Thursday, January 18, 2018

American marten!!

The west entrance to one of North America's great protected wildlands, Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. I made a whirlwind trip here over the last week - a journey I could be writing about for some time. There were other stops, including Niagara Falls which was a mind-numbingly beautiful icy wonderland, and Lake Ontario near Toronto. There, scores of long-tailed ducks and other fowl congregated.

But it isn't everyday one gets a "life mammal", at least someone like me, who has made an effort to see mammals for a long time. So, if I post nothing else about this northern foray, I will at least share this new mammal, an extraordinary beast by any accounting.

Ontario Route 60 slices through the park, and the scenery along its entirety is stunning. There was a fair bit of snow but not that much, so getting around wasn't too tough. One mammal to watch for while driving is moose. The massive beasts are frequently seen along 60, and sometimes come to the roadside to lick salt in winter. Didn't see any on this expedition, though.

Sunday evening turned out to be crisp and clear - a frosty minus 10 F. The utter lack of light pollution in Algonquin means that night skies are bold and vibrant, and celestial bodies can be seen in a way that they no longer can in much of North America.

Photographing such a sky was irresistible so out we went into the cold. This image is a composite of 16 exposures, each made at ISO 800, 30 seconds, and f/2.8. I used my Canon 5D IV, and Canon's sensational 24mm f/1.4 lens. This lens is amazing for astrophotography, despite what more than a few "experts" on various photography Internet sites claim. The trick is to stop it down to at least f/2, and f/2.8 works better. Then, it is scarily sharp.

A true bird of the far north, the gray jay. These tame corvids were fixtures around campgrounds and anywhere that people frequented, but there are plenty more of them off the beaten path. Gray jays deal well with cold - it had been something like minus 30 F a few days prior - and routinely encounter temperatures plunging below 0 F. Biologists have been conducting research with the Algonquin birds for about three decades, and it's hard to find a jay that isn't ornamented with bands on both legs. This one had 'em, but has its feet and legs tucked in to keep them toasty.

Another denizen of the north woods and a sought after species by birders, the spruce grouse. This bird was one of three males foraging in a white spruce, and they were eventually joined by a hen. Spruce grouse specialize in feeding on the needles of spruce and pine. They are incredibly tame, which led to one of their nicknames, "fool hen". Such tameness makes them easy photo subjects - if you luck into one. When not out feeding, they often retreat into dense boughs near trunks, and you'd never know they were there.

Here it is - the American marten, the protagonist of this post! I had heard that martens were fairly plentiful in Algonquin, and not only that, they would frequent campgrounds, picnic areas and such. So, there was always a chance of at least getting glimpses of these stout weasels.

We had stopped at a picnic area with a complement of various trash and recycling bins to look for birds, when a rapid scurrying movement caught our eye. We had caught a marten unawares, and it rapidly dashed into the paper recycling bin!

I knew he/she would be back out sooner than later - they are curious beasts - so we retreated to distant cover and waited. Sure enough, it wasn't long before the triangular-faced weasel popped from his box to scan the surroundings.

After a while, the marten jumped down to the snow's surface and began snuffling about. This was awesome in the extreme, and I had secreted myself behind the forked trunk of a maple, with my camera lens poked through the fork. The mammal apparently didn't know I was there, permitting an excellent series of shots.

Martens are about the same size as a mink, but look more robust to me. An adult like this measures about two feet in length, with males being somewhat larger. The bushy tail adds another half-foot. A big one weighs around three pounds. Their tri-toned coloration is striking: whitish face and bib, black legs and tail, and yellowish-brown body.

PHOTO TIP: When shooting wary subjects - as was this marten, movements or sounds sent him scurrying back into his lair - use "silent" drive mode on your camera. It isn't truly silent, but probably cuts the sound of the shutter by half. Shooting off high-speed continuous bursts without muffling the sound will often send shy subjects fleeing, if you're close. The downside to silent drive mode is you lose several frames a second in burst mode, but that's often not a big deal, at least with slower-moving subjects.

As fantastically good fortune would have it, we found another marten, and this one was bolder. Martens are voracious carnivores, feeding on mice, voles, and even prey up to the size of snowshoe hares. But they'll eat seeds and other vegetation, and that's what this one was foraging for.

A snowy muzzle gives away the marten's feeding behavior - the hole he dug in the snow to reach the ground can be seen. While the first marten would run into hiding at the first sign of movement or noise, this one was far bolder. Here, he takes pause to scrutinize your narrator, but quickly returned to his hunting.

While martens may look cute and cuddly, a glance at their impressive set of teeth should shatter that illusion. You certainly would not want to be a small rodent and find yourself in a marten's path.

American marten (formerly pine marten) once occurred in Ohio. There are at least two specimen records from Ashtabula County, and one from Ross County. It's likely that they disappeared by 1850. By then, Ohio would have been at the southern periphery of their distribution, and it may be that most remaining animals were trapped out for their fur. Now, the southern border of the marten's range is considerably farther north and it'll be interesting to see if the range keeps contracting northward in future years.

6 comments:

Lisa Greenbow said...

Exciting! What a handsome creature.

Anonymous said...

Great story and amazing photos!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the second bolder martin was simply hungrier? In the photos it looks a little thinner and maybe nowhere near a recycling bin or trash cans?

The Furry Gnome said...

So glad you got up to visit us, and had such amazing luck seeing the Martens! Algonquin is certainly a special place! And you got some fabulous photos.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic shots! Saw pine martens in the Tetons. They were very inquisitive.

Jr. said...

Algonquin Provincial Park is a beautiful place we visited in August 1987 ;plenty of moose as we canoed by the shores of Lake Opeongo. The great J in the campgrounds were the biggest Moochers of marshmallows ever

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