A Weaselly Surprise

When I noticed something bright in my peripheral field of vision and my eyes afterward focused on this sleek creature, I felt slightly disoriented. The animal seemed out of its element, at least in my mind. It was October 2020 and I was birding along a paved path in a well-developed suburban subdivision. A weasel was not what I expected here.

Back at home I confirmed that I had indeed seen a Long-tailed Weasel. A member of the mustelid family (Mustelidae), which also includes badgers, wolverines, and skunks, it is considered the most widespread carnivore in the Western Hemisphere (according to our 1997 National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals). Considering this fact it’s remarkable that I only recall a handful of weasel encounters in my life, all of which happened in natural, undeveloped areas—until this one broke the mold.

This individual was sunning itself in someone’s back yard and it soon became evident that it had tunneled underneath the stone steps, where it disappeared for periods of time. I did not see a water source in the yard but not far from the property was a little pond, which likely proved attractive to this water-loving critter. Long-tailed Weasels (Mustela frenata) used to be considered strictly nocturnal but are now known to be active in daylight as well, because voles, among their favorite prey, are diurnal.

This rather tame-appearing representative of its kind was nearly done with its seasonal wardrobe makeover, having exchanged almost all the handsome yellow and brown summer attire for a white winter coat, except for the face and back, which probably turned white soon thereafter. The dark tip of the tail, on the other hand, remains black always.

 

I had enjoyed one previous weaselly meeting in southern Colorado in April 2016 during which the subject posed long enough for me to take a few photos. The image I have added for comparison shows the warm earth tones of the fur. I wonder if this weasel kept the same coat year-round, as the white camouflage color only makes sense in areas that receive significant amounts of snow.

If you have observed and/or photographed weasels in the wild, I would love to hear about your experiences.