Weasels of Our Home Lands and Waters
We are graced in the Adirondack Park with at least six members of the weasel family, Mustelidae. The family of mustelids, in taxonomic turn, fits within the order Carnivora, which is in the class Mammalia, which is in the phylum Chordata, which is in the kingdom Animalia. We humans, of course, branched away from distant mammal relatives at the Order level, where we classify ourselves as Primates, and let the toothier ones be Carnivores. (Having a penchant for order, I like these taxonomic schemata, and feel less self-indulgent about it, now that I see Wikipedia is offering the same orderly information!). Generally, weasels are mid-size or small carnivores, and subsist mainly on meat, mostly of smaller animals. All these weasel family members are beautiful to behold, but most are elusive and you are fortunate if you glimpse one.
Weasels of our region, roughly in ascending order of size, include Ermine (Short-tailed Weasel), Long-tailed Weasel, Mink, Marten, Fisher, and River Otter. Least Weasels inhabit much of the northern United States and Canada, but apparently not the Adirondacks. Wolverines, the largest of North American weasels and a species that needs big wild places with cold snowy winters, likely inhabited snowy parts of our region but were extirpated from the East south of Canada decades ago.
Other members of the weasel family have rebounded somewhat in recent decades, with regrowth of once-cleared forest and with better wildlife management and water quality laws. We should not take their well-being for granted, however, as weasels are vulnerable to trapping and to habitat loss. Some may be particularly susceptible to human-caused climate chaos, too.
Our most charming weasel, those lucky enough to have seen one would probably agree, is the River Otter (Lontra canadensis). These aquatic mustelids are amazingly deft and agile, swift enough under water to catch fish and frogs. Otters are most at home in water but will traverse land to reach other water bodies.
Sadly, otters sometimes are killed by cars as they try to cross roads – perhaps to reach a different waterway, perhaps because the culvert through which the stream flows under the road is too small and clogged or has a dangerous spillover. Otters are also vulnerable to traps, often set for Beavers but lethal to any aquatic mammal unlucky enough to enter the jaws; and they can be harmed by water pollution.
In years past, I often saw otter tracks and slides here in Split Rock Wildway, eastern Adirondacks, in winter. Last winter, I saw fewer otter tracks than usual, and this winter so far I’ve seen none. This may be mere chance, an anecdotal observation that reflects no pattern; but I am worried. I miss seeing the joyful otter slides down stream-banks and the playfully efficient bound-slide pulses across frozen wetlands. I fear a reversion to high rates of trapping for Beaver pelts around here could ruin some of our richest ponds and wetlands and diminish otter and other aquatic wildlife numbers.
Mink you may have seen along the shores of Lake Champlain and its tributaries. Mink seem a bit more tolerant of people than some other weasels, though that tolerance can get them in trouble.
Years ago as I cycled home from work, I saw a confused Mink on the road in front of Eggleston Ford. She was not there to get her car serviced, I’m sure, but likely had been moving up or down The Branch and had climbed up the stream bank at just the wrong time. I tried to shoo her back to the stream, but lost her behind a car and never knew whether she made it safely back to the water.
Mink tracks tend to be tidy angled twos, bounding in mud along streams or in snow across frozen wetlands or ponds. The tracks in winter often disappear into snow, doubtless in quest of tasty little rodents. I see Mink tracks often in the Adirondacks along snowy or frozen waterways in winter; on the lucky occasions when I see a Mink in the flesh, he or she is likely swimming or rock-hopping along the Split Rock Wild Forest shoreline.
Continue reading this series: “Weasels of Our Home: Terrestrial Mustelids.”
[Special thanks to Lake Placid based nature conservation photographer Larry Master (www.masterimages.org) for permission to feature several of his photographs in this post.]
Note: The content in this blog post was repurposed and a revised version is included in John Davis’s book Split Rock Wildway: Scouting the Adirondack Park’s Most Diverse Wildlife Corridor published by Essex Editions on Nov. 21, 2017. Learn more about the book and where to buy it at essexeditions.com. Watch the book trailer below.