Lake George is without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw; formed by a contour of mountains into a basin… finely interspersed with islands, its water limpid as crystal, and the mountain sides covered with rich groves…
~Thomas Jefferson, 1791
Melissa’s family has a long tradition of summer vacations on Lake George in upstate New York. I can see why as it is one of the clearest lakes I have visited and is surrounded by forested mountains, so the views are great. It is also a large lake – 32 miles long, up to 2.5 miles wide, and almost 200 feet deep. In early August, the entire family was able to get together at a beautiful old house surrounded by state-owned land for a week of relaxation and fun. A bonus for me was the abundance of wildlife (big and small) on the property and that is the primary focus of this post.
The owner told us to expect some wildlife, especially out by the mulberry tree in front of the house. The first morning, Melissa’s dad saw some turkeys and a Red Fox out under the tree. Dang, we were down by the lake so we missed all of the excitement.
Then he showed me a phone video he had taken of a critter I have only seen once in the wild (In Grand Teton National Park) – a North American Porcupine! Porcupines range in the West from Canada down to northern Mexico, but are found only as far south as Pennsylvania in the Eastern United States. The next morning we were talking about the “wildlife tree” and I look out and there are two porcupines strolling towards it. They provided entertainment for the family for the next hour or so as they slowly climbed into the mulberry tree and, to my surprise, seemed to feed mainly on the leaves rather than the berries (they did consume a few berries as well).
Porcupines spend most of their time in trees, foraging on leaves, fruit, and bark (especially in winter). They have several adaptations that make them excellent tree climbers – long claws, wrinkled pads on their feet that give them extra grip, and stiff bristles on the underside of their tail that acts much like a woodpecker’s tail spines to brace them as they climb. They do spend time in dens (rock crevices, hollow logs, abandoned buildings) in cold snaps or when giving birth.
The word porcupine is derived from Latin and means thorn pig. They are not related to pigs, but are, in fact, the second largest rodent in North America (behind American Beavers), attaining weights of up to 20 pounds. But it is their quills that make porcupines so distinctive.
Quills are modified guard hairs filled with a spongy matrix and can be up to 4 inches in length. They have microscopic barbs at the tip that are angled such that, if not removed, the quill digs deeper and deeper into an animal as it moves. They can work their way into vital organs of the victim or, over time, go entirely through and come out the other side of the animal if they avoid bones and organs. They are an effective protection against most predators, with the weasel-relative Fisher, being the primary exception in New England. There may be as many as 30,000 quills on one porcupine! it is a myth that they can throw their quills, but they do release easily when they come in contact with a predator (and are easily shed as they move about).
The quills are covered with a mild antibiotic greasy compound that is believed to provide some protection to the animal should it fall from a tree or otherwise manage to get punctured by its own spines.
We also had a lot of smaller wildlife to keep me fascinated during our stay. I had never seen evidence of the introduced Spongy Moths before, but there were egg masses, shed caterpillar skins, and pupae on many tree trunks around the property. Spongy Moth is the new common name of Lymantria dispar dispar, formerly known as the Gypsy Moth. The name was changed by The Entomological Society of America as part of their Better Common Names Project. These destructive insects were accidentally introduced to North America from Europe in 1869 in an effort to create a silk industry. Caterpillars are generalist feeders and can defoliate large swaths of forest in eruptive years.
Under some of the protective eaves and open barns on the property were lots of tiny funnels in the sandy soil, a sure sign of the presence of one of my favorite insects – Antlions.
One day, I grabbed the camera and just wandered around the yard (which included some nice mini-meadows) and photographed some of the abundant charismatic micro-fauna. Here is a sampler.
All in all, a spectacular week of scenery, fun, food, family, and the wild creatures that make Lake George so special.
Love following all your adventures…you are so interesting and educational with all the photos you share. I was wondering if you would be interested in sharing the lens you use to get your close ups of your bugs…thanks.
Thanks, Diane. I use a Canon 100mm macro lens and flash for most of my macro work. I also have extension tubes that I occasionally use for really tiny subjects.
How cool, especially the porcupines! I’ve never seen one in the wild.
A definite thrill to have them around so much to enjoy.
Doodlebugs! You call ’em ant lions. We used to take tiny bits of stems and stir the top gently so we could watch the doodlebug in the bottom of its cone come alive. So fun, the patience of children in the dirt of a carport.
They are just cool little critters.
Imagine the wealth for that rental to be a caretaker’s cottage–we’d call it a nice home today!
Indeed! But they did good by selling most of the estate to the state of NY.
What do porcupines say when they hug?
Keith and I have been on a mission to see porcupines whenever we’re in their range. No luck yet. So cool that you had them so close and cooperative. Beautiful pics… with that new macro lens?
Yes, such cool critters! And the macro lens is the same one I have had for many years, but the flash unit is new.
Thank you for a trip down memory lane… the first 2 weeks of August during my childhood 1950’s-60’s were spent living in a cabin on Lake George near Hague, NY. Daily journeys on the lake fishing with my father, mother & brother in our boat – end of day enjoying the most delicious home cooked fish dinners served with local farm produce. The nearby streams were also a favorite fishing spot for my father. Visiting Indian Kettles, Fort Ticonderoga (the smell of paper factory spew balanced by the intoxicating scent of paper birch) finding musket balls diving in the lake, and nightly stargazing & Sputnik sightings around the neighborhood outdoor fire place. Your images show a place just as I remember Lake George.
Wow, you paint a wonderful picture of fond memories. My father-in-laws family also spent time up there every summer, close to where you mention…the Cardwell family, including what I hear was a renowned water skiing brother, Tony.
Wonderful photography as usual. Had a chuckle as porcupines are very common in MN,but as always learned something new from your observations and research. As always your insect photography is just plain interesting. Thanks for sharing your finds and knowledge with all of us!
Thanks. It was obviously a thrill for all of us to hang out with the thorn pigs. But I hear they can cause some issues with their taste for all things salty.
Interesting, didn’t know about the salt thing. In Northern MN they mostly stick to the trees and are pretty slow going unless threatened.
I have read about them eating wooden canoe paddles and even auto tires (from the road salt). But, they certainly are cool critters.
Wow, just wow! Great photos and such details! Thanks for sharing.
Wonderful post, Mike, both the text & the photos! We’re currently on Deer Isle, in Maine, where it’s easy to focus exclusively on the larger landscape. As your post makes clear, it’s important to give the sometimes-hidden wonders of the micro world equal attention. Many thanks, as always.
Thanks! Enjoy your stay in beautiful Maine.
Thank you for the information and photos of the porcupine. Fascinating creatures indeed. I’ve never seen one in the wild but will keep my eyes out when I visit upstate New York next month.
More information about their evolution below:
The porcupine is a caviomorph rodent whose ancestors rafted across the Atlantic from Africa to Brazil over 30 million years ago, and then migrated to North America during the Great American Interchange after the Isthmus of Panama rose 3 million years.
Thank you, Ann.
Loved all the insect photos in this one! And that looks like a wonderful vacation spot.
Thanks, Kim. And you are right, it really is beautiful up there.