Friday, December 31, 2010

Up to the Porcupine Boulders, Down to the Lake

What better way to end the year than with a walk in the woods? Especially when that walk in the woods is with my good nature buddy Sue, and the sky is blue and the air is warm and there's just enough snow on the ground to preserve all the woodland creatures' footprints. We met at Moreau Lake State Park today and set off on the Red Oak Ridge Trail, climbing up and up to where porcupines make their dens among boulders and hemlocks high on the ridge.

There were ample signs (and scents!) of porky's presence, with well-trodden trails connecting the odiferous dens to twig-littered feeding grounds under the hemlock trees. We searched and searched those hemlock treetops, hoping to spy the porcupine's shaggy bulk up among the branches, but no such luck. We did find some porcupine paw prints, though, clear and distinct, showing its fat flat feet and long sharp claws.

Usually, this animal's trail is so well-trodden that no distinct paw prints are visible. Unlike foxes or fishers or deer, which are constantly wandering the woods in their search for food (and whose trails we found all over the ridge today), the porcupine finds a tree with bark that will serve as a food source for quite some time. Every day it returns to that very same tree, ploughing a trough with its low-slung wide body and packing the snow beneath with its fat flat feet. The porcupine also pees at it waddles along, so there's often a squiggly yellow line down the center of its trail.

Here's another trail we found today, with footprints no bigger than those of a tiny mouse. But the footprint pattern shows that the creature was walking or running, not hopping. Mice always hop through snow, and usually you can see the imprint of a tail. But this creature was just as small and light as a mouse. Perhaps it was a shrew.

If it weren't for all these tracks preserved in the snow, we would never know how well-trafficked with critters these forests are, since we hardly ever see them in the flesh. What really surprised us today, though, was seeing flying insects catching the sunlight in the air around the porcupine dens near a rushing stream. Some of the gnat-like insects were landing on the snow, and Sue took some incredible photos of them, including a mating pair. Insects mating in the dead of winter? That's a new one on me. I, too, tried to take photos of one tiny insect crawling on the snow, but to my surprise, what I photographed was not a gnat, but a tiny stonefly.

How odd! I know to look for stoneflies as soon as the ice begins to recede in the spring, but I never imagined they would be crawling about on the snow in late December. Update: I went and checked, where I discovered that this is a Small Winter Stonefly in the family Capniidae, commonly called a Snowfly. According to BugGuide's Eric Eaton, "the defining need of winter stonefly nymphs is for very high levels of oxygen in the water. Warm temperatures, excessive organic matter, and many pollutants all reduce oxygen levels. The result: they're only active in the coldest part of the year and are very sensitive to pollution. Their main interest to humans is as an indicator species: you can tell that water is unpolluted if stoneflies live there. "

While wandering around up there on the ridge, we came across piles of logs that looked as if they had been cut long, long ago, when the trees up here were harvested for timber. The ends of the logs were covered with this taupe-colored cracked-crust stuff I've never seen before. My guess is that it is some kind of crustose lichen, but I don't know which one.

After a couple of hours on the ridge, we made our way back down the trail to the newly opened warming hut, where we had our lunch while enjoying a crackling fire as we gazed through the big picture window at the lake. Then out on the lake we went, taking a shortcut across the ice to return to our cars. It wasn't yet three o'clock, but already the mountain's shadow was reaching across the frozen expanse.

We stopped to look into the augured holes ice fishermen had bored through the ice, which appeared to be at least six inches thick. We were saddened to see some unwanted fish had been abandoned on the ice, rather than returned to the lake. Here Sue takes a photo of a beautiful green-speckled pickerel. Looking closely, we saw that its mouth was moving as if it were attempting to breathe, so we quickly placed it into the water, hoping it might revive.

Here's a closer look at that pickerel, which was much too small to make a meal of, so it should have been thrown back in by the person who caught it. He probably thinks of himself as a "sportsman," but I don't think it's very sporting to leave a helpless creature to die on the ice.


June said...

What good and timely information on tracks. Yesterday I saw some prints and wondered if they were fisher prints, but you inspired me to Google "fisher prints" and they are not. I suspect they belong to our local feral kitty cat.

It is eminent good news that you saw a snowfly, isn't it!
And I hope the pickerel revived and goes on to live as long as pickerel live if they aren't caught and served up. Or left to suffocate on the ice.

Ellen Rathbone said...

I came across my first winter stonefly last winter. Very cool insects. And, they are so cool, apparently, that we are having a winter stonefly workshop here at the Dahlem Center in a month or so. It's part of the aquatic sampling for water quality monitoring.

Happy Porky Hunting!

wheelstru said...

What a way to bring in the new year. A winter stonefly indicating hope and good health!

Louise said...

To find an insect that is an indicator of purity is a good sign, for the New Year. I hope that pickerel survived. What idiots those fishermen were. Like it takes that much more effort to throw it back into the water.

Adirondackcountrygal said...

I like porcupines and don't see them in the wild very often. I also hope the pickerel made it, that is pretty cold hearted of the fisherman to leave it out to die. Maybe they thought they were doing a service to other fish to not let it grow up.

Woodswalker said...

Hi June, I'm glad you found something helpful here. I keep taking tracking workshops and yet each winter I still feel like a beginner. But it's fun to puzzle out what the critters are up to. Now if we could only get some more snow here in Saratoga County.

Hi Ellen, so glad to hear about your adventures in my old home state. I had no idea how cool the winter stonefly was until I started exploring the internet. I'm also amazed at how many insects can be found active in winter.

Thanks for stopping by to comment, wheelstru. I'm glad to learn that stoneflies are such good luck.

Hi Louise, always good to hear from you. I agree that those fishermen were idiots. Certainly cold-hearted.

Yes, Adirondack Country Girl, that pickerel might grow up by feeding on other fish, but all God's chillun gotta eat! As for the porcupines, I see them dead on the road quite often, but I sure would like to see one alive.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if we're 'wild' enough for porcupine, or 'pure' enough in this urban area for snow flies, for that matter. But I live in hope! Hiking in the snow is always such a treat - to see who 'lives' in the park when we're not there to disturb them. Thanks for the post - always a delight! Happy New Year!