Notes from the Field: The Great Porcupine Search

Photo Caption: A North American porcupine detected on one of our Border Wildlife Study cameras.

Thank you to our wonderful volunteer, Alicia Stout, for this engaging blog post she wrote on her recent wildlife adventures with SIA staff in the field! If you have similar stories of volunteering with us, please send a write-up to [email protected]. We’d love to feature you.

It all started with a feeling: Porcupines. Look up for porcupines.

I was volunteering for Sky Island Alliance, doing a routine camera check for the Border Wildlife Study. Unfortunately, at the time, I had forgotten what my gut had been telling me. It is easy to get distracted by the beauty of the borderlands.

It wasn’t until the following day when SIA’s Wildlife Specialist Meagan reviewed the camera data we had pulled, that I was reminded of my feeling. She had discovered amongst the hundreds of photos a porcupine—right there, caught on film just the night before our arrival. I often have wondered since, could there have been a porcupine, unknown to us, just above our heads? A few weeks passed, and I was again invited to join Meagan and SIA Stewardship Specialist Bryon on what I have now deemed, “The Great Porcupine Search.”

Photo Caption: SIA staff Bryon and volunteer Alicia searching for porcupine sign.

The three of us began at the same cottonwood stand where the porcupine had been recorded just a few weeks prior. Looking all around, up and down, we spread out in search of any little evidence that might suggest to us where to look next. We looked for scat, chewed twigs, pulled bark, tracks in the sand, and of course, the porcupine itself.

Shortly after our arrival, I discovered an unfamiliar pellet. Truth be told, although I had done some preliminary research for tracking this spiked creature, my inexperienced self had completely forgotten to look up photos of porcupine poo. The group convened, all eyes inspecting this singular pellet, woody and light brown in color.

After comparing the pellet to photos we managed to find via our cellphones, we decided there was a good chance it was indeed the porcupine evidence which we sought.

Photo Caption: A small pile of porcupine scat.

Full of fresh hope, the group was on the move again, this time climbing up a grassy hill to reach another cluster of cottonwood trees we could just make out to the southeast. Upon reaching the summit however, a small circle of what seemed to be abandoned apple trees appeared to us. The little grove looked promising, and Bryon suggested we make a pit stop before continuing on. And so, we made our way across the grasslands.

Entering the circle of apple trees teleported us into a new world. Out of the bright summer sun, we found ourselves within a lush, green, densely shaded “fairy circle.” As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we observed several tiny skulls from various rodents, nearly perfectly intact, littering the ground all around us. After discovering countless owl pellets as well, we all realized this was a space frequently used by the birds.

Photo Caption: The circle of apple trees in the middle of a grassy field.

After being momentarily distracted by such tiny skeletal treasures, we resumed our search. Meagan then discovered the first porcupine evidence within the circle: more scat. It was only then that we realized—there was scat everywhere!

Meagan then remarked about wanting to find quills. No sooner had those words been uttered then we all began to tune in to the plethora of quills and fur poking out from the substrate beneath our feet.

I think at that moment, all three of us would have been so contented with our discovery that we could have left the site then and there perfectly happy. Mission accomplished.

Photo Caption: An example of the porcupine quills found.

After taking the time to bask in the glory of such a fine discovery, collect a few pellets and quills for posterity, and snap a few photos of the evidence, we packed our bags to leave. Just as we were about to cross the threshold and enter the land of the sun once again, Bryon suggested we scan the canopy once more. I believe he too experienced a gut feeling.

Following his lead, I looked through binoculars, my eyes settling upon the shadowy figure of something perched up on a tree branch. It was then that I realized, I was looking straight up at a porcupine.

At that moment, I wanted to laugh, cry, and squeal with delight. I could have caused quite the ruckus, but I refrained, perhaps for the porcupine’s sake. We were, after all, intruding on its home.

Photo Caption: Apple the porcupine, taken through binoculars by Meagan Bethel.

We spent several minutes there observing the quilled being nestled high within the branches. Meagan even managed to cleverly capture a few photographs using her phone and binoculars simultaneously. The porcupine was obviously aware of our presence; we could just make out a little eye peaking at us through the foliage, but I didn’t get the impression that it was particularly bothered by our being there. I suppose, when you have a body full of quills and are high up off the ground, it would take a bit more than our ogling to stir up fear.

We finally said our goodbyes and expressed our gratitude before returning to our vehicles.

As we drove back down the dusty road, we soon realized our adventure was not yet over when we witnessed a Red-tailed hawk, with a snake gripped in its talons, land in a cottonwood tree. Bryon decided that he wanted to search the ground for potential snake bits that may have fallen during consumption, so we returned to the spot after letting the hawk have some time to itself.

However, we did not find partially eaten snake upon our return. Instead, we discovered yet another porcupine high up in the tree. This one also offered us some much better photo opportunities, and as a bonus, there was a Red-tailed hawk nest with two “hawklets” just above the sleeping porcupine.

Photo Caption: Cotton the porcupine, taken through binoculars by Meagan Bethel.

Suffice to say, “The Great Porcupine Search” was an overwhelming success. Meagan aptly named the porcupines Apple and Cotton for their respective tree homes. Thank you to Sky Island Alliance for the work that you do, and the opportunities given to wildlife enthusiasts like me. I am forever grateful.

Want to join Sky Island Alliance in the field this summer? Check out our volunteer opportunities.