Having a tendency to be a bit prickly in certain situations, I can relate to one who exudes this characteristic.
And today was even more special because I had the opportunity to spend a few minutes in the presence of the immature form of my prickly friend whose “English name, ‘porcupine,’ comes from the Latin for quill and pig (porcus = pig and spina = quill). The scientific name, Erethizon dorsatum translates loosely as ‘creature with an aroused back.'” (Thanks PM)
Yes, it was a young porcupine that I met upon a gravel driveway. And the pleasure was all mine. For a moment, however, I did wonder about its daytime foraging habit. Was there something wrong with this critter, e.g. rabies, for he and his parents are generally nocturnal? But, as I watched, I was reassured that it was just out enjoying a mid-afternoon snack.
And in watching, I actually got to see the motion that I know so well through its parents winter footprints left in the snow. Notice how the feet on the right side are both in motion and the left side supports the rodent’s weight for a quick second, before it all switches to the opposite side? All with the toes turned in, of course. And nails extended out front. You know who else waddles in such a manner? A bear. And minus the quills, who does the porcupine remind you of?
Periodically, as he crossed the drive, he stopped and stood on two feet. I wanted to think he was checking me out as I checked him out, but really, a porcupine’s eyesight is rather poor. Instead, as he develops so do his two best senses: sound and smell. Did he perhaps sniff me?
I don’t think so. What he was really intent upon were the acorns that had fallen from a Northern Red Oak that towered above.
Lately, it seems, no matter where I am in the woods, I realize that the sky is falling as acorns land with kerplunks. And porcupines, after all, are herbivores, feasting as they do on all that our forests and fields have to offer in the spring and summer, and then bark and twigs and the underpinnings of our barns in the winter.
Every once in a while, this little guy turned his back on me. Had he been an adult, I would have seen the action as a defensive mode for they are known to spin around so that their tails face the predator during a confrontation. If attacked, an adult will use the tail to strike its assailant. And those quills—they detach easily and with their barbed ends become embedded in the skin of the attacker. But . . . it’s a misconception to think that a porcupine can eject or throw its quills.
This babe was born in the spring, somewhere between April and June. I’m assuming (never assume—if you know what I mean) he was an early babe and is now independent since he appeared to be moving about with no parents watching anxiously. He won’t reach sexually maturity until next September. Until then, he’ll enjoy life on his own.
Our time together, wasn’t long as I said, but I was grateful for a few moments to celebrate the porcup-ette, as a young one is known. Here’s to you, little prickly pig.
Serendipity: the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.
And so it was that upon arrival home from a short hike with my guy this morning, we discovered a package addressed to me in the mailbox. When I saw the town in Florida I knew exactly from whence it had come, but still didn’t know what was inside.
Well, much to my delightful surprise it was a children’s book.
I’m in Charge of Celebrations by Byrd Baylor with illustrations by Peter Parnall.
Upon opening to the inside cover, several pieces of paper fell out. The first was a letter from Ben and Faith Hall; though actually it was written by Ben. Here’s an excerpt: “One of my favorite children’s books is Everybody Needs a Rock. It was written by Byrd Baylor and illustrated by Peter Parnall. When Byrd Baylor’s name appeared on the cover of the book I saw, I purchased it for fifty cents.“
Ben and Faith, you see, are part of a group of twelve retired residents in their Florida town who tutor second graders struggling with reading comprehension. Given that, they are always on the lookout for appropriate books to share with their students.
Ben continued in his note to me, “After reading the book, I left it by Faith’s chair without saying anything. Obviously, I wanted to see if her reaction was similar to mine. It was. The story reminds us of your blog with its information and imagination. Thank you for sharing your gift with us. Keep going!
My ulterior motive in sending you the book is that hopefully you will write a children’s book. In no way should you take time away from your blog, but with your depth of spirit it would be worthwhile.
The illustrations in the book are fascinating and remind me of your skill with photography.”
Well, Ben and Faith, thank you so much for this gift. And for your love and support for what I enjoy doing. As for the children’s book, ideas fly through my brain all the time, but . . . I’d have to self-publish and it isn’t going to happen.
As for I’m in Charge of Celebrations, I totally get it. My guy wasn’t in the house when I sat down to read it and it’s a book that needs to be read aloud. And so I did. When he walked around the corner into the living room, he thought I was talking to someone on the phone.
For those of you not familiar with the title, Baylor begins the story with an explanation of how she’s never lonely as she explores the desert.
I feel the same way and on January 11, 2019, I actually wrote, “People often ask me this question: Aren’t you afraid of hiking alone. My response is that I’m more afraid to walk down Main Street than through the woods, the reason being that it’s a rare occasion I encounter a mammal. Oh, I do move cautiously when I’m alone, but there’s something uniquely special about a solo experience.”
As Baylor goes on to say, part of the reason she’s not lonely is this: “I’m the one in charge of celebrations.” Indeed. Each celebration marks the day she made an incredible discovery.
And so, I took a look back at some of my blog posts, and it’s all your fault Ben and Faith that this is a long one. But you inspired me to review some exciting discoveries I made just in the past year. With that, I attempted to follow Baylor’s style.
Friends, while reveling in the colors of dragons and damsels, their canoodling resulting in even more predators of my favorite kind, I met Prince Charming, a Gray Tree Frog who offered not one rare glimpse, but two. And so it is that May 30th is Gray Tree Frog Day.
For over thirty years I've stalked this land and July 14th marked the first time I noticed the carnivorous plant growing beside the lake. Droplets glistened at the tips of the hair-like tendrils of each leaf filled to the brink as they were with insect parts. On this day I celebrated Round-leaved Sundews.
A celebratory parade took place on September 22. The route followed the old course of a local river. Along the way, trees stood in formation, showing off colorful new coats. Upon some floats, seeds rustled as they prepared to rain down like candy tossed to the gathered crowd. My favorite musicians sported their traditional parade attire and awed those watching from the bandstand. With an "ooEEK, ooEEK," and a "jeweep" they flew down the route. Before it was over a lone lily danced on the water and offered one last reflection. And then summer marched into autumn.
With wonder in my eyes and on my mind I spent November in the presence of a Ruffed Grouse. The curious thing: the bird followed me, staying a few feet away as I tramped on. I stopped. Frequently. So did the bird. And we began to chat. I spoke quietly to him (I'm making a gender assumption) and he murmured back sweet nothings. Together we shared the space, mindful of each other. As he warmed up below a hemlock, I stood nearby, and watched, occasionally offering a quiet comment, which he considered with apparent nonchalance. Sometimes the critters with whom we share this natural world do things that make no sense, but then again, sometimes we do the same. Henceforth, November will always be Ruffed Grouse month for me.
At 6am a flock of crows outside the bedroom window encouraged me to crawl out of bed. Three black birds in the Quaking Aspen squawked from their perch as they stared at the ground. I peeked but saw nothing below. That is, until I looked out the kitchen door and tracks drew my attention. It took a moment for my sleepy brain to click into gear, but when it did I began to wonder why the critter had come to the back door and sashayed about on the deck. Typically, her journey takes her from under the barn to the hemlock stand. Today, as the flakes fell, and the birds scolded, she sat on the snowpile, occasionally retreated to her den, grunted, re-emerged, and then disappeared for the day. I went out again at dusk in hopes of seeing the prickly lady dig her way out but our time schedules were not synchronized. I don't know why she behaved strangely this morning, but I do know this: when the crows caw--listen. And look. And wonder.
April 8th will be the day I celebrate the Barred Owl for he finally flew in and landed. As I watched he looked about at the offering of treats. Cupcakes and cookies were for sale to the left in the form of Juncos and Chickadees. And then he turned his focus right, where drinks were on tap as the snowflakes fell. He even checked out the items below his feet, hoping upon hope to find a morsel of a vole to his liking. Eventually, he changed his orientation to take a better look at the entire spread of food. But still, he couldn't make up his mind and so he looked some more, swiveling his neck. In the end, he never did choose. Instead, off he flew without munching any of the specialty items. But I finally got to see my owl.
Ah, Ben and Faith, there are moments when one miraculously arrives in the right place at the right time, such as when a dragonfly emerges from its exuvia and slowly pumps blood into its body and you get to be a witness.
It strikes me as serendipity that this book should arrive today. You see, all month I’ve been debating what book to feature and time was of the essence as May approached. And then today, your lovely note, a copy of I’m in Charge of Celebrations, and the Christmas homily you wrote, Ben.
You are both the salt of the earth and I am honored to be your friend. Thank you for your kindness. (I’m only now realizing that we’ve shared a few celebrations that we’ll never forget including the fawn at Holt Pond and your smiling Bob the Bass.
Once again, the April Book of the Month: I’m in Charge of Celebrations.
I’m in Charge of Celebrations, by Byrd Baylor, illustrated by Peter Parnall, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1986.
To my guy and our sons, March Madness means only one thing: NCAA basketball.
To folks at the grocery store it seems to mean something else: a disdain for snow.
To me, while there was a time when I admit thinking that March was indeed the longest month, despite the fact that others like January, May, July, and August also have thirty-one days, I’ve changed my tune over the years. Perhaps it was a move north so many moons ago as I sought a land where more snow blanketed the earth that helped me transition. What I do know is that it’s a month of constant change as we move from winter to spring and while I never want to see the snow melt, I equally enjoy all the hints of what is to come that slowly join the display.
That display began on the first day of March when the frigid morning temperature created a mosaic of color and form on the window behind our bed. Feathery fern fronds and dragonfly wings danced across the glass as the morning light added subtle hues to the frosty collage.
Outdoors, the female Cardinal showed off her brilliant colors in the late afternoon sun.
Even in snowstorms, the male Pileated’s excavation work never ceased.
I did, however, spy a chickadee upon a lilac who looked at the snow as if to say, “Enough is enough.”
And a Junco who seemed to admire either its reflection or the prospect of plenty of thistle seeds.
Over the course of the month, we welcomed various nocturnal visitors including this member of the marsupial family.
Other nighttime visitors were masked bandits, indeed.
One nocturnal visitor surprised me one day by napping in a hemlock tree.
But, as the month progressed, I discovered we had not one, but two, porcupines living under the barn who made the transition from hemlock to seeds as their seasonal diet changed.
Even if we didn’t see them at night, we knew by the scat they left behind that they had emerged to dine.
And every day–the red and gray squirrels made their own quick work of the bird seed.
Of course, the birds also enjoyed such offerings.
Even if their feathers were astray as they began to molt despite, or because of, the weather conditions.
Some cracked me up with their stances at the suet feeder like this Red-breasted Nuthatch who appeared to casually step up to the bar and place his order.
March also brought the turkeys back, though I don’t know why they’d ignored us for the previous two months.
The Toms’ featherless heads of blue and pink and red raised bumps, called caruncles, changed colors with their moods.
That wasn’t the only thing about them to notice and I began to pay attention to their feet for like Ruffed Grouse, they seemed to have “snowshoes” and “treeshoes” that helped them stay atop snow and stable in their treetop roosts.
As the month advanced, others like this House Finch, returned to the north country and brightened my days.
And though he’s not singing yet, the Song Sparrow also made a come back and invited others of his species to join him.
The bird seed became an important supply for all forms of life and the deer cleared their own path from the hemlock grove to the feeders.
And then one day, spring dawned!
Still we had snow, but that didn’t stop the woodchuck from crossing the deck during a storm.
I chuckled when I watched him head to the familiar corner of the barn, that same corner that the porcupines emerge from and retreat to each night and morning. Oh, and the raccoons and opossum also know it. I’m just waiting for the skunks–I’ve smelled them, but have yet to see one.
Some days I spent near water where I was delighted to find exoskeletons such as this upon the snow.
The exoskeleton had belonged to the larval stage of a winter stonefly such as this one that crossed the snow as they do.
Other insects didn’t fare so well in the weather and behind plexiglass they remained in frozen form.
Within the last few days, as the month winds down, I’ve noted areas beside trees with southerly orientations where the snow has melted and the wintergreens grow.
And though I’ve seen Robins all winter, their flock numbers have increased significantly this past week.
But still we have plenty of snow as this Tom Turkey well knew this afternoon while he marched forward with a spirit of hope in each step.
I hope you can find some spring in your steps as this month gives way to the next and enjoy the wonder of it all. For me, March Madness is really March Gladness.
We drove to O’Lovell in western Maine late this morning with the plan to search for bear trees in an area where I’ve seen them in the past.
All along the main road to the Greater Lovell Land Trust property, Irish flags decorated random telephone poles and even a tree. The latter was our favorite for the person who hoisted it had to climb up the steep snowbank in order to show off the colors of the Emerald Isle.
Braving a thousand bumps, or so it felt as we negotiated potholes, frost heaves, and culvert depressions, we at last arrived at the end of a dirt (read: muddy) road and prepared for a hike up the oxymoron called Flat Hill.
While yesterday’s trek meant slogging through the wet snow, today’s brisker temperature allowed us to stay on top of the wintery surface, though we were thankful for our snowshoes.
Upward we climbed until we reached the coppiced red oaks and knew to turn right, walk off trail and begin our search among the beeches in the forest. You see, I knew there were trees to be found for I’ve seen them before, and I knew the turning point tree, but . . . the last time I looked, I couldn’t locate the trees with the bear claw marks. That, however, is a challenge my guy heartily accepts and so we split up and each set off to check all the trees in the forest. Well . . . almost all.
As is to be expected, my guy covered much more territory at a faster rate than I did and I wasn’t surprised to hear the distant call, “I got one!”
Indeed, he did. And a beauty was it. Can’t you just see the bear shimmying its way up and down the tree–several times over.
In my brain, a bear hug was the real deal from one of the original tree huggers. And I gave thanks for being accused of doing the same.
All the way to the top we could envision the quest for those tiny beech nuts that offered nutrition. Hmmm . . . isn’t it curious to note that the core of nutrition is “nut”? Or is it curious?
From the big tree, we moved up the mountain until we reached its sort of flat top where the view to the west is always a treat. And then we began to look about, for usually there is porcupine sign in the immediate vicinity to enjoy–that is . . . until I offered a porcupine prowl there two weeks ago and all we found were fisher tracks.
Today, however, was different and we found some fresh evidence that the porcupine is still in the area. We knew it by the teeth impressions left behind.
Further evidence was seen in some diagonally clipped twigs, scat, and even a strand of hair! Yes, porcupines have hairy bodies–including their quills. But on their bellies and faces they have a silkier variety–do you see it?
While I looked about the summit for more evidence, my guy stalked about below. Can you see him in the middle of the photo?
Eventually I wandered down to join him, pausing halfway to note some porky tracks leading upward . . . and downward, of course.
Below the ledges we hunted for his den, but found only tracks moving along the edges.
Though we never found the critter that we assume could easily look like a miniature bear if one were to remove all its quills, we enjoyed exploring the territory that is part of his home.
The delightful part of paying attention is the noticing. There were the organ pipes attached to the ledges, their music enhanced by drips onto rock tripe, ferns and mosses.
And an icicle of amber that stood at least two feet long.
Eventually we made our way back up and then down, again bushwhacking to look for more bear trees. We found a couple, but it was the works of others that also garnered our attention, such as this one that decided to split, but then came back together as if it was making up for time spent apart.
We found another tree with a burl that could easily have been mistaken for bear cubs spending time in a nurse tree. Typically, however, mama bear would choose a white pine for it would provide cover for her young ones as she went off to search for food for her brood.
Embedded in the snow was a squirrel drey and we mentally noted its location so we can go back another day after its no longer frozen in place and try to dissect it in hopes of better understanding such a structure.
And we spied a stonefly exoskeleton–an offering of total delight for despite its minute size, its discovery was right up there with the bear hug.
At last we left O’Lovell, with its Irish flags flying in the breeze, and found our way to O’Harrison, where we joined our friends, the O’Wisers for a beer and dinner.
The evening was topped off with Irish music performed by our favorite local acoustic folk band, Bold Riley.
From bear to beer, everyone was Irish today as we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. Well, almost everyone–I did wear some orange and donned my Macmillen plaid flannel shirt. O’Macmillen! O’Hayes! O’Bear!
A few weeks ago I’d contacted my friend Parker Veitch of White Mountain Mushrooms, LLC, to make sure he was willing to co-lead a couple of fungi walks this summer and in his response he included this paragraph: “I have a book for you. Should I leave it at the office? The first 20 or so pages are a little slow, but I think you will really like it.”
Like it? I LOVE it. And I haven’t even finished reading it. So you must be curious by now. As I was when I saw it sitting on the table at the Greater Lovell Land Trust office. You see, I was sure the book would be about fungi because Parker is always trying to help me learn about the principal decomposers of the world. Ah, but one should never assume.
May I present to you the Book of March: Entering the Mind of the Tracker by Tamarack Song.
This book is like no other tracking book that I’ve read. As I wrote back to Parker, “Thank you so much for sharing the book with me. I’m in the midst of reading Eager by Ben Goldfarb, The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, which is about Alexander von Humboldt, and a book of essays by E.B. White (thanks Judy and Bob for gifting me that gem), but right now I’m most captivated by the teaching of Tamarack Song and I am going to have to ask Bridgton Books to order a copy for me. I want to be him and have the understandings and slow down and ask the questions he asks. And teach others to do the same.
At first I couldn’t put the book down. But now I’ve changed my tune a bit because I want to savor it. Typically, when I read a book such as this I underline key phrases, write notes in the margin and turn page corners up. But, because I’m only borrowing this copy I’m not doing that. (Did I have you nervous for a minute there, Parker?) And that’s making me soak it all in and savor each chapter more fully than I might.
You see, Tamarack, according to the back cover blurb, “has spent his life studying the world’s aboriginal peoples, apprenticing to Elders, and learning traditional hunter-gatherer survival skills. He has spent years alone in the woods as well as living with a pack of Wolves. In 1987, he founded the Teaching Drum Outdoor School in the wilderness of northern Wisconsin, where he runs the yearlong Wilderness Guide Program.”
In each of the sixteen chapters, Tamarack plays the role of guide, but not by telling. Rather, he takes the reader along on an exploration with one of his students, and encourages all of us to question what we see. In other words, to never assume, which is what I did when Parker first mentioned the book and what I often do when I’m tracking.
Instead, he wants us to notice and think about why the animal might be behaving in a particular manner, even if we know what it is by its tracks and its sign. What’s the rest of the story?
In fact, why did Opossum suddenly appear toward the tail end of the snowstorm on Sunday night?
And why is he in western Maine? How has he survived this winter with its frigid temps (mind you, it’s finally starting to warm up a tad). Where has he been since I last saw his prints in the snow a few months ago? What brought him to our yard again? Does he live under the barn with the rest of the neighborhood?
And what about last night’s visitor, Raccoon. Where has he been all winter? What brought him out? I have to say I wasn’t surprised to see him as once the temps do begin to rise the slightest bit, he appears. I also know that the bird seed attracted him, though he surprised me by not stealing the suet.
Tamarack encourages us to become the animal, especially if we don’t see it, but do see the signs it left behind. Had there been snow on the deck, I imagine I would have recognized the raccoons prints, but I would have wondered about other lines that probably would have appeared. Having the chance to watch Raccoon as I did, I now know that those lines would have been his nose and tongue as he tried to vacuum the seeds.
But then there was Raccoon’s coloration. Why the mask? Why the striped tail? I have so much to think about and learn.
And then late today, I headed out the door through which I’d taken those photos the previous two nights, and noted the Hemlock tree that Porcupine had denuded this winter. It used to be one of my favorites in the yard. But today it occurred to me that though we pay taxes on this property and try to “maintain” it, it really isn’t ours. It never has been. It belongs to the animals and the trees, and yes, even the fungi. Maybe especially the fungi.
One thing I have noticed is that all of Porcupine’s activity has aided Deer who also stops by daily.
As I continued over the stone wall, noting the six or seven other Hemlocks Porcupine has visited, a shape high up in one tree caught my attention.
I moved under Hemlock for a better look. Well, not all the way under, for I sometimes know better than to stand below such an exhibit.
As I looked with the aid of a telephoto lens, I noticed that Porcupine had apparently dined briefly and then fell asleep. Hmmm. I know some people who do that.
But the sight of Porcupine got me thinking–was this friend who lived under the barn a he and not a she after all?
And how did he/she sleep as the breeze swayed that not so thick Hemlock bough upon which Porcupine was balanced?
I did gain a better appreciation for the various types of hair that cover Porcupine’s body.
But still, so many questions, some that haven’t even formed in my mind yet.
I give thanks to Tamarack and his stories within Entering the Mind of the Tracker for that. Now I must practice the art of slowing down and paying more attention.
And I give special thanks to Parker for the offering of this book. In many ways, he emulates Tamarack Song, for both are hunter-gatherers and Parker understands the ecological systems in a way I will never know. At less than half my age, he has already slowed down and learned to pay attention.
To be attuned to the hidden nature–that is my wish. To that end, I shall purchase a copy of this book. And hope you will consider it as well.
Book of March: Entering the Mind of the Tracker: Native Practices for Developing Intuitive Consciousness and Discovering Hidden Nature.
Entering the Mind of the Tracker: Native Practices for Developing Intuitive Consciousness and Discovering Hidden Nature, by Tamarack Song, Bear & Company, a division of Inner Traditions International, 2013.
At 6am, a flock of crows outside our bedroom window drew me out of bed. There were three birds in the quaking aspen by our back deck, and all were squawking as they stared at the ground.
I peeked about, but saw nothing. That is, until I went down to the kitchen and looked out the door.
That’s when this set of tracks drew my attention. It took a moment for my sleepy brain to click into gear, but when it did I began to wonder why the critter had come to the back door and sashayed about on the deck. Typically, her journey takes her from under the barn to the hemlock stand in our woodlot, where she visits several a night before returning to her den. I say she for two reasons. “She” includes “he” so I can’t possibly be wrong and it’s my understanding that the males of this particular species are more likely to spend the day outside than the female. She returns home every morning and I never see her. Until . . .
This morning for when I stepped into the summer kitchen that serves as my office, there she was in the corner, near her entryway to her under-barn den. And numerous other sets of her tracks decorated the snowbank.
The birds continued to scold, but not quite as vehemently as they had ten minutes earlier. And the snow continued to fall. Why hadn’t she headed down under?
The thing about porcupines is that they are rather lackadaisical, so maybe she didn’t care about the birds?
My interest in her was far greater I’m sure than she cared and so I stood and watched every move. And noted that in her dance she’d also crossed over the potting table that’s almost hidden by the snow. Why so much movement for such a slow-moving critter? Was it because of the birds? And why did they care about her presence?
Eventually, she did what I expected and disappeared under the corner between the barn and shed.
And so I headed out the door, where I discovered even more tracks. It’s not like its mating season, for porcupines mate in the fall. So why all this movement, including a visit to the grill. Was she pacing?
Peering toward the barn, I couldn’t see her, but I did hear some mini-grunts coming from the corner.
And then she emerged and I headed back in to give her space. Check out those quills. Did you know that they are a form of hair. In fact, from Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious Day-by-Day, I learned that a porcupine has five forms of modified hair–each with its own purpose: dark, woody underfur serves as insulation, which is important as she journeys outside her den every single night no matter the weather or temperature; long guard hairs sensitive to touch that help her maneuver; stout whiskers also sensitive to touch; short, soft bristles on her tail’s underside provide stability when she grips bark; and then there are the roughly 30,000, yes 30,0000, quills that cover all but her face, ears, and part of her belly.
It’s those 30,000 quills that provide me with the most awe. So here’s another “did you know” fact: Within one square inch on her back, she has 100 quills. I got to thinking about that recently and cut out a square inch (well, sorta as it’s not exactly straight) of material that I glued to the top of a Ball jar.
And then I filled it with 100 toothpicks left over from a Valentine’s Chocolate Fest the PTA put on when our sons were in elementary school.
One hundred quills/square inch. Talk about prickly! Of course, she looses some especially when she squeezes into tight places, like under the barn. And others detach easily when touched (no, porcupines do not shoot quills).
There’s also her coloration to consider. Like a skunk, the black and white of the quills should be a STOP sign to her predators, who are colorblind as well as nocturnal. BEWARE is subtly written in that black line up the middle of her tail that is bordered in white.
After we’d spent almost an hour together, sometimes with window glass and a screen between us, my porcupine finally disappeared under the barn. And so I stepped into her space for a closer look. Notice the mud and scat in her track. She is the pigpen of the woods who scats and urinates at her den entrance, which perhaps helps provide further insulation.
Scat Happens! 75 – 200 times per day does she eliminate and depending on what’s she’s feeding on determines its structure. Of late, it’s the bark and twigs of hemlocks that constitute the fibrous structure. I’ve heard them described as macaroni or cashews. I prefer to think of her scats as commas, perhaps indicating a brief pause in her routine.
As strict herbivores, porcupines have strong, flat molars that are good for grinding plant material. This is the skull of a beaver, but it provides a good example for a porcupine’s check teeth are similar.
Also from the beaver skull are these prominent incisors. The difference is that a porcupine’s incisors are a bit thinner. For both, the front surface is enamel, while the back is a softer dentine. Their incisors are rootless and grow continually–up to twelve inches per year. Gnawing, therefore is rather important to wear down those chisels.
She’s managed to maintain normal dental wear by working on this hemlock in the corner of our yard and others in our woodlot.
As the day progressed, I wandered around looking for her tracks and those of any others. Strangely enough, she didn’t visit the hemlock last night, but rather checked on the sugar maple in our front yard–perhaps a sign that the season is changing and she’s ready to feast on some sweet buds for a while.
She also circled the barn in a random style. Was she seeking other entryways that are now well hidden below the snow? What was she thinking? Was she thinking? Or acting by instinct? I didn’t see any predator tracks to speak of, but perhaps there was an aerial predator she strived to avoid?
I don’t know. What I do know is that because I climbed up the snow mound, I discovered that she’s been sharping her teeth on the barn clapboards. And where the corner between the shed and barn has long had a cut-out presumably created by her and probably her ancestors, it appeared today that she’d munched a wee bit more and come spring’s meltdown, we’ll be surprised by the damage. My guy reminded me that she and her family members have been dining below the barn for more than the 26 years that we’ve lived here and the structure’s integrity has long been compromised.
As the snow slid off the barn roof, the hole began to disappear.
Until finally, it was only a memory.
I went out again at dusk in hopes of seeing the grand lady dig her way out, but her time schedule was not the same as mine. In the morning, however, I’ll check on her trail as I do every day. I can’t wait to see where she went–will she give me any more clues as to her strange behavior this morning? Was it a reaction to the crows? I don’t know.
But this I do know: when the crows caw–listen. And look. And wonder.
While the ground hog won’t see his shadow in Maine tomorrow because he’s a true hibernator, his rodent cousin the porcupine may have to serve as a stand in. And ’round these parts, there are plenty of stand ins available.
A couple of friends and I searched for one today. We had barely begun tramping when we recognized its telltale sign of discolored snow.
Truth be told, we knew the porcupine lived there, but weren’t sure how this past week’s snow storm had affected it. And so we journeyed closer to take a better look. The hole is actually an old bank burrow that had once belonged to a beaver. Porcupines are known to take advantage of such if it’s high and dry.
One of the things that always grabs my attention is the action of the animal as evidenced by its means of entry and departure. Standing there, I could envision it emerging from the hole, using its long claws to get a grip, turning to the left and then swaying to the right. The waddling motion of its hair and quill covered body adds a dimension to the story for if you look carefully you’ll see the wavy impression left behind.
Because its a frequent traveler from den to preferred trees, the entire body, that weighs anywhere from seven to forty pounds, can form quite a trough. Typically the trough is up to nine inches wide in the snow. Within those we saw today, recently cast prints showed the bumpy bottom surface of the foot pad and the five nail marks that extended across the front.
The mammal’s identification was further enhanced by other evidence–quills. The hollow structures were tipped with black barbs. Paul Rezendes, in his book Tracking and the Art of Seeing, states that “the porcupine’s scientific name [Erethizon dorsatum] can be loosely translated as ‘the animal with the irritating back.'” Indeed, many domesticate dogs and their owners would agree with that description.
Because we were on our hands and knees looking, we also noticed soft, wavy hair on the snow. A porcupine’s body is covered with at least 30,000 quills on its back, shoulders and the upper surface of its tail, but it’s not only those large stiff hairs that complete the animal’s coat. Their fur also includes fine hair found on the face, belly, and insides of its legs. In deep snow it’s easy to find the delicate hairs within the trough. Oh, and do you see the little yellow birch seed that looks like a teeny, tiny, brown insect?
We followed one of several troughs that led from the hole and kept looking up into the hemlocks in search of the critter. We never saw it, but we did see some recently nipped branches dangling from above.
Our search led us to a second hole that we’ve watched transform over the last couple of months. And again, we could see the action of the animal as portrayed in its journey.
We wondered about the tunnel from the wider opening in the woods to the smaller opening at the brook bank. Though both had seen recent action, we didn’t see any major amount of scat, which was a surprise. Then again, we didn’t climb in and search further. Perhaps it had moved toward the center of the tunnel during the storm.
Another sign of porcupine’s activity was the dribble of urine that marked the trail. That made me realize that I often refer to them as the pigpens of the woods for they scat and urinate with abandon, but . . . all mammals pee, some with more purpose than others.
We followed the porcupine’s pathways for a bit and noted that they led to the nearby hemlocks and beyond.
But as often happens, we were distracted and stepped back out onto the brook where we followed deer tracks for a while.
Eventually, our curiosity about the porcupine gave us a reason to get out of the wind and we headed back into the woods, where we soon discovered another one of its trails. Curiously, the porky had ventured out toward the frozen, snow-covered brook, but turned and retraced its steps. Why?
Perhaps it smelled a coyote in the area. A porcupine has poor eyesight, but an excellent sense of smell. And coyotes will go after a porcupine, but they prefers other food sources. Fishers are the porcupines least favorite predator. A fisher will grab the porcupine by the nose. Once it dies, the fisher will flip it and expose the stomach. Remember that the stomach is covered with that soft wavy hair–and therefore unprotected.
The coyote didn’t appear to go near the porcupine. Our porcupine study, however, led us to what was probably a bear bait barrel. With no bears to worry about at this time of year, the barrel had been repurposed as evidenced by the tracks that led into and out of it.
And the pile of comma-shaped scat within. Was this where our porcupine weathered out the latest storm? It certainly got me thinking about those two holes to the beaver burrow and how the porcupine must have had to plow the snow out with its body. The barrel was a much better choice. And with the scat as an insulator, what a great place to wait out a winter storm.
Not far away, but perhaps with more luxurious digs, either a mate, or relative had apparently set up home under a barn.
While the porcupine by the brook traveled between an underground tunnel and a barrel buried in the snow, the one up the road preferred the high road. Wouldn’t you like to be there to witness its journey? I know I would.
Porcupine: down low, up high–worth a wandering wonder.