Central Appalachian Fishers

It was near the beginning of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s reintroduction of fishers to the commonwealth. This second largest member of the weasel family had last been documented in Pennsylvania when it was trapped in 1921 at Holtwood, in Lancaster County.

A fisher

A fisher (Photo by Bethany Weeks, Pacific Southwest Region, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Denise Mitcheltree, then a graduate student at Penn State back in May of 1995, took me with her to the Quehanna Wild Area and the Sproul State Forest, where she was searching for the first radio-tagged fishers released in late 1994.

Mitcheltree was working under the tutelage of Dr. Tom Serfass, who had previously been the prime force behind the reintroduction of river otters to Pennsylvania. Both of them believed that weekly, long distance radio-monitoring without disturbing the fishers would allow them to learn more about their preferred habitat, dispersal, and prey species.

Most of the fisher research they were depending on had been done by scientists working in the largely coniferous and mixed deciduous forests of Maine and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where remnant fisher populations remained after habitat loss and over-harvesting had extirpated them not only in Pennsylvania but farther south in the Appalachian Mountains.

Another fisher

Another fisher (U.S. National Park Service photo by Emily Brouwer in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Fishers, Mitcheltree told me, were known to avoid water so the West Branch of the Susquehanna River was supposed to be a barrier for them, but already three fishers had crossed the river. Furthermore, since the scientific literature stated that fishers needed coniferous and mixed forest with a heavy canopy to provide better protection from winter weather, fisher releases were only to occur in Pennsylvania’s north woods.

Mitcheltree objected to information claiming fishers were ferocious animals. She insisted they were shy, secretive creatures that avoided any contact with humans, which was why she was surprised that some of the fishers she was following were moving through the back yards of the cabins and, in some cases, isolated occupied homes.

A lot has changed since then. Even its genus. Formerly, it was Martes, the same as that of the marten. But DNA studies in 2008 found that although both descended from a common ancestor, the fisher was distinct enough for its own genera Pekania, based on its alternate name pekan. Its species name remains pennanti for Thomas Pennant who called it a fisher back in 1771.

A fisher in the snow in West Virginia

A fisher in the snow in West Virginia (Photo by Animal Diversity Web in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

This amazing animal has been doing spectacularly well here since it was reintroduced. As Dr. Jeff Larkin of Indiana University of Pennsylvania wrote to me in an email, “I think fishers are finally in the biome (deciduous forest) for which the species is best adapted…Once harvest regulations were in place [and] deciduous cover increased, and fishers were reintroduced into places like West Virginia, southern New York, and Pennsylvania, we quickly learned that the species thrive in such places…With really minimal reintroduction efforts… the species has established populations…It certainly is a testament to the species ability to thrive alongside humans in such landscapes…”

Larkin, his graduate students, and Matt Lovallo, Mammals Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, have published three recent papers on fishers in Pennsylvania, and all of them reflect changing ideas about the lives of central Appalachian fishers.

The first paper studied the selection of rest sites by fishers in the eastern deciduous forest, specifically in south-central Pennsylvania in and around state game lands 26, Gallitzin State Forest, and adjacent private lands. They captured and radio-collared 23 fishers that used 79 resting structures. The most common (65%) were in live black cherry, American beech and sugar maple trees with broken tops or cavities. The second most used (17%) were in standing dead trees with cavities or broken tops. Finally, 14 percent utilized ground-level structures such as burrows, rock piles, and root balls. The forest surrounding the resting structures had floors of coarse woody debris and rocky ground cover, a complex canopy, and more diverse tree species.

A fisher feeding at a game cam on a Pennsylvania mountaintop

A fisher feeding at a game cam on a Pennsylvania mountaintop (Photo by Paula Scott and used with her permission)

However, the rest sites were mostly in pure deciduous stands (74%), followed by 21 percent in mixed stands and none in coniferous stands. In selecting rest sites, canopy cover was not that important and they rested in stands with a wide range of canopy covers.

In conclusion, they wrote that “Maintaining resting habitat for fishers in the eastern deciduous forests can be accomplished through management practices that encourage structurally diverse forests, including retention of coarse woody debris and variation in tree size and condition.”

A second study in three distinct regions of Pennsylvania—northern (Allegheny), central (Quehanna), and southern (Blue Knob)—consisted of mostly deciduous forest and sought “to examine the influence of landscape characteristics on patch use by fishers in the predominately deciduous forests of the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania,” according to their 2017 paper published in the Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management.

Roland Kays explains to a couple helpers how camera traps work at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Roland Kays explains to a couple helpers how camera traps work at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (Photo by YourWild_Life on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Surprisingly, they found that fishers used low-density residential areas and could tolerate some kinds of land development, especially if they harbored favorite prey such as squirrels and chipmunks and some forest cover. Few roads might also favor fisher use, but that was not as clear cut. So far, studies have not been done in heavily suburban areas in Pennsylvania, but research on GPS collared fishers by Roland Kays and Scott LaPoint near Albany, New York has found that fishers use small drainage culverts to cross highways and move from one fragmented forest habitat to another. One of their fishers hunted in larger patches of forests and then moved along narrow forested strips to get between patches. Rabbits and squirrels were their favorite foods.

A fisher they named Phineas crossed on/off ramps to hunt in the forest of a highway cloverleaf interchange. When Kays tracked him in the snow he discovered that Phineas dug in the snow after mice, ran up trees pursuing squirrels, and tunneled down into a cattail marsh after either rabbits or muskrats.

Other fishers they studied were similarly unfazed by development. One cut through the yards of subdivisions and spent the night in a pile of junk in the woods and another hunted in patches of woods between golf fairways. A female was able to survive in a kilometer of suburban forest and a male killed on an interstate in Schenectady had traveled over 205 miles in one month, crossing dozens of roads before leaving the countryside and returning to urban forests where he crossed his last road. Kays hypothesized that he was searching for his own territory.

Most, though, were in search of food. A third study by Larkin, Lovallo, and graduate students looked at the diet of central Appalachian fishers in 30 counties in Pennsylvania which showed how diverse the food of fishers can be.  From 2002 to 2014, they examined the stomachs of 91 road-killed, incidental trapper-killed, and legally harvested fishers using microscopic hair inspection and macroscopic examining of bones, teeth, claws and other hard parts. They discovered remains of deer (12), rabbits (11), porcupines (10), voles, woodrats, and mice (21), woodchucks (4), eastern gray squirrels (8), eastern chipmunks (3), red squirrels (3), coyotes (2), red foxes (3), raccoons (6) and opossums (8), as well as one each of ring-necked pheasant, black-capped chickadee, downy woodpecker, black rat snake, frog, and brown prionid beetle, and two bony fish. They also ate a variety of plant materials. Incidentally, there was no sign of domestic cats in their study nor in a separate study Kays did in New York State. Both Kays and Larkin believe that coyotes are the culprit cat killers.

The Larkin et al. food study’s most surprising discovery was that 11 “had fisher remains that were clearly the result of cannibalistic behavior,” which was their “most noteworthy and novel finding.” Because these fisher remains were collected between November and February, they were not eating newly-born fishers (they are born in late March and early April), but adult fishers. Since the timing coincided with fisher dispersal, they hypothesized that “perhaps the intraspecific predation we observed was the result of territorial disputes.”

Central Appalachian fishers are finding so much prey and so few predators that they are spreading quickly in areas where they disappeared from centuries ago, such as in New York City, where the first known fisher, since shortly after Manhattan was settled, was photographed in June of 2014.

Larkin hopes to study fishers in Pennsylvania’s heavily suburban areas soon, adding that “we are going to learn a lot about this species over the next ten years as it colonizes more of the eastern United States.”


The Joy of Trail Cams

All photos and videos in this column are from trail cams on the mountain placed and monitored by the Scotts. (If you’re reading this via email or in a feed reader, you may have to click through to see the videos.)

Almost as soon as they settled into their new home, back in 2009, our caretaker couple — Troy and Paula Scott — installed three strobe cameras. As avid hunters, they were interested initially in monitoring the movements of deer over our square mile of mountain property.

But soon they were capturing other creatures on their cameras, especially at night. Paula quickly became the chief monitor of their cameras, and when the company that produced their strobe cameras — Wild Game Innovation — came out with video cameras, they purchased three of them.

Paula admits that monitoring the cameras throughout the year is addictive to her. She used to dislike winter, once hunting season ended, but now it’s her favorite time of year. That’s because she uses bait to attract a wide range of wild creatures. She hangs a discarded deer carcass by a wire from a tree limb, so it swings a foot or two off the ground directly in front of a camera.

Of course, when bears are abroad, she does not use bait, although she did get a bear on the surprising date of February 27. And that’s what she likes most about the cameras. She learns more about animal behavior especially with the video cameras. In less than two years, she has gotten excellent footage of 15 species of birds and mammals.

Her favorite sighting so far has been of two different fishers that kept returning to the bait. One especially she describes as a “camera ham.” It swung back and forth with the carcass and often faced the camera. Then it turned on its back and rolled with the carcass. All the while it seemed puzzled by this strange source of food.

Both Paula and I have had excellent sightings of fishers in our woods. We’ve also seen tracks in the snow. But the video footage of fishers gave us a whole new perspective on fisher behavior.

Watching two raccoons and an opossum feeding peacefully around the carcass was another surprising behavior observation for Paula.

“I figured they would be competitive and they weren’t,” she says.

She was also surprised that an American crow fed beside five turkey vultures.

And both she and Troy were amused and chagrined when an old hen decoy they had used to unsuccessfully attract gobblers years ago proved irresistible to six jakes at a time. She even has a video of a gobbler displaying in front of the decoy.

Besides the fishers, her other favorite sightings are several photos of a bobcat at the bait at night and a lovely video of a red-tailed hawk near the bait during a snowy day. I’m particularly fond of photos she has of red and gray foxes, despite the presence of coyotes in our area, because coyotes are supposed to prey on red foxes.

Recently they used a camera to find out what was chewing on their new deck at night. As they suspected, it was a porcupine. Instead of killing it, they put a cayenne pepper mixture on the deck and so far it’s kept the porcupine away.

Their original plan, to document deer, also has worked out well. They even have videos of a buck making a scrape and putting his scent on an overhanging limb. Paula cautions, though, that putting the cameras out during deer breeding season gives a false sense of the number of bucks in a hunting area because bucks come in from adjoining properties in search of doe.

When targeting deer, they put the cameras along obvious deer trails, leave them for a month, and then switch them. For other animals, it depends on the time of year and how successful the location is in capturing wildlife footage.

Learning how to obtain good images during the day means positioning them so that the sun doesn’t shine on them, otherwise, you end up with a lot of white footage, she says. You also have to hope that a bear won’t take issue with them. Paula’s brother-in-law Jeff had one ripped off and stomped into pieces, but so far they’ve been lucky. Only two cameras have been pulled down but not damaged.

Paula says in summary that, “these cameras, if you utilize them all year, pay for themselves. If you have a deer interest, as we did, and invest in cameras, you see it’s just not deer out there. It’s a lot of things.”

trail cam bobcat

a bobcat at the bait pile

Discovering what’s out there has tempted folks throughout the world to invest in trail cameras. One writer friend, Ken Lamberton, recently posted on Facebook a beautiful photo of a cougar on a fallen tree in the Mule Mountains of southern Arizona where he and his wife Karen live.

Speaking of cougars, Valentine, Nebraska businessman Kirk Sharp has 16 trail cameras posted around his ranch, which is a half-mile north of Rocky Ford on the Niobrara River in the wild north-central section of Nebraska. One of his cameras, mounted on a wooden fencepost, captured a cougar closely chasing a deer at 11:00 p.m. It was the first authenticated footage of a cougar chasing prey in the state, although since there was a deep canyon directly in front of them, no one knows the outcome.

James Hill III of Waterford Township, Erie County, Pennsylvania wondered what was taking the suet at his feeders. Hill, the founder of the Purple Martin Society, has a 150-acre wildlife sanctuary. Although he figured a bear was probably doing the damage, he put out a camera with a motion detector. To his surprise it was a sow with two cubs sharing the suet with them.

“I was astonished,” Hill says. “I never figured there’d be a family. I’m happy to have them.”

While individuals are enjoying their cameras, and finding out more about wildlife on their properties, so too are wildlife biologists. For instance, two researchers from Texas Tech University — Blake Gresham and Phil Borsdorf — have been studying the endangered lesser prairie chicken at The Nature Conservancy’s Yoakum Dunes Preserve near Lubbock, Texas. By erecting remote video cameras on 15 water tanks at the Preserve, they photographed 800 visits to the tanks by lesser prairie chickens, disproving the belief that the birds don’t need open water because they get enough moisture, except during drought, from succulent plants, insects, and dew. Gresham and Borsdorf found that hens especially needed extra water during nesting time because it takes a cup and a half of water to produce a clutch of ten eggs.

trail cam gray fox

gray fox

Conservation organizations are also starting to utilize trail cameras. A recent article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Biological Sciences entitled “Community Structure and Diversity of Tropical Forest Mammals: Data from a Global Camera Trap Network” recounts the results from the world’s first global camera trap mammal study. It involved nearly 52,000 candid shots of 105 mammal species from seven tropical sites around the globe.

The camera traps, low on the ground, made no noise and emitted no light so poachers couldn’t spot them at night. But in Africa, elephants, like our black bears, don’t like strange objects in their territory and tried to crush them.

Jorge Ahumada, the lead author and an ecologist with the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network (TEAM) says that “The study shows for us that for the conservation of these mammal species, size matters; …the size of the protected area and the degree of human activity around it have an effect on the …diversity of these animal communities.”

The Central Suriname Nature Reserve in South America had the most diversity — 28 species — while Nam Kading in Lao Public Democratic Republic in southeast Asia had the least — 13 species. The other sites included Uganda and Tanzania in Africa, Indonesia in Southeast Asia, Brazil in South America and Costa Rica in Central America.

The study ran from 2008-10 under the auspices of Conservation International, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Because of its success, they have expanded it into 17 wilderness areas in Panama, Brazil, Peru, Madagascar, Congo, Cameroon, Malaysia and India. Ahuda says that these cameras “are reliable observers of the state of our world,” and the study concludes that “camera traps are a useful, efficient, cost-effective, easily replicable tool to study and monitor terrestrial mammals.”

They are also useful for studying large raptors. Dr. Todd Katzner at West Virginia University, along with Kieran O’Malley and Rob Tallman of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, is using them for estimating the size of the wintering golden eagle population in the Appalachians including Pennsylvania. The bait is road-killed deer dumped into a small clearing surrounded by tall trees where golden eagles can perch. The bait should be opened along the legs and abdomen to draw in common ravens and other birds that, in turn, alert eagles. Like Paula’s bait, it must be wired to keep it from being dragged off by other animals. The camera should be oriented to the north because that ensures that the sun is to the side or behind the camera, thus preventing white photos. The study is run from January 1 to February 15, and we are hoping to find a good place on our property for Paula to set up a camera.

Hunters in the United States, who first popularized the use of cameras to monitor deer presence, should feel proud of how useful these cameras have become in wildlife monitoring and conservation.

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?