Saturday, January 15, 2011

What is that in the tree?

While birding at Antelope Island State Park, an Island on the Great Salt Lake, we drove past a few stands of trees that had these large dark clumps in them.  My girls thought they were magpie nests, but as we got closer, we saw that they were awful furry for a nest!  What in the heck are these big round balls of fur?!

Why, of course!  They are are porc espin, or quill pigs, commonly known as Porcupines!

When I was about eight years old, my dad, the Scout Master over a big group of boys let me come on one of the overnight camping trips.  After an intense game of "Capture the Flag" we slept under the stars in sleeping bags laid on top of a crunchy plastic tarp.  Right as the sun began to rise and there was a faint glow of daylight, mother nature inflicted her worst on a little boy too scared and too cold to crawl out of his dew covered sleeping bag...I had to pee.  Eventually the overwhelming urge purged my fear and I stepped a little ways off to do my business as a man does in this the purist and most natural form.  Suddenly I heard a tremendous chomping sound, like bark shattering.  Just feet in front of me was a huge beast.  I thought it was a bear!  (Cue the shy bladder)  I scampered back to my dad and woke him up.  He woke up the scouts to show them the impressive porcupine eating bark off a fallen log near our campsite.

That was the first and last porcupine I saw until birding at Camas NWR in Hamer, Idaho last Memorial Day weekend.  There I saw a porcupine sleeping high up in a tree, which I had not previously known that they did.   So, when we saw around two dozen porcupines, sometimes two or three to a tree, you can imagine the amazement and impression it made on me at Antelope Island!
Their dexterity with their front paws reminded me almost of monkeys.  Their faces reminded me of the several carpincho (capybara) I saw and ate in Argentina.  Their slow movements reminded me of a sloth.
This is the same porcupine shown in the photo above, but notice how it eats the bark off the branch.  Once they had removed the tasty bark, they dropped the branch to the ground.  Nature's little pruners, I guess.  I read that most porcupines are nocturnal, but I'd say half of these were up and slowly at 'em.  The rest were tucked into a ball snoozing the day away as shown in the photo at the top of this post.
Each porcupine was a different size and shade of color, from dark almost pure black to the lighter color shown in some of these photos.  Having never had such close-up views, I found them to be far furrier than I expected, rather than spiny.  When they moved along the branch and exposed their backsides to us, it was then I could see the spiny quills.  I suppose if you are getting chased by a predator, your rear-end is a good place to have some defense.  Just hunch yourself up and give your attacker a nice mouthful of barbs.

Anyway, Porcupines are cool and a fantastic sideshow while birding!


  1. This is so COOL! I had no idea they were in trees ..... I've never seen one before.
    Great captures!!!

  2. Fantastic- now I have something else to imagine that I see when scanning the tree tops!

  3. @Kerri @ Mike B. - Those porcupines are really something else. I'd never seen anything like that before. Mike, just this week I had a nice gray clump in the top of a pine tree that I was a certain was a Northern Pygmy Owl. I scaled the side of a mountain in waist deep snow only to find it was just a weird branch and had snow on it.

  4. Very interesting post!!! Great job!

  5. Thanks Beverly! I hope you have a great weekend getting more great photos on your site!

  6. I must have known about their arboreal habit because I thought "porcupine" as soon as I saw the first photo, and I've never actually seen one in the wild.
    These are fabulous photos, I really enjoyed them. I can see what you mean about resembling monkeys and, at the same time, sloths. (I have seen sloths and monkeys, while visiting Costa Rica.)
    Found your blog via Phil at anotherbirdblog.
    -- K

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

  7. @Kay - Welcome to Birding is Fun! Phil is a great bird blogger. Next time you go to Costa Rica, you're supposed to take me!

  8. Great post! Thanks for sharing! I saw a porcupine a couple of years ago. I was chasing after an indigo bunting wanting to take photo, never saw the bunting again, but found something much better: a porcupine slouched in the fork of a tree, peering down at me. I think they are getting rarer in NE, probably because of proliferation of introduced fishers, aka fisher cats.

  9. Oh so wonderful! I used to see these down at Kays Creek Trail in Layton also, but only 1 at a time! Amazing!

  10. WOW!!! The only porcupine I've ever seen was dead on the road.. How cool to see so many! Your photos are really great!

  11. @Hilke - having never seen an Indigo Bunting, I'd chase the bunting over a porcupine, but I must say, seeing that many porcupines in that small of an area was pretty spectacular.

    @Kathie - Sounds like you need a visit to Utah!

    @Jen - Thanks Jen. Looks like from your blog that you are seeing some birds I've never seen over there on the Oregon coast.