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.

Hoots in the Holler

In Bared Trees and Barred Owls I wrote about seeing barred owls on three separate occasions during my November rambles. I first heard one of these owls while camping out on the newly-purchased land with my son and his lady back in 2003. The loud hoots startled we three humans but put the fear of hellfire into our husky-cross, Tundra. That dog would pick a fight with a dog twice her size just for kicks, but a series of eerie hoots in the night and she launched herself into the cab of my pickup and would not come out for the rest of the night.

Sometimes a dog would rather just stay in the truck and read the paper.

If Tundra thought that night noise was scary, it’s nothing compared to the screams and cackles and hoots and screeches these birds make in mating season. It’s as if a troop of monkeys are sounding the alarm in a tropical jungle. Except … it’s February in Cape Breton: Cold and snowy and nary a monkey for miles. I was still living in my yurt when an owl launched into a monkey call right outside one night (and trust me, there was virtually no sound barrier between me and that crazy cackling). Another owl responded from nearby. ‘Eek! I’m in an avian asylum!’ My journal entry for February 8, 2008, reads: ‘9 pm. Owls barking and shrieking and howling like banshees.’

After many years of hearing these owls vocalize I finally saw one while wandering through a mature spruce forest. A large brown and white bird flew by, maneuvering easily through the dense trees. What struck me, then and now, is how this bird, with a 42″ wingspan, flies in absolute silence, not a whisper of air from those large flapping wings. As silent as a stealth fighter and just as deadly to its rodent prey. I followed after the bird and then stopped. ‘Where’d he go?’ I looked up. A barred owl was staring back down at me with enormous brown eyes.

Most sources refer to these owls, like other owl species, as nocturnal, but I’ve seen them hunting during the day. Along with rodents, they hunt birds, amphibians, and even fish. I once saw one perched in a young maple above the pond. The next time I looked he was in the shallow water, flapping his way back to shore. There aren’t any fish in my pond, but he may have spotted a snake or a frog – although I think the prey got away.

In March 2019 I had a much closer encounter with a barred owl. I’ll call him (or her?) Ollie. (Not very original, I know.) I first spotted Ollie in the morning, hanging about in maple trees near the house. Cool. Then he landed on my deck railing, 6′ from the window. Wow! But suddenly his eyes widened, he reared up, exposing his yellow legs, jutted his head forward and hooted. Uh oh. He’d seen his reflection in the window – a rival owl in his territory! Alarmed, I opened the casement window slightly, hoping to erase the reflection. But Ollie launched himself at the window, talons first. Whoa! I yelled and covered my eyes. By the time I looked, Ollie was safely back in the maple tree, unharmed, though perhaps a bit muddled.

He stayed on his maple branch, watching and listening with the remarkable patience of predators. The squirrels that are usually tearing around here like furry speed freaks laid low, as did the voles and mice that inhabit the scattered piles of firewood and brush. Eventually a daring red squirrel emerged from a snow tunnel beside a tree and bolted towards the house. Ollie swooped down in swift pursuit. Both disappeared below the deck. I ran downstairs and looked out the basement window. There was Ollie, perched on a discarded canvas. His lunch had vanished into the maze of leftover lumber and other junk stored down there. Ollie stayed on the canvas frame, just outside the window, waiting for lunch to re-emerge.

Squirrel finally made a break for the trees and ran for his life, not in a straight line, but zigging and zagging. Ollie pursued, breaking and swerving, zig for zig and zag for zag. But owl didn’t have quite as much maneuverability as squirrel, and the intended prey zipped into a tree well, escaping into a snow tunnel just ahead of the outstretched talons.

Wanted! Have you seen this escape artist?

I must say, I felt badly for Ollie. It’s a tough life, being a predator. He’d come so close twice, only to fail twice and go hungry. Nature isn’t all flowers and rainbows. In the predator/prey dynamic, someone has to die. Predators who don’t kill will eventually starve to death. I kept spotting Ollie, always on a nearby tree, always on the lookout for lunch. Even when I went to pee, there he was, on another tree just outside the bathroom window. Hmm …

Ollie has lots of maple trees to choose from.

Later, I sat out on my deck and Ollie settled on a nearby maple tree branch, right at eye level. He was so close I could’ve touched him with a ten-foot pole. I kept a wary eye out in case he assumed the attack stance, but he seemed unthreatened by my proximity. He was mostly focused on the ground below us, but occasionally he’d do that owly head-twisty thing and look over at me. For Ollie, that nearby perch was probably just the best place to watch over the last place he’d spotted his elusive lunch. But for me? Sitting on my deck with an owl sitting in a tree just spitting distance away? It felt … almost companionable. Just me and my neighbour hanging out. Just another day in the Holler.

Sue McKay Miller
January 29, 2021

Note: To hear a barred owl, check out The second ‘song’ in the list is what I typically hear, and the ‘duet’ is a (somewhat mild) sample of mating mayhem. I’ve limited this blog to my own personal observations, so if you want more information about this fascinating owl (or any other bird for that matter) that site is an excellent resource.