Tracking Porcupines (and other fun things)
Zak and I decided to go for a little hike yesterday afternoon on a trail we had never been to before. Just a few minutes in, Zak noticed from a distance that most of the needles and branches on a large hemlock had been chewed off. This is almost always a sure sign of porcupines so we went to the base of the tree and sure enough, we found porcupine tracks! Lots of them! I didn't take any pictures close up because the snow was very powdery and they were difficult to make out but we could tell they were porcupine from how the animal's tail brushed away most of the tracks as it dragged it across the ground.
And many, many more. All of the beeches were very heavily chewed on. Many were even dead because so much of the bark had been chewed off. You can tell that the trees in the second and third pictures were more recently eaten because the marks are much more distinct and less of it has been consumed. They will probably come back to eat more on those two. Although, Zak said that "they may not come back. They're messy eaters and if they decide to eat something else then they will. It depends on what they have going on in their little porcupine brains. But they'll probably come back. They are eating the inner bar, not the outer bark, because that's where all the sugars are that go up and down the tree". What he means by this is that 1) Porcupines do whatever they want and 2) they eat the inner bark because that is where the sap is, which has a high sugar content. This sweet sap is a popular food among many animals, including sapsuckers, hummingbirds, deer, moose, mice, voles, snowshoe hares, and beavers. They do not eat the outer bark because there aren't really any nutrients there. If you look at the base of a tree like this you will see that they have spat out most of the outer bark on the ground.
The culprit of all the little holes in the tree pictured below is our good friend the sapsucker, who is going after the same sweet sap as the porcupines.
There were a lot of tracks at this point, probably from multiple porcupines so we kept following them.
And then we found this (picture below): a white pine that had been heavily chewed on. We thought this was a bit odd as neither of us, in our long history of hanging out with these lovely little creatures, has ever seen a porcupine eat this kind of tree.
Then, just 15 ft more down the path from the white pine, we saw it. The den.
It was a large, well-established den, probably with multiple porcupines inhabiting it.
If you look closely at this picture you might be able to tell that there are several quills on the ground just within the entrance. This is common to find as they often lose one or two squeezing in and out of their dens.
In this photograph below you can see that the den actually has two entrances for ease of escape. The first entrance that we found is on the far right (Zak is looking in it) and the second is the on the far left side of the photograph. The one on the left was used much less than the other, it was probably sort of like a back door for the animals. Some porcupine dens do not have two entrances like this, but this was a large, well-established den that probably belonged to an older, more experienced animal.
As we kept walking, we found this huge beech with a large portion of the bark chewed off. It is unusual to find trees this large with this quantity of bark missing. These porcupines were really going nuts.
I was distracted by the porcupine feast at the base of the tree for a minute but as I looked up to go, I noticed dozens of black bear claw marks, new and old, covering the tree. You can tell that the one my hand is on is a newer mark, as it is still vividly orange and not faded grey or brown. The marks on this tree went well above my head but it was unlikely that the bear was actually much taller than me. It probably climbed the tree to do this. It was not after anything in the tree, but trying to show other bears that it was there. Black bears will rub their shoulders, neck, and head on trees as well as bite the tree. This shows how large the individual is to other bears. These markings are often found on beeches, as the bears really love the beech, which nuts provide a valuable, high fat, high protein food source. Althougha, these kinds of markings can really be found on any tree or wooden post.
I put this one in just because it's Zak's favorite. Anyone else see a fire and a bird?
We bode goodbye to our porcupine and bear friends and kept on with our hike. I was trying to pay attention to all of the mosses, lichens, and fungi that we saw. I've found that these often overlooked beings are extremely beautiful and diverse, especially in the winter when there is much less color. It is also a good place to find a lot of life as many insects will overwinter in the warm protection of dense mosses and lichens. Pretty soon I found this huge grandfather lichen protruding off of a tree. I had never seen one like it before. Zak said he had seen them on rocks sometimes, but never a tree.
As we kept walking we found a pileated woodpecker nest. Do you see it about 2/3 of the way up the photograph? This one was relatively low on the tree at maybe just 20 ft. Some pileated woodpecker nests can be as high as 80 ft. Close to the size of a crow, the pileated is the largest woodpecker in North America (other than the ivory-billed, which may or may not be extinct). I was excited to see this as it was the second active pileated nest that I've seen this winter. Pileated woodpecker numbers declined greatly in the 19th century but have recently been making a comeback. It is also rare to see them this far north.
These nests are extremely important for other species, who like to live in abandoned ones. Other birds, such as owls, ducks, and smaller woodpeckers will live in these nests, as well as some mammals like squirrels or even raccoons, bats, and pine martens.
As we kept going, we came across a series of beaver ponds that had been dammed up. We saw tracks going across this dam and decided it was probably safe for us to go across as well. Besides creating valuable wetland habitats, beaver dams are extremely useful as nature's bridges and we use them often to cross bodies of water.
After we crossed, we saw who had gone the same was as us: my good friend Raccoon!
And of course, squirrels.
This one we weren't so sure about. The snow was really poor for tracking. It was near raccoon tracks so maybe it was another raccoon. But, the fingers weren't quite as long as raccoon. It was definitely a carnivore but its pattern of steps wasn't like a fox and it was much too small to be a coyote. Plus, the tracks were going through a densely brushy area and this animal slinked through some pretty small places. Dare we suggest bobcat? Probably not, but maybe. I doubt it, but maybe.
We followed it for awhile but it was difficult to push through the brush. Meanwhile, I spotted this cute little friend.
Then we came out on the pond's edge and there it was, the beaver lodge!! and a massive one at that. Do you see it? It's the bump in the snow to the left of those tall, straight, trees.
Here's a closer look. This was a massive lodge, almost the size of a human dwelling. Many beavers probably live there.
Satisfied with a day full of amazing sightings and gifts we headed back up the trail and went home.
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