Monday, March 25, 2013

Adirondack Wildlife: The Mink

768px-Mink_-_Lower_Saranac_LakeThe persistent cold weather pattern that has prevented regular thaws from occurring this March has kept a covering of ice on most Adirondack waterways, including the edges of many streams and rivers. Returning waterfowl, like the black duck and mallard, are now forced to concentrate their activities to those scattered stretches of water where the current keeps ice from forming.

It is around these limited settings that a sleek and resourceful member of the weasel family lurks in an attempt to ambush one of these meaty game birds. While it is possible during the warmer months of the year to notice this shoreline demon prowling the boundary of any aquatic environment, the open waters that attract wild ducks are now a prime hunting haunt of the mink.

Known for its dense coat of soft, chocolate-colored fur, the mink is a common predator of wooded shorelines throughout the Park. During summer, the banks of rivers, the edges of streams and the terrain along the sides of brooks are regularly prowled for prey. While beaver ponds, marshes and lake shores are also visited by the mink, these sites are not as inviting to this weasel, as narrow waterways are preferred throughout the year.

During winter, the mink routinely weaves in and out of the nooks and crannies that exist along a shore. The spaces in and around fallen logs, large rocks, dense thickets of brush and clumps of dried grasses and sedges are all investigated for the nests of mice and voles and the presence of muskrat houses. Even though a muskrat is about the same size as this lanky, yet muscular mammal, the mink is often able to grab the neck of a muskrat in a confrontation and inflict a fatal wound with its set of pointed canine teeth.  On occasions, the mink has been known to kill all of the occupants of a muskrat house over time and eventually use that rodent’s shelter for a temporary retreat of its own.

If food can not be located on shore, the mink enters the water to harvest cold-blooded creatures that are partially embedded in the bottom muck lying in a dormant state. Turtles, frogs, and crayfish are all extracted from their hibernating spots in the sediment and quickly brought to shore to be eaten. Fish, like chubs and shiners, that are encountered by the mink as they swim below the surface are also pursued for short distances. Since frigid water triggers a semi-lethargic state in some species of fish, the mink is more inclined to catch these gilled creatures now than during summer.

Even though the mink is covered with a thick coat of water-repellant fur, it is not as well adapted for spending as much time in near freezing water as either the otter or beaver. Its lean body shape, and its more muscular composition allows it to lose heat more quickly to its surroundings than other aquatic creatures that have a more plump body form. This is why the mink spends the vast majority of its time roaming the shore rather than prowling the bottom for prey.

With the return of several species of waterfowl to the region over the past few weeks, the mink has an added source of food available to it. As these birds meander about the alder-choked streams that still contain major patches of ice, the odds become tilted in favor of the mink when the two happen to meet.
Seeing a mink is a rare treat, as this carnivore tends to be active mainly at night. There is a full moon this Wednesday, and with clear skies forecast for several evenings this week, it may be possible to catch a glimpse of this dark colored predator against a snowy background as it moves along a stretch of stream adjacent to a road or a trail safe to hike after the sun has set.

The presence of fresh, powdery snow makes it possible for a person to follow the route traveled by a mink as it meanders along a shore looking for food. Daily accumulations of snow this past week have made tracking conditions excellent. While some people are eagerly awaiting a serious thaw, and a change in the prevailing weather pattern, those that enjoy following a set of fresh tracks have had a perfect few weeks of late winter weather.

Because of its tendency to remain along the shore of small streams, especially at this time of year, the mink is not regularly seen. Yet this animal is a common member of the wildlife community here in the Park, much to the dismay of muskrats and returning waterfowl.

Photo: A mink at Lower Saranac Lake, courtesy Wiki Commons user Mwanner.

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Tom Kalinowski

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.

4 Responses

  1. Wally Elton Wally says:

    Last week at Lapland Lake Ski Center we saw the tracks of a bounder along a mostly-frozen stream. At one point it slid down a snow bank, then crossed the ski trail (tracks were very clear), then continued bounding along the stream. Folks at the center said it probably was an otter, but the tracks seemed too small to me. Do mink slide like otters?

    • Tom Kalinowski Tom Kalinowski says:

      Good Evening Wally:
      The mink does, on occasions, slide like an otter, especially down a small hill or bank. The tracks of these two mammals are quite different. The otter has webbed feet, which slows nicely in the snow. The mink is a smaller animal and has smaller paws that are NOT webbed. If the tracks that you observed were not webbed, they were probably those of a mink.

      • Wally Elton Wally says:

        They were indeed not webbed. They were quite fresh and distinct, especially on the groomed trail. I was originally thinking a weasel, perhaps, until I saw your mink article. Thanks.

  2. Sullivan says:

    Just today we saw either a mink or a river otter at our cottage on fourth lake. What a site as we’ve never seen one here before.