T he munching stopped me.
About 20 minutes into a walk on the Cadre Loop on a balmy Sunday afternoon, I expected twittering birds, croaking frogs, the occasional gunshot from duck hunters on Lake Earl, but this was different. Something, or someone, was enjoying a meal right at my feet.
It was a porcupine and my presence didn’t faze him at all.
The quill-covered critter smaller than a basketball continued his chewing, showing me his back, as I snapped photos from different angles. He didn’t move when I told the couple behind me he was there and kept on eating as we stared at him. Finally after about five minutes, he cast an annoyed look at me, a look I was lucky enough to capture on camera, as if asking, “do you mind?”
If there were such a thing as a porcupine stronghold, it would be the Tolowa Dunes. After several years of studying the creature, the second-largest rodent in North America, Tim Bean and his wildlife students at Humboldt State University have determined that though porcupines are found in other places on the North Coast, they are more abundant near Crescent City than anywhere else in the region.
Creating the website Porcufinder.com in 2013, Bean and his former graduate student Cara Appel began gathering anecdotal information about where people have seen the creatures.
Bean said he and his students received reports that porcupines were declining in other parts of California and in the Pacific Northwest, but the Tolowa population “seems to be doing great.”
“It’s difficult to get a strong estimate of the population size without a bunch of money and this has always been on a shoestring budget,” he said of the studies he and his students have conducted over the years. “And so we don’t really have any estimates of how many porcupines are in the Crescent City area. Anecdotally we have a number of reports coming in from Porcufinder and just from people being out in the dunes and seeing porcupines. We don’t have any indication that they are disappearing or not doing well there.”
Bean and his students have been eager to find out why the Tolowa population is so successful. Appel, who completed her study in 2016, set out to determine where they spend their time in summer and winter. Using radio collars with GPS tags, the students gathered as many locations on the porcupines as possible.
Another student named Pairsa studied the animals’ diet, determining that in the summer about 90 percent is comprised of willow leaves, Bean said. Willows are nutritious and don’t have many defenses against herbivores so they’re popular with porcupines.
In winter Tolowa porcupines hang out in patches of dune forest eating shore pine bark or grazing in the grasslands, Bean said.
Another discovery Bean’s students made is that though porcupines spent most of their time grazing in willow patches during the summer, they would occasionally venture to the edge of the dunes and back. With nothing nutritious out there, these forays seemed a waste of effort, Bean said. Then Pairsa came up with the hypothesis that the porcupines were prospecting for a suitable winter home, he said.
Pairsa initially had an idea that the critters were looking for winter plants with the best nutrition, Bean said. However, after speaking with a colleague at a conference, she wondered what if they’re just looking for plants offering shelter from the wind and rain?
“That’s where she is now,” Bean said, adding that Pairsa has finished organizing her data and will soon test her hypothesis. “Preliminarily all I can say is all the evidence does strongly suggest that that’s what they’re doing, making these broad scouting movements, visiting a bunch of trees in the summer and going back to two or three that have characteristics that are better than the trees they don’t go back to.”
But why was one feasting off a popular trail at 1:30 on a sunny afternoon?
Though I knew porcupines were abundant in the dunes, I never thought I’d be lucky enough to see one, especially in the middle of the day.
In the summer, porcupines are nocturnal, Bean said. And in most places where they’re studied, spend most of their time in trees. But near Crescent City, hikers have an especially good chance of seeing one during winter, he said.
“From a behavioral perspective it’s cool and it’s exciting and it’s not really something we see elsewhere with porcupines,” Bean said, adding that other than mountain lions and fishers, porcupines have few predators. “It does hint that they may be sort of overcoming that fear of predation. There’s no food available for them and it’s cold and it’s wet and they’re basically starving. The sad version of that story is they’re willing to put aside their fear of humans and fear of other predators to get the nutrition they need to survive.”
Bean is not pushing the website as much as he was about three years ago, but people can still post porcupine sightings at Porcufinder.com.
For me, seeing a porcupine was the highlight of a Sunday hike filled with wildlife sightings. I encountered a skunk, glimpsed a pair of bald eagles, found a woodpecker hammering up a tree and came across a garter snake sunning itself.
All these animals I had seen before, the porcupine was a first.
Reach Jessica Cejnar at firstname.lastname@example.org .