Sunday, February 5, 2012

Porcupine Hunting: Learning About Your Subject

I spent all day Saturday at the Sandhill Outdoor Skills Center near Babcock Wisconsin. The reason for this visit was to study the ecology of the North American Porcupine. You might be asking yourself, why would someone drive 130 miles one way to learn about our states second largest rodent? I have a couple answers to that question. First, curiosity. I just thought it would be interesting. Second, the information would be invaluable for photography.

One of the first things you learn when it comes to wildlife photography, or any type of photography, is that you need to get to know your subject. The more you know about your subject, the better prepared you will be to photograph it.

I wasn't counting on this workshop to produce any award winning photos, but I was counting on it preparing me to create those types of photos in the future. We did have porcupines to photograph though. This was a female that the researchers had captured the day before as part of a long term study they are conducting on porcupines at Sandhill.

After she was released, she climbed up a tree and we headed down the road in search of some more porcupines. You can she is wearing a radio collar.

Once you know what to look for, porcupine dens are pretty easy to locate. You can follow their trails pretty easily in the snow. They are most likely going to lead you to a feed tree or a den site. In the winter, porcupines limit their travels to conserve energy. Look for a hole in a tree, or someplace that would provide a good hiding place for the porcupine where they would be protected from the elements and stay warm. A hollowed out tree makes a great den and the pile of droppings below the opening are a sure sign that it's an active den site.

Once you find a den site, you should check to see if there is a porcupine in it. How do you do this? Easy, stick your hand in it until you feel the quills!

OK, maybe that's not a great idea. To determine if there was something in the den, we would use a digital camera. Simply put it in the hole and take a photo. Make sure your flash is on. Then you can check your photo on the camera's LCD screne to see if there is something in the den.

Be careful when you do this. Porcupines are not aggressive, but there might be something else using the den that is! Culverts make good dens sites too.

If the den is empty, look up, the porcupine might just be watching you from above. Porcupines really only use dens like this in the winter to stay safe and warm. In the summer they spend most of their time in the tree tops feeding. They don't have to worry about the cold, and it's a pretty safe place for them. Their main predator is the fisher. Fishers can climb trees, but they prefer to predate the porcupines while on the ground.

Another way to know if you have porcupines in the area is to look at the trees for signs of damage. Porcupines eat the bark off of trees so when you see trees with the bark stripped from the branches, chances are that a porcupine had a nice meal there. Notice the stripped limbs in the tree in the center of the photo? On closer inspection, we found that this tree also has an active den in it.

Since they are actively conducting research on porcupines at Sandhill, we set a couple of traps while we were out in the field.

The traps are insulated with straw to keep the porcupines warm, and will be checked in the morning. If there is a porcupine in the trap, they will be taken back to the office to collect all of the data the researchers need and possibly be fitted with a radio collar. They will then be taken back to where they were trapped and released.

Getting to know the researchers is another great way to learn more about your subjects. With shrinking budgets, and smaller staffs, researchers are often happy to have volunteers to help them out. While helping them out in the field, you can pick their brain with all kinds of questions. They are happy to share their knowledge with you and it will help you to be prepared for finding and photographing the subjects on your own.

After a long day in the field, and a long drive heading south, it was great to see the geese flying north. It was a nice way to end a great day.

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