Monday, May 28, 2012

Porcupine encounter

I recently spent a week up in Michigan, and the primary purpose of my visit was birding. And bird I did, along with a small group of several other folks who signed up for the Birding School hosted by Nettie Bay Lodge in Presque Isle County. But as is often the case when I participate in nature expeditions like this, we often tend to veer off-topic and turn our attention to anything that might turn up and catch our fancy. The leader of our group, Jim McCormac, had been informed of the location of some porcupine dens during his time leading the birding group at Nettie Bay in 2011, and he was eager to share the dens with us this year. You can read more of what Jim had to say in 2011 about the dens and their residents HERE.

I've never seen a porcupine den other than in Jim's photos, so I was excited to make this trip. There were 2 trees within walking distance of each other, but we were satisfied to examine the tree that was closest to the road. The easiest way to find a porcupine den, I would say, is to look for a developing mound of poo at the base of a tree. This indicates a den that has been used for a good number of years. My National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mammals seems to indicate that the tree dens are used primarily during winter months, but if you read Jim's post about the tree den they encountered last year (in late May), there was indeed a porcupine in residence. In addition to using trees for shelter, they will also use crevices and caves.

Most scat I choose to poke at with a stick. This stuff, however, was so dry that I had no qualms holding it in my hand.

Porcupines are strict herbivores, so there's not really much that would make their poo smell bad. In fact, this scat had no real odor to it at all. I have no idea how fresh it was, though, so it's possible that any smell it may have given off had faded long ago.

Yessir, this is what being a naturalist is all about. Not only holding the poo in your hand, but being willing to go on record with a picture that shows that it is, in fact, YOUR hand that is holding it! No snide remarks from the peanut gallery, okay? It doesn't show up well for some reason, but please note the "No Trespassing" sign on the tree. The porcupine, if it was in there, may have been annoyed by us rooting around in its toilet, but we did have permission from the property owner to be there.

Nina got in on the poo exploration, too. Have you ever seen two ladies so happy to be surrounded by scat?

Here's Jim sticking his camera into the entrance hole of the den, in hopes of finding someone home (I haven't yet heard the verdict on that photo), while Nina examines the pile of excreta.

As I mentioned above, porcupines are herbivores, and in addition to feeding on leaves, twigs, and plants such as lupine and clover, they are also fond of tree bark, especially the inner layer of the bark (known as the cambium). Here's an interesting fact presented by the aforementioned Audubon guide to mammals:
"Fond of salt, the Common Porcupine has a great appetite for wooden tool handles that have absorbed human perspiration through use."
Better keep your wooden-handled trowels and shovels locked safely away in the shed if you live in porcupine territory, which covers most of the western United States, almost all of Canada, northern Michigan, and most of Pennsylvania, New York and New England. (Interestingly, there was no mention of how they otherwise work salt into their diet.)

After we had thoroughly exhausted our exploration of the mound of excrement, we set off to look for other things. As luck would have it, though, perhaps our greatest find of the evening was a real live porcupine located in the up-most portion of a small, spindly aspen tree. This quilled creature was nowhere near the den we had investigated, so we did not find the resident of that specific den, but this was still a great sight to behold.

I spotted this "porky" up in the tree, and as we edged closer, we fully expected to see the tree simply bend over under his weight. The tree was smaller in diameter than my arm, and the tree - along with the porcupine - swayed easily in the breeze. After reading up on them, I learned that they are adept climbers, and actually spend a lot of their time in trees, sometimes even resting there during the day (they are primarily nocturnal, or active during the night). They are slow and deliberate in their climbing, as our small group observed. This porcupine would back down the tree a few feet, and then inch back up and return to the spot where he was when we found him. He seemed a bit baffled by our presence at first, but soon forgot about us and began foraging on the leaves of a neighboring aspen tree. He would used his long claws to hook onto a nearby branch and then draw it towards him, at which point he commenced stripping the leaves from their stalks.

We watched him feed for at least 15 minutes, wondering if he would ever come down. He never showed any inclination to descend while we had our eyes on him. Dusk was coming on quickly when we found him, so he was probably just beginning his nightly routine. We were very lucky, indeed, to be able to observe him like this. It's certainly an experience I won't soon forget!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Fabulous find at Flora Quest 2012

When I last left you, I penned a post showcasing a cool find from a trip to Adams County, Ohio. That was almost a month ago, and I just found myself in Adams County again this weekend. This time I was at Flora Quest, which took place in and around Shawnee State Forest. The event, which was started in 2007, draws lovers of not only flora, but also fauna, from all around the state of Ohio and beyond. We spent a full day and a half in the field, looking for all of the wonderful gifts that Shawnee and environs has to offer. Given the incredibly warm spring that we've had, many plants are at least 2 weeks ahead of schedule, and many things that would normally be in bloom right now are well past their prime. The upside of this is that there are plants blooming now that we would not normally expect to see blooming until much later in May.

Honestly, I did not get many flower photos this year, partially because a hugely overcast day in a very wooded area made for miserable photo-taking conditions (especially since the flash on my camera is on the fritz), and partially because I spent a lot of time tuning in to the b-i-r-d-s. Nevertheless, my camera was always with me, and I was able to catch quite an incredible event with it.

First, though, a little bit of back story.

When I visited Adams County back in early April, I saw an Eastern Fence Lizard for the first time ever. Actually, we saw two of them that day: first a female, and then a male. One has to move quickly to catch these lizards, as they will immediately run for a tree the moment something starts coming its way. But we had some fast folks on hand that day who were able to carefully grab a specimen for observation (not to mention some very sharp-eyed folks to be able to spot them in the first place). The males and females are sexually dimorphic, meaning that the sexes can be told apart based on appearance. Below you will see first a female, and then a male. The females are more boldly patterned along the back.

If you turn them over, the difference between the sexes becomes more apparent. The female is plain-colored on the underside, whereas the male has a blue band across the throat, outlined in black, with blue also on either side of the belly.

Female fence lizard, with her plain belly showing

Male fence lizard, with blue throat band and blue on the belly

These lizards hibernate during the winter months, and once they come out of hibernation, territories are set up and mating begins. According to the ODNR species account for Eastern Fence Lizards, incubation lasts from 6-8 weeks, and then a clutch of anywhere from 5 to 12 eggs will be laid. Fast forward from April to May, when our Flora Quest group on Saturday was extremely fortunate, in that we came across a female who was laying eggs.

I've been able to make out 11 eggs in this photo, 6 directly behind the female (who is well-camouflaged among the leaves), and 5 more off to her right, near the right edge of the photo. The eggs are small, about the size of an M&M candy, but more oblong in shape. I'm not sure who in our group made this discovery, but we were all just blown away by it. Obviously she wasn't going to scurry away anywhere, since she was in the middle of some very important business. Given the incubation period of 6-8 weeks, that means that the female I photographed in early April could have very well already been pregnant when we caught her. Who knows, she could have been laying eggs on this very same day. (Saturday's lizard was in a location that is quite a distance from the early-April lizard, though, so it's definitely NOT the same lizard.)

Female Eastern Fence Lizard, laying eggs

Of course I felt very fortunate to have witnessed this in person, as I'm sure it's something I'm not likely to come across again. But I could not help but feel that we violated this process for her, and made it very stressful for her. She was right alongside the trail, and luckily she was off to the side enough that we weren't in danger of stepping on her. It was obvious that we had disturbed her, and I saw her draw in at least one very deep breath while I was taking photos of her. Whether that was part of her labor process, or if it was a stress response, I don't know, but I couldn't help feeling like we needed to leave her be as soon as possible. Luckily our group was small, so there weren't too many of us to cycle through, each taking photos. I just hope our presence and the attention that we paid to her didn't draw too much (or any attention) to her while she was in this very vulnerable state.

As we left her, we all wished her well, and thanked her for the story she enabled us to tell. Hopefully later this summer the eggs will hatch successfully, and the cycle will begin again.