Monday, May 30, 2011

Unidentified wildlife sighting...what was it?

Was it a weasel?
A mink?
or, a more likely possibility, a fox squirrel

Simply Living
May 30, 2011

I saw a weasel or a mink.  At least, I think I did.  I was driving down a bumpy dirt road leading a prospective tenant to one of our more secluded rental homes when a medium sized animal dashed across the road. 

My first thought was, “That’s a big squirrel.” 

But something felt off. 

The animal seemed too large for a squirrel and its coloring was wrong.  Predominantly brown with a decidedly darker tail, it didn’t look like any squirrel I’d ever seen.  As my car crept closer, the fur-covered critter stopped running and posed on its hind legs. 

“Hmmm…,” I thought as I slowed the car, “I wonder what it is…” 

Well aware that it was being watching, the mysterious mammal sniffed the air and looked around before deciding to head for the trees.  That was when I knew for sure it was not a squirrel.  When squirrels run, they scamper.  Their bodies lack an undulating gait.  The animal I saw was sleek and smooth.  It moved like an otter.  As it vanished into the pinewoods, it looked like a large inchworm on speed.

My encounter was over in seconds but I had sufficient time to make certain assumptions.  Although it had an otter-like gait, it was not an otter.  This creature had the same long, lean body type but it was furrier and smaller than a river otter. 

“Is it a mink,” I wondered, “or a weasel?”  I have never seen either in Florida but that doesn’t mean they are not here. 

I continued on my drive and showed the rental house to the prospective tenants but my mind was on the sighting.  When I returned home afterwards, I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my husband.

“I think I saw a weasel,” I told Ralph excitedly, “in the pinewoods outside our gate, although it could have been a mink.”

“There aren’t mink in Florida,” my sweet husband replied laughingly.  “Are you sure it wasn’t an otter?”

I hate being alone when I spot wildlife.  It vastly decreases the believability factor.

“I was definitely not an otter and I don’t think you’re right about minks,” I said as I walked into my office and turned on the computer. 

Ralph disappeared into his own office and while he plowed through stacks of paperwork, I perused Florida wildlife sites.

It turns out that mink and weasels do indeed live in Florida but sightings of these elusive animals are rare.  The Southern Mink, Mustela vison evergladenis, is a threatened species that lives mainly in three south Florida counties.  Although Lake County is a long way from the southern mink’s home turf, its description in The Field Guide to Rare Animals of Florida – especially the part about the fur coloration - sounded spot on: 

Medium sized (17 - 25 in) member of the weasel family, with the characteristic long, slender body, short legs, long tail, small head, and rounded ears.  South Florida individuals are smaller than other subspecies.  Fur is dark brown over most of the body and blackish brown on the distal half of the tail.  Occasional specimens have a white patch on the chin or the chest.

Weasels are in the Mustelidae family, which also includes mink, otters, skunks and ermine.  Like the southern mink, three species - the Florida weasel, long-tailed weasel and southeastern weasel - also reside in the Sunshine State.  While weasels are not officially threatened, calculating statistics on their population has been difficult since they are so seldom seen.

Of the three types of weasels in Florida, all but the southeastern weasel live in Central Florida.  Weasels are smaller than their mink cousins.  These smallest of Florida carnivores have long, slender bodies, short legs and long tails, tipped in black.  I was happy to discover that they are often compared in size to gray squirrels.

Although I have no idea if I’ll ever see this furry fellow again, I’m sure of one thing – I will be looking for it whenever I’m outside.  Several years ago, I saw a deer in a nearby wood.  I haven’t seen another deer since, but that hasn’t stopped me from scanning the forest with hopeful eyes.  The same is true for wild boars, fox, coyotes and bobcats.  I’ve observed them all on occasion but those occasions are rare enough to keep me always on the lookout.

There’s no question - spotting wildlife is exciting.  Even fleeting encounters like the one with the potential weasel/mink make my day and fill me with awe.  They also make me wonder:  how many other animals am I missing?  So much goes on in nature without our knowing it.  Even now, as I ponder these thoughts, animals are on the prowl.  It’s a humbling realization.

Postscript:  Sharon, who read the print version of my column in the Orlando Sentinel, said I might have seen a Sherman's fox squirrel.  After researching this "species of special concern" I think she may be right.  Perhaps my sighting wasn't of a weasel or an Everglade mink after all.  

The Sherman fox squirrel is the largest squirrel in the western hemisphere - about twice as big as the common gray squirrel.  Its fur colors varies greatly so it is possible that the black tail I noticed along with the lighter colored body could have belonged to the fox squirrel.  Another telling fact:  fox squirrels are often found in pine forests - the very place where I saw my mystery animal - where they feed on seeds inside pine cones. 

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