Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Winter bones with blood: porcupine, rabbit, turkey and deer

I often see a porcupine's trail in the snow going to and from dens in the craggy sides of the small sandstone valley we call Grouse Alley. This January I saw a dead porcupine not so much in a den as simply below a sandstone slab that angled out affording a few feet of sheltered ground. There was no snow covering the poor brute but it was frozen to the ground so we couldn't flip it over to see if a fisher had attacked its soft underbelly.

It looked so peaceful as if its quills had been stroked so I assume it simply starved. Some illness kept it from the nearby hemlock branches that it liked to nibble. That I wasn't going to see it perched high in a hemlock like I saw one in February 2008 made me a bit sad.

Melancholy is not something I generally drag around in the snow. Death usually stands out in the winter as the high point of any hike. A good carcass can bend my trail through the snow as the animals feeding on it slowly give me an anatomy lesson. The one on deer bones that I got from coyotes and crows in 2003 was most memorable.

The beauty of such remains leaves me speechless and when I see a live deer in the snow, I can't resist talking to it.

Back to this winter. That same day I also found a half eaten rabbit carcass not far from where I found the dead porcupine.

Leslie and I studied the snow around it and saw evidence that a hawk or owl might have killed it. Seeing fresh blood in the snow broadcasts the suffering of the victim but warms a cold day. Warmed the belly of the predator too. Leslie got the tail. The next snowfall covered the rest.

The mounting snow never covered the porcupine carcass. I kept an eye on it figuring that something would figure out how to neutralize those sharp quills and get to the meat, but nothing seemed to bother the dead porcupine. Then on March 3 with the first hint of a thaw in the air, though it was still around 20F, the rim of snow below the sandstone slab seemed to invite me to look over it again. The porcupine was still there but some of it had been scavenged. I could see its tail bones.

I continued down Grouse Alley, which was about the extent of my woodland explorations in the deep snow, far enough to check the sandstone dens where I expected to find another porcupine. I saw a relatively fresh trail in the deep snow from its den heading up and over the wave of snow enfolding the sandstone.

I admit that one has to have a brain numbed by winter to see that porcupine trail in the snow, but, a light brown helix in the snow flow down, it was there. Nice to know porcupines didn't face an epidemic, nice to know something was eating bits of the porcupine that died. But who? It didn't take long to find out. When I walked back through Grouse Alley, I found I was following a small flock of chickadees. I followed one right to the tail bone of the porcupine. 

Nature has its ways of leaving suet out for the birds. It was no surprise to me. I once saw chickadees hopping in and out of a deer skull. 

I kept checking the carcass expecting to see the rest of the bones picked clean. Instead on March 9 I saw snow piled on the porcupine remains and another pile of snow next to it with turkey feathers sticking out of it.

I strained to find prints in the snow but it was too deep to get close to the carcasses and I saw no clear prints in the trail I had made in the snow. Something had jumped off the trail that left four prints that a bobcat might fill.

When I looked a few feet farther down the trail, I saw another fresh mound of snow as well as what looked like claw marks in the wall of snow formed over an old downed log.

I had never seen anything like that before. The tracking guides say that fishers, bobcats, mountain lions and bears cover their kills. Bobcats are known to make scrapes, though the scrapes I saw seemed so finely sculpted in the soft snow that I got the impression that whoever made them was not distracted by covering up something it had just killed.

Maybe the turkey scraped the snow with its claws as it tried to escape. I thought of clearing away the snow to see what might be buried, but didn't. Wading in with snowshoes would make a mess of the site.

Predators bury their kills in expectation of returning to them so I decided to be patient. When I returned the next day, the pile of snow below the scraped wall of snow was undisturbed. But something had dined on the turkey and perhaps the porcupine. I could see more bones picked clean back at the base of the sandstone.

Then it warmed up. The scraped wall of snow collapsed and nothing seemed to have been buried in the snow below it. Bobcats also cover their scats. It might take a while before I see that. I saw no new tracks in the snow but when snow melts and then freezes again at night, a hard icy layer forms on top that grudgingly reveals tracks.

I have never seen a coyote, bobcat or fisher eating its kill, but I know that coyotes usually spread their meals leaving a mess behind. So I could eliminate coyotes from the list of diners, until I came back a few days letter and saw the scavenged bones spread out under the sandstone slab.

Hard not to see some significance in how the claw touched a well chewed bone, but I am sure there is none.

Then we finally had enough melting days and freezing nights to allow us to walk on top of the snow anywhere on our land, still on snow shoes, of course, to make the inevitable three feet deep plunge in the snow less onerous. We have one ridge mostly covered with juniper bushes and we take advantage of the few days a year we can walk on top of it. We do better than the deer but they know the best routes to get to juniper boughs they like to nibble.

The end of winter can seem a bit carefree and I was momentarily freed from my narrow path up Grouse Alley past the carcasses. Then as I came up a hill subdued by hard snow I saw some flecks of blood in the snow, looked down in the next ravine and saw the remains of a small deer.

I expected to see the tracks of a pack of coyotes around the carcass but saw nothing so obvious. The blood and bones seemed to cover everything. I didn't strain to identify tracks. This was not a crime scene, it was a meal.

Away from the carcass I saw scrapes in the snow.

But they looked more like the marks left by the tail feathers of a raven or crow. Not that I think this was any bird kill like the rabbit may have been or a bobcat kill like the turkey probably was. It looked like the deer was attacked while it slept.

And then the carcass was dragged through the bushes for about 10 yards. I couldn't have done what a coyote or two had done.

I doubted I would get back to this kill site. The next warm day will sink my free reign into still deep snow and with Spring, the honeysuckles, buckthorns, and prickly ash will rule not to mention the chickadees.