A Touch of Mink

Once again, for my graduate program I have to do a “phenology project” of some sort over the course of the semester – regular readers will remember last fall’s. This time around, rather than returning to the same spot I was following before, I’m going to try to document the coming of spring to Pickerel Creek, which flows through the property where I’m working this semester.

High temperature today – 43ºF, way too warm for the beginning of February
Sunrise at 7:17AM, sunset at 5:10PM –  that’s 9 hrs 53 min of daylight

Currently we’re experiencing a depressing thaw, causing what was a lovely snow base to turn disgustingly slushy. Still, as we went through the photos this afternoon from the trail cams we’d posted along Pickerel Creek, this gem cheered us up.

That’s a mink in the lower left. Pretty cool.

Expect to see more of Pickerel Creek over the next few months. My goal is to do some sort of phenology post roughly once every two weeks.

Update: For anyone interested, a small debate about whether this is actually a mink or some other mustelid has sprung up here on Facebook.

Return of the Porcupine

Remember my porcupine friend from last fall? I hadn’t seen him* in a while, but Monday afternoon my roommate happened to glance out the patio doors and spot him descending from a tree. Not having had a chance to get good photos of him herself, she quickly put on her boots and went outside, but he disappeared down a burrow rather than posing for her. (Clearly he likes me better!)

Yesterday I went outside to investigate his home a little further. Here’s the hole he disappeared into – there are tracks leading up to it, and you can see where the bark has been gnawed off the young sugar maple outside the entrance.

Actually, a lot of the small sugar maples outside our house had strips of bark missing, now that I knew to look. (At some point I’ll have to do a post on winter tree ID. Also, I love how for this photo my camera somehow focused on every tree except the one I was actually looking at.)

A criss-crossing network of tracks through the snow connects all of his favorite trees.

Finally I noticed a suspicious lump in the branches of a nearby fir tree. There he was, watching my every move from a safe vantage point.

North Woods natives consider porcupines to be pests, because of their penchant for chewing on houses. However, the architect of our building wisely put several feet of stonework at the base of all the exterior walls to deter them, and my roommate and I are absolutely enchanted to have a porcupine neighbor that we can watch from the comfort of our couch!

More information on the North American Porcupine can be found here, and this looks like a fun porcupine-related craft if you have kids.

*I have no idea if our porcupine is male, but referring to it as “it” all the time was going to bother me, so deal with it.

The Ferocious Fisher

Martes pennanti
Image via Wikipedia

There is only one animal tough enough to attack and kill a porcupine.

Before we left for Christmas break, two coworkers and I were on our way to “Mexican night” at the local rural bar/restaurant. I was driving down a country road through the woods after dark. Suddenly a large, dark, hairy animal with a bushy tail darted across the road through my headlights. Not large like a bear or wolf, but larger and heavier-looking than a porcupine or rabbit or other small mammal we expect to see regularly, and definitely big enough to catch our attention.

We were mystified. What had we just seen? At the restaurant we described our sighting to the elderly waitress, who confirmed our suspicions. What we were describing was a fisher.

Though they’re not as well-known as charismatic Northwoods predators like bears and wolves, fishers (members of the weasel family) have one important claim to fame: they are the only animals that regularly kill and eat porcupines. They don’t only eat porcupines (in fact, they’re generalists who will eat just about anything except fish), but their technique for killing them is terrifying and badass: fishers bite porcupines in their quill-less faces over and over again until they die.

Why am I talking about this now? I’m currently taking the workshop to become a Certified Interpretive Guide, and for my ten-minute presentation I’m going to be talking about fishers and why they are the coolest, toughest predator in the North Woods. In preparing for our presentation we had to brainstorm universal intangible concepts related to our topic, and my list went something like “power, survival, violence, toughness, perseverance, death.” It’s easy to forget how many animals here we almost never see because of their secretive, nocturnal habitats, but this is one that has captured my imagination.

Red Squirrel Cache

I am out west for my holiday break now, but this post was written and scheduled on Monday.

By now most of the animals I enjoyed observing in September and October are dead, dormant, or gone south. When I do run into signs that a creature has been out and about, it’s always worth stopping to take a look.

Running vertically from the bottom of this photo to the woodpile at the top is a well-trod squirrel highway, crossed at right-angles by human boot prints. When I looked more closely I found the remains of a meal of pine seeds on top of one of the logs.

I kept walking and spent a while exploring the edge of one of the lakes. On my way back, however, I was lost in thought when a sudden movement nearby startled me out of my reverie – the squirrels had returned to the scene of the crime. The American Red Squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, is a much more frenetic and noisy animal than its fatter, lazier gray cousin. One of them immediately started scolding me from the safety of a tree, but when I sat on the ground and waited it eventually decided to continue about its business, albeit still shooting me suspicious looks. (I’m being very anthropomorphic here, but watch the video and you’ll see what I mean.)

In the video you can see the squirrel disappear under a pile of decaying logs and emerge with a cone. It did this several times while I watched, so I assume I stumbled upon it retrieving food from a cache. I was tempted to lift up one of the logs and see what all was in there, but I decided I didn’t want to disturb it, in case doing so would adversely affect the squirrel’s survival somehow – the animals that do remain active through the winter here need every scrap of calorie they can get.

Tomorrow is the winter solstice. Halfway out of the dark, my friends.

The Porcupine on My Patio

Yesterday afternoon I emerged from my room after a couple hours of homework and was brought up short by what I saw outside our sliding doors, lazily munching on the grass just beyond the patio.


Considering how common porcupines are in the woods around here, it’s surprisingly rare to see one alive. (Dead is another story – at times it seems like there’s a roadkill porcupine every hundred feet or so along the county highway. Their disinclination to move at anything faster than a waddle is hazardous to their health.) The week that I moved here I saw two on one walk, but then not another one since, so one turning up right outside my apartment came as a surprise.

I (naturally) scrambled to get my camera, and then went outside to take some photos without even bothering to put a coat on first, I was so excited. It was a very cooperative critter. When your body is covered in nasty spines, there’s really no point in bothering to expend the energy to run away from a predator – the same is true, as I once discovered, of Australian echidnas, the porcupine’s convergent-evolution twin. While the porcupine in my yard trundled slowly off the grass to sit at the base of a tree as I approached it, it didn’t actually climb the tree, just chattered its teeth softly (a sign of annoyance) as I got my photos.

(In case anyone is wondering at this point: the popular myth that porcupines can “throw” their quills is totally false. As long as I wasn’t stupid enough to reach out and touch the thing, I was perfectly safe crouching on the ground next to it.)

Porcupines are considered something of a pest around here due to their propensity for chewing on buildings – in fact, all the buildings here on campus have about four feet of stonework around the bases of their exterior walls as a porcupine deterrent. And despite their impressive defense strategy, they do have one major predator: the fisher, a large weasel that attacks a porcupine by biting it repeatedly on its spine-free face. Since their face is their most vulnerable spot, a porcupine reacts to a perceived threat by presenting you with its quill-covered butt.

I know that to those in the North Woods porcupines are old hat, but those of you from other parts of the continent and the world can’t deny that having a porcupine in my yard is pretty cool… right? Anyway, I’m leaving tomorrow to go to Arizona for the holiday break. No porcupines there.

International Rock Flipping Day 2011

Today’s the day! It’s not too late to participate – if you haven’t yet, grab a camera and go find some rocks to flip. I have a confession to make, though. I started out flipping rocks and only rocks, determined to play by the rules. But after walking quite a ways flipping rock after rock and only finding dirt, leaves, and the occasional beetle…

…I started eyeing the inviting-looking decaying logs that cover the forest floor here. If I were a small creature in this forest, I think I’d make my home under a log. For one thing, there are many more logs than rocks, and for another, you have all that soft wood to burrow into. The areas under the logs also seem moister, important when we’ve had such a dry summer.

The last straw was movement catching the corner of my eye as I walked: something small and dark scooting off of a log and disappearing into the leaf litter. When I poked around the spot where it had vanished, I found what looked like an entrance to a tiny burrow, and seized by a hunch I reached out and flipped the log that the little whatever-it-was had been on.

Under the log, its long nose quivering, was a tiny shrew. If only I’d had my camera at the ready I could have gotten a pretty good photo, because it sat there for several seconds, stunned by the sudden removal of its roof, before vanishing into the same hole as its companion. Well, there’s something you don’t see every day! I carefully replaced its home and continued down the path. After looking at some pictures online I’d guess it was something in the genus Sorex, but I’m not going to hazard a more specific identification than that.

A little way farther along I found this perfect, irresistible chunk of log. Having learned my lesson, this time I held my camera in one hand as I lifted the log with the other.

At first when I saw the glistening blue-black something I thought I’d found an enormous millipede or worm, but then my brain caught up to my eyes and I realized I’d found the holy grail of rock- and log-flipping (at least as far as I’m concerned.) That’s right… a SALAMANDER!!!

Specifically, a blue-spotted salamander, Ambystoma laterale. I’m not sure what it is about finding salamanders that is so amazingly exciting, but I know I’m not the only person that feels this way. Salamander, salamander, salamander! This was the first one I’d seen in over a year, actually, and I was pretty dang happy.

So, I’m sorry that I technically broke the rules by flipping over non-rocks, but it was worth it. Actually… come to think of it, I’m not sorry at all. See you next year for International Rock Flipping Day 2012!


We did see some animals on the tundra as well as plants – birds included American Pipits and Mountain Bluebirds (no ptarmigans or grouse, sadly) and the two mammal species we saw were marmots and pikas. Marmots are basically mountain-dwelling woodchucks, but pikas are something else entirely.

Without the long ears it’s hard to tell, but this critter is not a rodent – it’s a lagomorph, a close cousin of rabbits and hares. There are many species of pika, most of which are found in Eurasia; the one native to the Rocky Mountains is the American Pika, Ochotona princeps. Because of its dependence on cool tundra habitat, and because of the fact that in the western U.S. such habitat is only found in isolated high-elevation islands, it may be far more vulnerable than most mammals to global warming and is in fact already declining. In 2010 it was considered but rejected for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Pikas live in rock piles surrounded by vegetation. They don’t hibernate during the winter, so they need some means of storing food, but what’s amazing to me is that they not only store food, they actually have a means of preserving it: they make their own hay! They collect plants and pile them on the rocks in the sun until they dry, then store the hay in their burrows for use as winter food and bedding. The more I learn about animals’ different adaptations for cultivating, collecting, and storing food, the more I wonder if human agriculture, the basis of civilization, is really all that unique!