Two species of weasels (smaller relatives of mink and otters) are found throughout New England – the long-tailed weasel (pictured) and the short-tailed weasel (also known as an ermine). Both are roughly the same size (somewhere between 9 and 16 inches), with long thin bodies and short legs. Visually telling these two species apart can be challenging unless you get a good look at both the tail and the body, and even then, it can be difficult. A short-tailed weasel’s tail is about 40% of the head and body length, whereas the long-tailed weasel’s tail is more than 45% of the head and body length. In the northeast, in November, both of these carnivores usually start shedding their brown summer coat for a white winter coat, and then molt and start growing in a brown coat again beginning in March. Further south, in Pennsylvania, less than half of the long-tailed weasels turn white, and none do south of the Pennsylvania/Maryland border. (Thanks to Tom Kennedy for photo op.)
A study of coyote prey (through stomach contents) in the Adirondack Mountains of New York revealed that beavers were second only to white-tailed deer. This photograph shows that, possibly for the last time this winter, a coyote recently took advantage of a still-frozen-but-fast-thawing pond by walking across it in an attempt to reach an active beaver lodge. Once there the coyote attempted to dig into it in order to reach the inhabitants. A hard, two-to three-foot-thick wall of frozen mud, logs and sticks kept the beavers well protected, as it was designed to.
Coyote tracks led to a hole dug in the snow, with the body of a shrew lying on top of the snow next to the hole. Apparently a coyote had succeeded in catching the prey it had heard, but upon smelling this tiny insectivore, the coyote decided it wasn’t that hungry. In addition to having poisonous saliva that immobilizes small prey, shrews possess two glands on their sides that emit an unpleasant odor, detectable even by human noses. Although this odor did discourage the coyote from eating the shrew, it wasn’t enough to save its life.
It’s often a lot easier to find signs of otters than otters themselves. Recently I discovered two dead crayfish on the shore of a mostly iced-over pond that I knew was inhabited by otters. Nearby otter scat confirmed that these crayfish were probably left by satiated otters. The most important prey item in a majority of otter scat analysis studies is fish, followed closely by crayfish. Otters will take advantage of other prey, such as frogs, salamanders, ducks, muskrats, an occasional young beaver, mice, snakes, insects and even turtles when readily obtainable, but fish and crayfish are first and second choices.
I have never heard of this particular fisher hunting technique, nor have I seen or read about it before, but there’s no denying that a fisher made these marks in the snow and that they tell the story of how it captured a mouse or vole. It’s likely that the fisher could hear or smell that the rodent tunnel in the subnivean layer was occupied. It looks as though the fisher methodically scraped snow towards the center of the circle, going completely around the tree in an attempt to trap and/or expose the mouse or vole within the circle. It succeeded in opening up the rodent tunnel (the hole is in the dead center of the photograph), and if the tiny droplets of blood on the snow near the hole are any indication, was successful in capturing its prey.
For the past two to three months, coyote courtship has been taking place. Both males and females have been marking more frequently, and male coyotes have been traveling further than usual in search of a mate. A female has marked the top of the stump in the photograph – you can see the foot prints she made as she squatted to urinate. The blood-tinged urine indicates that she is in estrus, or heat. With luck, you might hear the duet of a male and female coyote that is sometimes sung just prior to copulation.
Has your dog ever flopped down into the snow, rolled over and wiggled its body back and forth, appearing to rub its back? This behavior is exhibited by other members of the dog family, including coyotes. With a little imagination you can see the coyote’s head print at the left side of this impression, and its hind feet on the right, both made while it was “ottering” in the snow. If anyone can shed light on why canids engage in this winter time activity, it would be much appreciated!
Tracking has its rewards, and when you’re following a predator, one of them is to come upon a site where the predator captured prey. After snowshoeing up and down forested Vermont hills following fresh bobcat tracks, I decided that bobcats don’t always mark their territory as often as I had thought, for this bobcat had not paused, nor stopped to spray urine or defecate the entire time I followed it. Eventually, however, on top of a knoll, it sat down behind a tree. There were marks in the snow that indicated that it had gotten up and then leaped down the slope, sliding several feet when it landed and then pounced on a red squirrel. All that was left of this woodland high drama, in addition to bobcat tracks and blood, was a piece of the squirrel’s tail, some squirrel scat and part of the squirrel’s stomach. If you look carefully, you can see where the bobcat sat (bottom of photo) while it enjoyed its meal.
Although fishers are agile climbers, they catch most of their prey and do the vast majority of their traveling on the ground. Occasionally, often in coniferous forests or if threatened, they will climb a tree. When they decide to come down, they jump and land on all four feet. If there is snow on the ground, the fisher leaves an impression, the clarity of which is determined by the depth and relative dryness of the snow. In the wet snow we’ve had recently, a fisher’s four feet left clear tracks when it landed on the ground, and you can even see a slight depression where its head touched the snow. Sometimes the tail is also evident. In this photograph, you can tell the direction in which the fisher intended to head without even looking for further tracks, just from the angle of its body.
If you take a walk along a small wooded stream that has many fallen trees along its banks, you can expect to find mink tracks somewhere along it. These wetland-loving weasels dig their dens in river banks, often under tree roots, and judging from their tracks, visit them frequently. It is not unusual for one mink to have several dens which it uses as resting spots along a stream. Mink spend a lot of time in the water hunting for fish, aquatic insects and crayfish. Mink are good swimmers and can dive as deep as 16 feet. Tracks will run along the frozen sections of a stream, and then disappear into the water, only to reappear on the ice further downstream when the mink decides to travel on solid ground again.
Following tracks is a very rewarding past-time, as they often reveal an animal’s diet, interactions and survival strategies. Recently coyote tracks led me to the top of a knoll, where the coyote chose to bed down. A few remnant hairs and the circular shape of the indentation confirmed the identity of the animal I had been following. Coyotes and foxes tend to sleep with their heads wrapped around their legs and their tails covering their noses, leaving a circular indentation in the snow. Coyotes often choose to bed down in a spot that’s in the open or on top of a raised surface such as a small hummock (see photograph) or boulder, so that they can spot both prey and predators (primarily humans) in any direction.
There is nothing like heading out on snowshoes to look for tracks after a major snow storm has passed. The pristine snow is often untouched, except for a few brave souls who have ventured out. Most of the mammals that are active in winter hunker down until well after it has stopped snowing, but the mink (Mustela vison) is not about to lose a night of hunting and its tracks can often be found the morning following a storm. Like other weasels, this bounding carnivore often leaves diagonally paired tracks, but unlike other weasels, its tracks are consistently the same distance (1 to 3 feet) apart. They also are most prevalent in or near wetlands. Although a fierce predator, the mink also has a playful side, much like its cousin, the river otter. Mink are known to dive under the snow and make short tunnels. Even more delightful to come upon are the slides that mink often make down inclines. If you see a groove in the snow about 3” in diameter, with paired tracks at either end, you have come upon such a slide.
The gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), although peppery gray on top, has reddish-brown fur on its sides, chest and the back of its head, which explains why it is sometimes mistaken for a red fox. Its tail has a distinct black stripe along the top, and a black tip (red fox tails have a white tip). Gray foxes are shier and more secretive than red foxes, and are seen much less frequently. Probably the characteristic for which the gray fox is best known is its ability to climb trees. The claws of the gray fox’s front feet are more curved than those of the red fox – an adaptation for climbing. They are very skillful climbers, and once a gray fox has shinnied up the trunk of a tree to a limb, it will jump from branch to branch in pursuit of prey, such as squirrels.