Natural Observations-A good look at a least weasel


Host and producer Robin Song had the good fortune to cross paths with a least weasel, and it held still long enough for a couple photos! Audio for this Earth and Beyond program runs about six minutes thirty seconds. Text follows.


[audio:|titles=NatObs-Least Weasel,071512]



Folks who’ve lived in Alaska awhile know about weasels. Encounters and stories abound. Fearless little animals, they can be seen at any time of the year, just about anywhere. In winter they turn snow-white. In late spring they change to a coat of brown above, crème on the underside. In Alaska we have two varieties of weasels- or ermines. The Short-tailed and the Least Weasel. Short-tails reach 14 to 16 inches long and weigh in at 7 ounces. Least Weasels average 8 to 11 inches long and weigh less than 4 ounces. Weasels are master predators and live off what they kill. Short-tails eat rodents, shrews, mice, birds, eggs, young hares, pikas, insects and fish. Being so tiny, Least Weasels prey primarily on voles and mice, also birds, insects and worms. Short-tailed weasels are found throughout Alaska with the exception of the offshore islands of the Bering Sea, and Aleutian Islands west of Unimak Island. The Least Weasel has the same range, but does not exist on Kodiak Island and most islands of southeast Alaska. They are sparsely distributed throughout their range except along the arctic slope where they become more abundant, especially when rodent populations are high. Both weasels are found in a variety of habitats, including forest and tundra.


A friend who likes to fish in a semi-remote creek told one of my favorite stories about the Short-tailed Weasel to me this spring. She has gone there for several summers, and has observed a curious phenomenon. When she catches her first fish, there will come a rustling from the bushes, then a little brown and white ermine will pop out from the brush and approach her. She said; “It’s like a little poodle; it gets up on its hind legs and sits there, begging for a piece of fish. When I toss it a piece, it catches it then drops to all fours and races off into the brush. In awhile, it will re-appear, jumping around, chittering, and again sitting up and begging. It will do this until it is finally full, and let me tell you- for such a little critter, it can sure pack away a lot of fish!” This showcases both the intelligence and opportunistic nature of the weasel, and its fearlessness.


My own experiences with Short-tailed weasels culminated this past winter when a pair decided to visit the cabin almost daily, raiding the peanut butter I set out for the birds. My first encounter was a morning when I was returning from the barn to discover a small white form tugging the jar lid with its spoonful of peanut butter across the floor of the porch. The weasel did not drop the lid as I approached. It tugged it underneath the table on the porch and then proceeded to chitter, hiss and spit at me, jumping out, then dashing back under the table. I learned quick to put a little peanut butter out for the weasel to keep it from stealing the bird’s share. I discovered that there was actually two weasels coming for their peanut butter fix. When weasels are around, voles and shrews are not. Sounds of scurrying feet did not greet me when I entered the barn, this winter. No voles or shrews were to be found in the horse’s grain bin.


My most amazing encounter occurred in late May. I was walking Lyra near the pond at the railroad crossing just before the Library on Main Street, Talkeetna. I had gone there to see if any ducks were about. I spotted a pair of mallards and a common goldeneye out in the channels winding through the marsh grass. After watching them through binoculars, I headed back to the railroad crossing. There was no traffic, and all was quiet. Suddenly a little creature burst from the marsh grass closest to the road, scurried up the bank and dashed across the railroad tracks, carrying a vole. I knew it was a weasel, and I watched as it fairly flew across the road, going flat out. It jumped down the embankment and disappeared under the big metal box, which houses the mechanism controlling the warning arm spanning the road when a train is approaching. Lyra had also seen the scampering weasel and she and I crossed the road and stood near the side of the box under which the weasel had dashed. I didn’t expect to see the creature again, but to my amazement it suddenly popped up from the edge of the box, placing its white front feet on a board next to that side of the box and pushing up to its full length to study Lyra and me. I had my little Olympus digital camera with built-in video and I filmed the weasel as it popped back under the box, then jumped out again to watch us. At one point a vehicle came along the road and across the tracks and the weasel stood tall and watched the car go by.


From its diminutive size, at first I thought it was a very young weasel, but it was too early in the spring for a youngster to be on its own. It was very much an adult, but I had never seen such a small weasel before. Then it hit me- I was in the company of a Least Weasel! Being that they are somewhat rare, I had never expected to encounter one, let alone at a railroad crossing on the way in to Talkeetna! But this is Alaska, and encounters with wildlife, from the largest to the smallest, can happen any time, almost anywhere. I feel privileged to have seen such a handsome little weasel up close and to come away with a few good photos. Like its larger cousin, this Least Weasel was not at all afraid of Lyra or me, and only when a train was approaching and the arm came down with its flashing lights and bells did the little weasel dash out from under the box. It raced on across the nearby dirt drive, disappearing into the brush at the edge of the forest.


I am honored to have crossed paths with a somewhat rare little creature, and I hope to do so again. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time, which is the motto for photographers everywhere.  Maybe I’ll get the chance to see one again, sometime. Meanwhile, I have the photos and a couple of videos to mark my encounter with one of Alaska’s smallest predators, the dynamic Least Weasel.


KTNA-Least Weasel, July, 2012

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