February 3, 2012

Vermont Trappings and Trackings...

I clearly stray from birdy posts now and again, but this is just too fun a tale not to tell...it was the year that Mustelids, yes weasels, helped steer the course of my destiny...


I met my friend Mark in Mammalogy class at the University of Montana working in a group project on the fisher (Martes pennanti: fate weasel #1).  Upon graduating he had accepted a Master's position at UMASS and needed a superstar field grunt for the season to collect data for various wildlife passageways that had been installed under a new highway in Vermont.  He must have been really blown away by my work ethic on the fisher project because he offered me the position.    

It is well known that roads impact wild creatures - they create barriers to animal movements, fragment habitats, and they're EVERYWHERE.  The craziest part is the sheer volume of roadkill from vehicles.  I've read estimates that over 1 million critters are killed on U. S. roads EVERY DAY.  Insane.  But we all need and use roads and highways, so why not try and make them a little more wildlife friendly? 

Needless to say I was all fired up to study these passageways that had been put in for wildlife to use for safe crossing.  I couldn't wait for the extensive small mammal trapping, trackbed monitoring, remote camera maintenance, and yes, even the roadkill surveys...


Of course I left a big chunk of my heart in dear old 'Montucky', but I packed up Scoobs and headed east to 'Vermontana'...




It was a lot of hard work - I religiously put out, set, checked, packed up, rotated, reset, and re-checked over 400 Sherman live-traps in four areas at two sites.  Hundreds of mice were ear-tagged and their movements tracked using mark-recapture methods.  We lugged 50 pound bags of tracking substrate (local marble dust) up and down embankments and over fences.



Fabricating new and improved tools for keeping the track beds in shape was fun.  I'm talking about hi-tech instruments of wildlife biology here - such as this paint roller attached to a broom handle used in conjunction with a weighted heavy-duty shower curtain...all custom made and highly technical...




Here you can see the road overhead, the track beds, and funnel fencing on one of the passageways.  Compared to other wildlife crossings, these were quite spacious... 



We used motion-activated cameras to cover critters that were crossing through the stream corridor where track beds were impossible to install...


Oh, and of course I got some help from Mark every once in a while...


Animals indeed used the passageways.  Mark created tremendous amounts of thesis matter filled with juicy statistics.  We documented woodchucks, weasels, turkeys, house cats, bobcats, coyote, deer, mice, mink, skunks, opossum, fisher, river otters, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, muskrats, turtles, frogs, and snakes...



We even had track plates at either end of this long culvert.  Unlike the weasels and raccoons that loved this dark, creepy tunnel - only once did I make my nearly six-foot frame go all the way through.  It was rough.  My skin crawls just recalling the experience.  After that one-time shortcut, I never again thought twice about scrambling back up the embankment, across the road, and back down the other embankment to check the track plate on the other side...




One day on the trap line, I came across a long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata: fate weasel #2) who had it's tail caught in the door of a trap.  However, it's entire body was on the outside of the trap.  If it had been as big as a grizzly, I might not be here today.  This was a total anomaly - it had never happened before, and it never happened again.  We caught relatively few weasels overall and usually only when they were munching our tagged mice.  As I struggled to free this incredibly angry creature from it's current situation, I felt awful that he had spent time stuck like that - able to see the world around him, but unable to run around in it.  

After freeing the unharmed but seriously chagrined weasel, I received a phone call from a wildlife laboratory job I had interviewed for the year before.  They had a vacancy and wanted to hire me.  I had to sit down.  I thought about it quickly, I was still reeling from the weasel encounter...then suddenly it was all very clear to me - if I accepted this position, I would be just like that weasel, with my rear trapped inside and the rest of me wanting to be out and about in the world, traipsing hillsides and clambering through forests.  I told the lady thank you, but I had decided to move back east.  I declined the job and ended up making the full move eastward - all thanks to fate weasel #2. 


(This is not the actual fate weasel, but the only photo I have of a long-tailed...)

Later on that fall I saw a mink (Mustela vison: fate weasel #3) skulking along the river in the backyard.  Upon checking the mail later that day, I had a job offer from a company in Maine for some more rugged, outdoor fieldwork.  This was a no brainer - fate weasel #3 had already paid me a visit that morning - and I accepted the position.

The trilogy of fate weasels began with the fisher inadvertently bringing me an opportunity to work back east for a while.  The second fate weasel, the long-tailed, helped me decide to move back east for good.  The third fate weasel, the mink, was a good sign to start migrating back to Maine.

Would I have ended up where I am today if not for the timing and presence of these weasels?  As they say here in Maine "it's hard tellin', not knowin'", but I find it difficult to believe that the universe wasn't giving me some sort of spirit-critter guidance through these life choices.  For that I am grateful and will always pay close attention to any weasels I see in the future...



6 comments:

  1. I so enjoyed reading your delightful story and viewing the photographs that go along with it! I believe your encounters with these special weasels happened for a reason. I wonder what fate weasel #4 has in store for you ...

    A pleasure to visit your wonderful blog!

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    1. Thank you for your kind words Julie!

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  2. Never een a weasel, or for that matter any mustelid in a while. It seems like they can have quite an impact though. It's funny and inspiring how we're struck by these bolts from the natural world, be they a powerful sunset, and diving falcon, or a long-tailed weasel.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

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  3. Ooh I love this post... I always think things happen for a reason and it's important to pay attention to signs in the shape of weasels or birds or what have you... Great little story and I love the photos you got! The bobcat is especially awesome and of course Scoobs in sunglasses...

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  4. very cool!

    can you change your background color or font color? us old folks can't see the print well.

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    1. Hope these changes help! Thanks for reading!

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