Captain Hindsight swears like a sailor

Why yes, that was me running through the woods with an antenna and a laundry basket.  It was a long day, so get yourself a beer or a coffee and settle in.

I’ve been struggling with the collaring aspect of this study.  During the course of a year, porcupines can lose and then gain almost half their body weight.  When they enter the winter period, they are as fat and healthy as they will be, having fed on delicious and nutritious fare for nearly six months.  They’ve been living comfortably in trees, too.  No need to expend energy on heating up a den; the world is a perfectly fine temperature from April to October. The further into winter we go, however, and heating costs began to burn energy, while food becomes increasingly void of nutrition.  In the depths of winter porcupines are generally expending more energy than what they take in in calories.  An excellent weight loss plan, but who likes a skinny porky?  Nobody – porkies should be slightly chubby.

So a porcupine who was collared in the lean times will probably find the collar getting a little snug come summer.  rudy is tiredThis makes me uncomfortable, so chances are it makes the porcupine uncomfortable. Right?

So I went into the forest with my radio equipment this spring, fully prepared to de-collar a porcupine.  By fully prepared, I mean I had a sled, a bucket, a trap, a laundry basket, a radio receiver, an antenna, notebook, sunglasses, bug spray, a bug shirt, camera, pliers, wire, scissors and a knife.

Here’s what I didn’t have;  somebody to help me carry all this s**t, and rubbers boots. oh, and a f***ing GPS unit. But that didn’t seem important at the start.

You can see where this is going.

I started at the last entry point I’d been, and immediately could tell she (Rudy) had moved from her generally predictable area.  The signal was weak.  What wasn’t weak was the mosquito population – which makes sense because of all the ankle-high standing water in the middle of the forest.  But i get paid for this s**t, right?  So I dove in, hauling the sled, etc. behind me, the antenna ahead of me, the radio receiver looped across my chest, over my bug shirt which was zipped and doubling as a walking sauna. The laundry basket was in the sled with the trap and all the other tools I thought might be useful should i capture Rudy on the ground right then and there.

[A bug shirt, for those of you who are blessedly ignorant, is much like a pullover windbreaker, but made of mesh.  The hood has a zip-on mesh front to protect your face. It doesn’t keep all the mosquitos out, but it makes you so hot and unable to see that you forget how much you hate the f’ing bugs.]

But Rudy had gone for a hike, and possibly a swim.  I pulled that sled through the blackberry patches and endless deadfall and swampy – no, WET – low spots, cursing the coming summer.  It is so much easier to drag a sled through crisp, white snow.  My hands hurt from yanking the rope free of pickers. It was slow-going, I had to stop to carry the sled over huge piles of downed trees.  i was wet up to my knees.  Finally I accepted that I wasn’t going to serendipitously happen upon Rudy, and so I put down the sled rope, made a mental note of the location (yes, that never fails) and charged forward with my radio equipment, a 17 pound trap and a laundry basket, suddenly lighter on my feet. Shortly after unburdening myself I crossed an overgrown logging road – ding ding!  I’ll remember this when I return to look for the sled!

I’d like to say that was my first mistake, but really no – and what’s that matter now?  Clearly I was hot and uncomfortable and that clouded my decision making abilities, but my first mistake had been made sometime much earlier.  I continued on for about  another 3/4 mile, making better time and closing in on that signal, and then, across a small marsh and in a surprisingly open spot, I saw her.  And I ran.  And she ran. She had shorter legs, but I was encumberd with radio and trapping equipment and a laundry basket. I dropped the heavy trap and managed to get to her before she got to a tree to climb, but not before she’d wedged herself, nose first, into the furthest corner of the hollow space created by an overturned rootball clump of a dead tree.  Drats! I managed to cover her with the laundry basket, and secure the laundry basket with deadfall. I went back for my trap, set the mouth of it under the laundry basket, covered all the gaps with sticks and felt the slightest bit of self-satisfaction, which was entirely misplaced.

She wasn’t going in to the trap while I was there, so i left to pick up my sled with all the equipment, which I was sure I could walk directly to using the sun and luck as my guide.

Of course this didn’t happen.  I’m a winter girl, and retracing ones steps in winter is idiotically easy.  You follow your steps in the snow. Or barring snow, you look through the mostly leafless trees to where you were and go there. Not rocket science. So easy an English major could (and does) do it.  Not true in June, when the trees and their glorious f***ing foliage is every direction you look.  I didn’t find the sled, however I did magically find the old overgrown logging road, which then led to the road I’d been on two hours earlier at the start of this not-on-my-position-description task.  Only problem was I was about 1 1/2 miles from where I started, and the truck.

I drew a big X in the dirt on the road where I’d emerged, and actually jogged to my truck.  My thinking was “i’ll get the truck closer, park it on that logging road, walk North for the sled, East for the porcupine.”  My thinking was still blissfully optimistic.  And shazam, I did find the truck, and did park it on the old logging road. And viola, I did find the porcupine inside the trap…after a while (I somehow came at it from a different direction, which was disconcerting)  But now here I was – drenched in sweat and swampwater, zipped up in mesh, exhausted, with a 17 pound trap full of a 14 pound porcupine,  and a laundry basket. Sweet.  And no sled, and no collar removing equipment.  Rudy was coming back to the truck with me.

If you’ve never carried one of those Tomahawk traps before, they are a bit awkward, compounded when full of 30,000 or so needle-sharp quills.  The handle, placed in the middle of the 3 foot trap, makes it difficult to carry the trap without brushing it against your leg.  Unless you have ginormous damn triceps you can’t hold it in front of you, either.  Carrying it through 10,000 miles of swampy oak wilt death forest while being hunted by prehistorically sized mosquitos will not kill you, but will make you so angry you feel like you would like to be killed and hence put out of a particularly character-building sort of discomfort.

I ended up carrying/dragging/shlepping it. Placing the beast on the other side of a big tree, climbing over the tree, picking up the trap. At one point I had one end of the trap in the laundry basket, and I weaved my fingers through the other end and dragged the whole contraption. I wondered if the trauma to the porcupine was possibly more than just leaving the collar on her.  But we made it, eventually.  I made one last half-ass attempt to find the sled with the wire-cutting equipment, but it was getting to be late, and I admit, I gave up.  I took Rudy back to headquarters, where I cut off her collar.  She was fine.

Snatchling, Part Two: the Escape

This weekend I popped in to work to check on the snapper hatchling, and to feed the little one if needed. His egg sac was much depleted when I left him, and I read that they live off of it for about a week. I thought a hot dog would do for now, along with some reptomin. I stopped with some of my family on our way to the fair. And he was gone. His makeshift home was a bread pan with some water, a soft cloth, some bark, and it was set on top of the classroom table near the window. There was simply no sign of him. Had he been freed by well-meaning nature lovers? Had PETA found me out? Had he leaped to his death? and if so, where was his little body? I searched with flashlight in hand for about 20 minutes until my family grew impatient (I think they thought i imagined him). I left a bit of hot dog in his home, which i put on the ground just in case he’d taken a day trip.
This morning I arrived at work hopeful, and found the same empty bread pan. After questioning my supervisor, who found the whole situation fairly amusing and did NOT own up to snatching the snatchling, I went on a calmer search for him, in almost all the nooks and crannys of the Skills Center. This included getting on hands and knees and looking into the horrible crevices between appliances and floor which are filled with all sorts of greasy, dusty, creepy bit and particles and webs. I looked under the gun safe, in the boxes of papertowels, behind my desk, in my shoes, nothing. I thought it unlikely he’d made the trek all the way down the hallway to the back conference/storage room, but I did a quick inspection there, too, in and among the snowshoes and buckets of antennae. This resulted in a big, fat nothing, and so I stopped. To get some fresh air, I took out recyling. When I returned, there he was, in the middle of the conference room, covered in cobwebs.



I have quite a collection of dead and desiccated baby turtles and small frogs that have come to me – unsolicited I might add – from well-meaning people with good eyes.  I love these strange and sometimes gruesome objects.  I have a couple different snapping turtle hatchlings that made it out of the egg before meeting the end.  So it was a happy day when somebody appeared in my doorway holding the blue cap of a spray paint bottle, saying “I have something for you.”

I expected a dead thing, but this little thing was quite alive.  An estimated two days old, this bugger had his egg sac still attached, and was vigorous enough to offer some snaps up to fingers waved in front of him. Image

I read up on the interwebs (all truth, of course) about how to keep the little thing alive.  He looks tasty to me – I can only imagine what a little truffle he’d be for a heron or a crane.  The shell is still soft, but the claws are well-defined.  he still has the sharp little egg tooth.

I’ve put him in a glass dish with some driftwood for basking upon, and a nice soft cloth for resting.  Tomorrow I’ll get ahold of the turtle experts in my life and ask about  development, and perhaps where I can deposit him for a chance at over-wintering.

I’d like to keep him (or her – I really don’t know) but the cuteness today will later on become potentially 40 pounds of jaw and muscle.  I know better, right?  Well, maybe a few more days…

The horror! The horror!

May 17

This is my day today.

I come screaming in to work late, as usual, and weave my way through 20 or so girls swatting mosquitos and alternately screaming and giggling. They make up a summer camp staying at our dorm, and currently their teacher has them playing a competitive game he’s thought up.  They must collect fire-making materials, pans and pancake batter – all hidden different distances from ‘home base’ and make their own breakfast. And they have to do it fast.  Currently, I see girls running gingerly back to smoking fires carrying cups of batter. This teacher is brave and slightly twisted – and they love him!

I beg a truck from my boss and hurl my equipment in the back, hoping to avoid another mishap brought upon myself by haste and flakiness (recently, I ran over a new shipment of cleaning supplies in the parking lot.  Yup.  slow down.).  I must go check a trap I set yesterday for an adult porcupine, Helga.  I live and work in a swamp, and I think I have come prepared.  Before I get out of the truck, I’ve zipped up my bug shirt, turned on my GPS and grabbed the bug spray – only to be horrified to find out the bug spray is used up.  I get one sad sputter from the spray can.  Ugh, deep breath, dive into the jungle.

I find the trap, but  Helga has escaped.  She either crawled over the trap, broke through the chicken wire, or is still up in the tree laughing at me.  I curse her, and begin to gather my things.  The 17-pound trap sits in the sled with the rebar. I roll the chicken wire and wrap it in the big blue tarp.  The leash for the sled goes around my chest, and I hug the tarp-chicken wire bundle like a baby.  A really big, pointy, stinky baby – it is taller than me and I can’t reach all the way around it.  The mosquitos have begun to bite my elbows through the mesh of my bug shirt.  I start my trudge back, the sled leash biting into my shoulder, my vision blocked by mesh, tarp and chicken wire.  I slog over the oakwilt deadfall, which occasionally upends the sled, causing the trap and rebar to tumble out.  In each case I must unencumber myself from my load in order to look for everything.  I duck under the head-height canopy, through ankle-deep puddles of warm, mushy water.  Meanwhile, the mosquitos seem to have notified their comrades.  I think dramatically of Heart of Darkness.  I get a little lost trying to avoid a particularly dense patch of dead-fall and blackberries.  The hood of the bug shirt is being pulled over my head by the GPS lanyard.  Everything is wet, feet up, head down, from sweat or swamp water.  I find the truck eventually.  I hate my job.


gooslings goslingsI don’t know what’s happening in your part of the natural world, but yesterday was my first gosling sighting of 2013.  I was hurtling over the gravel roads inside Sandhill on a mission to set a trap for Helga the Porcupine, and I only had 1 hour in which to do it.  Luckily, I spotted some different behavior by the resident geese couple along the dike on my way.  I saw the adults aim for the water, and then saw the tall grasses on the bank rustle, and spotted some yellowish fuzzballs knocking around in there.  Soon they joined their parents, one swimming nearly underneath the tail feathers of the adult. My camera was, for once, close at hand and I was able to get a couple snapshots as they swam away in a hurry.  Two goslings tucked safely in between Mama and Papa.  Fierce Mama and Papa, I should say, as they turned and hissed and barked at me as I ran along the dike trying to shoot photos.  Welcome, fuzzballs!

New Guy

img_0431.jpgMeet Prickly Pete.  He’s just two weeks old, or so, and a bit overwhelemed.  A lot has happened in his two weeks on earth.  He was born, he was PIT-tagged, photographed, held, and cooed over.  Then it happened all over again (minus the being born and PIT tagged bit) a week later.   We found this guy right where he was   supposed to be: at the base of a tree with his mom, Helga.  Helga rambled away as we approached, leaving Pete very well hidden and protected under some deadfall, about the same color as him. The second time we found him, he was tucked neatly into a partially hollow tree, again with deadfall hiding him from prying eyes.  If we had not been looking for a porcupette, we would never have known he was there.

Statistically, Pete doesn’t have a very good chance of making it.  Last year’s batch of radioed porcupettes yielded two survivors out of 16.  Fishers are quite good at finding and devouring tasty little bundles of ‘pette, despite the good hiding spots, the camouflage and the splinter-like quills.  This will be heartbreaking to the kids who held him, should it happen.  As for Pete, I wonder about his perception of the world is, and what he thinks of the human sound “aaawwwwwwwww”.  He must think it is the only sound we make.

Valentine’s Day Massacre

It isn’t often one sees a fisher.  Ok, for me, it is never.  There was that one time in the UP, when the husband was driving, and I was knitting in the passenger seat passing the time.  He yelled “fisher!” and I looked up to see the tail disappear into the woods – only no, I didn’t.  I wanted to see the tail disappearing into the woods, but I’m pretty sure I just created the image in my head.  I’m being honest.

fisher tracks

fisher tracks

    But this time, I saw the sucker! 

   We were surveying a section of woods.  I had just answered a question about the chances of seeing a fisher during the day with a confident “slim to none.”  Fisher tracks were everywhere, though, and I sent one high school student after a particularly fresh-looking set of tracks.  The rest of us continued on our gridded path, but we heard a shout, and turned to look in that direction, and lo – !  A brown streak, bigger than a housecat and going a million miles an hour shot south between us and the other student.  Damn if it wasn’t a fisher.  With my heart pounding and adreniline rushing, i loped over to the student, who was still yelling.  No, he hadn’t been mauled.  He was standing at the base of a red pine looking down at a freshly severed porcupine head with a trailing of skin and quills.  


We tracked north and we tracked south but both tracks led us to nothing.  I would have kept tracking, but the kids were looking a little worn out, and though excited, they weren’t quite as impressed as I was with what we’d just witnessed. 

I still haven’t put together what happened.  We never came across a kill site.  The fisher tracks were clean – no blood or quills.  Just the head partially cleaned, the brains and eyes eaten.  The victim was a juvenile, and the skull has and will be usefull in teaching how to age the animals.  There are three molars on either side of the lower jaw, with a fourth emerging, as if for a textbook on how to differentiate a juvenile from a yearling.  I hope to have the kids clean the skull, and we’ll add it to the collection of different ages of skulls.

what the fisher left behind

What the fisher left behind


This week we skirted that same area, and followed an otter track all over the place, but no fisher.  No porcupines, either.

and how would you like your eggs?

{note: this post was originally written, but not published,  in the spring of 2012.  oops!}

Let’s take a little break from porcupining (which has been exciting and deserves its own post) to talk about swans.  And more specifically, swan eggs.  The wildlife biologist thought of me as he was doing his swan surveys by canoe last week, and brought me two brown swan eggs.  Don’t worry, these weren’t viable; he didn’t snatch them out from under mama swan.  He told me that the brown color was from the egg being turned on the nest for too long.  He told me how to ‘candle’ them, which just means holding them up to the light to see if the liquid inside is thin and moves around a lot (not viable).  He also told me it would be best to ‘drain’ these eggs outside, because of the potential smell.  ‘Nuff said, I don’t need rotten XL eggs in the classroom, to mingle with all the other ‘unique, scientific’ aromas. 

I have a lot of experience blowing the yolks out of eggs (yes I do!) and i thought perhaps that this would be an extra-sized version of that.  I’d get a needle, prick a tiny hole in one end, a larger hole in the other.  I’d blow gently through the top hole while the yolk  spills easily into a bowl beneath the egg.  viola, done! The first egg went well.  After some viscous clear stuff pushed itself through, the yellow, custard-like substance streamed through reasonably well.  The second egg was a different story.   The second egg had larger obstructions than could fit through the opening the size of a needle.  I had to gently break the edges of the hole, ever so carefully, in order to allow, first, the wet feathers to slide out.  A little more breaking of edges to allow the soft-boiled flexible-but-whole and see-through beak to pop out making way for the tiny head on the long neck, all which slithered out into the murky yellow-white viscous puddle already in the bowl.  Have you thrown up yet?  I didn’t eat another egg for a really long time. 

Now is the point when I analyze my visceral reaction to this egg and the contents of it.  I yearly see the bloody severed head of a 1500 pound bison at my workplace, and dig through the brain stems of many a deer, I regularly dissect various scats and dead things.  I skinned a porcupine head once.  I’m no biologist, but I’ve done my fair share of grosstuff.  This, however, I could barely stomach.  Perhaps it is the combination of smell, sight and texture, with a little slippery soundtrack thrown in there.  It may be the thick liquidgoo carrying unattached parts.  It is both horrifying and fascinating at the same time. 

I had forgotten about the swan eggs until I saw this unfinished, unpublished post, but as I look up, I realize I have a whole robin’s egg sitting on my windowsill. Apparently the swan egg episode was not seared in my memory.  This summer I’d plucked it from the grass where it had fallen, in order to show it to a visiting school group.  I keep meaning to throw it out, but somehow I can’t. 

I think I’ll leave it whole.

The Unbearable Cuteness of Spring

A porcupining adventure yesterday yielded one tiny, warm, wide-eyed fuzzball of splinters: a porcupette!  The little girl (we checked) was holding tight underneath a mess of branches and twigs.  She was hard to pick up, but when I had her clasped in my big red welding gloves, John and I both involuntarily gave a little gasp of “oh” at her bulgy eyes,  her tiny claws, her adorable tail and her painfully cute quills.  While I am a winter person through and through, there is something undeniably astonishing about spring.   Of course the camera battery was dead, but back at the ranch I snapped a picture of the compromised gloves before i sat down to apply a tweezers to the quills.

Today’s foray into the woods was my first solo with the fancy-schmancy (read: functional) telemetry equipment.  Since the porcupettes are arriving earlier (like everything else) this year, I thought there was a pretty good chance of a porcupette find.  I even packed extra batteries for my camera.

Searching for a porcupette is a little nerve wracking; since they are so well camouflaged in plain sight, one is always afraid of stepping on a little bugger.  A smart technique is to start at the base of the tree where the mother sits, and take slow and deliberate and small steps in an outward spiral.   this generally works, however often as not the porcupette is found by chance, when you look up to stretch your neck, or stop to take a break.

I found both adults, but I didn’t find any more porcupettes. Both adults were, respectively,  in very similarly odd places.  Both porkies were on the edge of an open forest in a marshy area, tucked into or around a clump of tag alder, holding perfectly still.  They had good hiding spots,  as they were well camouflaged and hard to get to, surrounded by a labyrinthine moat.  But why not in a tree feeding?  Or scrambling away?  The only other times I’ve seen porcupines hold tight on the ground when I’ve gotten close has been when they are on the verge of giving birth or the verge of death.   I marked both spots on the GPS and left them alone.  I hope to go back on Monday and find more prickly bundles of cuteness.


Sometimes, my job requires of me that I wander around the woods for a while with a book and a pencil.  Lest you think I am frittering away taxpayers dollars, I am not.  I am engaged in recon.  Today I went on an expedition to find out what’s growing, what’s blooming, what’s birthing, dropping or dripping, flowering or unfolding.  The fiddleheads are starting to come up, by the way.  There has been a porcupette spotted as well, by somebody other than me.  I sat 8 meters from a tree, atop which sat a small, collared (and therefore female) porcupine with no discernable color marking.   I looked for a porcupette under the deadfall, but found none, so I thought I’d wait this girl out.  She didn’t move, and eventually I had to.  It was quite windy, so I couldn’t hear much for bird calls, but I saw some ducks fly in, and saw a couple big, fat robins.  In Colorado last week I watched the American dippers build, and then break down, and then rebuild their nest atop a sloping rock shelf above a roaring river.  Did they tear it down because they knew it was just too early?

Everything is just a little different this year with this early spring.  I wonder if everything will be tired, like me.  I feel I was cheated out of my long winter dormancy, and the thought of a long humid hot upright slog through summer just makes me even wearier.  Does a bear feel like she could sleep just a little bit longer?  Perhaps press the snooze button on spring? 

(Right now all I can summon is a grizzly bear dressed like Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles, singing “I’m Tired.” )

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