Sunday, January 12, 2014

Forget the Fox Trot. Do the Fisher: Winter Tracking

We had an early snow cover this year, but then the prospect of three or four months of good tracking conditions was dashed by an ice storm. The beauty of ice encrusted trees almost made up for the inability to see impressions on the ice covered snow

But then the wind and sun brought all the ice crashing down littering the forest floor with what seemed like broken glass.

In the photo below, the path deer made in the icy snow disappears where the animals continued through the ice shards.

Five days after the ice storm enough of the ice had fallen off the trees to allow walking in the woods. We heard some cracks but determined it was not from ice shards falling down but sheets of ice cracking down as we walked over them. I walked in the middle of the meadow at our land where there were no ice shards and an inch of soft snow lay lightly on the ice. 

I saw a fisher’s fresh tracks.

I followed the trail to the iced top of a pine sapling just peaking up out of the snow. The fisher left its prints in the snow around it and a small scat.

I always assume that what brings animals out after a grip of cold, ice, and snow is their need for food. In this case it seemed the fisher’s priority was marking territory.

That said, I have been taught by fishers not to presume too much when I track them. On Wellesley Island there is a strip of trees that I call the Fisher Woods

because I often pick up fisher trails there. I usually follow them if they head west toward South Bay where I keep track of other animals. Fishers have scant interest in South Bay, summer or winter. Despite their name they don't forage for fish and shy away from water, though they will go from island to island on the ice.

Fishers tend to stay in the woods where they find the squirrels that generally make their meals on Wellesley Island,

and twice a trail I followed led to a dead porcupine.

Fishers know how to avoid the porcupine's quills and attack its bare belly.

After a few years of tracking fishers (it took me about two years to identify their prints in the snow) I thought I figured out the fisher’s game (and this was before I even saw a fisher). Fishers just make a great circle through the woods, often always going in the same direction, and I was so bold to think I could describe two neighboring territories, two huge circles, parallel fisher universes that didn’t quite meet, one generally clockwise and the other generally counter-clockwise. Nothing makes you seem so superior than such understanding of an animal’s territory.

Then one day in Fisher Woods I found a fresh trail going to the east and I decided to follow it up a ridge at least until it crossed the state park boundary line about a half mile away. But first I had to relieve myself of a load, "number 2" as we used to say. 

When I got to the crest of the ridge, I got excited when the trail began bending back to the west. Could the eastern extremity of the circular territory end so abruptly? Then the trail went abruptly back down the ridge and at the foot of the ridge turned back to the east and led me back to that load I left, though that seemed so underwhelming to the fisher that it didn't get close enough to it for me to take a photo. The fisher turned around and headed to the west through Fisher Woods. I went home. I had a lot of thinking to do. Who was tracking who?

I stopped worrying about an animal’s territory or home range, especially a fisher's. Believing you've discovered the limits of an animal is fool's work (unless you are a scientist and get paid for it.) Animals are unlimited in their use of land. We excel them only in our ability to change the land, usually for the worse. 

They don’t make circles in the woods, they vibrate through it in three dimensions, maybe more. 

Now I track fishers not to confirm any theories but to delight in the brief record of their lives left by their paws in the snow. I can stand and admire their tracks for several minutes. In the photo below a fisher circled back on itself.

 But let's not harp on circles. I often them seeing making square 90 degree turn.

This hardly seems something to get excited about but what gets me is seeing the repeated cuts and turns by a fisher like it was running a pass route yet there is no quarterback in sight.

And if it is the nose leading the animal on, well, do smells make sharp turns? And if it is the memory of buried food, is a fisher so forgetful that it frequently stops short and turns because it almost forgot that the hole with the food was right over there?

Once I found fisher tracks, probably made by two fishers that at once looked completely confused and precisely executed, and this was in December well before mating season.

Fishers climb and dance in the crowns of trees, too. I got a video of one in October going after berries.

Fishers climb trees in the winter too as shown by the impression it makes in the snow when it jumps out of a tree.

When I see that I expect to see tracks heading straight off, but fishers don't seem to operate that way. They can hit the snow and spring and twist to the left.

Fishers always tend toward trees, and that distinguishes its trails from a porcupine's or raccoon's, animals that head to or from one tree in particular. There doesn't seem to be a tree in the woods that fishers don't know intimately. Perhaps it is their compulsion to go from tree to tree that prompts the fishers' strange slalom in the snow. In the photo below two fishers turn left at the same tree.

Fishers seemed obsessed with running on fallen logs. Foxes do that too but not with such zeal.

In the photo below a fisher jumps from one log to the next

Fishers enjoy leaping up on and over stumps too fishstump11mar8

I know I am giving the impression that fishers simply run helter skelter through the wood but that is more a commentary on my mentality than theirs. They are getting food and surviving while I spend a few hours walking around in the snow strumming my mind with their complexities. Rarely I see some sensible fisher tracks like the one below showing a fisher's trail coming to and following a porcupine's trail fishtks5

I've only seen a fisher running in the snow once and it was out of sight before I could get my camcorder running. But I don't think I learn much when I see a fisher that knows I am there. I got a good video of a fisher running in the woods in the fall but other than checking a mound of moss where it usually peed, it hurried away without exhibiting patterns I see when I track them in the winter.

Well, this blog has digressed into a recap of years of winter tracking. What twists and turns did I see when I tracked a fisher in the meadow on our land in December 2013? It went into the woods and left no impression on the ice shards. No hurry. Fishers will have me going in circles, doing the box step, cutting this way and that. I should invent a new dance called the fisher, but no one would believe it.

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