Saturday April 6, 2013

Down in the valleys there is no denying that spring has arrived. Up in the hills, however, the snow is still deep, and I am savoring the last sweet days of my Porcupine Winter.

The porcupines are all too ready to embrace the quickening. Despite wintery appearances, they have begun to wander farther from their dens and can no longer be found at home at predictable times. I see the writing on the snow. My Porcupine Winter will soon end.

What began as a search for the den of a particular porcupine, my pal Fretful, led to immersion in the lives of winter porcupines. Before locating Fretful (on Feb. 17), I had found 15 other porcupines. I have continued to pay regular visits to nine of them and sporadic visits to the rest. I have mapped and monitored their movements and the patterns of their days. It hasn’t been challenging. The winter life of a porcupine is less than action-packed.

Any day now they will loose their moorings and set sail, leaving their winter dens behind and reclaiming their days in the open air. I will no longer know where to find them.

A few days ago I skied out to visit Fretful. I checked his den first, a little cave beneath the roots of a fallen tree. No Fretful. I checked all of the trees he had been feeding in. I checked his alternate den. I couldn’t see Fretful. I returned to his regular den to search for the freshest trail. All trails were well-melted. It was possible that Fretful had left no tracks on the frozen snow the previous night, and had not returned to his den. I would ski past the trees he had been in most recently on my way home, just in case.

Sure enough, as I skied in that direction, I spotted Fretful hurrying toward me, clearly deeply concerned that I had come to visit and left without giving him his apples and acorns. The film I took of his approach records his pigeon-toed gait, his eager whining greeting, and, in the final frame, porcupine nostrils.

When he had his fill of apples, Fretful asked where the acorns were; I forgot to pack them. He could smell acorn residue in my pack and with his great claws he tried to pry his way to in. I moved the pack to my other side, and he climbed across my lap to get at it, pausing en route for an extended nose sniffing.

It was time for me to return home. I put on skis and skied back up to Fretful’s hemlocks. He hurried along behind me, whining emphatically. When I stopped, he strolled around busily scent marking every stick and hump of snow around me, attempting to claim me, his mobile food source, as his own.

Because I knew that spring would come one sad day, I hoped to win the trust of some of the other porcupines, increasing my chances of learning more about their lives in other seasons. None of the other porcupines has proved as willing as Fretful to bestow complete trust on a giant biped.

I have made special efforts to maintain contact with the porcupine I suspect of being the one I encountered with Fretful during the mating season last September. I would love an opportunity to observe the first months of the life of a porcupette (the official word for a baby porcupine).

Because I can’t miss a single evening of porcupine watching while the season lasts, I brought my laptop with me to finish this column at my favorite porcupine den complex -- a striking set of ledges on a steep west facing slope. After leaving apples and acorns on the doorsteps of the three dens, I settle down to type and watch. The seldom-seen occupant of a cavern among the talus is the first porcupine to appear, clambering up just 15 feet from my seat. He pays me little heed as eats an apple. This handsome fellow has a solid black coat, with long black guard hairs that hide most of his quills.

On the doorstep of a cave perched higher on the ledge, another dark porcupine comes out to eat. I watch this one with particular interest, for when I left the apples I noticed she was sharing her den with another porcupine. They appeared to be sitting amicably side by side. Den sharing has not been observed among my porcupines before. The peace does not last long. The interloper, a large porcupine with much white and gray in her coat, emerges, and the pair face each other on the precariously narrow ledge and debate ownership rights to the apples. I have heard such shrieks, moans, and whines matched only by cranky 2-year-old Homo sapiens.

The bigger porcupine, the interloper, finally retreats back into the den. In the meantime, a fourth porcupine hustles over the snow from the ledges to the south. As she approaches, she takes a misstep, rolls down a little bank, and then carries on, disappearing from view into the rocks. When she reappears on the ledge below the disgruntled pair, I can see that this is a very small porcupine indeed, not quite a year old. She sports a coat of extravagantly long silvery fur, within which her arsenal of quills is entirely concealed. She discovers some apples and stops to eat.

As the colors fade, the beautiful black porcupine retires to his lair, the little fluffy one climbs a nearby tree and goes to sleep, the occupants of the scenic den switch places (after another bitter exchange), and Jupiter begins shining through the branches overhead.

In the distance, coyotes howl. A barred owl hoots. And what is that?

It’s late for crows Š and now I can deny it no longer, it is my first flock of geese heading north. Spring.

Patti Smith is a naturalist at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. The View From Heifer Hill, a feature on the nature of our region, appears in this space the first Saturday of each month. Patti welcomes your feedback at patti@beec,org.