January 20, 2013

North Cairn: Fisher cat best viewed at distance

When it comes to the thrill of a natural encounter with a wild animal, what you don't see can sometimes count for as much as what you do.

That was the case several nights ago when I returned home in the car and rolled into the plowed area that leaves clear the graveled dirt just past the shed and lean-to. I might have been proceeding a little bit hastily for still snowy conditions, but I was eager to get home, indoors and out again with the dog.

As I got deeper under the trees off the road and out of sight of other drivers, my headlights swept over the little canyon of snow that the plow had sculpted during a storm a couple of days earlier.

I expected nothing to be there. You know how routine goes: You steer into a familiar place. You know how emptiness feels.

But not this time.

Just as I made the last, fleeting turn in the semi-circle, the lights illuminated the small clearing. And there, dashing in full circles that panic was making into longer and longer narrow ovals, was a low-rider, a quite distinct, dark mammal with a bushy, long tail.

It was, I knew, a fisher cat.

I had never seen one up close and personal before, though I had heard enough about them here in New England, where I have lived mostly as far off into the woods or near the coastline as I could afford. I had even hoped to witness one sometime, like this time, from the safety of a heated, well-lit, truck-like vehicle.

It didn't seem to know what to do as it raced around, trying to evade or outrun not just a machine but one at least a thousand times its size. So I had ample time to get a good look and try, half-wittedly, to collect my thoughts.

I had no instinct to jump out of the car in pursuit, since the fisher finally had figured that whatever I was, I had come to a full stop, and it had a reliable route for escape, deeper into the woods. I remained in my big steel crate like a caged animal, my heart pounding a little harder than usual, that coursing blood of adrenaline. This was as close as I wanted to get to crossing paths with a fisher, cousin to the weasel and the marten.

It was already out of sight.

I made a quick amble to the porch and then spent the requisite minute or two fumbling with my keys to get the right one for this lock, on this door, in this state. I looked over my shoulder once or twice, half-expecting to be taken down by a mammal that literature and lore describes as either timid and shy, or vicious and merciless as a predator.

It does, apparently, have a lunge-and-tear technique that is effective even against porcupines. On that note, once in the house, I greeted the dog, explained that she would have to wait a couple of minutes to go out and then scoured the bookcase for the appropriate field guide.

I lingered over Audubon and Peterson and even sought help online, but there is no unanimity about the character of the fisher, other than that it is a very efficient killer. It prefers rocky areas; I live, disconcertingly enough, in a cabin built on boulders.

Passionate defenders and detractors argue over whether the fisher "screams," and if so, if the scream sounds more like a baby howling or someone crying out. The question seems to revolve around the possibility of mistakenly identifying the cry of a fox with the so-called screech of a fisher.

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