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Mar 11, 2019 11:10 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Last Call For Snow Tracking

Fisher tracks moving across the snowpack in a “lope” pattern (left to right): front left foot, hind right landing on top of the front right, and hind left foot, with the front left foot measuring 3 inches in width by 4 inches long.  MIKE BOTTINI MIKE BOTTINI
Mar 11, 2019 3:01 PM

I enjoy having the opportunity to experience all four seasons of the year, and although we don’t always get much of a winter on Long Island, I can usually count on some good days of cross country skiing and snow tracking. This year was an exception, and the snowshoes and skis remained in the porch rafters until early March. Last week, I hauled them down and directly into the car before heading north for some snow time.According to friends in Vermont, I may have caught the best week of snow and sun there was this winter, and enjoyed five days of classic cross country skiing, skate skiing and snowshoeing, capped off by a sixth day of tracking in the Quabbin Reservoir area of northern Massachusetts en route home. And to get the full winter experience, I helped shovel the 3-foot-deep snowpack off my friend’s deck one afternoon.

Saturday’s tracking trip at Quabbin was led by Janet Pesaturo, author of “Camera Trapping Guide: Tracks, Sign, and Behavior of Eastern Wildlife.” With two full nights since the last snowfall, we expected to see lots of interesting and fresh tracks during our day-long outing. We were not disappointed.

The focus was to be the area’s mustelids, or members of the weasel family, and that would include river otter, fisher, mink, long-tailed weasel and short-tailed weasel. That being said, no relatively fresh track would be passed by without a close look, and we took some time to make sure everyone understood the key characteristics of the first four animal tracks encountered (none of them mustelids): snowshoe hare, red squirrel, bobcat and ruffed grouse.

The first mustelid track we came upon was that of a fisher (Pekania pennanti whose genus was recently changed from Martes) that had passed by earlier in the morning, leaving perfect imprints on top of the soft snow. It was interesting to note that the fisher, weighing half that of the average bobcat and having twice the surface area in its feet, moved effortlessly across the surface of the snowpack, while the cat sunk down two to three inches with each step.

The fisher has the typical short-legged and long, cylindrical body shape of the weasel family, with a total body length similar to that of an otter: three to four feet with one third of that comprised of its tail. It also has an unusual adaptation for tree climbing: the hind feet can rotate 180 degrees, enabling it to securely climb down trees headfirst. This is useful in giving chase to squirrels, and for preying on the well-armored porcupine.

The only parts of the slow-moving porcupine lacking spines are its belly and face, and the fisher is particularly adept at going after the latter with its long canines, over time doing serious damage while avoiding quill punctures. A porcupine’s only defense is to find a rock or tree crevice in which to stick its head out of the fisher’s reach. Once severely wounded, the fisher flips the porcupine over, exposing its belly, and goes to work feeding on organs and muscle. In its feeding frenzy, it doesn’t always avoid ingesting a quill or two. I have found fisher scat with an intact quill embedded inside … ouch!

The fisher is one of many furbearers in North America whose populations were decimated by a combination of overharvesting during the unregulated fur trade era and habitat loss as forests were cut for farms.

In the Northeast, with many farms having reverted back to forest over the past 50 years and effective conservation laws, the fisher has made a slow but steady recovery. While I was working with New Hampshire Audubon in 1983, the first fisher were showing up in southern New Hampshire, and since then, they have recolonized former habitat throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey. Recently they have even been sighted in the Bronx!

According to the DEC’s 2015 Fisher Management Plan, “fisher do not currently exist on Long Island, nor are they documented in historical records to suggest they once occupied the area.” The report also concludes that Long Island does not have enough unfragmented and connected protected forest patches to support a local fisher population.

We trailed the fisher track through the woods to the edge of a pond where we encountered the sign of another mustelid, the river otter, a species that appears to be slowly but steadily reclaiming some of its former habitat here on Long Island.

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