To enter the woods after the season’s first snowstorm is to meet winter on its own terms and to glimpse the world of austere beauty that awaits us, literally at our doorstep. Such was my experience on a recent walk along the Coxing Kill below Split Rock at Mohonk Preserve.
I decided to use snowshoes for this excursion. I could have gotten by with winter boots, but my snowshoes allowed me to almost “float” atop the icy snow crust. It was not long before I encountered the tracks of other snow-walkers. Deer tracks were tunnels struck deep into the snow, in contrast to those of cottontail rabbits, squirrels and deer mice. All of the latter, in sets of four, were lightly printed on the surface of the snow, a natural snowshoe effect shown by all quadrupeds whose toe spread is large relative to their body weight. Upon reaching the bridge that spans the Coxing Kill at Split Rock, I found tracks that were distinct from the familiar ones I had just seen. Though the prints were roughly the size of a medium-sized dog’s (and there were plenty of dog tracks nearby), they were rounder, and some appeared, on close inspection, to have five, rather than four toes, though the fifth toe was not always visible in the print. These prints were arranged in widely spaced pairs, each pair diagonal to the direction they were heading. This track pattern is characteristic of all members of the weasel family. Since skunks are deeply asleep in their dens right now, and the prints were too large for mink or weasel, and too small for otter, they could only be those of a rarely seen predator, the fisher.
Fishers are one of those animals whose presence signifies wilderness. Despite their name, these large weasels prey on animals like squirrels and mice. They can out climb a squirrel and specialize in killing porcupines, avoiding the quills by attacking the animal’s face, then flipping it over to feed on its soft belly. For me, the discovery of this fierce predator’s tracks conjures the forest primeval, even here at Split Rock, the site of much human use for centuries. Fieldstone foundations of a house and barn, and other outbuildings, tell of the Enderly family farm, which occupied this place in the 19th century, and there was also a sawmill here, turning in the rushing waters that were sluiced through the stone cleft. Interpretive panels put up by Mohonk Preserve tell this story well, a tale of forests cleared to make way for European-style settlement and industry, leaving little room for deep forest dwellers like the fisher. But the forest has returned and the fisher was reintroduced here at Mohonk Preserve in 1976 by Daniel Smiley and the DEC. From the ten animals they released at that time, a population of these reclusive creatures has now reestablished itself at the Preserve. A couple of days and nights with snow on the ground has given one of these animals the chance to write its signature here for all to read.