After spending a couple of hours identifying animal tracks in the snow and trees in winter with the Bristol Girl Guide group on Saturday, I was inspired to explore Gatineau Park to search for more prints on Sunday.
This winter’s snowfall has been powder-fine, meaning that prints and signs stay fresh-looking longer. And because of the successive snowfalls, the “canvas” has been continually refreshed so that there has been ample opportunity for going out and seeing new signs.
So on Sunday, Eric and I enjoyed a 2 1/2 hour snowshoe wherein we followed the tracks of a fisher.
How did we know? We put on our detective hats and looked for clues.
The fisher is a member of the weasel family, being approximately the size of a large cat. It is active during both day and night, has short legs and climbs trees although also being a capable hunter on the ground. A canny predator, it eats porcupines, rabbits & hares, mice, voles and other small mammals.
Much has been written about porcupines being the favourite food of fishers but apparently the snowshoe hare comprises the bulk of its diet. Nonetheless, fishers have a successful technique for attacking the quill-covered porcupine: they repeatedly dart at and bite the porcupine’s face and, after about 1/2 an hour of a prolonged attack will flip the porcupine over onto its back & attack (and eat) its stomach.
This creature’s pursuit of porcupines provided one critical clue to identifying its track in the snow.
First of all, we could tell it wasn’t a fox or coyote track because of the number of digits: the dog family have four “toes” and claws. The weasel family all have five. As well, canines have oval-shaped prints. This print was rounded in appearance.
Second, the stride was all wrong for a fox or coyote… Instead of it being long, there was a shorter breadth of space between prints. Third, there was an impression left in the snow from the belly: fishers are shorter-legged than the canines, so there was an impression or “tunnel” effect in the snow.
Fourthly, remember I mentioned that fishers climb trees? Well, where do you think the tracks led? We followed the trail for over an hour, over hill and down dale, alongside a creek, and up through the woods to an active porcupine den. Along this purposeful-looking route, the fisher had clambered up a tree or two. The trail not only led to these trees: we could “read” the prints indicating the creature had sometimes started running so it could jump up the first half metre or so, up the tree trunk (just like your pet cat might). In another instance, the fisher had hesitated at the bottom of the tree, the impression of its bottom being well-recorded in the snow.
And, all around the base of these trees were dustings of bark, disturbed from the trunk as the mammal ascended and descended.
We tracked it up a hillside to an outcrop of Canadian Shield that proved to be an extremely active porcupine den. Beech, maple and other hardwood trees were gnawed and stripped of leaves and twigs. It was interesting to check the rodent’s toothmarks on the branches and trunks of saplings. How destructive these creatures are: the saplings around the den area were stripped bare. However, the porcupine’s gnawing also seems to serve as a pruning mechanism, for it did seem that many of the trees had sent out annual shoots which, every winter, probably provide a ready pantry.
Some twigs had been nipped and then dragged to comfortable, safe lookouts where we could imagine the porcupines snacking while overseeing their domain in a sheltered patch of sunshine.
Indeed, the southern rockface formed a protected “bowl” that meant the porcupine’s backs would be protected both from the elements and from predators… such as the fisher.
Along the base of these rocks was a worn pathway in the snow where the porcupines have evidently ambled about from one dining room (a.k.a. tree) to another. Scat was everywhere and, in a particularly protected area, so was their lingering musk scent.
In one south-facing cleft, water was dripping as the heat of the sun melted the rock’s mantle of snow. Not only would they be kept warm in winter, but the south-facing situation on the slope means that their den will enjoy an early spring melt and drainage, too.
Pretty smart, these “dumb critters,” don’t you think?
And all about the den area were the tracks of the fisher, easily discernable from the porcupine due to their shape and stride. How many porcupines have been rousted out of their slumber and devoured by a fisher? We’ll never know, but would hazard to guess a few…
You never know what you’ll find in the woods, meadows and lakes around the Pontiac. Explore for yourself. Look for wingprints in the snow, either from grouse bursting from their snow-dome overnight resting spots, or from chickadees or other songbirds which alight on the surface, pick up a seed or a fly, and return to a perch in a tree.
Wherever you go, there’s a story to be told. Look, listen, learn; read, look at pictures, and watch nature films. This is the way to learn about the Pontiac wild.
Have you noticed how the days are lengthening? That’s right… the sunlight is stronger, the natural world seems to be awakening… Time to order your seeds for next year’s garden!
Katharine Fletcher explores the Pontiac on snowshoes, skis, canoe, horse and foot. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org