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!


Kelly said...

...interesting, Heather! I've never seen a porcupine in the wild. I'm looking forward to more posts about Nettie Bay. I want to go to that one of these days!

Jan said...

I'm delighted you saw a porcupine and could share the experience. Randy and I have had our fill of porcupines from years back and we didn't regret missing the night trip (though who could deny themselves the opportunity to hold porcupine poo in their bare hands). This is one of the fascinating things of moving around the country. It amazes us the people excited over a tufted titmouse or a turkey vulture. We are equally excited over birds in the lower U.S. that the locals shrug off. I saw so many wildflowers on this trip that are not found in mid-Michigan. Thanks for the link to your blog, Heather. I will keep checking in. Best wishes for a successful year in the wild.

Judy said...

I recently encountered a porcupine on the ground, and I can understand your excitiemtn at finding that one in the tree. I am not entirely convinced about the desireablity of porcupine poo, although I bet it would be good in the compost...

KaHolly said...

That is just way cool! I'm a 'poop girl' myself! It makes great sign. I'll never forget the first time I saw a porcupine up a tree. I had no idea, but sure enough, all the branches in the immediate vicinity had been stripped. I think it was close to winter time, in Maine. Great post! I'm so glad you shared. ~karen

Unknown said...

interesting blogs with some interesting shots :)