For over 100 years many of the once farmed fields of the Finger Lakes region have been reverting to forests. Because of the changing landscape, wildlife species such as pheasant and bobolink that once thrived in grassy habitats are declining, while forest-dwelling creatures like black bear are naturally returning to the region. Two mammals that have slipped under the radar and are silently returning to the Finger Lakes are the bobcat and fisher. Although few people have seen or would even recognize these secretive mammals, their presence in our area is increasingly being documented by bow hunters, incidental trapping, images captured on motion sensitive cameras and, unfortunately, by road-kill evidence.
According to Scott Smith, regional wildlife biologist for the DEC, both fisher and bobcat sightings in the eastern Finger Lakes are probably animals colonizing from the established populations that are in the Adirondacks and Catskills. Fisher sightings are more numerous in the southern portion of central New York and are probably the result of animals dispersing north from Pennsylvania, where they were re-introduced in the mid-1990s. Smith believes that bobcat have been in the region longer than fisher, and are more widespread and numerous. Both species are successfully breeding and currently neither can be hunted or trapped in the region.
Smith explains that although fisher were historically believed to be creatures of undisturbed wilderness, they are actually quite adaptable and are leaving the big woods where food is scarce. They are moving into the Finger Lakes region where prey is plentiful. Although there are more fisher in the southern Finger Lakes region, one was recently killed on the road near the Outlet Mall in Waterloo.
Fisher are also called “fisher cats.” That is a misnomer, however, because they seldom eat fish and are not felines. Rather they are members of the weasel family and bear a slight resemblance to some of their relatives: the marten, mink and otter. Including their long bushy tail, they are approximately 3 feet long, and the larger males weigh up to 18 pounds. They possess a thick, luxuriant dark-brown to black coat, which makes them valuable fur bearers.
Fisher are wanderers, and studies have documented that they often travel over 100 miles in a two-week period in search of food, which includes rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, grouse, fruit and acorns. Fierce arboreal predators, fisher have the unique ability to prey upon an animal that eludes most others: the porcupine. After locating a porcupine by scent, a fisher will repeatedly circle and attack the front of its head, avoiding quills, until the porcupine is fatally injured. Although fisher are occasionally seen with a few quills in their faces, they seldom die from such encounters, even though they ingest the entire porcupine, quills and all.
Bobcat, too, are adapting to the diverse habitats of the region. They’re found in forests, edge environments, swamps and areas with rocky outcrops. Sometimes referred to as “wild cats,” bobcats sport short stubby tails, stand about twice the size of a house cat, and weigh up to 35 pounds. Their faces are distinguished by jowl-like ruffs and pointed ear tufts that are shorter than those of their closest relative, the lynx. The coat of a bobcat varies, but is generally gray to buff to reddish-brown with irregular spots throughout.
Except during the mating season, bobcats are solitary creatures. They maintain a social distance because their aggressiveness can lead to injuries and fatalities. Like domestic cats, they hunt by surprise, stalking and pouncing. However, make no mistake — bobcats are formidable bundles of muscle with penetrating canine teeth, sharp hooked claws, and the ability to cover short distances in a blur. They are opportunistic feeders, occasionally preying on fawns and ambushing adult deer, but they typically feed on rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, grouse, turkey, amphibians and even skunks.
Because so many residents of the Finger Lakes are unfamiliar with the fisher and the distinguishing features of the bobcat, I believe that reports of cougar sightings are actually cases of mistaken identity. It stands to reason that reports of black cougar sightings around here are actually fisher sightings, especially since cougars in North America are never black. As Scott Smith explains, the bobcat in our area have relatively few spots and their coats tend toward a tawny brown. This may explain why some people who have actually seen a bobcat believe they have sighted a cougar. I became more convinced of this possibility when Scott shared a photo that was sent to him of a tawny-brown bobcat drinking at the edge of a pond. When Scott covered the cat’s stubby tail, I was amazed to see how closely its coloring and features resembled a cougar. A fair number of people are also reporting sightings of lynx in the Finger Lakes. Most likely they, too, are seeing bobcats because lynx are not currently present in New York.
I have enjoyed experiencing the ever-changing wildlife populations of the region and eagerly look forward to more sightings of fisher and bobcat, fully realizing that when either of them is spotted it’s a rare occurrence.
by Bill Banaszewski