By Jack McShane
A white flash on the white snow, a black spot behind: What was it? It was a racing ermine or weasel in his or her winter raiment of all-white fur, with a black-tipped tail. A rare and exciting sighting quickly disappearing under the cover of some large Norway spruce trees Nancy and I planted some thirty years ago. Was he racing from some unseen predator, such as a hawk, coyote or fox? I saw none. Or maybe after an unseen prey like a mouse or vole. Or was he eluding the top predator, me: Unknown. The only other animal to go white in the winter is the snowshoe hare. For the weasel, Nature’s purpose is for it to be unseen by its prey and for the hare to be unseen by its predators. As the climate changes, and with less snow in our winters, it begs the question: Will Nature change this unique survival tactic? And keep in mind that if you have an infestation of mice in your abode, forget getting a cat. Just invite in a weasel who will do a very quick demousing.
I mentioned the weasel’s disappearance under the Norway spruce trees which I consider one of the best coniferous trees that one can plant for improving wildlife habitat. Norways hold their lower living branches—which are about a foot off the ground—and provide that much-needed low cover for many critters. We planted these trees in triple rows—which was suggested by the wildlife folks at the Department of Environmental Conservation—along the edges of our fields and along the road edge. The road edge plantings eventually blocked the dust from the then dirt road and also blocked the visibility of potential road hunters, what I call road hunters, or those who would cruise the roads looking for a deer to shoot—not a very sporting method. Some of these trees are now fifty feet tall. They have fed many a squirrel and bird and provided cover for many critters over the years.
My friend, Ann, residing up on Dingle Hill, had a very interesting and entertaining wildlife show right in her backyard. One early evening after a clear day there was a red fox and a fisher doing what might be called a dance of the predators. They circled around each other in a way that appeared as a playful game. I tend to view it as a way of each letting the other know that this territory is mine and please leave forthwith. There was no direct interaction, as safe space was maintained between them, and eventually they were off, with the fox doing the chase. My own interpretation of this unique interaction is that one, most likely the fox, had made this location a priority territory for future denning and the fisher had inadvertently wandered in. I say this because there has been a noted observation by wildlife biologists that many foxes are tending to make their denning location in close proximity to human dwellings. The reasoning is that there is less to fear from humans these days than there is from coyotes, who will try to kill any other canine that wanders into their territory. If this noted escapade had turned into a real one-on-one combat, the clear winner in my mind would have been the fisher.
Ten days later a note from Ann: The fisher returned to be chased by her dog Jessie up a nearby tree. Another lucky canine in that there was that nearby tree— precluding again a one-on-one potentially mortal combat. Ann sent a shot of the treed fisher.
Spring is here and it has been a great pleasure watching the return of our feathered snow birds. March 3rd, I witnessed the first skeins of Canada geese flying high and due north, which got me wondering just how far north they planned to go. Most bodies of water would be iced over and the snow depth would rise the farther north they would fly. Still awaiting the local pair to see if they will do their annual nesting on the island on our “upper pond.” A couple of pairs of mallard ducks have been frequenting the little pond along the road. Can’t wait to see the glamorous, but easily spooked, wood ducks. Redwing blackbirds and purple grackles have arrived, all males, of course, as they now vie for the best territories. My friend Lori had a visiting bluebird check out one of her birdhouses, but it decided not to stay.
Let us all enjoy and welcome our returning avian and Brooklyn Hipster friends back to Andes with our verdant forests, fields and trails that are open to all.~