Fishers, weasels, and porcupines. Oh my!

A nocturnal animal like the Fisher is usually only seen momentarily or by accident, and is most commonly observed darting across dirt roads at night. (Arthur Chapman/Creative Commons)

The birch-lined dirt road looks menacing in the last hours of daylight. Jerry Garcia’s “Ripple” plays from the new speakers of my Uncle Tim’s 1992 Honda pickup truck. Driving through nature and listening to the Grateful Dead creates a synergy that is unmatched on these remote back-roads. The heat has been cranked up to high, and the hum of the tires on the dirt sends euphoric tingles through my body. Road-cruising leaves me in a state of constant anticipation, as at any moment, a bobcat, or a red fox may run across the road.

As we begin ascending a back-road on Peekamoose Mountain, I notice the habitat changing. New York’s lowlands mostly consist of oak-hickory forest. At higher elevations, the oaks and hickories are replaced by sweet and gray birch, mountain ash, hemlock, and other north-woods species. In these high-elevation forests resides a creature so rare that even hunters and devout naturalists may go their whole lives without seeing it. It is an animal that is as adept in the trees as it is on the ground, and is the only mammal species that regularly preys on porcupines. It is a creature of the night, terrorizing caged chickens on the rare occasions that it ventures into human-habitation. This is a species feared by every caged and domestic animal in the country north of Tennessee. This is the fisher (Martes pennanti).

We finally arrive at the Peekamoose Mountain trailhead with about an hour of light left to spare. The woodland here looks impenetrable and full of shadows, as it usually does after 6 p.m. Nighttime comes quickly this high up on the mountain. A few hundred feet below, the shrub-land in the valley is set ablaze by the day’s last rays of sun, and I feel as though I am caught between two hemispheres. The deep, monosyllabic “WHOOT” of a long-eared owl reverberates through the ancient, unlogged spruces lining the mountain. A white-footed mouse, apparently flushed out of hiding, scurries over my boot and darts into the protection of a hole at the base of an old beech tree.

I follow an old deer path that veers off from the well-groomed, summit trail about a hundred feet into the woods. After about five minutes of walking, I arrive in a clearing. There are impressions in the ground here, called “beds,” where white-tailed deer and wild turkey clump together on the ground to rest. Upon closer investigation, there is an entire array of animal tracks on the muddy ground below. I notice the tracks of the red fox, which are easily identified by the presence of four toes, a deep heel-impression, and visible claws in the prints. Old, 19th century stone walls snake through these woods like highways, and animals use these as corridors to travel through their large territories with ease. I decide that this is a good place to post up for the last 45 minutes of daylight in my quest to find the elusive Fisher.

My technique for observing uncommon or sought-after animal species is relatively simple, and it involves me staying completely still for hours on end. Nocturnal animals like the fisher (my target animal) or the gray fox have an exceedingly good sense of hearing, and are very sensitive to any foreign sounds in their environment. The fisher is usually only seen momentarily or by accident, and is most commonly observed darting across dirt roads at night. The fisher is a member of the weasel family (Mustelids), and is a relative of the otter, ermine, stoat, wolverine, and honey-badger.

This large weasel is adorned with a chocolate-brown pelt of intensely soft fur, and the market value of a fisher coat is mind-bogglingly expensive. In fact, my mother lovingly refers to these animals as “coats.” This weasel is found in the boreal and old-growth forests of Canada, Alaska, and the northern states, and was successfully reintroduced into the Catskills in the 1990s.

In New York, the fisher is found in extensive old-growth forests, the favored habitat of its prey, the common porcupine. The fisher typically chases a porcupine up a tall tree, then swats at it with its paws until the porcupine falls to the ground disoriented. The fisher then flips the porcupine on its back, and eats its exposed, quill-less belly. Here on Peekamoose Mountain, I see signs of Porcupine everywhere: their scat looks like tiny sausage links, and their tracks look like tiny human footprints with visible claws. Looking around I notice a number of trees missing chunks of their bark. This makes me happy, as I know that porcupines eat the cambium of trees, or the inner tissue of the bark, and where porcupine abound, so does the Fisher…

I take a seat next to an old Beech tree on the rock wall and wait. I have about 40 or so minutes of daylight left. This is my favorite time of day, the crepuscular time, or what my parents eerily refer to as the “gloaming.” This is the best time to observe animals in the forest, as the nocturnal species are just beginning to come out of their prospective holes and burrows. The long-eared owl I heard earlier has now been joined by two other owls, likely territorial males, and their ‘hoots’ reverberate through the mountain woods. What was a quiet patch of woods a mere hour ago has now become a booming epicenter of animal activity. Deer mice scuttle over my Timberlands and into the protection of the rock wall. The moon is full and a cavalry of coyotes howls in unison. They don’t seem very far away, maybe a couple miles at most. The woods become more alive with each passing second.

I estimate that I have about 25 minutes of light left before it’s time to pack up and go. Right as I begin to lose hope, I notice the snake-like figure of a good-sized mammal leaping down from the trunk of an old spruce. My eyes widen as I am inundated by the almost-manic energy of unadulterated excitement. The animal I am observing is perhaps one hundred feet away from me, but its long, thin body and black pelt immediately give away its identity. No other animal in these parts looks anything like the creature in front of me, as the fisher is perhaps one of the most distinctive mammals in our northern forests.

The animal approaches, traversing the rock wall, and I hold my breath as so not to make any unconscious movements that could scare it away. It seems completely oblivious to my presence, or rather, it knows that I am there, but could truly care less. The fisher is now a mere 15 feet away from me, and its movements suggest that it is looking for food. It then jumps down from the rock wall, allowing me to observe its foraging behavior as it explores every crevice, hole, and fallen log within its territorial radius. The fisher then gets uncomfortably close to my person, and seems to be intrigued by the logo of the tree on my Timberlands. This makes me slightly nervous, as I did not expect to have such a close encounter with a German Shepard-sized weasel foraging only a hand-full of feet away from me. The fisher catches my gaze and we both pause. Its eyes are pitch black, like seal’s eyes, and it cocks its head at me like an inquisitive dog, before bounding off into the thickets. What a close one…

The members of the Mustelid family have a reputation for being some of the most aggressive and vicious animals on the planet, and this statement is at least half-true. My chicken coop is essentially raided weekly by fisher, mink, and a long-tailed weasel that has taken up residence in the woodpile adjacent to the coop. Weasels have fast metabolisms and are always on the move, exploring every nook and cranny of their environment. When they hunt, weasels will kill as much prey as they possibly can and stash it in a cache, which is typically a hollow log, or the root system of a tree. On one particular occasion, a long-tailed weasel raided my chicken coop, killing 15 adult chickens, 10-plus chicks, and destroying all the eggs. It may be inappropriate for us to label weasels as “vicious,” as terms like this specifically refer to human trails, and man has a certain propensity to anthropomorphize animals. It is incontestable, however, that weasels are some of the most efficient hunters among all North American mammals. 

Weasels are masters of staying out of sight. One winter day, I found myself on a ski lift in Deer Valley Utah, which is about fifteen minutes away from Park City, where the Sundance Film Festival happens every year. That particular day was a whiteout, and I was about to catch some fresh powder on my favorite ski run, Centennial. Looking down, I noticed the movement of what I could only describe as, at the time, a “snow snake.” It took me a minute to realize that I had just seen an ermine or short-tailed weasel in its winter plumage. That was about five years ago, and I haven’t seen another ermine since. They are certainly not rare animals, but their small size allows for them to enter any crevice or burrow and stay out of sight. Furthermore, the two weasels in the Mustela family, the long-tailed and short-tailed weasels, turn white in the winter, and the black dots on the end of their tails and noses are the only things that give them away in deep snow.

Weasels have always particularly interested me because of how resilient and adaptable they are. This family of animals has found a niche in almost every conceivable habitat available in the country: The river otter took to America’s mountain streams, rivers, and lakes. The fisher and the marten dominate our northern, boreal forests. The black-footed ferret inhabits the dry prairies of the Midwest. While the two small Mustela weasels took to the farms, pastures, and gardens of the lowlands. The fisher, my favorite mustelid, is currently experiencing a large population increase, as reintroductions in the Catskills, Vermont, and New Hampshire have been very successful. In fact, the fisher can now be found, albeit sparingly, in Princeton, New Jersey. If you ever find yourself eloping in the Institute Woods, keep an eye out for the snake-like silhouette of my furry friend, the fisher.

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.