The White Winter Weasel

Weasel sp.

On November 30th I spent some time at the Eagleson Ponds looking for migrants. I haven’t been able to get out as much as I would have liked these past few weeks, and with the days getting colder (some days have not even reached as high as 0°C recently) I have felt even less inclined to go out – my tolerance for cold has plummeted these past few winters, leaving me with no desire to get out first thing in the morning when it is well below zero. When it warmed up to -1°C after four subzero days in a row, I decided to take advantage of the nice weather to head out to the ponds in the afternoon just to see what was around. It was a cloudy day with no wind, perfect for scanning the flocks of geese still around.

I checked the waterfowl in the central pond first; there were about 400 Canada Geese altogether, with another 200 in the southern-most pond. I spotted a few gulls perching on the rocky islands, and to my surprise the first one I got my binoculars on was a Herring Gull…they aren’t as common here as the Ring-billed Gulls, three of which were present. There were also several mallards swimming in the pond, with more flocks flying in, but the mergansers I had hoped to see were absent, and there were no other duck species present.

While scanning the geese, however, I spotted a few small-headed, small-billed geese on the far side of the pond that looked tantalizingly like Cackling Geese, so I left my vantage point and started making my way around the pond to get closer. Along the way I ran into a large flock of robins perching in the trees near one of the few berry trees in the area. I counted 32 of them altogether, and although I was hoping to find a few waxwings with them all I saw were starlings. I also heard a White-breasted Nuthatch calling from a grove of trees and saw a single Song Sparrow on my walk…this species persisted well into January last winter, with one over-wintering at the Beaver Trail through at least February.

Once I reached the far side of the pond I re-found the potential Cackling Geese. I got good enough looks at a few to realize that they were not classic Richardson’s Cackling Geese – they were not noticeably paler and grayer than the nearby Canada Geese, they did not have square-shaped heads with a vertical forehead, and they did not have a distinct indentation in the white cheek patch. However, they were small-headed with stubby bills and large bodies, giving them the distinct pin-headed look I associated with Cackling Geese. Still, I find if I have any doubts they are usually not Cackling Geese, so I was happy when they were in fact confirmed as Cackling Geese – though not as clear-cut as the usual subspecies we get – by one of our local eBird reviewers.

Cackling Goose

Cackling Goose

I continued my walk around the ponds, adding Dark-eyed Junco, House Finch, Blue Jay and Downy Woodpecker to the list…all common winter birds, each of which contributed to a final tally of 17 species which is pretty good for this time of year.

As I was passing by one of the small wooded areas a flash of white against the brown and yellow leaves blanketing the ground caught my attention. It seemed too bright to be the tail of an Eastern Gray Squirrel, so I quickly made my way closer and found a small weasel standing motionlessly on the ground!

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It saw me standing on the path, and turned to stare at me without moving. This fascinated me, because half of the weasels I’ve encountered to date quickly fled away from me, while the other half have stopped in their tracks to watch me. Weasels are curious creatures, and I find they are more likely to stay as long as I don’t move toward them or make any sudden moves.

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There are three weasel species in Ontario: the Least Weasel (Mustela nivalis) which is the smallest and rarest of the three; the Long-tailed Weasel (Neogale frenata), which is the largest of the three; and the Short-tailed Weasel (Mustela richardsonii), which is intermediate in size. Both Long-tailed and Short-Tailed Weasels are common in our area. These three species appear white in winter and brown in the summer; the Least Weasel lacks a fully black-tipped tail in both seasons. In the summer, the Long-tailed Weasel has brown feet and a creamy orange belly, while the Short-tailed Weasel has white feet and a white belly. It is thus easier to distinguish these two common species in the summer, and much more difficult in the winter when they are both white with a black-tipped tail. The length of the tail is a good indicator, as the Long-tailed Weasel has a proportionately longer tail – about half the length of its body.

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I did not see the full body of this weasel, as it was standing in an earthen hollow below the ground’s surface. This may have led to a burrow; when a dogwalker passed me on the path the weasel disappeared momentarily only to reappear a few minutes later. At most only its head and neck were visible for the remainder of our encounter, although I waited several minutes to see if it would come out into the open. As such, I was not able to confirm whether it was a Short-tailed Weasel or a Long-tailed Weasel; I have never seen the latter, and the size of this one seemed small (American Red Squirrel-sized rather than Eastern Grey Squirrel-sized), which made me think it was a Short-tailed Weasel.

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The weasel species formerly known as Mustela erminea (Short-tailed Weasel in our region) is a Holarctic species that has recently been split into three different species after research published earlier in 2021 showed distinct genetic and morphological differences based on geographic location: those inhabiting Europe and Asia evolved separately from those in North America, and those found on a couple of islands on the North American west coast (specifically the Haida Gwaii Archipelago of British Columbia and Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska) are genetically different from the weasels living on the mainland. The North American species is now referred to as the American Ermine or American Stoat; the Eurasian species is referred to as the Eurasian Ermine or Eurasian Stoat; and the island species is referred to as the Haida Gwaii Stoat… at least on iNaturalist.

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Although I couldn’t get a good enough look at its tail to confirm the species, I was thrilled with the views I did have. It was simply adorable with its snow-white fur, dark eyes, and little pink nose. Weasels appear to have elegant long necks because their legs are set so low on their torsos. Despite their cute appearance, weasels are fierce predators with a habit of killing more than they can eat in a single meal, a survival adaptation that has given them an undeserved reputation for being vicious.

Both species are active all year round, and live in similar habitat such as wetlands, brushy areas, mixed woodlands near water, and farmlands. They often live in chipmunk or rodent burrows, hollow logs, rock crevices, or beneath abandoned man-made structures such as sheds or cabins. They may hunt day or night, although they are generally considered to be nocturnal. They are quite common, but given their nocturnal habits, their preference for densely vegetated areas, and their skill at eluding large mammals such as humans, they are seldom seen when present. I usually go several months to more than a year without seeing one; the last one I’d seen was a Short-tailed Weasel on March 22, 2021 at the Beaver Trail, and it didn’t stick around long enough to get a photo. I was thrilled with my encounter with this weasel and that it stayed out long enough for me to get several photos; indeed, it was still sitting out in the open when at last I left.

2 thoughts on “The White Winter Weasel

  1. Pingback: 2021 Year in Review: Mammals | The Pathless Wood

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