All three members of the Mustelids, or weasel, family found on Long Island are very elusive and rarely seen: the long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata), American mink (M. vison) and the North American river otter (Lontra canadensis). Despite several years of fieldwork surveying and mapping their scent stations, tracking them in the snow, and setting up camera traps to record their presence and behavior, I’ve only seen one pair of otters on Long Island. And I have never seen a live long-tailed weasel here, only several roadkills.Mink are found in a large variety of habitats throughout North America, with two notable exceptions: the Arctic, and the dry, desert areas of the Southwest. Their habitats all share one important element: water. This may be in the form of freshwater lakes, ponds, rivers, small creeks, marshes or swamps, as well as coastal salt marshes, tidal creeks, salt ponds and bays.
Hunting along the interfaces between land and water, this carnivore’s diet includes fish, amphibians (mostly frogs), crayfish and crabs, and small mammals. Among the latter, juvenile muskrats, mice and voles top their food list throughout the year.
Despite its fusiform shape and partially webbed feet, mink are not very agile swimmers and are most successful foraging in the shallows for small, slow-moving fish. They will also prey on waterfowl nesting along the shore, taking eggs, chicks and adults.
Not surprisingly, my encounters with mink have always been on or near the water. While paddling up to an old dam in the Adirondacks, I spotted a mink exploring the nooks and crannies of the logs and large rocks of which the dam was made. In New Hampshire, I spent many hours following mink tracks along the edges of frozen ponds.
My most unusual and best mink sighting occurred on a canoe trip in Quebec. I spotted one crossing a small lake and was able to paddle right up to it. The mink floated surprisingly high in the water, with its entire back, the upper half of its sides and its bottlebrush-like tail exposed. It did not move very fast and never attempted a dive. I wondered if this animal’s relatively long, waterproof fur coat’s buoyancy hindered its ability to dive and swim underwater.
In the publication “The Mammals of Long Island, New York,” author Paul Connor notes, based on his fieldwork in the 1960s, “Although the mink is not often seen and is much less common than formerly, it is not really rare and in fact has a rather wide distribution in the region. This species may be encountered near water, mainly in the less populated areas, for almost the full length of Long Island and on both the north and south shores.”
Over the half century since Mr. Connor’s research, the situation he described may have changed dramatically. He specifically mentions observing a mink on the shoreline of Fresh Pond in Hither Hills State Park, an area I have surveyed for tracks over the course of several winters with no luck. Along with Steve Biasetti and Callie Velmachos, I also surveyed the frozen, snow-covered edges of Long and Crooked ponds in the late 1990s, and several freshwater ponds that feed into the Peconic River, with no sign of their distinctive track patterns.
Mink and otter share a fondness for the edge habitat between water and land, so I was also surprised that my camera traps, set on land within 10 to 20 feet of water in excellent otter and mink habitat, failed to reveal any mink over the course of an entire year.
That being said, 10 years ago I found evidence of successful breeding of mink here. In late July 2006, while launching kayaks from Bridge Lane on Sagg Pond, a pair of young mink darted out of the phragmites.
While I’m sure that mink still survive here on Long Island, it appears that much suitable habitat here is unoccupied by them at this time. I don’t think that their population is very robust, and the state’s current hunting and trapping regulations for this species on Long Island does not reflect what we know about their numbers here.
I would like to see an islandwide effort to record and map their distribution here by requiring fur trappers as well as nuisance trappers, who are registered with the NYSDEC and are a wealth of important local wildlife information, report intentional as well as accidental take of mink.