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.)
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.
Otters 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.)
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.
Typical 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.
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.
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.
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.)