Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Muskrat tracks and white ermine spotted

Swan, squirrel info sought


Q: In mid-December, I walked the road into Richmond Pond and Camp Russell. It is one of my favorite walks at all seasons. I took a detour off to the left to explore the marsh part of the way down. It was partially frozen and had about an inch of new snow. I found strange footprints with a line up the middle. It was the first time I walked off the road. Do you have any idea what could have made them? It was too small for a beaver.

— Fred, Pittsfield

A: Two things tell me that it was most likely a muskrat, the marking between the footprints and the habitat. I don't know of another wetland mammal that drags its tail. These rodents, weighing up to about four pounds, inhabit a variety of places with one thing in common, water.

The margin of ponds, lakes, slow-moving streams and rivers are their restaurants, providing roots and stems of various aquatic plants. In addition, these places provide building materials for their homes or lodges. These are fabricated of cattail stems, when available. In some instances, the muskrat will burrow into stream banks. Depending on water depth, a muskrat may build a system of tunnels to get them below the ice and into deeper water. Apartments for different families are sometimes constructed.

Besides trappers, mink, coyotes, dogs, foxes, great-horned owls and red-tailed hawks prey upon them. Smaller muskrats are food for large fish, like large-mouth bass and northern pike. Even snapping turtles and large snakes may prey upon them. They are not docile and have been known to attack people getting too friendly with them.

One fact that surprised me, when I was first told about it, is they can also swim backward!

Q: We have a resident in the three-sided wood shed behind our garage, an ermine with a beautiful white coat and a black-tipped tail. We believe it relocates to the garage come spring — it has been seen under the workbench. There is ample food from the fields and woods behind the house and barn. It appears curious about our mastiff and the two observe each other with interest. Is he/she likely to become a permanent tenant?

— Dave and Melody, Windsor

A: I find it interesting that we have received two ermine queries in recent weeks. In the northern part of their range, they are more apt to inhabit wilder areas, like thickets and rocky places near or along waterways. In more southerly areas, they inhabit hedgerows or stone walls, as well as sheds and old buildings. I never think of Windsor as southerly because of its elevation. However, it is north enough that this weasel takes on its winter coat of pure white with a black-tipped tail. And considering Baffin Bay, its northernmost range, the species lives and extends south through most of Canada. And in the east, extending south to Maryland, The Berkshires, are probably mid-range. Certainly, north enough to wear its northern white coat deserving the name ermine.

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To answer your question though, provided there remains ample prey including voles, mice and small birds, it may stay in one area for a while. And, as far as this short-tailed weasel, ermine, or stoat, is concerned, this may well make a perfect home.


Massachusetts Audubon will promote the opening of two of its newest wildlife sanctuaries, that while not open to the public yet, will be having sneak previews, one in March and another in May.

Dale Abrams, Berkshire Sanctuaries naturalist, and education coordinator will lead a free tour for adults to Cold Brook in Sandisfield and Otis, the society's newest Berkshire wildlife sanctuary,from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. March 2. Registration is recommended.

Join Dale Abrams for birding at Tracy Brook from 7 to 9 a.m.on Thursdays, May 9 and 23. Registration required for an introduction to another of the newest sanctuaries before it opens to the public. View one of the largest great-blue heron rookeries in the region and observe migrant songbirds at this birding hot spot. Meet at Pleasant Valley at 6:45 a.m. to carpool.

To register and for additional information for all programs, call 413-637-0320.

Join leader Max Galdos-Shapiro, Berkshire Sanctuaries education coordinator, for Winter Adventure: nature exploration and hands-on learning and snowshoe or hike to "secret" parts of the sanctuary. For children, ages 7 to 12, the program will be held 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. during school vacation week, Tuesday through Friday, Feb. 19-22, at Pleasant Valley Sanctuary. Cost: $190 members, $250 non-members per week. $50 members, $65 non-members per day.


Anyone knowing of "wintering" swans in The Berkshires, email with specifics. Where, when and how many. And we are still receiving information on black squirrel sightings, so if you have seen one or more, let us know where, when and how many.

Thom Smith welcomes readers' comments and questions. Email him at


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