Fishers have been and continue to be one of my best tracking teachers. This past week, on a trip to Algonquin Park with Dan Gardoqui (White Pine Programs) and Alexis Burnett (EarthTracks), I lost one fisher trail and found another. In the first instance, I was at the helm of the group, enthusiastically following a fisher trail up a steep hill on the East side of Arowhon Road. The tracks suddenly met a well-used snowshoe path on the Mizzy Lake trail. Imagine trying to decipher which tracks belong to a fisher while seeing snowshoe hare tracks on top of packed snowshoe tracks. I lost the trail. Maybe the fisher went up a tree? I later learned that trackers often call that phrase “the fisher cop out”. Argghhhh.
An hour or so later, our group found another fisher trail crossing the Arowhon road. We followed it into dense conifers. I gladly accepted the opportunity to take the lead again and trail the fisher through deep snow and sticky trees. Suddenly, the fisher trail disappeared into a myriad of snowshoe hare trails. A bonanza of snowshoe hare activity seemed to swallow any evidence that a fisher had even been there. Not again. I could sense the disappointment emanating from my tracking friends as we all took off in different directions trying to recover the trail. I went back to the last clear track, reassured myself and noticed a slight angle heading North around a snowy mound. Could the tracks continue on the other side of the mound? Perhaps perseverance leads to competency which maybe leads to intuitive tracking because… there it was! The trail continued beyond the mound. I called out to everyone, “I found it!” and felt a warming sense of redemption and gratitude. We trailed the fisher until it crossed the road again and then headed back to meet the rest of the group. I learned that snowshoe hares create well-used pathways of densely packed snow to ease travel. I tried to pick up a clump of snowshoe hare trail and it was like a chunk of cement. Other animals, like fishers seem to take advantage of these trails for hunting purposes and for travel. I also learned that fishers travel quickly overland, so it is challenging to catch up with them while tracking, even on a fresh trail. One day, I would like to see one of those little bear cubs with long tails – the elusive fisher.
Tracking at its best
(excerpt from a Nature Guelph newsletter written in April, 2013)
The spring ice storm gave way to glorious sunshine on the April tracking trip up to Luther Marsh. We were greeted by the sound of Sandhill Cranes and a Pileated Woodpecker within minutes of stepping onto the soft, grassy trail beside Mallard Pond. Muskrat tracks, scat and push-ups were seen along the edge of the marsh. The trail continued into the bush and soon we were walking on a thin layer of snow on top of a winter’s culmination of melting snow crust. These conditions would prove to be excellent for tracking as we spotted an old, stone foundation covered in snowy mounds. Several animals were using this hidden gem in the forest. Soon we noticed a well-used skunk trail and a den. Nearby, the tracks of a raccoon waddled beside a porcupine trough. It was then that we noticed an exceptional track and trail – one that I had never seen before…
The tracks were round, 5.5 cm x 7cm. The pattern of tracks was a walking gait with a stride length of 27 cm and a straddle of 21 cm. Something fascinated me – there were no claw marks! Could it be? I wondered if we had finally happened upon the elusive bobcat, of which the most recent documented sighting was 17 years ago. Humming and hawing, tracking gear strewn across the trail – this is tracking at its best. We all looked closely at the footprints and something kept nagging at me. I consistently counted 5 toes. Cats do not have five toes. But who else has roundish pawprints and no claws? The measurements brought us to the page marked… perhaps you have already guessed it:
Fisher (Pékan in French). This giant member of the weasel family with brown and black fur is otherwise known as a Fisher Cat probably because of its semi-retractable claws. We had found a fisher trail! Fantastic! Fishers are one of the few predators that can eat porcupine. They also eat snowshoe hare – both of which are bountiful at the Marsh. The tracks eventually disappeared into the mud and the trees (of which they can climb) and we meandered into the coniferous forest with excellent viewings of grouse, wild turkey, snowshoe hare, deer and porcupine tracks. The porcupine trail became arboreal as we found ourselves staring at a living porcupine nestled into the bough of a white pine tree. We decided to head back to the parking lot along a deer run beside the marsh. The drive home was exciting with views of harriers, tundra swans, a sandhill crane, a merlin and a kestrel. We were once again humbled by the amazing wilderness and beauty of the grand Luther Marsh.