Some of the most common tracks in the woods of central Vermont are those of fishers. These members of the weasel family, although known for their agility in trees, travel extensively on the ground. Fishers have been known to cover 28 miles in two days in search of food. They may be active day or night, and especially at dawn and dusk. If you persevere long enough while tracking one, you will be rewarded by some kind of sign in addition to tracks, be it a trampled conifer sapling, or a stump or a log where a fisher has marked its territory by depositing urine, scat or both. Occasionally you will come upon a bed, often right next to the base of a tree, where the fisher has stopped to rest. More often than not, their typical dark scat can be found in these locations.
As members of the weasel family (Mustelidae), fishers and mink have five toes on both front and back feet. Often all five digits do not register, but in prime tracking snow, you can often see them. Typically, mink tracks are found near a body of water, and fisher tracks are found under a canopy, not in the open. Where you have both water and trees, it’s possible to see signs of both animals. In general, the larger the animal, the larger its tracks. In this photograph, the mink tracks (smaller, in the middle) are heading towards the top of the photograph, and the fisher tracks (top most and bottom most) are heading towards the bottom of the photograph. Although not pictured here, both of these carnivores engage in snow sliding, much like their cousin, the river otter, and the resulting grooves are occasionally found when the snow is a bit deeper than it is now.
Contrary to their name, fishers seldom eat fish. While they prey on a wide range of animals and even plants, their preference is for small mammals (80% of their diet), snowshoe hares and porcupines. Because fishers are well equipped to kill porcupines, and because there is little competition for them, porcupines are an important prey of fishers –up to 35% of fisher diet samples contain the remains of porcupines, as this photograph of fisher scat attests to. There is no mistaking the bumpy porcupine foot pads (and quills)!