophony! For a short interval there are wood frogs, spring peepers, and, in some years, a few American toads – each toad trilling his own unique prolonged note.

The wood frogs are the ‘first-to-arrive, first-to-leave’ types. They are pretty much finished just as the peeper party is really getting raucous. The peeper chorus gets louder and louder as more frogs join in until it’s deafening. Peepers are everywhere: by the pond, in the woods, in the grass and shrubs. They are tiny – not much bigger than a toonie. But their explosive peep is so loud that my field guide says it’s the equivalent of a human talking as loudly as a jet aircraft. I believe it. At times it literally hurts my ears to stand outside, especially at the pond’s edge. While I lived in the yurt, it was almost deafening inside, given the minimal sound insulation and the water so nearby.

While these wee frogs make one helluva racket, they are actually quite hard to find. They tend to clam up if you get too close. One night in the yurt I heard one just outside and stepped out with my headlamp on. There was Mr. Peeper in a plant-pot saucer. He froze mid-peep. His vocal sac was fully inflated, his eyes bulging (as frog eyes do) and he looked quite comical (as frogs do). I turned off my headlamp before he exploded. I’ve seen a few others – clinging to the vinyl yurt window, hiding in a garbage can, squatting between the slats of an old lobster trap – but for the most part, these tiny guys are heard, not seen.

At first peepers call mainly in the evenings, but soon the peeper party goes on all night long – rowdy neighbours! The annual chorus reaches its crescendo sometime in June and then gradually diminishes – I presume as the females choose their mates and they hop down to the pond to do it froggy style. (Want details? Search ‘amplexus’.). The party ends a bit earlier each night until one night there is just one last lonely peeper left. If there is something hopeful about that first tentative peep, there is something sad about the last peeper calling ‘pick me! pick me! pick me!’ long after everyone else has gone home. I know, I know – I’m anthropomorphizing. My imaginings probably have nothing whatsoever to do with frog reality. But I can’t help it. I always feel badly for this last little guy, peeping away all on his lonesome.

Now, at the end of May, the wood frogs are quiet but the peeper party is still going strong. A few nights ago, on the full ‘flower’ moon, I stepped outside into the unseasonably warm night. The moon, huge and low in the south, was a rippling silver reflection in the pond. The sound of peepers filled the air, accompanied by a trilling toad – the first I’ve heard in years. A barred owl hooted in the distance. It was a magical moment. At least for now, at least here in the Holler, the frogs are all right.

Sue McKay Miller
May 30, 2021

p.s. I’m a frog fan but not an expert. I welcome your observations, anecdotes and, if I’m in error, corrections in the comments below. Better photos of wood frogs or peepers also welcome. You will be credited, of course.

Here are some websites with recordings of frog calls, photos, and information:
https://www.naturewatch.ca/frogwatch/
https://www.mister-toad.com/
https://naturalhistory.novascotia.ca/resources/reptiles-and-amphibians-nova-scotia/nova-scotia-frogs