Rarely do I see animals while hiking with my dog Oreo. We’re much too loud. He runs back and forth, snapping branches and pulling on the leash, which causes me to stumble over rocks and roots from time to time. I’m constantly telling him to slow down or “stay” so I can set up my camera. It’s a bit of a mess, really. But we get by.
Such was the case last Thursday when we visited the Trenton Community Trail. Along the trail, the only animals I caught sight of were a few bold chickadees and a woodpecker. I also heard a ruffed grouse take flight long before we reached it. It clearly heard us coming.
It wasn’t until we completed the hike and were driving away from the trailhead that I caught sight of a sizable brown critter waddling beside the road. My amateur wildlife photographer instincts kicked in and I pulled over. Peering through the windshield, I realized it was a porcupine! How odd, considering it was about 2 p.m., and porcupines are usually active during the evening and at night.
After exchanging my 100mm lens for a 300mm, I stepped out of the car (telling Oreo to “stay”) and slowly started walking toward the porcupine to take a photo. It appeared to be rummaging through the grass beside the road, likely for food, but it soon caught sight of me and started to waddle off toward the nearby woods. I stayed put and watched it climb up the nearest tree. Either porcupines can’t climb fast or it wasn’t in a hurry.
When it had clambered up the tree high enough to be about eye level with me, it stopped and turned its head, as if looking at me. The pause gave me time to snap a few clear photos, and while I would have liked to stay and watch him, it was clear that I’d disturbed it and should leave.
Climbing back in the car, I found Oreo in the front passenger seat, tense, as if ready to pounce. I wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen a porcupine. We’ve seen them twice before while hiking. And he’s always wanted to say “hi.” Fortunately, he’s always been on leash, and I know better than to let him get close to the spiky critter.
The funny thing is, porcupines don’t actually look very spiky, and I especially noticed that to be the case with the Trenton porcupine. If anything, it looked fluffy. However, adult porcupines can have up to 39,000 quills, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife website.
During the winter, they’re one of the animals that remain active in the Maine woods, chewing through the bark of (chiefly softwood) trees to eat the inner bark, which contains the nutrients they need to make it through until spring, when they feast on other vegetation, according to DIFW.
They protect themselves with sharp quills, which cover their back, sides and tail, but not their face, underbelly or the inside of their legs, according to an online fact sheet provided by Vermont Fish and Wildlife, which confirms my suspicion that they are “slow moving.”
While a porcupine’s quills are shaped for quick release, it’s a myth that porcupines can actually shoot their quills over any distance. The quills are up to 3 inches long, according to Vermont Fish and Wildlife, and have small barbs on the end that make them difficult to extract as they work their way further into the skin. Plenty of people have experienced this frustration when their dog has had a run-in with a porcupine. Often, a veterinarian is required to pull out the quills.
But did you know that a quill can advance about an inch a day if not pulled out? It can eventually burrow so deep as to hit an internal organ, which could be fatal, according to Vermont Fish and Wildlife.
And lastly, while I thought the Trenton porcupine was looking at me, porcupines don’t have good eyesight. Instead, they rely on their excellent sense of smell and hearing. So odds are, it was the shut of my car door and the sound of my shoes on the pavement that scared him to the woods … or my delightful human scent.