Woodland Puzzles

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Taken from a deer stand I found. It is a woodland faux-pas to sit in another hunter’s stand, but it is also a faux-pas to leave your stand up after deer season. He should have taken this down months ago!

Skiing, snowmobiling, skating, and ice fishing are great fun if you are with friends and have time and money to burn. This weekend, however, money has been short and I’ve been in a more solitary mood. So I’ve gone back to a reliable old pastime: animal tracking.

It is a hobby I first developed a few years ago over many lonely weekends living in Wisconsin: going out into the fresh snow and follow the deer tracks around from feeding areas to shelter, asking myself questions about their habits: why bed down here instead of somewhere else? How do they know to where to look for food under the snow? The events that trigger an instinctual response are perfectly clear to the animal, but to a human observer they are puzzles to be figured out. Sometimes there is an answer, other times the clues just peter out into nothing.

I was in Thayer Forest, a few miles from where I lived as a boy. Back then, a visit to these woods was a pleasant afternoon stroll, but today much of it is swampland, the trails flooded thanks to an explosion in the beaver population, caused in turn by some misguided changes to the rules on trapping.* The places where I played as a kid are now only accessible in winter, when the beaver bogs are frozen over.

The most common tracks were white-tailed deer, red and grey squirrel, and an abundance of mice. Winter is hard for these herbivores: food has to be located and dug up off the ground through two feet of snow, making it harder to come by, but their caloric demands are higher because of the cold. For many individual animals, the result is starvation. Naturally, most of the tracks went in short, straight lines from shelter to food caches and back.

Cold Storage

Cold Storage

Saturday, just before yet another snowstorm,  I came across this track:

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A loping animal, short enough to dodge under fallen trees, he seemed to be traveling far. I followed for a bit and found that the track cris-crossed back and forth over an area of about a square hundred yards, sometimes pausing, making a loop or a figure eight, before continuing on its way. The area was thick with squirrel and mouse tracks. I had discovered the track of a predator out on a hunt.

But what sort of predator? In Massachusetts you find some canines: eastern coyotes (bigger and more aggressive than their western cousins, having interbred with the last, lonesome survivors of the east-coast wolves, hunted to extinction) and foxes; some cats: the lynx and the bobcat; and well as weasels and their bigger cousin, the fisher.

None of these animals are commonly seen. Most people living in Massachusetts west of Boston are familiar with coyotes’ madhouse yips and squeals at night and may well have lost a family pet to those pests, but have probably never seen one. Foxes are less common, but also less careful to avoid humans.

Lynx, bobcat, and the weasels are out there, but are even more secretive. I was once chatting with a trapper who said he had never seen one of these animals alive, only dead in his traps. I had him one better, having once seen a common weasel run across the road.

I could discount the coyotes and foxes, since coyotes are pack animals and fox paws are too small to make these tracks, which looked to be about three inches long, and were too long and narrow for a canine. Lynx and bobcat have big, round paws. I settled on a theory that I was looking at the tracks of a fisher (or as we call them in New England, fisher-cats, though they are unrelated to cats except insofar as they enjoy mutilating house cats.)  The fisher is an aggressive, athletic predator, whose claim to fame is that he is the only predator in North America that can descend a tree head down (at a full run!).


The only problem with the theory: why was there no mark of the fisher’s long  tail? Other long tailed animals, like raccoons and skunks, leave a faint tail impression in mud or dust (not as often in snow, being hibernators).

The internet gave me this picture of a fisher track, which matched up pretty well with what I saw:


Sunday’s expedition saw a fresh six inches of snow wiping out the previous day’s tracks. In the same squirrel-thick area I found more of the tracks, except no longer loping, but in small steps. I attributed this change to the fact that while on Saturday the snow was powder, today it was crusty. Once again, the predator took the time to investigate the tracks of mice and squirrels.

Look close and you can see the mouse tracks that the predator was investigating.

The big tracks are from the predator. Look close and you can see the mouse tracks.

But today I got a wonderful surprise; I was not following the tracks to their destination, but back to the source: they led from underneath a fir tree, from a form where the animal had bedded down during the previous night’s snow.

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And a better surprise: I found a couple of hairs. But they were not long and dark as I imagined the fisher’s, but short and colorful, banded with red, grey, and black.

The fisher theory seemed destroyed and I was back to my list of predators. A lynx? A bobcat? Their paws are too big and round, but then, the impressions in the snow were not very good. Did I just read them wrong?

At home, the internet once again provided a possible solution: it seems the track of the fisher is easily confused with the track of his slightly smaller, though much prettier cousin, the marten. The colors of a marten? Greyish, with a red chest, and black highlights!

Marten in Boreal Forest

The fisher is not completely ruled out, since they can have some color variations that are similar to a marten’s. The three hairs I found are still not enough for a positive identification. Still, it is a much better way to spend Sunday afternoon than watching the Olympics.

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* Sorry, I can’t help myself: the rule changes made it harder to get a trapper’s licence, and banned steel-jaw traps on the grounds that they are cruel, which they can be if used incorrectly, though the legal traps strike me as more cruel. As a result, less people are trapping and the beavers are doing tremendous damage to forests and streams: a beaver dam kills acres of trees and reduces the oxygen in streams, killing off fish. As a result, the state of Massachusetts is now killing problem beavers. This is the logic of Puritanism: doing something for recreation is evil, using public money to do the exact same thing is good.

I’ve have known and respected all sorts of wildlife lovers: backpackers, photographers, hippies, hunters, and vegans. They have more in common than they realise. But in my experience, none of them knows, loves and appreciates wildlife the way a trapper does. The wealth of knowledge and sense of awe for nature that they have is staggering.


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