Portraits of the elusive American marten

Ninety minutes after sunrise on a spring morning, I arrived at a High Peaks lodge with hopes of photographing one of the Adirondacks’ most delightful denizens. On the ground lay a light cover of snow over hard-pack, and red squirrels chattered in the trees. Camera at the ready, I waited.

Twenty minutes later, the squirrels suddenly went silent and seemed to have disappeared. Then, a few minutes apart, two beautiful martens appeared.

American martens (Martes americana) are part of the weasel family, distinguished from other Adirondack mustelids (river otter, fisher, mink, long- and short-tailed weasels) by their medium size and light brown coat. Adding to their photographic appeal are a bushy tail, endearing face and white-trimmed ears. They live in mature, northern coniferous and mixed forests, where they hunt for voles, shrews, red squirrels and other small critters, and they will gobble nuts and berries in season. They may hunt anytime, but peak activity is at twilight or, as I was fortunate to witness, in early morning.

Until then, my experience with martens in the Adirondacks had been limited to viewing nocturnal images on trail cameras near Lake Placid, or catching a glimpse as one ran across Whiteface Memorial Highway before sunrise.

Although wary, the martens let me watch and capture them with a telephoto lens as they hunted. I admired their skill as climbers and photographed them in the trees, where they might have been tracking those missing squirrels. I followed one from a respectful distance, watching it forage on the ground—looking, listening and smelling for a vole or other potential meal. I didn’t see it catch anything as it bounded and loped in its search, leaving distinctive twin tracks in the snow with its hind feet placed directly on front footprints.

Martens are superbly adapted to snowy winters but need large areas of relatively unfragmented habitat. If you’re lucky, you might see one visiting a campsite or a suet feeder. Alert hikers might catch a glimpse on a trail, but should look up in the trees—especially conifers—since martens will take temporary refuge at the approach of people or dogs and will sit quietly until intruders pass. 

See more of Larry Master’s wildlife photography at www.masterimages.org.

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