While we were setting up timelapse cameras at the Niobrara Valley Preserve a couple weeks ago, I had an encounter with a creature I’d never seen up close before. It was evening, and Jeff Dale was driving us down toward the river. Suddenly, he hit the brakes and backed up, saying he’d seen something up in a tree – maybe a raccoon. All three of us grabbed cameras and walked up the hill toward a small oak tree with a furry creature up in the branches.
When we got closer, we realized it wasn’t a raccoon – it was a porcupine! In my whole life, I’d seen a couple dead porcupines along the road, and a couple trees that had been worked over by porcupines, but I don’t think I’d ever seen a live porcupine before - they’re just not very common in my part of the state.
Once we figured out what it was, Jeff and David graciously let me approach the porcupine first. (Thinking back now, they may have just been waiting to see if I got a face full of quills…) The sun was on its way down and the light was beautiful. I snapped a couple photos as I approached in case it took off, but the porcupine didn’t seem inclined to run, and before long, I ended up right at the base of the tree. Because the tree was short, I could stand uphill and be at the same elevation as the porcupine. Face to face, you might say.
However, it’s not accurate to say I was face to face with the porcupine because the porcupine was steadfastly looking away from me. I suppose that’s the right defensive strategy when your weapons are on your backside, but it made photography kind of a challenge… If I walked to south side of the tree, the porcupine would look north. If I walked to the north side, it would look south. It wasn’t moving quickly, but even if I ran to the other side, it would be looking away by the time I got there.
As you might imagine, Jeff and David thought this was mighty entertaining. By this time, they’d sidled close enough that I could hear their chuckling. I told David to make himself useful and come help. I figured the porcupine couldn’t look away from both of us if we were on opposite sides of the tree. I was right about that – it just looked away from ME. David was apparently non-threatening, or at least less threatening than I was. Maybe that’s because it’s hard to seem threatening when you’re laughing as hard as David was. While David and porcupine shared their little joke, I was still left facing the backside of my intended photo subject.
After a few more minutes of jocularity, the porcupine did eventually turn my way. I’m not sure why – I suppose it probably figured I wasn’t going to leave it alone otherwise. Of course, when it DID look at me, its face was in the shadow of a tree branch. After all that trouble getting the porcupine to look in me in the face, I wasn’t going home with photos of a porcupine that looked like it had stripes on its face, so I called David into action again. Trying (unsuccessfully) to stifle his chortling, David grabbed the end of the branch and swung it around a little so the porcupine’s face came out of the shadows. …At which point, the porcupine looked back over at David and away from me.
By this point in the story, some of you are probably feeling sorry for the porcupine. The poor thing had been sitting in a tree, just calmly chewing on a branch, when it was rudely accosted by a frustrated photographer and his two snickering friends. Now, one of the snickerers was swinging its branch around. Well, let me just say this: of the four of us, the porcupine wasn’t the one showing signs of stress. It seemed competely calm - content to play the straight man in the comedic sketch my companions were enjoying so much.
Finally, between David’s branch maneuvering and my persistence (stubbornness?) I did end up with a couple halfway decent shots of the front side of the porcupine.
You have to look really closely to see its self-satisfied smile…