North American River Otters spend much of their time foraging. They often have a circuit they travel along rivers and lakes which takes them up to a week or more to complete. In between bodies of water, they travel overland on well-used paths, often during the day in winter.
These circuits are miles long, and for much of the time otters lope along in typical weasel fashion. However, in winter the snow permits them to occasionally flop down on their bellies, tuck their front feet next to their chest and push off with their hind feet as they slide effortlessly on top of the snow, both down slopes as well as along flat surfaces. Once they obtain a certain speed, they give their hind legs a rest and lift them off the ground so as not to slow them down as they slide (see photo). Otters have been clocked up to 17 miles per hour running and sliding in this manner.
Mink spend much of their time foraging in saltwater marshes, swamps and small wooded streams. They are excellent swimmers, and can swim to a depth of over 18 feet and for a distance of 100 yards. Fish make up roughly 40 percent of their diet, but they also prey on frogs, snakes, rabbits, squirrels, mice, chipmunks, muskrats, crayfish, insects and snails, among other creatures. Like other members of the weasel family, mink kill large prey with a bite to the nape of the neck.
The pictured mink swam to the ice-littered bank of an open stream, crawled under a large slab of ice and emerged minutes later with a very muddy frog in its mouth. With a foot of snow on the ground and mostly frozen wetlands, it was unquestionably a hibernating frog that the mink managed to unearth.
Sometimes mink eat their prey on the spot, or carry it back to their dens. It’s possible (though fairly early in the season) that once this mink arrived at its den it was greeted by up to ten offspring (each the size of a cigarette when born). The parents typically raise their young in a stream bank cavity roughly a foot in diameter which they line with fur, feathers or plant material. The family stays together through the summer and can sometimes be seen foraging together prior to dispersing in the fall.
A pond can have one to two feet of ice on top of it, yet North American River Otters somehow manage to find a way to come up through the ice. How do they do this? Careful observation reveals that the ice where otter holes are found is thinner than most of the pond’s ice. Otters rely on spring-fed open water and areas of thin ice for surfacing holes. Here they break through the ice and often drag larger fish out onto the ice to eat them.
If otters are feeding in a beaver pond and they can’t find openings in the ice for fishing, they have been known to tunnel into beaver dams for access to open water. In late winter, water levels sometime drop below the ice, leaving an air space that lets otters swim and hunt beneath the ice without the need for holes. (Look closely at opening to see the actual hole beneath the surface water that they emerge from.)
When your quest is to find out as much as you can about the identity, activity, diet and territory of your four-footed neighbors, it is logical to make the most of all your senses. Tracks can be seen, scrapings and bite marks on a tree can be felt and yes, one’s sense of smell can enhance any tracking expedition. Just as the tracks and scat of different species of animals have distinctive characteristics, so does the urine of different animals. Scent marking, including urination, is a behaviour used by animals to identify their territory, and therefore a highly visible sign in winter.
At this time of year, foxes are breeding, and without even putting your nose near where a fox has marked his territory with urine, you can detect its skunk-like odor as you pass by. If you’re so inclined (and I realize many readers may not be) you can heighten your sensory experience as well as your identification prowess by sampling the smell of other animals’ liquid waste. White-tailed deer urine has a pungent, piney smell, quite pleasing to this naturalist’s olfactory receptors. You can detect a porcupine den from a considerable distance by the pungent, very distinctive but hard to describe odor of its urine (which spills out onto and coats the bark of a tree den, thereby advertising the porcupine’s presence). Coyote urine smells very much like a domestic dog’s, and members of the weasel family often have musky-smelling urine, though a recently-sniffed fisher marking had very little scent.
Needless to say, it’s a lot easier to discover and sample urine when there’s snow on the ground and it is more evident. Virginia opossums, snowshoe hares, red and gray squirrels, eastern coyotes, red and gray foxes, raccoons, fishers, mink and striped skunks are all in or entering their breeding seasons, when scent marking is more frequent. Snow is currently on the ground, at least in northern New England. It’s prime time for olfactory activity, if you’re game. (Photo: stump marked by a red fox)
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 sometimes 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. Mink weigh one to three pounds; fishers four to eighteen pounds. 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. They were both traveling on a frozen woodland stream.
New England has two small weasels: Long-tailed and Short-tailed. Both of these predators molt twice a year, from brown to white in the fall, and white to brown in the spring. The name “Ermine” can refer to either of these two species, but it is most commonly used when referring to the Short-tailed Weasel.
Telling the two species apart can be challenging. Long-tailed Weasels are the larger of the two (head to tail = 12-14 inches), while Ermine are slightly smaller (head to tail = 7-13 inches). Unless you have both species in front of you, however, their size is hard to assess. A more helpful distinguishing characteristic is the length of their tail relative to their body length. Long-tailed Weasels have a tail longer than half their body length with a black tip. Ermine have a tail length which is around a third of their body length — it also has a black tip. (Photo: Ermine (Short-tailed Weasel). Thanks to Sharon and Chad Tribou for photo op.)
Whether or not North American River Otters made the original holes evident in Wednesday’s Mystery Photo, they were responsible for keeping them open by frequently poking their heads up through them for some air. Congratulations to Noel K. for being the first to correctly identify their surface holes. This was a tricky Mystery Photo, as there were none of the usual signs of otter activity (tracks, fish remains, etc.) on the ice surrounding the holes. This is probably because the ice was too thin to support the weight of an otter. To find the most humorous response, scroll down on Wednesday’s Mystery Photo comments until you get to Peg Emerson’s.
These semiaquatic members of the weasel family are active year-round and while they are mainly nocturnal and crepuscular during the summer, they are frequently spotted during the day in winter. If otters encounter open water, they rarely resist the urge to enter it and pursue resident fish.
Thanks to their webbed feet and streamlined body, otters are accomplished swimmers and divers. They are able to reach a depth of around five feet and remain submerged for up to four minutes as they hunt underwater. Top swimming speed is seven miles per hour. (They can achieve a speed of up to 18 miles per hour when running and sliding on snow or ice.) While fish are their mainstay, these carnivores also consume frogs, snakes, turtles, insects, birds and bird eggs and the occasional mammal (mainly muskrat). Though called “river” otters, they forage in fresh, salt and brackish waters. (Thanks to Rita and Dave Boynton for photo op.)
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Although capable of climbing trees, Fishers spend most of their time on the ground under dense woodland canopy. In the winter Fishers constantly leave sign while traveling two to three miles a day in search of squirrels, shrews, mice, voles, porcupines, hares and grouse, among other things, to eat. Beds at the base of trees, small saplings bitten, rubbed and rolled on, scat and urine marking – all are quite commonly encountered when following Fisher tracks. The Fisher sign I find quite elusive and therefore very rewarding to come upon is the imprint they make when they land in the snow after jumping down from a tree they’ve climbed. (Photo: landing imprint)
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The pattern of diagonally-paired tracks indicates that it’s likely that a member of the weasel family has been travelling on top of this mostly-frozen stream. The presence of water makes it likely that a Mink made them. For the most part, Mink are restricted to forest cover and ponds, streams and rivers. When bounding, their hind feet register almost exactly where their front feet were, creating this double-print pattern.
Many members of the weasel family, including Long-Weasels, Ermine (Short-tailed Weasels), and Fishers, also make these paired tracks, especially in deep snow. Size is one way to discriminate between them, with the size of Mink tracks (1 ½”-long) falling in between 3″- long Fisher tracks and 1”- long weasel tracks.
From their nose to the tip of their tail, North American River Otters measure three to four feet long. Their tail makes up anywhere from a third to nearly a half of their length. A River Otter’s tail is very thick at its base, packed with muscles, flexible, and tapers to a point. It is used to steer when an otter is swimming slowly, propel the otter when it is swimming at high speed and to help the otter balance when it stands upright on its hind legs. River Otters, known for their powerful swimming, can reach speeds of six to seven miles per hour with the help of this appendage.
When loping through the snow, River Otters often hold their tails up off the surface of the snow, but not always. Occasionally drag marks can be seen. In the accompanying photograph, an otter had leapt up an incline, and in so doing left an imprint of its impressive tail in the snow.
(Thanks to Alfred Balch for photo op, and Joan Waltermire for her sharp eyes.)
There is no denying that North American River Otters know how to travel and have fun in winter. Whether on a flat surface such as a frozen pond or river, field, or down slopes, otters take advantage of the snow, bounding then dropping to their belly and sliding, saving precious energy. Most slides are relatively short, around 10 feet long and 6-10 inches wide, though they can be as long as 25 feet long on slippery ice. At the beginning and end of a slide there are tracks (from where they push off with their hind feet, and cease sliding and begin bounding again), creating a dot-dash pattern. Sometimes a downhill slide is used repeatedly and when it is, bobsledders have nothing over otters, as water from the otters’ coats creates an icy and very slippery slide.
For those of you who would like to view an excellent video of an otter sliding, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBB0OLOkvIU .
Fishers are one of the most rewarding mammals to track as they leave so many signs. One of the most common ones, other than their tracks, is their scent posts. This is where a fisher rubs itself, anointing the substrate with its scent as it marks its territory. Young saplings often serve this purpose. The fisher rubs and rolls on a young tree, often a conifer, usually breaking a few branches.
If you see a scraggly-looking sapling in the woods, and there are fisher tracks nearby, examine the sapling closely for fisher hairs that often get caught on the branches when a fisher rubs against them. More often than not, the fisher will also mark the tree with a bit of scat or some urine. Fishers are very adept at controlling the amount of feces they leave, often excreting very small portions as markers throughout their travels.
If you look at the tree in the center of the photograph, you may be able to detect paired tracks in the snow along the length of its trunk. As luck would have it, a fisher chose to ascend the one tree with snow still clinging to its trunk. Fishers are members of the weasel family and are well known for their ability to climb trees. They do so in order to reach den sites as well as to catch prey. Fishers’ arboreal adaptations include semi-retractable claws and ankle joints that rotate so that they can descend trees head-first. Smaller females appear to be more adept in the trees than the larger males.
The first snow that sticks on the ground is cause for celebration, if only because it allows you to know so much more about what goes on in the woods and fields that surround you than you would know if it never snowed. At this point the snow isn’t deep enough to distinguish tracks very well in the leaf litter, but thanks to the fisher’s propensity for crossing logs (which are relatively smooth, an excellent substrate for tracks, and retain scents well), one resident’s presence was announced loud and clear recently.
Fisher have large, wide feet with five toes on each foot and semi-retractable claws. This makes them well adapted for walking on snow, climbing trees and grasping and killing prey. (They are also capable of rotating their hind feet nearly 180 degrees, which allows for a headfirst descent from trees.) Their track is very distinctive, and can be quite common in forested areas of the Northeast.
Usually, if given the option, fishers will choose walking on a log over walking on the forest floor. Why would they have developed this preference? There often is no water where this occurs, so it’s not done in an effort to avoid wet feet. My best guess as to the purpose of this behavior is scent-marking. Fishers have been observed sliding along logs on their bellies, as they rub the scent of their anal glands along the top of the log. The fisher scent-marks with cheek, abdominal, neck, flank, and plantar (feet) glands, in addition to anal glands. A fisher leaves its scent with every step of its hind feet, and if rotting logs are superior scent-absorbers, it may be why fishers choose them over the forest floor.
Between February and April, female North American River Otters give birth to an average of two or three young inside their dens, which tend to be near water, usually in an excavated cavity under tree roots, logs or thickets. Occasionally they have been known to give birth in abandoned beaver and muskrat lodges as well as woodchuck burrows. The mother doesn’t allow her young to exit their den until they are three or four months old, which, for the oldest litters, is in May. At this point, after their waterproof adult coats have grown in, she begins to teach them how to swim (surprisingly, this skill is not innate). The mother continues to be very protective and secretive, hiding and shielding the young (even from their father) until they are about six month old. Thus, glimpses of young otters are not likely to be had until late summer, and only then if you’re lucky. (Photo: adult river otter. Thanks to Heidi Marcotte and Tom Wetmore for photo op.)
Fishers are rarely seen, as they tend to travel in wooded areas and not expose themselves in open areas. However, this fisher was so intent on getting a meal that he threw caution to the wind. Fishers are generalist, opportunistic hunters and scavengers, consuming a wide variety of animals and plants. Basically, if it can catch it, a fisher will eat it – amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, birds and bird eggs, and mammals (snowshoe hares are at the top of the list, but rabbits, squirrels, small rodents, shrews, and porcupines are common prey).
Between its keen sense of smell, and its acrobatic abilities (due to the flexibility of its hind feet, which can be turned 180°), a fisher is able to take advantage of prey and access food wherever it may be – in the tallest tree, or, in this case, a wood duck nest box.
Noted New Hampshire naturalist/tracker/videographer, Alfred Balch, succeeded in documenting the pictured fisher swimming out to an active wood duck nest box, climbing inside and exiting with a wood duck egg gently held in its mouth. It was observed doing this more than once. Considering that wood duck clutches consist of anywhere from 6 to 16 eggs, this fisher’s stomach was probably full by the end of the day. The wood duck is the only duck in North America that regularly produces two broods in one season, so hopefully the second clutch will escape the fate of the first. (Photos by Alfred Balch)
One hundred years ago, naturalists were puzzled by the disappearance of otters in the winter. Some people theorized that they must be hibernating, but in fact, otters are active throughout the year — they just aren’t observed as often in the winter as in the summer. Because they inhabit water, where the fish that they eat are found, and often reside in bank dens (above water level), otters can spend most of their winter under cover of ice. However, some do travel over land from open water to open water, upon occasion. In fact, it is not unusual for them to cover several miles in their search for an open stream or a spring. Run and glide, run and glide, often along a frozen river or marsh, but also through the woods, where otter tracks seem so incongruous. Paired foot prints stop and start each slide; this combination is a dead giveaway as to who is making grooves in the snow. Ultimately, if you persevere when following them, you will find that these slides disappear into open water.
American Martens (formerly Pine Martens) are making a comeback in northern New England. On New Hampshire’s Threatened Species List, and on Vermont’s Endangered Species List, American Martens are rebounding from the effects of habitat loss and trapping in the early 1900’s, but are still considered rare. This medium-sized member of the weasel family is slightly larger than a Mink and smaller than a Fisher, and often has a light orange bib, or throat/chest patch. Lighter fur usually is found on their head and along the edges of their ears. In addition to a pair of scent glands, which all weasels have, American Martens have a glandular area on their lower abdomen that exudes a musky-smelling, oily secretion used for scent marking.
American Martens spend a lot of time in trees. Their semi-retractable claws help them climb and hang onto branches. In addition, their hind limbs can be rotated at the ankle (like Gray Squirrels) to allow them to descend a tree very quickly, and their long, bushy tail helps them balance.
Because they store very little fat, martens must hunt every day. In the winter they are active for about four hours a day (14 hours/day in the summer), and during this time consume an average of three voles or the equivalent amount of chipmunks, birds or other small rodents. A sighting of an American Marten is a highly-prized experience. (Thanks to Laurie Stokes, whose photo of a Pine Marten was taken in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.)
Many animals communicate by scent marking in order to stake out territory. This is done through specialized glands on various parts of their bodies as well as with scat and urine. In addition to defining territory, scent marking may also communicate additional information such as the sex, reproductive status or dominance status of the territory-holder. Fishers are a prime example of a scent marking predator. In addition to scent marking with glands on their feet, fishers rub, urinate and deposit scat often near or on raised surfaces (stumps, rocks, saplings), where their scent is likely to be widely dispersed. Frequently scat will also be found near a fisher’s resting spot.
When marking with scat, fishers are somewhat unusual in that it appears that they can control the size of the scat they leave. While field guides say fisher scat is between two and seven inches in length and roughly ¾” in diameter, this is not always the case. (Neither is it always dark and twisted – some fruit, such as rotting apple in the pictured scat, will cause it to be lighter colored.) One wonders what determines the size of the scat that a fisher leaves. Does it plan on marking a great deal in the coming hours, and so parcels it out in bits and pieces so as not to run out? Or is a large amount not always necessary if it has back-up scent from its feet and body? The pictured scat (to the right of the depression a fisher left while resting at the base of a tree) is less than an inch long, and about 1/3” wide — roughly the size of a white ash seed. Chances are that after spending enough time in one place to melt crusty snow the fisher was capable of leaving far more feces, but it chose not to.
Ruffed grouse typically have a short life span; few live to be three years old. By mid-August about 60 percent of the grouse hatched that year are lost to predators, weather extremes, disease, accidents (such as flying into windows) and hunters. Less than half of the surviving young survive through the winter to have a chance to breed in the spring, and less than half of those that survive long enough to breed make it to a second mating season. The hazards for a ruffed grouse are many, with predation at the top of the list.
Birds of prey, especially the goshawk and great horned owl, take many grouse, but terrestrial hunters such as foxes, coyotes, bobcats and fishers also take advantage of this plentiful food source. Along with hares, porcupines, squirrels, mice and voles, grouse are one of the fisher’s preferred foods. A fisher managed to capture a ruffed grouse in the pictured scene, leaving only tracks and a few tell-tale feathers to tell the story.
When one thinks of fishers, meat-eating predators come to mind. While it is true that the fisher is a generalist, opportunistic hunter and scavenger, and feeds on any prey it can catch and kill (snowshoe hares, rabbits, squirrels and other small rodents, birds, bird eggs, smaller weasels, shrews, porcupines, raccoons, amphibians, reptiles, carrion and a very occasional cat or chicken), it also consumes fruit and nuts, especially when prey is scarce.
Given the amount of apples that are available this fall, even if prey isn’t hard to find, it is not too surprising to see fisher scat composed solely of apples at the base of this scent marking post (confirmed by fine fisher hairs at the very tip of the stump as well as scat).
North American River Otters have four webbed feet and strong claws that assist them in water as well as on land. There is relatively little hair on the soles of otter feet, and therefore the individual pads are often well defined in good tracking snow. Each foot leaves a five-toed track, with the inside toe on the front feet being somewhat smaller than the others. Otters have four plantar pad glands in the center of each hind foot with which they mark mounds of vegetation they create.
According 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.