Thursday, January 31, 2013

Exploring the Porcupine Caves

The weather this week was not conducive to outdoor adventuring:  rainy and mild most days, with temperatures reaching into the 50s, first making a mess of all our nice snow, then washing it all away.  But a raging wind moved in last night, issuing in blasts of frigid air that kept blowing ever colder as the day wore on.  The forecast this morning was hardly promising for a walk in the woods, with wind gusts predicted to reach 50 miles per hour or more.  I wondered if my friends in the Thursday Naturalists would cancel their plans to climb up the mountains in Moreau Lake State Park to explore some caves where porcupines make their dens.  But not THIS group of hardy folks!  No sir!  This group of passionate nature lovers came dressed for the weather with warm coats and hats and with spikes on their feet for climbing icy trails.

Led by park naturalist Gary Hill, we set off up the Red Oak Ridge Trail, stopping briefly to enjoy the beauty of a tumbling stream rushing full from the week of rain and snowmelt.  Once we entered the woods in the shelter of the mountain, we hardly noticed the wind and enjoyed a very pleasant hike.

After following the Red Oak Ridge Trail for a while, we detoured along a spur trail that took us ever higher up the mountainside until we came to an area where the bedrock was hollowed out with caves.  Surrounding the caves was a hemlock forest where generations of porcupines had feasted on the bark and also had made their dens inside the caves.   When snow covers the ground, the porcupine trails from the trees to their dens is obvious.  Today, though,  we had to look for other signs of their residence.  In this photo, some members of our group were examining a few of the numerous quills we found shed around the entrance to a cave.

Here's the entrance to one of the caves, certainly large enough for an adult person to climb down into, although the odor from generations of porcupines who are not too tidy about their housekeeping would tend to deter one from doing so.

Some people have suggested that these caves are the remains of old graphite mines,  but I tend to believe they were formed by underground streams hollowing out the limestone bedrock.  To me, they just don't look as if they were made by human excavation.  The presence of lime in the rocks is evident by much of the vegetation growing on them, including this splendid patch of moss called Rhodobryum roseum, a leafy moss that prefers a limestone base.

And here's another limestone lover, the uncommon fern called Walking Fern, which spreads across the face of the moss-covered boulder by creating new plants wherever the tip of each pointed frond makes contact with the moss.  This cluster of Walking Fern decorated the entrance to one of Porky's dens.

I've been visiting these caves for several years (type "porcupine" into my blog's search bar to read about some of our previous visits), but never have I seen an actual porcupine in the trees or in its den (although I did hear one, once).  I have glimpsed them waddling away in the distance too far away for a photo, or lying dead by the side of the road for far too many times.  Since they believe their quills make them invulnerable,  I guess they feel there's no need to hurry away from any speeding car.  There is only one predator who can kill a porcupine, and that is a Fisher.  This large fierce weasel is clever and strong enough to exhaust a defending porcupine, then flip it quickly over and slash its throat, thus gaining access to the porcupine's quill-free underside.  I have heard that a Fisher can pull the hide off in one piece, quills intact, and that would explain this tidy heap of quills I found in the woods one spring.

1 comment:

squirrel said...

You and your friends always look like you are having so much fun.