Blue Canaries

indigo bunting by Matt Stratmoen

indigo bunting — photo by Matt Stratmoen (CC licence)

On an early May morning, I step outside and hear a warble of clear, bright, musical notes. The indigo buntings have returned. Also known as “blue canaries” because of their color and song, I’ve never been able to describe indigo bunting song to others except to say that I know it when I hear it.

Other folks have had more success or perhaps a better ear. Arthur A. Allen, a prominent Cornell University ornithologist back in the 1930s, described it as “sweet, sweet, where, where, here, here, see it, see it,” and when I listen to its variable song on the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s website (the Lab was the brainchild of Allen’s), his description seems apt. But the Lab website cuts Allen’s description down to eight words instead of ten—“what, what, where, where, see it, see it.”

indigo bunting resting on an outdoor table

indigo bunting resting on an outdoor table — photo by Dave Bonta

In fact, both descriptions are correct. That’s because a male indigo bunting has one complex song that combines 6 to 8 kinds of notes in different sequences. Furthermore, that choice of notes in his song is unique to what ornithologists call a “neighborhood” of indigo buntings, i.e. anywhere from 3 to 4 up to 22 males in adjacent territories that average 3 acres. And males living approximately a mile and a half apart have different songs which they develop from a repertoire of about 100 notes.

Unlike many songbirds, indigo buntings do not learn their songs from their fathers during their natal year. Instead, as first year males 80% of them match the song of neighboring males while 20% appear to learn their song somewhere else before settling on their own territory. Once they establish themselves, indigo bunting males sing 200 songs an hour at dawn, one song per minute the rest of the day, and they sing well into August.

The brilliant Prussian blue males with wings edged in black are often described as a piece of the sky come down to earth and like the sky, which only appears to be blue, their feathers merely refract and reflect blue light. The only pigment their feathers have is melanin. This gives them a brown-black color that is obvious if you hold a feather so that the light comes from behind instead of toward it as we usually see the bird. For this reason, male indigo buntings look more black than blue in poor light.

The females, who do most of the work of raising young ones, are mostly brown with lightly streaked breasts and are often mistaken for sparrows. Like the males, they have silver-gray conical bills, but while the males perch on the highest point in the shrubby, overgrown fields they favor, belting out their songs, the females stay hidden, sitting on open cup nests they have woven in shrubs or saplings.

Courtship is short, and females settle on a male’s territory a day or two after arriving. She chooses the nest site in fields or the edges of woods, railways or roadsides, in shrubs, such as blackberries, gray dogwoods, multiflora roses, and staghorn sumacs, in goldenrods and nettles, or in sapling trees such as black locust, aspen, elm, black birch or maple. Usually she builds the nest 1.5 to 3 feet above the ground but sometimes as much as 10 feet later in the season. Nest materials of soft leaves, grasses, stems and strips of bark are held together by weaving and by wrapping the nest in spider webs, and grasses and sometimes deer hair line the nest.

indigo bunting nest by Richard Bonnett

indigo bunting nest — photo by Richard Bonnett (licence)

Then she lays 1 to 4 white eggs on subsequent days and begins incubating them after the last egg is laid. It takes from 11 to 14 days, depending on the weather, for her eggs to hatch. Once her chicks arrive, she broods and feeds them small insects, spiders, and berries, as much as 54 times a day with breaks averaging 16 minutes for very young nestlings. The only time she gets a rest is after the young fledge as early as 8 days old if they are disturbed but up to 14 days in cool weather, although on average they fledge at 9 to 12 days of age. The male then pitches in to help feed the fledglings and completely takes over after a few days. In the meantime, she is busy constructing a new nest, laying and incubating the second batch of eggs.

Our overgrown, brushy, 37-acre First Field and smaller Far Field appear to be ideal indigo bunting habitats, and occasionally I discover a nest. Last July 7, while walking around the Far Field on Pennyroyal Trail, I startled a brown female that scolded and skittered off into the grass. I couldn’t persuade her to reappear, but almost immediately I discovered a nest containing three white eggs in a small black locust sapling.

Five days later I again took the Pennyroyal Trail and found the indigo bunting nest intact but empty as if some creature had tipped it slightly and removed the eggs. I suspected a raccoon to be the culprit especially after I learned that one was observed by researchers removing eggs from a nest without disturbing it, but other possible nest predators include red foxes, opossums, feral cats, blue jays and snakes.

Then, early in August, while picking blackberries in a patch in First Field, I heard what sounded like a rapid “tick-tick.” It turned out to be indigo bunting fledglings begging for food. I had an excellent look at one perched in the deepest part of the patch, well-protected from predators. Once I glimpsed the female trying to fly in to feed them, but she veered off when she saw me, not wanting to give away the location of her fledglings. The fledgling I saw did flutter off to another part of the patch so it was able to fly a short distance. Last January I found their intact nest 3 feet from the ground in a black birch sapling at the edge of the blackberry patch.

indigo bunting female by Henry T. McLin

indigo bunting female — photo by Henry T. McLin (licence)

Here in Pennsylvania indigo buntings breed from May 6 until September 11 and they have nests with eggs from May 24 until July 9. But sometimes they have clutches as late as August 3, so the nest I found at the Far Field was a late, unsuccessful clutch. Early in the season, indigo bunting nests can be heavily parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds, however, in a Michigan study, 69% of nests were successful.

Because they are generalists that adapt to a wide variety of habitats, especially interspersed woodlands and farmlands, they are one of Pennsylvania’s most common songbirds with the highest numbers in our Ridge and Valley Province. They were abundant during both atlasing projects, and male numbers are estimated at 1.5 million. Still, the Breeding Bird Survey recorded a modest 15% decrease, perhaps because of conditions on their wintering grounds.

They begin leaving Pennsylvania late in August, but peak migration occurs during the last two weeks in September. During the second and third weeks in October, 50 or more birds have been observed in overgrown, brushy fields. They spend their winters in southern Florida, Mexico, Central America, and on Caribbean islands.

indigo bunting in the rain

indigo bunting in the rain — photo by Dave Bonta

But how do they find their way? It turns out that as young birds they are stargazers. And it was Cornell Lab ornithologist Stephen T. Emlen who proved this. Using what later was called an “Emlen funnel,” he put an indigo bunting experiencing migratory restlessness or zugenruhe into a funnel-shaped cage that he had line with paper, and supplied with an ink pad perch at its bottom. The bird repeatedly leaped from the ink pad to the funnel’s side, leaving its footprints on the papered wall. In that way, the bird left a record of its migratory direction and depending on its hormonal condition, oriented north or south. Emlen followed this by proving that those songbirds that travel at night use the stars as a guide, specifically the North Star, Polaris, which stays in the same position all night and the Big Dipper and other nearby stars which rotate around Polaris in a counterclockwise direction. In addition, Emlen found that they learned their way as young birds watching the sky at night. Since his work, other discoveries about bird migration continue to be made and they appear to use magnetic fields to orient themselves too.

Indigo buntings breed from the Great Plains eastward to the Atlantic seaboard and from southern Canada to the southern United States. Then they head to their winter homes. Many indigo buntings return to the same site both in their wintering grounds and their breeding grounds, according to a variety of studies, although the males seem to be more faithful to their home grounds than females are. It’s intriguing to realize that those males I see every year sitting on the same singing perches may be as wedded to our habitat as I am.

Elk Country Outing

elk watching the elk watchers

elk watching the elk watchers in Benezette, PA

As soon as we saw a sign telling us we were in Elk Country, five pairs of eyes scanned the landscape for a glimpse of the elusive elk. It was a cold, breezy day in early April and my husband Bruce and I, our son Dave and his English girlfriend, Rachel Rawlins, and our nine-year-old granddaughter, Elanor, were on the Quehanna Highway en route to Benezette, the well-known center of elk activity in Northcentral Pennsylvania.

These elk—Cervus elaphus—are the Rocky Mountain subspecies nelsoni, that were introduced by the Pennsylvania Game Commission between 1916 and 1926 in an area where the last of the canadensis subspecies had been exterminated in 1867 in Pennsylvania. Today our so-called North American elk are considered to be the same species as the Eurasian red deer. To further confuse matters, the European elk is our moose, which is why many biologists prefer the Algonquian name for elk “wapiti” meaning “white rump.” Currently in Pennsylvania there are approximately 900 elk.

Before we reached Benezette we stopped at the Marion Brooks Natural Area—number 3 on the Department of Conservation and Natural Resource’s Elk Scenic Drive map. We wanted to show Rachel the only state natural area named for a woman. As a citizen of nearby Medix, Brooks had been concerned about water quality in her area and helped to establish some of the first strip mine reclamation laws in the commonwealth. This 917-acre natural area is known for having the largest stand of white birches in Pennsylvania.

birch log at Marion Brooks Natural Area

birch log at Marion Brooks Natural Area

After a short walk among the birches, we returned to our car, eager to resume our Elk Country journey. When we reached Benezette, we followed signs through and out of town to Winslow Hill and on to the Elk Country Visitor Center. This impressive, new facility designed, as their website says, “As a place where visitors have an opportunity to see and experience these majestic animals year round in their natural habit” was the result of a public/private partnership between Pennsylvania’s DCNR and the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, a group of donors that included private foundations, most notably the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Pennsylvania Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, organizations such as branches of the Safari Club International, and private individuals.

On that cold day, in what is called the Center’s Great Room, a large stone fireplace burned wood and threw out needed warmth. No doubt it was using some of the same trees cut years ago on the property that power the Center’s Austrian-built Bio-Mass Boiler. Large window let in ample light and provide excellent views of the grounds where elk sometimes graze.

The Center’s interpretive and interactive exhibits educate visitors not only about elk but also about the surrounding environment, wildlife conservation, and its green building design. Elanor especially enjoyed the interactive quiz on elk, and the gift shop, where she convinced her grandparents to buy her a nature journal and a 3-D elk book mark. Rachel purchased elk jerky and sausage to take back to her sons in England.

elk browsing

elk browsing

But enough of gift shops and displays. We wanted to see elk. We walked all three observation trails near the Visitor Center and had them to ourselves as sensible folks stayed inside and read about elk instead. We did find several piles of elk scat and tracks, which Rachel photographed, and admired designs lichens made on trees along the trails. Turkey vultures wheeled overhead and a robin ran across the lawn, both signs of spring despite the cold wind and snow pellets in the air.

Next we drove to all the elk viewing sites. Again, there was no sign of elk. By then we were hungry and found a café in Benezette where Rachel and Dave ordered elk burgers. As we lamented the lack of elk, a congenial white-haired gentleman in the next booth told us there were elk in town and gave us precise directions to a back street where they roamed.

At last we started seeing elk. Three sat together in one backyard chewing their cuds. One turned its head and gave us an excellent view. Three more grazed behind the Benezette Winery. Still in their winter coats, they were mostly a study in brown and beige. The tops of their heads were reddish-brown and the dark manes that hung to their chests looked like long shawls had been draped around their necks and shoulders. Their backs were beige and their legs a darker beige.

But Rachel, Dave, and Elanor were particularly fascinated by their light rump patches.

elk butts

elk butts

“Their butts are like targets,” Rachel said.

“They have heart-shaped butts,” Dave added.

“No, valentine butts,” Elanor countered.

Their little white beards were also a source of interest as they flapped about in the wind.

We were content to stay in the car and watch, but a couple at the winery walked toward them which put the elk on alert and as Dave said, “The elk are watching the watchers.” Finally, they ambled off into the woods, joining three elk that had stayed further away from the watchers.

At that point, we felt amply rewarded by our close encounters with these charismatic creatures. Instead of returning home on the Quehanna highway, we decided to follow the Elk Scenic Drive from Benezette to Renovo and then south to Snow Shoe to show Rachel more of the “Pennsylvania Wilds” as the area has been dubbed by the DCNR. And that’s when we really saw elk by the dozens, still in winter herds of both sexes, the larger males having shed their antlers.

waterfall along Elk Scenic Drive, Rt. 555

waterfall along Elk Scenic Drive, Rt. 555

In fields above the highway and beside the Bennett Branch of the Sinnemahoning Creek below the highway, we counted three elk in one field, eight in another, 11 in a third and five more on a field beyond Dent’s Run. Across the Bennett Branch elk grazed in backyards—nine in one yard, three in another. And they varied in color. Some had dark brown bodies and others were beige. Second only to moose in size, elk are five feet at the shoulder. The males or bulls head and body length averages eight feet and the females or cows seven and a half feet. The bulls weigh from 600 to 1,000 pounds and cows 400 to 600 pounds.

During the winter, like the smaller white-tailed deer, they are mostly browsers, feeding on woody stems, but if grasses, sedges, and forbs are available then, they’ll also graze on them. Many fields, especially in the viewing areas—Gilbert Farm or Winslow Hill, Dent’s Run, and Hicks Run—are planted with alfalfa, timothy, clover, and winter wheat.

elk sage

elk sage

Beyond Sinnemahoning, 14 elk and three white-tailed deer grazed on grass along the road, ending our elk-watching for the day. But from Benezette to our last sighting—25 miles in all—we had counted 53 elk, more than enough to convince us that elk are thriving in the Elk Country of Pennsylvania.

Later Rachel, in her inimitable British way, summed up her impression of elk on her Facebook page. “What weird creatures—the shaggy head and neck of a camelid, the beard of a Chinese sage, the body of a horse (with the gait of a rocking horse), the butt of a pig, and the tail of a severely docked dog. But delightful.”

All photos taken on April 5, 2014 by Rachel Rawlins.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Embedded above is the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s excellent 33-minute video, Pennsylvania Elk: Celebrating 100 Years, which presents not only the history of elk in Pennsylvania, but the PGC’s intense and continuing efforts to revitalize land and water devastated by clearcut logging followed by strip-mining before those strip-mining regulations that Marion Brooks and others fought for were passed in the 1960s. To see the before and after photographs of Winslow Hill, for instance, is to marvel at land reborn through the sweat and toil of many PGC employees and other interested parties.

The Waterfowl Itch

tundra swans at twilight by Mark Lehigh

Tundra swans (photo: Mark Lehigh, CC licence)

When I hear and see flocks of tundra swans flying northwest in early March, I get what I call the “waterfowl itch.” I want to leave our still brown, gray, and mostly empty mountaintop forest and visit as many lakes as possible to feast my winter-weary eyes on brightly-colored migrating waterfowl. And although, over the years, my husband Bruce and I have visited such places throughout the commonwealth, Yellow Creek State Park remains one of our favorite locales to waterfowl watch.

Of course, if we lived closer to Pymatuning in the northwest or Middle Creek in the southeast, they would be our first choices. But both require long drives and an overnight at our ages. However, Yellow Creek State Park is a little over an hour away and has an excellent Waterfowl Observatory as well as several viewing areas and coves along its southern shore.

Last March, which was much colder than usual, we waited and waited for the lakes to thaw and the waterfowl to head north. Finally, on the last day of the month, it was clear and a cool 34 degrees, so we packed a lunch and armed with our binoculars and scope, we drove to the park.

Fifteen tundra swans sat on the ice sheet along the shore of the lake when we pulled into the park, and even though they were relatively close to us, they remained still as we peered at their white bodies and black bills through our scope. Farther out in the open water we spotted rafts of diving ducks—hooded mergansers, buffleheads, greater scaups, and ring-necked ducks.

Hooded merganser by Rick Leche

Hooded merganser (Rick Leche, CC licence)

The handsome male hooded merganser with his signature fan-shaped white patch on his black puffy head is an uncommon but breeding species in Pennsylvania. Its numbers have been slowly increasing though, according to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. Kevin Jacobs, who wrote the hooded merganser account, credits the large number of wood duck boxes, especially on state game lands, which hooded mergansers can use for nesting in addition to large trees. He also mentions the importance of suitable wetland habitats being provided for common mergansers courtesy of the increasing number of beavers. In fact, the confirmed number of breeding hooded mergansers in the first Atlas (1983-89) of 42 increased to 127 by the second Atlas (2004-09). But buffleheads, greater scaup, and ring-necked ducks, while seen occasionally during the summer in Pennsylvania, breed farther north and west of the state.

The smaller male bufflehead also has a puffy head with a large white patch, but his body is mostly white in contrast to the black, white, and rusty brown body of the male hooded merganser. The greater scaup male is a study in gray and white with a dark green head, while the ring-necked duck should be called ring-billed because of the white ring near the tip of his mostly gray and black bill. The female ring-necked duck is dark brown in contrast to the male’s mostly black and gray body with a vertical white mark in front of his wing, but she also has a white ring on her bill.

When we drove into the picnic area, few people were about, but a couple hundred dark gray American coots bobbed their heads as they swam in the cove. A member of the Rail family, they rarely nest in Pennsylvania and confirmed breeding coots have decreased from 11 to two in the second Atlas, probably because the state lacks large freshwater marshes with floating aquatic vegetation interspersed with large, open areas of water that breeding coots need.

Greater yellowlegs by Tim Harding

Greater yellowlegs (Tim Harding, CC licence)

At Yellow Creek State Park the wetland rang with red-winged blackbird song and a greater yellowlegs hunted along the shore, deftly catching little fish washed up on the land with its slightly upcurving bill that is longer than its head. This shorebird nests in northern Canada, and I remembered that the last time I had been close to one was a July in Newfoundland where it no doubt was nesting. As it walked on its long, elegant legs it often teetered.

When we took the usual quarter mile walk through the woods to the Waterfowl Observatory, we were surprised by a sign guiding us to a new (to us) Wetland Walkway. There we saw our fifth duck species, a pair of mallards—by far the most common waterfowl in the state and greatly prized by hunters. Altogether, mallards account for more than half Pennsylvania’s annual duck harvest and averages from 60,000 to over 90,000 a year.

As we expected, the Waterfowl Observatory yielded views of rafts of ducks but on that day only off the left side in Grandpap’s Cove. Also as we expected, when I slid open the viewing slats, a cold wind off the lake tore through the observatory, numbing our hands as we held our binoculars or adjusted the scope.

First we identified five canvasbacks, the males’ bright white backs and longer red necks distinguishing them from gray-backed redheads, which we saw later from the beach area. Both are also diving ducks and usually prefer deeper water, but canvasbacks sometimes graze in flooded fields during migration. The area we were looking at from the observatory included a long, grassy, shrubby island in relatively low water.

Female and male northern shoveler by Matthew Paulson

Female and male northern shoveler (Matthew Paulson, CC licence)

The more we looked, the more we saw water birds poking their heads up from behind the grasses and shrubs. We counted five great blue herons standing in a row and dozens of Canada geese calling constantly which were joined by a single tundra swan. Then, at last, we had an excellent view of four male northern shovelers and one female, both sexes sporting their distinctive long, spoon-shaped bills, the female a drab brown, the males with reddish-brown bellies and sides, white breasts, and dark green heads.

Northern shovelers, canvasbacks, and redheads do not breed in Pennsylvania, although the second Atlas reports that a couple records do exist from earlier times for northern shovelers and canvasbacks. Canvasbacks and redheads declined precipitously in the twentieth century because prairie wetlands where they breed were drained. In addition their breeding grounds had droughts and too many ducks were harvested in hunting season, but lately their numbers have rebounded due to conservation efforts on those breeding grounds.

Blue-winged teal by Len Blumin

Blue-winged teal (Len Blumin, CC licence)

When we left the observatory, we returned to the picnic grounds for a late lunch and enjoyed watching the small wetland area along the shore. Three blue-winged teals poked in a puddle and ignored us as we moved close to observe them. The male’s white facial crescent easily identifies him, but both sexes display the large, chalky-blue patch on their forewings that gives them their name. Even though the blue-winged teal is abundant in North America, it has declined as a breeding species in Pennsylvania from 29 confirmed in the first Atlas to 11 in the second. Loss of temporary wetlands in healthy grasslands—their preferred breeding habitat—has been dwindling in Pennsylvania. Other bird species, i.e. northern harriers and spotted sandpipers that breed in the same habitat, are also declining. Still, we always see a pair of blue-winged teals when we visit Yellow Creek State Park.

Near the wetland area swam a raft of common mergansers—males with white bodies, black backs, and dark green heads and the equally striking gray-bodied females, with white breasts and chins and red-crested heads. Common mergansers nest in Pennsylvania especially along forested rivers and their confirmed numbers increased from 119 in the first Atlas to 241 in the second, due to “clean, biologically productive rivers and streams,” Jacobs writes, as well as “forest maturation in Pennsylvania and the resulting increase in large trees…” where they nest.

Altogether, we had long and close looks at 10 duck species as well as the greater yellowlegs, American coots, a belted kingfisher, Canada geese, tundra swans, killdeer, herring gulls, and the great blue herons. As usual, at Yellow Creek State Park I had had a productive day that amply soothed my “waterfowl itch.”


Click on photos to view larger versions on Flickr.

Winter Porkies

porcupine up a tree in a snowstorm

Porcupine in a snowstorm, below the Road to the Far Field

Deep winter and at last a good tracking snow had fallen. While I may puzzle over some tracks, there is no mistaking those of porcupines. They plow through the snow on their naked, flat, pigeon-toed feet like miniature bulldozers, and when the tracks freeze, deer, opossums and foxes use them as winter highways.

When we first moved to our central Pennsylvania mountaintop in 1971, seeing a porcupine was a rare occurrence, but over the last couple decades porcupine numbers on our square mile of property have proliferated. During several days in early January last winter I found abundant tracks and numerous porcupines along the trails and in a variety of trees. Tracks wandered into and out of our three-acre deer exclosure, in and around our Norway spruce grove, and along the Far Field Road. Porcupines sat high in trees beside our hollow road, on top of Sapsucker Ridge, down in Roseberry Hollow and near the top of a Norway spruce tree. The latter was snoozing as its quills whitened in the falling snow.

Without leaves on the trees I could see many debarked crown branches. On Dogwood Knoll I found tiny pieces of bark at the base of a large chestnut oak tree, a sign that a porcupine had been eating the inner bark of one of the favorite trees of some of our porcupines. They also like red oak and sugar maple. Because they prefer small branches near the tops of these trees, we rarely lose a hardwood tree to their winter gnawing.

A tree de-barked by a porcupine near the spruce grove

A tree de-barked by a porcupine near the spruce grove

But our Norway spruce grove is porcupine central in the winter. Like white spruce further north, Norway spruce is a favorite winter food for porcupines. In addition, it provides excellent protection from winter weather. Porcupines like hemlocks too, especially for protection, and they eat the needles and twigs but not the bark because it is too strong in tannins. Our hollow hemlocks used to be popular with porcupines in the deep winter, but as the hemlocks have thinned and, in some cases, died from the ravages of the hemlock wooly adelgids, porcupines, ever adaptable, have switched to other trees, most notably our Norway spruces.

Porcupine tracks led into the grove from Sapsucker Ridge and the Far Field Road. By late January numerous spruce trees bore fresh tooth marks from gnawing porcupines. Porcupines move slowly in the woods, just as I do, so they are easy for me to track. Unlike colder, northern places, where they are out mostly at night, here they are out and about both night and day. No doubt our porcupines were especially hungry last winter because the acorns, one of their favorite autumn foods, had failed for three years.

One day I surprised a porcupine sitting on the snow-covered Far Field Road. When I approached it, it stood up and slowly climbed a large sugar maple tree. Fifteen days later, in early February, I followed what may have been the same porcupine from the base of the spruce grove to the Far Field Road. The trail ended at the entrance to a hollow, fallen log below the road where a porcupine turned its back to me.

According to Uldis Roze, who has spent 24 years studying porcupines in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, porcupine fur has excellent insulating properties, which allows them to use hollow logs, trees, and rock crevices as winter dens. Usually they turn their backs to the den openings, sit with their bodies propped up by their tails, and hold their front paws against their chests. They turn their hind paws sideways so their naked foot pads don’t touch the ground. When resting in high trees, they roll up into balls and can withstand extremely cold temperatures. No wonder they are able to live as far north as northern Alaska, Quebec, and Labrador, in fact, at or beyond the tundra line.

A young porcupine in deep snow by Martin Male

A young porcupine in deep snow (photo by Martin Male, CC licence)

By mid-February, the so-called “polar vortex” was not only dropping our thermometer to as low as ten degrees below zero on some days, but it began to snow in earnest. And again I found the same porcupine tucked into the hollow log along the Far Field Road, its back white with snow.

With 18 inches of snow on the ground, I broke out my snowshoes and headed up to the spruce grove. As I broke trail around the grove, I saw fresh porcupine tracks and then spotted a porcupine at the base of a spruce tree. It started up the tree when it realized I had seen it, but it didn’t climb more than a few feet before it went around to the back of the trunk as if once out of sight, I would forget it was there. Then I noticed a circle from its body at the base of the tree as well as a pile of cylindrical, gray and/or brown, inch to an inch-and-a-half-long porcupine scat (droppings). It must have been there for some time.

I also broke trail along the Far Field Road and encountered the porcupine in the same hollow log after a night of stripping bark from the lower spruce grove trees, just as the one I saw earlier specialized in the upper part of the grove.

Every time I passed the Far Field Road hollow log for most of February, the porcupine was either in the log or plodding its way back to it. And then tragedy struck. On February 27 I found a dead porcupine behind the spruce grove, still clinging to the thin branch of a black locust tree. Apparently, it had fallen from the large spruce it was gnawing and had broken the locust branch off on its way to the ground. Probably it had died sometime after it had hit the icy snow since there were puddles of urine around it.

Remains of the dead porcupine in the spruce grove, 7 months later

Remains of the dead porcupine in the spruce grove, seven months later

Roze says, in his book The North American Porcupine, that porcupines risk injury and death from falling out of trees because they are relatively heavy and prefer to feed far out on branches that are often brittle. I know I’ve watched them foraging on hardwood tree branches, expecting them to fall any moment as they crawl farther and farther out on a limb that bends with their weight. Sometimes porcupines do fall, but they are usually badly hurt. For instance, one of Roze’s study animals had a series of injuries that he called “consistent with falling belly-first out of a tree.”

According to Roze, another researcher, Wendell Dodge in western Massachusetts, who autopsied 200 porcupines back in 1961, found healed leg, hip, and rib fractures, broken teeth, injured eyes and ears, hernias, and soft-tissue injuries. One even had a four-inch-long pine branch in its abdomen.

A week later, in early March, I checked on the dead porcupine and found a live one sitting next to it on the ground under the large spruce tree almost as if it was holding a late wake for it. Eventually it shuffled over to the spruce trunk, deftly climbed its mostly bark-stripped trunk, and moved far out on the limb.

I followed other porcupine tracks from the upper section of the grove over to the neighbor’s clearcut on Sapsucker Ridge. There I saw a small but old chestnut oak and a bent, larger one, both of which had debarked branches. Beneath them were bark pieces and scat littering the ground. I continued following the tracks for 20 feet to the remains of a hollow tree log left by the loggers. At its entrance was a huge pile of porcupine scat. I knelt down on the snow and peered inside the log. A porcupine was tucked into it.

Both log dens were 200 feet or so from the spruce grove. While porcupines wander much greater distances during the summer, their temporary winter dens, which they use for an average of 23 days, are usually within 300 feet of their food trees. The spruce grove porcupines followed that pattern.

A porcupine in one of the hemlock trees down in the hollow

A porcupine in one of the hemlock trees down in the hollow

The same porcupine appeared three days later at the base of the large spruce where the other porcupine had died and reluctantly climbed the tree when I spoke to it. It looked as if that beautiful tree had been completely girdled high up. So too had at least four other large spruces. But according to Gary Gillmore, a state forester, Norway spruces throw out new limbs if they have been topped.

By March 10 I was seeing as many as four porcupines feeding in our hollow hemlock trees, leaving nipped twigs and scat on our road. Although this was still winter food, probably they had left dens upslope early and were using hemlock habitat for shelter, meager though it was.

Near the end of March, I found only two porcupines in hardwood trees and they were eating buds. The rest seemed to have disappeared once spring arrived. But I had enjoyed my porcupine winter and the chance to learn a little about how they survive the cold months.


All photos taken on the mountain by Dave Bonta, except where indicated.