Meet the Mystery Mammal

Last October I introduced you to a few of My Wild Neighbours. This month I want to focus on a newcomer to the neighbourhood, first encountered in April 2020. The tale begins with a tail: a long, round tail attached to a long-bodied, short-legged critter diving over a roadside snowbank. I only saw the backside of the furry animal, but the size and shape and that long round tail suggested an otter from the nearby river.

A few days later I was snowshoeing through old spruce forest and saw some unusual tracks. In The Secret Lives of Animals I wrote about my favourite winter activity: following animal tracks on snowshoe. Tracks tell me who is out and about and where they go on this land we share. I’d been following tracks for some 15 years at that point, so I was familiar with the usual suspects. And these weren’t any of those.

Hmm … Who have we here?

I recalled the otter-like animal I’d diving over the snowbank. Otters are water weasels. When they visit, they slide along on their bellies, leaving distinctive grooves, and head straight for the pond, dipping under the ice into the frigid water. These strange tracks were in a dense stand of trees up beyond the pond. And not a belly-slide in sight. I began to wonder if there was a new kid on the block.

Otters like water!

I soon found out. I was lingering over coffee on a sunny Easter morning and looked out the window. An animal was loping along on the far side of the frozen pond, very dark against the brilliant white snow. I grabbed my binoculars and got a good look. My suspicions were correct: It was a fisher! He – or she – did a circuit all the way around the pond before heading up into the woods.

Now this was exciting! I’d seen a wide variety of mammals in the Holler over the years, but this was the first time I’d seen a fisher. What a thrill, after so many years, to see a critter for the first time! Later that afternoon I was bundled up, sitting outside. I heard the strangest sounds coming from the woods on the far side of the pond. My go-to animals when I hear weird noises are crows – they have an astonishing repertoire of vocalizations – but this didn’t quite fit the usual cacophony of a crow mob.

Mystery solved a moment later. A fisher came barrelling out of the woods onto the ice with a second fisher hot on its heels and making those bizarre growly sounds. Growly chased the other fisher across the pond and up into the woods. A minute later he came back down, loped back across the pond and headed back up into the forest. A very exciting Easter Sunday here in the boonies!

(Above photos taken in 2021)

Fishers are members of the weasel family (Mustelidae) which includes otters, minks, martens, and ermines, plus off-island species such as skunks, badgers, wolverines and other weasels. The name fisher is misleading. Unlike their water-weasel cousins, otters and minks, fishers rarely fish. These carnivores feed mainly on hares, rodents, grouse, and, alas, the occasional small pet. We don’t have porcupines on Cape Breton Island, but mainland fishers hunt these prickly prey. Fishers prefer mature forest habitat and are remarkably adept tree climbers. Like all members of the weasel family, fishers are fierce and punch well above their weight.

Don’t mess with this character!

Those first sightings were in April, 2020. Fast forward to winter 2021 and once again I strapped on the snowshoes and began checking out local animal tracks. In February I posted a photo of some mystery tracks in The Secret Lives of Animals. The snow was too soft to form a clear impression, but I found other mystery tracks soon after, possibly from the same creature. After that I started seeing these new tracks all over the place – near the house and through the woods and all over the pond. As you can imagine, I had my suspicions as to the likely culprit.

And what about these? Tracks can look very different, depending on snow conditions and gait. When the hind foot steps onto the forefoot track, it can alter the shape. Very confusing.
Running track typical of weasel family; hind feet register in the front tracks. (Ruler is 46 cm/18″)

A track is evidence but a sighting is proof. One day I looked out and there he was, poking around in the snow beside the house. My compost pile is under there so he may have been rooting for root veggies. On the other hand, the local squirrels have a network of snow tunnels there too, so he may have been hunting something more appetizing than rotten banana peels.

Like coyotes and other carnivores, fishers patrol large territories. Based on all those tracks I’d been seeing, it looked like my home was smackdab in the middle of this fiesty fellah’s new territory. (After seeing Growly in action, I’m going with ‘he’.)

My new neighbour had no qualms about inviting himself right up onto my deck. I think these predators, like Ollie the barred owl (Hoots in the Holler) and the great horned owl (My Wild Neighbours) like my deck for the same reason humans like hunting blinds in trees – all the better for spotting prey. Plus fisher’s nose may have led him up onto the deck after squirrel’s scent, since squirrel seems to think I built the deck purely for his pleasure. One thing for sure, fisher is just as able to climb posts and trees as his wily prey. Watch out squirrel!

Fishers, known locally as fisher cats, are not unknown in this area. Some of my neighbours (the human ones I mean ;-) have seen them now and then, but they aren’t common. It does seem that there have been more frequent sightings of fishers around the island lately, so perhaps they are making a comeback. (Fishers virtually disappeared from Nova Scotia about 100 years ago due to trapping and habitat loss but were reintroduced to the eastern mainland in the 1960’s.) Or, as someone suggested, maybe we are seeing more fishers around because ongoing clearcutting is forcing them to find new territories. The current population and status of this animal seems to be yet one more mystery.

So now here we are in 2022 and it’s snowshoe time again. I haven’t seen a fisher-in-the-fur lately, but I have been seeing tracks in the woods and on the frozen pond as fisher prowls his territory. He’s not a mystery mammal anymore, or even the new kid on the block. He’s just another one of my wild neighbours, hanging out here in the Holler.

Sue McKay Miller
January 31st, 2022

p.s. Please share your own fisher sightings and observations in the comments. As always, I welcome any corrections or additional information – I’m still learning!

Just moseying across the pond.

The Secret Lives of Animals

One of my favourite winter activities is following animal tracks on snowshoe. The rest of the year we might see occasional animal signs: scat, browsed twigs, tracks in mud, scrapings and scratchings. But snow opens up the animal world like a book. Tracks tell tales: which animals are out and about, where they travel, how many, how often, how fast. When it comes to reading these signs, I am very much a novice, but just as a child learns to read ever more complex books, I learn to read the woods a bit better each year.

Over time I’ve learned to identify tracks from the usual suspects: coyote, snowshoe hare, red squirrel, ruffed grouse, deer, crow, and, of course, the unmistakable moose. But I’m often stumped as to how many animals. Do four sets of coyote tracks mean four coyotes? Or two passes by a pair? Or a lone coyote making multiple passes? This is especially tricky if the direction of travel is obscured in soft snow. Is this coyote coming or going? Half the time I don’t know if I’m coming or going.

As for coyote comings-and-goings, tracks taught me that the resident coyotes use predictable routes. One or two sets of tracks frequently crossed my drive at the same place, passed through the woods onto a trail, and followed the trail to the far side of the pond before veering back into the woods. The coyotes routinely traveled that same route, scouting their territory, marking it in the same spots.

No need to call in CSI to see who killed this ruffed grouse, aka ‘Mr. Partridge’. The culprits left their footprints all over the scene. This is clearly the work of the Coyote Gang.

My familiarity with the usual suspects helped me spot some not-so-usual tracks last winter. I was snowshoeing through old spruce forest when I spotted some tracks I’d never seen before. I had a suspect in mind (I’d glimpsed the backside of an animal a few days earlier) and my suspicions were soon confirmed. One morning I saw a fisher loping around the perimeter of the frozen pond. Later that day I heard a bizarre squabbling noise in the woods across the pond. A fisher emerged from the trees and dashed across the ice followed by a second in snarling pursuit. It was my first (but not my last) sighting of the makers of that new-to-me track.

Hmm … Who was here? These mysterious tracks were soon identified.

Otters are close kin to fishers (both are members of the weasel family Mustelidae and are a similar size). These ‘water weasels’ are by far the easiest and most fun animals to follow. I first came cross a strange groove in the snow years ago and followed it through the trees. The groove slalomed downslope among the spruce, dropping in and out of a tree well, then out onto the pond where it vanished beneath a crack in the ice. I backtracked the trail through the woods and saw that even on the flats the otter will run and slide, run and slide. The trail led through thick brush where I couldn’t follow, but it was as easy as ABC to keep track of that distinctive groove, all the way back to the river. Whenever I see an otter’s slide I feel a vicarious sense of fun.

Tracks are only part of the tale revealed in the snow. Detailed depressions, including hair imprints, show where a moose and her calf lay. One snowy winter even long-legged moose’s belly dragged through the snow. A drag mark between fox’s tracks hinted that she snagged a hare for supper. The snow can tell a tale of a hunt or a chase or a crow landing and flying away. And squirrel keeps popping his head out of snow tunnel openings like a living whack-a-mole – perhaps the very squirrel that used a snow tunnel to evade an owl? (see Hoots in the Holler) Tunnels beneath the snow provide cover and also warmth, the snow acting as an insulating blanket, for mice, voles and other wee critters.

Field guides are great, human guides are better, but the best way to learn a track is to see the animal lay it down, and, once they are safely out of the area, have a look. One winter I spotted a bobcat trotting just below my house. She’d no sooner disappeared into the trees when a second one showed up, hot on her heels. Once they’d gone about their bobcat business, I checked out the tracks. There was the round pad (coyote tracks are similar in size but more oval) but I also saw distinctive claw marks, contrary to field guide descriptions. In that case, crampon claws kept the cat from slipping on an icy slope.

This was taken along my driveway on a different winter. I do believe a bobcat was following in my footsteps – literally.

This has been an odd winter in Cape Breton (gives a whole new meaning to ‘Dry January’, eh?). But after a couple of snowfalls in February the landscape finally looks more wintery. One sunny afternoon I schlepped around the Holler and saw tracks galore on the crusty snow. I’d been feeling like it was just the squirrels and me out here, but, as always, the snow revealed that the wild ones are far more abundant and active than we realize. Amongst a plethora of coyote, hare and squirrel tracks, one mysterious trail had me absolutely stumped (below left). If you have any ideas on this – or any other – track, please leave a comment below.

This month’s blog just scratched the surface (hee hee) on the topic of tracks but I’ll leave it there for now. It snowed last night and I see fresh tracks over on the hillside. Time to strap on the snowshoes and see who’s out and about in the neighbourhood.

Sue McKay Miller
February 26, 2021

HOLD THE PRESSES! I did have a look at that fresh track yesterday afternoon and guess who? Otter had dropped by, sliding all the way from the top of the hill to the pond. Sometimes life is just too funny.