FishersNatureBummin

5 Blissful Days & a Big “Take Back”!

Written June 17, 2022       

So maybe I got a little ahead on myself a couple of posts ago, or maybe I should have known better before announcing a “favorite” anything too quickly. I don’t know—maybe “favorites” should be viewed a fluid concept that changes depending on which way the wind is blowing. Take the coveted “Kirk’s favorite co-worker” award—which changes daily (sometimes even hourly). At this very moment Anna is my favorite co-worker (congratulations Anna) because I know she is going to take what I am writing and make it smoother. But, by the time she gets this I’ll probably have moved on to a different MCHT employee (there are so many good ones to choose from) and by the time you read this… well, you get it.

And with that I need to officially withdraw my statement that the Big-tooth Aspen is my favorite species of tree. It was good while it lasted, two weeks of favoritism is better than none at all, right? There is a story behind this of course, and it includes baby mammals, birds, and a conversation I had with a kid about 26 years ago.

I figured you out

In the late 90s I worked for the National Audubon Society at Hog Island in Muscongus Bay (or somewhere close to it) running a 10-day kids program. It was a fine experience. Late into one of the sessions, an 11-year-old kid came up to me and said, “I’ve figured you out”. I smiled with anticipation—I remember thinking this kid was “alright”—and so I asked him to tell me about me. His response was two parted. First, he said, “you never laugh at your own jokes”—a spot-on observation. Sometimes I inspire chuckles inside myself, and sometimes they can be hearty. But, I seldom laugh at anyone’s jokes, much less my own. The things that really nail my “funny bone” would likely be considered “stupid” to most.

The second part of his figuring me out went something like this, “and everything you own is old”. Here he really proved his youth (Ha! 11-year-olds think they are so smart), because my “stuff” wasn’t old per se, a better term would have been “well used”. Not having much money and living a vagabond lifestyle (my grandma’s words) can make one efficient. All tools I had, I used—and I used them often—AND they all had to fit in my Toyota Camry.

I told him this and he nodded in agreement and understanding. And so, I told him, “but you are right, some of my spraint is old”. We both chuckled.

Belongings that are “well-used” eventually evolve to becoming “over-used” and then finally “broken”—just like my Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera. One day, my SLR began telling me it had an error. It was in a simple, no non-sense kind of language. This camera was a good communicator with no ambiguity. I would press the clicky button that takes photos, and the screen would then say “camera error.” And then it would freeze, the message would be made clear. My SLR which had been “well-used” for 10 years had finally it had become “over-used.”

What’s the point of this?

I learned of my camera’s death when trying to photograph baby Hairy Woodpeckers by one of the Basin Preserve parking lots on Vinalhaven. I had taken photos of harbor seals with their young on the ferry ride over, so this error was a surprise. But was I bummed? Not at all. I actually thought I could use a break from the camera. It would save so much time from going through photos (which takes forever). I wouldn’t be able to capture the hairy woodpecker young—but that’s okay. The moment was still there—the youngsters were going to poke their heads out of the nest cavity whether my camera worked or not. Who cares if my camera died? The woodpeckers sure didn’t.

Furthermore, there were plenty of years—simpler years—when I explored and observed without the tool that is known as “camera”. Remember the 90s? But still, I’d become used to this tool, and there are countless fleeting moments where a quick camera, such as the SLR, has helped capture that moment—educational moments none the less.

And so I thought maybe…

Since my SLR died and I was in no hurry to replace it, maybe I should put more trail cameras up. My wife, the lovely Amy Palmer, wrote a grant and was given eight trail/game/motion sensor cameras to use with students at the St. George School. I helped with the project—studying the wildlife found around the school—and now that school was out for summer, the cameras were stacked in a bag literally five feet from where I sit right now. There is no bigger waste of an observation tool—in my mind—than a trail camera not outside taking photos. Their natural habitat is outside, at the ready to be triggered. (In fact, if you have a trail camera in limbo like this, I ask you to stop reading and go place it outside somewhere immediately. We’ll save your spot.)

“With that in mind, I decided to put a few of the cameras up closer to the tree I suspected housed a “maternal den”, one where maybe, just maybe the local female Fisher had brought her tiny youngsters and nursed them for a couple of months.”

Where should the cameras go? Well, you may remember a recent post I wrote (you can find it here) where I mentioned Big-tooth Aspen and fisher activity in my neighborhood. When I only had one camera at my disposal, I’d refrained from directing it on any known (or suspected) Fisher denning tree. I did this mostly to avoid getting 10 second videos with the fisher running up or down the tree in a split second and then nine seconds of emptiness. But with multiple cameras at my fingertips, and with recent fisher mating activity (mid-March), I figured it would behoove me to put a few of the cameras to work.

May 25th felt a little early to get the cameras going, I was not expecting them to capture much, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to set them up. In case my math was wrong (valid concern), or the knowledge of mating timing was off—known to happen!

With that in mind, I decided to put a few of the cameras up closer to the tree I suspected housed a “maternal den”, one where maybe, just maybe the local female Fisher had brought her tiny youngsters and nursed them for a couple of months.

But let’s back up…

The dates here were based on repeated Fisher activity back in March. The main event being centered around the (predicted) birth of Fisher kits (youngsters), and the two-week window after birthing of mating receptiveness when a female is in estrus. She would have given birth close to the mating area where Fishers were observed and photographed for several days in a row. That would be the natal den. We snagged photos on day one of courtship (how do we know it was the first day? We guessed!) and documented courtship behavior through signs—tracks and trails—in the snow. It was my understanding that once a female Fisher gives birth she goes into estrus, which is true, but just how quickly she does go into heat is not exact. So instead of birth taking place on the 14th, maybe it could have been a little while before—days or more than a week even. I to get the cameras up quick.

On a whim…

“I looked up and sure enough the female fisher was staring down at me from about 20 feet above.”

On the morning of May 30th, I decided that I would trade out the cameras before I headed to Vinalhaven for work.  They had only been up for five days, but I was ready to see what was going on (if anything). 

After sending Leif to school and loading up the vehicle for an overnight, I made my way to the cameras around 8:15 AM. I had two to change out, and a third to remove that was not in a good spot. As I was taking down the third camera, I heard a noise from the suspected fisher cavity. I looked up and sure enough the female fisher was staring down at me from about 20 feet above. It has been a dream of mine to see the fisher sticking its head out of that cavity opening since the first time I crossed paths with her resting accommodations years ago. And there she was–watching me as I took down a camera.

The noise was coming from the den, and for lack of a better term I will call it “guttural”. It was hard to tell, but the sound didn’t seem like it was coming from her—she was just watching me. Where the sound originated was not important at that moment, what was obvious was that if my SRL hadn’t died, I would be taking her photo right then and there. The moment happened regardless, but let’s just say that my break from photography was over and a new (used) SLR body was ordered that afternoon.

My heart sank…

In general, I try not to get too excited about things seeing things, but the fisher head sticking out of the den cavity floored me. I felt it physically, in my heart or somewhere in that region (probably not my spleen). It was one of two immediate, involuntary physical responses to seeing her. The second was an incredibly surprising and intense fist-pumping session. Haven’t had that happen in years, my shoulder was a little sore afterwards!

Wildcamera

Mother dragging kit from den

My next thought was, “why am I going to Vinalhaven when there is a fisher staring down at me from the cavity I have known about for years?” That was answered within moments, as she quickly lost interest in me, or maybe grew tired, or maybe she was tired and sank back into the cavity and the guttural sounds were silenced.  And with that I finished trading out the cameras and headed to the ferry.

I wasn’t prepared for any continuing physical reaction to the Fisher scene, but on the ferry ride I stayed in my vehicle and plugged in the memory cards from the trail cameras into my laptop. And my heart sank even more.

“Dreams were coming true—dreams I didn’t even know I had!”

I turned on the videos and almost immediately tears started to gather in my eye sockets (involuntary physical response #3) and my mouth hole started making gasping sounds (involuntary response #4). I could see why and how I had seen her at the cavity opening that morning. You see, as predicted she’d given birth and had brought her young to this den to nurse and care for. It ends up that early that morning (5/30) the cameras had captured video of her dragging her young kits out of the tree for the first time! She would take the kits to the base of the tree and forced them to climb back up. My heart kept sinking watching, and I started to wonder if hearts ever just pop out of bodies. Dreams were coming true—dreams I didn’t even know I had!

Better yet, the Fisher brought the youngsters out again about 6 hours later to do some “climbing training.” Checking the timing on the cameras, it turns out that when I went down to get the cameras, I had missed this climbing session by 5-10 minutes! Her being alert and staring down at me from the cavity had more to do with the youngsters in the den being unsettled rather than my own presence. Not the best timing—I would have loved to have seen the youngsters running up the tree—but great timing in that I got to watch her watch me.

To make things even better I had one more camera placed high in a tree—ladder necessary—aimed directly at the cavity. Upon my return from Vinalhaven I patiently waited a few extra days to allow the camera to gather more photos. I then had Amy hold the ladder and retrieved the camera. This time I was ready for the physical responses…

Over and over again, my friend…

And there it was, there they were—videos of the mother fisher dragging her young over and over down the tree, she was very focused with getting them used to being outside. The development was fast—after two or three of these climbing sessions the kits agility and skills increased exponentially.  In fact, there seemed to be a moment where things flipped—the mother was now dragging them back up the tree to the cavity and the kits were trying their best to get out—she had her hands full for sure!

Part of the fun of these videos—beyond seeing the tough love tactics invoked by the mom (
(“you will climb down this tree!”)—was getting footage of the fishers rotating their back feet as they made their way down the tree. Rotating their hind feet to almost point backwards is a remarkable adaptation that allows fisher to run down tree in total control when chasing squirrels or whatever.  Whatever in this case being three little kits!

And I tried to live in denial (are there worse places to live? I did grow up in Jersey) for as long as I could, but from seeing the mother bringing up squirrel and vole carcasses and the flies buzzing around the cavity opening, it was hard not to picture the den getting a little nasty inside. Knowing that a female Fisher with young will use several maternal dens as they develop, it was no surprise that after 5 days of climbing the group came down the tree one last time and headed to “cleaner pastures” as no one says. It was the culmination of 5 days of bliss—bliss for me that is, and I never even got to see them!  Needless to say, I left one camera facing the cavity tree—just in case they come back!

And so, what was the point again?

Seeing the fisher and watching the videos gave me a feeling that I have seldom ever felt—that I knew something that no one else knew. It also made me wonder just how many of these sessions can my body handle? And then a question came up, “what next?” What could possibly be next now that the local fisher scene got smaller? How could tomorrow ever follow today? There are no answers for this question of course—we’ll have to wait and see. But there was one thing I needed to come to grips with.

“And while I have found fisher cavities in the Big-tooth Aspen, it was hard not to recognize that it simply was not my favorite tree species anymore.”

And that is, the maternal cavity was in a Quaking Aspen, not a Big-tooth Aspen! And while I have found fisher cavities in the Big-tooth Aspen, it was hard not to recognize that it simply was not my favorite tree species anymore.  It couldn’t be. Especially when considering the fact that the four Hairy Woodpecker nests I crossed paths with this season were all in Quaking Aspen. So, while the fisher scene became clearer, the favorite tree species thing got a little fuzzy.

And so, with this all in mind, it gives me great pleasure to announce that I no longer have a favorite tree species! Instead, I now have a favorite general type of tree—Aspen—and the closer to dying the better. This is an exciting development. But of course, this take is subject to change!

So, it goes… I mean would any of this have happened if the things I owned were not well used? If my SLR had not died? Things have a way of working themselves out. And timing and luck are, as always, important factors in play, when it comes to nature observations. But as it ends up my camera dying was great timing. I can’t wait for something else of mine to break—oh the opportunities it will bring!

See more Nature Bummin’ stories from Kirk.

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