The fisher (Pekania pennanti) is the holy grail of mammals for many naturalists in eastern Ontario. Just as the Gyrfalcon is the most sought after species for local birders, or the Smooth Green Snake is the most sought after snake species for local herpers, the fisher is one of those near-mythical species that few naturalists claim to have actually seen, and seems to exist more in rumour than in fact. Although there seems to be a good number of them present in our region – particularly in Stony Swamp with its many trails giving access to the deeper parts of the forest – they are very elusive, preferring to hide themselves deep in the bush where trails don’t exist and few humans are curious enough to venture. Every now and then you hear of one showing up on a trail cam, or of someone finding a road-killed specimen, or – very rarely – of someone catching a brief glimpse of one before it disappears. A live encounter where the observer actually gets a prolonged look at one – or even photos! – might be even more rare than the impossible-to-find Gyrfalcon.
Today I got up early and headed over to Jack Pine Trail to look for evidence of breeding birds. I arrived just before 6:00 am, and managed to be the first person at the trail that day. This is a difficult feat at this particular trail, as it is more popular than Sarsaparilla and the Beaver Trails, and there is usually at least one other car there when I get there even as early as 6:30. I enjoyed the silence for the first half hour, adding fledgling Blue Jays and singing Pine Warblers, Ovenbirds, White-throated Sparrows, House Wrens, and Scarlet Tanagers to my list. When I got to the middle boardwalk, I heard some agitated Common Yellowthroats and Swamp Sparrows calling from the marsh. I thought at first that it was me who had disturbed them and I started pishing in the hopes of seeing them either carrying food or nesting materials in their beaks. A couple of them popped out into the open, but did not approach me as agitated birds usually do in an attempt to drive the invader away. And then I saw the marsh vegetation begin to rustle as something small quickly darted through it, approaching the boardwalk. I saw a flash of something dark vanish beneath the boardwalk, and my first thought was that it was a rail of some sort as I couldn’t tell whether it was furred or feathered. Then, a few moments later, I saw a dark head poke out from beneath the railing further head and realized I was looking at a member of the weasel family.
I grabbed a few photos, and although I was certain it wasn’t a mink or an otter or an American (Pine) Marten, three of the largest mustelids in Ontario, I had trouble making myself believe that it was a fisher, and that it was just standing there letting me photograph it. Yet a fisher it certainly was, and I felt a disbelieving sort of joy when it clambered onto the boardwalk and started walking back and forth, sniffing the boards.
Like other mustelids, the fisher has a body that is long and slender with thick, luxuriant fur. Its coat is dark brown or black, with white hairs around the face, shoulders and back that give it a grizzled appearance. The long, bushy tail is also heavily furred, and it has a pointed face, round teddy bear ears, and short, strong legs tipped with sharp, heavy claws used primarily for climbing and digging. The fisher’s highly mobile ankle joints allow it to rotate its hind paws, enabling it to climb down trees head-first.
Fishers live in forests with a large diversity of trees and plenty of understory vegetation, snags and hollow logs. Not only does such forest provide cover and denning sites for these mammals, it also provides habitat for the animals it feeds on, chiefly porcupine, hares, rabbits, rodents, grouse, turkeys, and other small creatures it is able to catch. While this species tends to disappear once development encroaches on its territory, the fishers in Stony Swamp continue to thrive despite the proximity of subdivisions in Kanata and Bells Corners, and despite the heavily used trails.
Fishers are often described as vicious, and are usually the species blamed whenever a cat goes missing – even in urban and suburban habitats. However, they don’t attack people walking in the woods, and don’t specifically seek out unattended cats or small dogs for dinner. They don’t kill unnecessarily or for fun. As one of the top predators of the forest, as well as one of the fastest (they can outrun a squirrel going up or down trees), they hunt and eat as the opportunity arises, feeding on the plentiful squirrels, rabbits, and rodents that also inhabit the woods. They are also the main predator of porcupines, attacking its unprotected face until it can flip it over and attack the vulnerable belly. There is no need for them to leave the shelter of the woods to look for cats in a suburban neighbourhood when the forest is full of small mammals.
The most interesting thing about this encounter is that even though it knew I was there – and I was pretty close to it! – it didn’t seem too concerned with my presence. I stood still, clicking away with my camera, while it walked back and forth before sitting down in the middle of the boardwalk. It watched me the whole time, and seemed more curious than afraid. Given the small size, narrow body, and its frank curiosity, it may be a youngster.
Then, for one scary moment, it started walking toward me! I’ve had a porcupine amble toward me on a once boardwalk before, but felt no particular fear; I just scooted to one side so that it could see there was enough room for it to go by, and after pausing to look up at me the porcupine just kept walking along. A porcupine isn’t a predator, though, with a mostly undeserved reputation for viciousness. Porcupines don’t throw their quills (despite stories to the contrary), and don’t attack unless they are backed into a corner with no way to escape, so I was not concerned about my safety. I had no idea what to expect of a fisher, however, but I didn’t think it considered me prey, and so I took a step toward it. It was then that it turned and ran back into the marsh, disappearing without a trace. The whole encounter lasted just under two minutes according to the time-stamps on my photos.
This is the second fisher I’ve seen this year. My first encounter, two months ago on April 27th, occurred at Old Quarry Trail when I heard the crows screaming at something in the trees, and I tracked down the source of the commotion expecting to see an owl. I was deeply surprised to see the fisher working its way through the tree branches, and got one lousy photo before it reached the ground and shot off into the woods. I figured I had used up all my luck that day and didn’t think I’d see another one for a good five or ten years – let alone out in the open where I could photograph it! – so today’s encounter left me feeling thrilled beyond imagination. Even if I never see another fisher again, I will be forever awed and amazed by the encounter I had today. Sometimes it really pays to get up early and be the first person on the trail!