This long-tailed weasel has somehow lost the black tip to his tail, causing me to hope that I had seen my first least weasel.
The snow was deep near Pebble Creek in Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley and it forced the big bull bison to use his head as a snowplow, smashing from side to side, clearing away the white stuff from the somewhat green stuff below. With new snow falling and his face covered in a crust of snow, it made for great photos and video and so I stood on the side of the road, cognizant of real snowplows and other vehicles while I tried to capture the scene.
There was something odd though happening behind the bison. Every couple of frames I would detect motion behind him. It wasn’t a bird; it was more like moving snow. Finally, I stopped and focused on this distraction for a moment. When I did, I gave a delighted shout. It was a weasel, dressed in its finest snow season coat of white.
Getting a photo of the little beast was nigh impossible. He zipped like a snowball across my field of view and I was about 25 yards away, shooting at a target not much larger than a hotdog. I was thrilled though, because members of his ilk, the Mustelidae family, continue to elude my camera, so any shot was better than no shot.
This weasel was all white, lacking the customary black tip on the tail. At first I thought it could be a least weasel, the smallest of the weasels with a short (less than 1.5 inches) all white tail. Yellowstone is a bit south of its accepted range, but the online Montana Field Guide listed dozens of sightings in Montana including a bunch just north of the park. However, when I enlarged the photos, I could see that the tail on this fellow was nearly half as long as his body. I consulted with my friend and fellow naturalist, Adam Brubaker, owner/operator of Tied to Nature tours of Yellowstone, and we agreed that it was a long-tailed weasel, the largest of the three weasel species in North America. How he lost the black tip of his tail is a mystery. Perhaps it served its purpose and a distracted predator grabbed for it instead of the weasel’s body.
Over the course of this past summer and fall I encountered weasels several times. They were always a joy to watch as they frenetically clambered over, under and through everything on the ground in search of food. Weasels have an undeserved reputation as bloodthirsty killers. Their extremely high surface-to-volume ratio body design (think a rocket with legs) comes with a metabolism like a coal-fired locomotive. Fuel must constantly be shoveled in, up to 30 percent of its body weight a day (a 165-pound human would have to eat 50 pounds a day to match that), just to stay ahead of what it burns. They can and do routinely attack and kill prey far larger than themselves, although rodents are their primary food, and they often cache what they don’t eat.
All three weasel species on this continent turn white in the winter and are routinely collectively called ermine when dressed in white. However, only the short-tailed weasel, Mustela ermina, truly deserves the moniker as its scientific name shows.
I don’t think I will ever get to the point where seeing a weasel will become, “Ya, just another weasel.” They remain one of my favorite animals and each encounter is a treat that can turn an otherwise grueling day into a memory.
TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.
Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!
On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.
Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf.
If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho