Just this week, I saw my neighbor for the first time. I was out on a morning walk in Bearsville. Even though we have never met, I knew my neighbor by sight. My neighbor isn’t some recognizable but reclusive actor or rock musician. It’s not escaping from the city.
My neighbor is a fisher cat.
A member of the weasel family, fisher cats are neither feline nor fish-eaters. Solitary creatures except during the spring breeding season, fishers prey on small and medium-sized animals like rabbits, squirrels, and mice. Fishers make their homes in coniferous, deciduous, and mixed forests like the one on my road.
They are the only North American mammal capable of catching, killing, and eating a porcupine.
For three night running, I had heard a guttural screech punctuate the dusky silence of fall. It began after the crickets had stopped chirping, the magnolia warblers had migrated south, and the peepers had burrowed under fallen trees to hibernate. It wasn’t the raspy turkey call, the chattering squirrel warning, or the hooting of a barred owl. This sound was sharp and somehow disquieting.
I watched as the slender fisher darted across the road, its dark tail billowed like a pennant. With powerful hind legs, the low-to-the-ground fisher propelled up and over the stone wall separating the road from the piney woods. Then it was gone.
I have spotted fishers before, usually on the south side of the Ashokan Reservoir and never on my road in northeast Bearsville. Perhaps the plentiful rabbits living in the brambles of the upland meadow bordering the pine trees attracted it to our neighborhood. Maybe it was the tender poults of the spring turkey flock that had convinced the fisher to take up residence.
What other rarely-seen creatures live among us? That’s one question that the Woodstock Environmental Commission (WEC) is seeking to answer with its soon-to-be-completed Natural Resources Inventory (NRI). The Woodstock NRI is made possible by the New York DEC’s Hudson River Estuary Program in partnership with the Ashokan Watershed Stream Management Program and Ulster County. Similar inventories are happening in Olive, New Paltz and Gardiner. NRI projects have already been completed in Rochester, Wawarsing, and the City of Kingston.
At a recent WEC meeting, Ingrid Haeckel, a conservation specialist with the estuary program connected to Cornell University, presented a draft overview of the inventory.
Haeckel’s recent presentation, “Taking Stock of Nature,” provided the Woodstock Environmental Commission and the public quite a bit of information about the creatures with which we live. Understanding their habitats will help municipal planning and zoning boards prepare, design, and review future development.
But the neighbors who share our environment are more than that. The insights they provide make us better citizens and better people. What more valuable neighbors could we have, particularly at a holiday season such as this one?
Haeckel previewed drafts of several maps that are part of the Natural Resources Inventory. These 22 draft maps are available on the Town of Woodstock website. They include a land-use map, a watershed map, a drinking-water resources map, and a geology map. Of particular interest to wildlife watchers are the habitat map, the biodiversity map, and a large-forest map.
Haeckel says that Woodstock is 79 percent forested, and the large forest map shows the extensive unbroken forested areas that rank Woodstock’s forests in the top one percent of forests in the Hudson Valley.
These maps reveal much about the diverse wildlife habitats in Woodstock. The maps also provide users with a good indication of where our neighbors are spending their time eating, living, and multiplying. You just need to find out a bit of information on the breeding habits, hunting patterns, and living spaces of specific creatures. Then match their activities to the habitats on the maps.
Woodland pools are one interesting feature to note on the wetlands map. These pools serve as the home for several unique creatures. Also known as vernal pools, they are shallow depressions in forested areas found at high and low elevations. They form in spring and fall from rain, snowmelt, and groundwater.
Because of their cyclical filling and drying, vernal pools do not support fish life. This makes their waters a relatively safe breeding area for amphibians such as wood frogs and spotted salamanders. Without the presence of trout which dine on small amphibians, wood frog tadpoles can be found in woodland pools grazing on their egg mass after hatching. Once mature, the frogs migrate into the woods, where they live on the forest floor.
The rarely seen spotted salamander crawls from the vernal pools and burrows into the ground, creating vast networks of tunnels where it lives. It ventures above ground to hunt insects at night. If you can find them, these black salamanders are easily identifiable by their two rows of showy yellow spots.
Another eye-catching salamander is the red eft, a juvenile stage of the Eastern salamander. Efts can also be found on leafy forest floors near vernal pools as well as near freshwater ponds and streams. Efts are bright orange with red spots highlighted in blue-black. Unlike most amphibians whose outer layer is moist and smooth, efts have rough, dry skin. They also secrete a poisonous neurotoxin that can paralyze and suffocate predators that attempt to eat them.
The habitat map details all of the types of natural environments found in Woodstock: different types of forests, open spaces, meadows, orchards, open water, streams, springs, swamps, bogs, thickets, crests, ledges, even talus. The map also contains parcel lines for much of the town, which makes it easy to use when one is searching for a specific habitant along a road or trail.
The upland meadow bordering the mixed forest where I live is often a fine place to see a variety of hunting raptors like the barred owl, the great horned owl, and the red-shouldered hawk. All three of these raptors prey on a variety of small mammals such as mice, squirrels, and chipmunks. The great horned owl is also known to prey on other birds and larger mammals including crows, falcons, rabbits, racoons, woodchucks, even skunks. They can be identified by distinctive tufts of feathers above their brow line. They usually perch on high branches at dusk and stay throughout the night in search of food.
Great horned owls have also been seen hunting in broad daylight. Their extremely soft feathers aid them in flying quietly when swooping down on unsuspecting prey. One afternoon, I spied a woodchuck tucked into and small opening created by a pile of boulders beside our field. I could see its face and nothing more. Clearly, the woodchuck was holed up in this tight space for a reason.
Later, I noticed a racoon peering out from a hollow in a dead tree. It too seemed to be in retreat. Neither animal appeared to be disturbed by my presence. That evening at dusk, I discovered the silhouette of a great horned owl perched at the top of a tall pine tree at the edge of the field. Even from my porch, I felt exposed to this ferocious raptor.
Included in the large forested area of Woodstock are the chestnut oak forests on Mount Tobias and the Overlook escarpment. It appears that these two unique growth areas resulted from the repeated burning techniques of the Munsee people.
Historians believe the Munsee employed controlled burning to eliminate underbrush and improve game hunting as well as to stimulate blueberry cultivation. Over centuries without these controlled burns, thickets of mountain laurel grew among the oak, making passage difficult and blueberry picking nearly impossible.
These forests are the home of the black bear, and wild berries are one part of the bear’s diet. Black bears are wide-ranging mammals that travel long distances in search of food sources, including human sources of food. Woodstockers old and new have learned to keep their trash secured from bears during the spring, summer, and early fall. Fortunately, our neighborhood bears often sleep up to five months out of the year.
Also a product of the Munsee burning are the oak-heath barren areas of exposed bedrock where stunted oaks and pine trees grow. These rocky places are home to the timber rattlesnake. Here they make their dens in winter and bask on the warm rock outcroppings during the summer. Eastern timber rattlesnakes, like black bears, are also known to travel several miles from their dens to foraging areas during the warm summer months.
Keeping up the neighborhood has benefits for everyone. Researchers at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies have determined that more diverse wildlife populations thrive in forested areas over five acres. This diversity of wildlife is in part responsible for holding down the population of white-footed mice which are the prime carrier for ticks infected with Lyme disease. Healthier forests filled with a variety of wildlife make for healthier towns filled with healthier people.
I’m learning to live with my screeching neighbor, the fisher cat. Instead of fearing it, I’m thankful for its role in keeping other wildlife populations in balance.