The Black Cat Returns
Most days I spend at least a couple hours walking in our woods. Unlike the nature shows on television, weeks can pass before I encounter, for instance, a mother bear and her cubs, a waddling porcupine, an unusual bird or plant, a bounding short-tailed weasel, a newborn fawn, or some other sighting that makes my day special. Last September sixteenth was one such day.
After several housebound days because of a virus, I was happy to be abroad again. Slowly and quietly, I walked down our hollow road. Our stream still flowed, despite the summer drought, and along its banks the wetland-loving wildflower turtlehead had made a comeback. Tantalized by the tin horn calls of red-breasted nuthatches, I was delighted when one landed on a nearby tree. Already I felt compensated for coming out on what was a hot, humid, and overcast morning.
Then, as I entered the deepest part of the hollow, what our late neighbor, Margaret, used to call “the dark place” because of the predominant overstory of hemlock trees, a chorus of scolding birds downslope and across the stream stopped me. Although I was surprised to be the subject of their scolding, I began “pishing” because I hoped to flush them and identify what sounded like several wood thrushes.
Instead of birds, though, a large, fox-sized animal, displaying the usual insouciance of weasel-like creatures, emerged from a trio of dead and downed trees and ambled down to drink from the stream. From fifty feet above on the road bank, I studied the animal through my binoculars and memorized its appearance–an inverted triangular-shaped face, a low-slung body, short legs, and long, bushy tail. In the low light, its face and half its body appeared to be reddish-brown, while the rest of its body and tail was black.
I could scarcely believe what I was seeing. A shy, secretive fisher was drinking from our stream. When it finished, it turned and disappeared into the underbrush, leaving me weak- kneed from excitement.
Later I studied maps, trying to figure out how this large member of the weasel family had gotten here. While that section of our property displays the greatest old-growth characteristics and has plenty of downed and dying timber and a second growth mixed conifer and deciduous forest with an almost unbroken canopy, in short, the preferred habitat of fishers, it is only a small portion of our square mile of land. Much of it is a second-growth deciduous forest, although 150 acres is a recovering clearcut/ice storm-damaged area. The deciduous woodlands surrounding our property are mostly recovering from diameter-limited logging over the last decade.
One fisher needs far more habitat than our mountain has–adult males have a home range of 30 square miles, while females require 12–or so I thought. Besides, we are hardly in a wilderness area. Less than half a mile away at the bottom of our road is the main railroad line from New York to Chicago, the little Juniata River, and a busy, two-lane road that bisects Bald Eagle Mountain. The road leads a mere half of a mile into the town of Tyrone, going beneath a bridge that is part of Interstate 99. The interstate, as it runs through Logan Valley, parallels our ridge. That valley, from Tyrone to Altoona, is a patchwork of woods, farm land, housing developments, small villages, and includes one fair-sized town.
On the other side of our mountain is a limestone farming valley with a large limestone quarry at our end that grows bigger every day. Our own section of Bald Eagle Ridge, locally known as Brush Mountain, turns beyond Altoona and encloses this valley on the far side so when I stand on top of Laurel Ridge and look across Sinking Valley, the first mountain I see is the other end of Brush Mountain.
The first known fisher seen in our county was back on September 24, 2002 by a Game Commission surveyor, Dave Hummel and three other members of the survey crew, on State Game Lands # 198. Hummel, like me, was “stunned by this rare sight! Let’s face it,” he said, “Blair County isn’t exactly the first place most people would go to see a fisher.” After all, fishers hadn’t been seen in our county in more than one hundred years.
SGL #198 is in the southwestern part of Blair County near the Cambria County line on the Allegheny Plateau. Brush Mountain is the westernmost ridge in the Ridge-and-Valley province and our section of it is in northeastern Blair County near the Centre County line. A release of 23 fishers in West Virginia back in 1969 has gradually dispersed over the years through western Maryland and into Somerset and other southern counties in Pennsylvania. Game Commission fisher releases in the mid-1990s in the Quehanna Wild Area, also on the Allegheny Plateau, are about 40 miles away from us as the crow flies and north of Interstate 80.
I finally concluded that “our” fisher could have come from either release if it was willing to cross highways and thread its way through broken and sometimes open habitat. Dr. Tom Serfass, who spearheaded the successful fisher reintroduction to Pennsylvania, agrees with me.
“When we started the reintroduction project in Pennsylvania,” he told me, “fishers were just starting to turn up near the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland. We released fishers in Quehanna, game lands west of Quehanna, and various other spots in northern Pennsylvania. This concentration of 190 released fishers forms the basis for a much larger ‘front’ of dispersing animals than that moving into Pennsylvania from Maryland. Also, we’ve documented movements of 100+ miles by released individuals and I think I-80 would not pose a barrier. So, the source of the animals could be either or both, but I suspect releases in Pennsylvania to be most likely,” Serfass says.
Until October 10, I thought that the fisher I had seen was just passing through, heading for real wilderness. Then I received an excited telephone call from Paula Scott, one of our hunters. She had been up in her tree stand at the end of Sapsucker Ridge near noon archery hunting. She had just settled down with her bow on the platform when she heard a noise downslope and readied her bow for the expected deer.
“Suddenly an animal with a long, black, bushy tail ran headfirst down a tree in front of me chasing a fox squirrel. At first I thought it was a raccoon, but it was too thin, its tail was all black, and it was much too fast,” she said. The fisher turned around and chased the squirrel back up the tree. Then, while she fumbled for her camera, she accidentally dislodged her arrow. It clattered loudly on the platform floor. The fisher took off so fast she couldn’t even see where it went, but she thought it headed back down the last uncut hollow toward our access road. She had also noted the same reddish-brown head and half its body pattern that I had seen.
Okay. So the fisher was hanging around because the hunting was good. And come to think of it, I hadn’t seen a fox squirrel in quite a while. Fishers also eat mice, shrews, voles, gray squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, and porcupines. Plenty of those on our property too.
I was finally convinced that we had a permanent fisher resident on December 14. Walking in the snow along Ten Springs Trail, the area above the road that had been clearcut fifteen years ago and then felled again by the ice storm the previous January, I saw the running tracks of a fisher. Each pair of tracks, one slightly in front of the other, were a couple feet apart, evidence that it was probably a male. I followed them almost to the end of the trail before they veered downslope toward the hemlocks.
On another December day, I intercepted tracks that went across Greenbrier Trail, again in the old clearcut, and headed up to the top of Sapsucker Ridge, half a mile from where Paula had seen her fisher. Apparently, fishers are not as averse to open areas as previously thought.
On a third day, as the snow cover gradually melted, I followed running fisher tracks much closer together (a female perhaps?) along the edge of our hollow road until they dropped beside the stream, moved along it for a hundred feet and into a pile of fallen trees below Waterthrush Bench where they disappeared. I checked under the trees for any sign of a den, but found nothing. Probably, the fisher, Martes pennanti, also called a “black cat” because of its catlike movements, had taken to the trees. Still, I was looking forward to tracking the fisher and learning more about it. But that was the last decent snow we had last winter.
However, when I told another friend of ours, Todd Davis, who often hikes on our property with his wife and two young sons, about the fisher sighting and tracks, he reported having seen fisher tracks up on Sapsucker Ridge the previous winter. His parents own a place in New England, and he is quite familiar with fishers and fisher tracks. A recent newcomer to Pennsylvania, he hadn’t realized that fishers had been extirpated from Pennsylvania for almost a hundred years and then reintroduced even though he and his son Noah are avid readers of Game News.
It had been June of 1995, near the top of Laurel Ridge, when I had had a brief glimpse of a medium-sized black animal with a bushy tail that had jumped from a low tree limb and in a single leap was gone. At the time I wondered if the creature might have been a fisher, but the first fishers had only been released in December 1994. Barely within the realm of possibility, I concluded in my June 1996 column. Then I was not confident enough to add it to our mammal list. Now I am. Mammal number #43 for our property.
“A mountain lion next time,” our sons joked when I told them about the fisher sightings.
Not even within the realm of possibility. Or is it?