An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Weasel Family

White-tailed Deer Scavengers

deer carcass2  028According to NPR, each year Americans waste 33 million tons of food (and much of this ends up in landfills where it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas). This situation is totally alien to that of other animals in the natural world, which seem to find a use for any and every organic particle. Great crested flycatchers incorporate shed snake skins into their nests, beavers build dams and lodges with branches they have eaten the bark off of, ermine line their nests with the fur and feathers of prey — the list goes on and on. When it comes to food, there is equally little waste. The carcasses of animals do not linger long, as almost every atom of their bodies is recycled. Fishers, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, opossums, bald eagles, hawks, woodpeckers, ravens, crows and many other animals make short work of a dead deer in winter. Come spring, if there’s anything left, the final clean-up crew consists of legions of turkey vultures, beetles, flies and bacteria, among others. How unfortunate we’ve strayed so far from a process that’s worked for so many for so long.

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Mink Meanderings

2-5-14 mink with tail dragging2 IMG_2152As these wet footprints and tail drag marks indicate, mink are excellent swimmers, and spend a great deal of time in all seasons foraging in and along streams and ponds. As a rule, all weasels can often be found close to water, as they drink often, though relatively little at a time. But mink do far more than drink water – they find much of their prey, including crayfish, frogs and fish, in it and are very well equipped to capture them. Mink can swim underwater to a depth of 18 feet and they can swim as far as 100 yards. Look for their tracks going in and out of openings in the ice that covers much of a stream’s surface this time of year.

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Otter Ingenuity

1-30-14 otter slides  058North American River Otter tracks are usually found where otters have travelled from one body of water to another. In the winter, this can be on frozen streams as well as over land. If they come to an incline, even a small one, they often take advantage of it by letting gravity do the work on the way down. In this photograph, two otters travelling together had the same idea at the same time, and reached the marsh at the bottom of the hill by effortlessly sliding down the hill on their bellies, leaving two 12-inch-wide grooves in the snow. Although John James Audubon, in the mid-1800s, observed a pair of otters sliding down an embankment over and over 22 times, stopping only when they discovered that they were being observed, the otters that made the tracks in this photograph were intent on getting where they were going, and only slid down once.

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Fisher Sign

1-22-14 fisher bed and scat 074You can spend days following the tracks of a fisher – this tireless member of the weasel family travels up to ten miles a day during the winter, foraging for food and stopping to bed down periodically. One of the more common signs of fisher, other than tracks, is their resting spots. Fishers are active day and night, but even they have to stop now and then to rest, often at the base of a tree. More often than not they defecate before departing. If you look closely you’ll see the fisher’s scat – guide books often state that the scat of fishers is dark and twisted. While this is sometimes so, their scat can also be somewhat mustard-color and not be at all twisted, as in this photograph.

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Otter Holes

1-20-14 otter hole IMG_5577River otters are one of the most aquatic members of the weasel family. They can swim up to six or seven miles per hour on the surface of the water as well as underneath it, and can remain submerged for up to two minutes. Otters spend a great deal of time fishing under the ice, and obtain oxygen from open holes such as the one pictured (as well as from air bubbles under the ice). As their tracks indicate, otters come up onto the ice to eat their prey, be it fish or crayfish, their two favorite winter meals.

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Weasel Tracks

12-24-13 weasel & stonewall IMG_9602When looking for signs of weasel– Long-tailed or Ermine (formerly called Short-tailed Weasel) – in winter, stonewalls are a good place to head. Both of these nocturnal mustelids prey on small rodents such as mice and voles, which frequent the nooks and crannies of stonewalls. In winter weasels cover a lot of ground looking for prey – the home range of an Ermine is between 30 and 40 square acres, but when food is scarce, they may travel two or three miles in one night. Often their tracks will run the length of a stonewall on one side and then back the other side. Intermittent pauses are made as the Ermine stands on its hind feet and stretches its neck out, searching the landscape for both movement and sound.

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Long-tailed Weasels Completing Their Spring Molt

email- long-tailed weasel in crotch of tree  IMG_7953Two 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.)

More Otter Sign

3-1-13 crayfish IMG_3205It’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.

Otter Slides

2-25-13 otter slide2 IMG_3773Otters will travel long distances from one pond to the next, and when they do, they frequently alternate between bounding and sliding. They often slide down hills, but they also slide on level ground, as in this photograph, and sometimes even uphill. While sliding, the otter holds its front feet back along its sides with its hind feet out behind it, leaving a trough roughly 6” to 12” wide and up to 25 feet long. Two footprints (actually four, but the hind feet land on top of where the front feet landed so it looks like two) can be found at the end and at the beginning of each slide, where the otter stopped sliding, bounded and began sliding again. You can see at least five separate slides in this photograph. Occasionally, in deep snow on level ground, an otter will use its foot to help push it along, either inside or outside of the trough. Otters slide at all times of the year, on mud as well as snow and ice, and appear to do so in order to get from one place to another, as well as purely for fun, as when they repeatedly slide down the same slope over and over. (Thanks to Mark and Susan Boutwell for sharing their discovery.)

Fisher Hunting Strategy

2-20-13 fisher hunting technique IMG_2988I 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.

Fisher Scat

1-23-13 fisher scat2 IMG_0098Typical fisher scat is anywhere from ¼” to ¾” in diameter, very dark and often quite twisted. It’s not unusual to find just a small amount of scat deposited, as fishers can control the amount of scat they use to mark territory. This scat is a bit atypical, in that it is segmented and not twisted, and there is an ample amount. A close look reveals the dark, stiff hairs and quills of a porcupine, likely the fisher’s most recent meal. Look for fisher scat on raised surfaces such as stumps or at the base of old trees, where fishers occasionally make latrines.

Fisher Landing Imprint

fisher landing IMG_0793Although 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.

Mink Tracks & Dens

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. 1-8-13 mink tracks along river IMG_0175

Mink Slide

12-31-12  mink slide IMG_0004There 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.

A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!

North American River Otter Roll

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In addition to their winter slides in the snow, river otters leave distinctive signs year round.  Their scat is unlike most other animal scat in that it has little form and often disintegrates into a pile of fish scales.  Sometimes river otters create what are called “rolls” –  areas near water that they repeatedly visit to defecate, urinate and roll around on the ground.  If used frequently enough, rolls become so acidic that they turn black with dying vegetation.  Being a member of the Weasel family, otters possess oil glands and waterproof their fur with oil. It’s possible that in addition to marking territory at a roll, they are distributing this oil throughout their coat when they are rolling on the ground.

Fisher Tracking

If you ever think you work hard for the food you eat, try tracking a fisher!  I would estimate that I followed a fisher’s tracks for at least three miles today and other than stopping to mark its territory once, and investigate a log or two, there was not a sign of its finding a thing to eat.  Fishers travel widely in search of prey — one was recorded travelling 56 miles in three days.  The fisher I followed traveled through prime snowshoe hare (their most common prey item) habitat, as well as areas where porcupines have been known to den.  A fisher’s food requirements are about one snowshoe hare per week, a squirrel or two per week, or 2 – 22 mice per day.  A porcupine will feed a fisher for a month or so. (Note snowshoe hare tracks on bottom left of photograph, and fisher tracks running diagonally across the image, where the fisher left its mark.)


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