Monday, June 11, 2012

The American Marten in the High Peaks

At the start of summer, the High Peak wilderness experiences a sharp expansion of its wildlife community.

Insects adapted for survival in an often cool, high-elevation environment have emerged from their long winter dormancy and are now engaged in eating and breeding. Various species of birds have traveled to our upper elevation slopes to mate and nest, and numerous mammals that reside in this harsh climatic zone are now busy rearing infants which can temporarily double their populations.

One predator that is occasionally seen by people who pass through this region and whose young are currently developing to the stage at which they are leaving their mother’s den for the first time is the American marten (Martes Americana), a creature that symbolizes the great North woods character of the Central Adirondacks.

The marten is a sleek species of weasel that appears only slightly larger than a gray squirrel, yet because of its compact shape and muscular composition, has a body mass twice that of this backyard rodent. On those occasions when a marten is seen, it may be mistaken for a fisher, another inhabitant of northern forests. The marten, however, has longer and more conspicuous ears than the fisher, and has a lighter colored coat of fur. The cinnamon-orange shade of many Adirondack martens resembles the rusty-tan color of the red squirrel, and allows it to blend with the bark of several species of evergreen trees.
Unlike the fisher, which is shy and secretive, the marten frequently exhibits a sense of curiosity about intruders and is unafraid to approach a hiker from the safety of an overhead limb or the trunk of a tree. Backpackers that regularly scan the area around them and over their head, not those individuals that constantly fixate their attention on the section of trail immediately in front of them, are the ones likely to periodically catch sight of a marten peering at them from above.
The exceptional skill of this slender weasel in moving through the canopy of a conifer forest rivals that of the red squirrel. Even though this feisty squirrel is a challenge for the marten to catch when it races across the boughs of spruce and fir, it occasionally falls victim to the speed, maneuverability, and cunning of this weasel.

The marten also preys regularly on the varying hare, grouse, mice, voles and shrews which reside in these stands of evergreens. At this time of year, nesting birds become a significant part of the marten’s diet. While an adult incubating a clutch of eggs can be surprised and killed by this arboreal marauder, the marten more often gets only the hatchlings or the eggs present in the nest. As berries become abundant later in the season, the marten begins to incorporate more plant matter into its diet, as do the fox and coyote. However, for the present, while this creature is still producing milk for its rapidly growing babies, it tends to ingest as much protein as possible.

While the marten hunts both during the day and at night, it primarily prowls for prey in the hours around dusk and dawn. Since there is an increase in wildlife activity during twilight conditions, the chances of snagging a meal are greater in the early morning and again in the evening.

In the Adirondacks, the marten is known to give birth to its annual litter of from 2 to 4 kits, as they are called, anytime in April or early May. The babies develop slowly and remain within the confines of their mother’s den for the first 6 to 7 weeks of life. By early to mid June, the young have been introduced to solid food and are leaving the entrance of the den to get their first exposure to the outside world. In another month’s time, these animals regularly exit the den and spend an increasing amount of time investigating their immediate surroundings.

At the same time as attendance in the High Peaks soars with vacationers trying to add more summit ascents to their list of personal accomplishments, immature martens are venturing further from the den during the day in order to satisfy their curiosity about the setting in which they have become a part. While they sometimes accompany their mother on short excursions, they also wander by themselves, for very short distances, across the rugged terrain to develop the skills of climbing and running. Seeing a marten while hiking through the High Peak can be a more memorable experience than reaching any summit, although there are a few peaks that may be considered just as noteworthy.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

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