Sometimes it pays to look up.

Now that the snow has mostly disappeared from my little patch of woods – ‘my’ home forest, where I like to ramble in the early mornings when I have the opportunity – it feels like there is less to see. In the the depths of winter I can wade uphill through fluffy drifts of new-fallen snow, or crunch my way through older sun-worn snow, enjoying the fresh air and the opportunity to see (quite literally) the comings and goings of the local wildlife mapped out on the terrain in the form of their footprints through the snow. So today, as I topped the ridge on a warm spring morning, the sky as blue as ever but the leaf-covered ground as bare and brown and boring as it ever can be, I thought to myself that spring is just not nearly as interesting as winter. At least, for an untrained observer like me, not accustomed to ‘reading’ the complex groundscape of leaf and twig, stone and brush. Sure, I’ve noticed the places where the local residents scratch among the leaves in search of last year’s acorns, and I’ve examined piles of scat to discern who may have been through here – or whom they’ve eaten – but it’s much harder to see what’s going on. Then, I looked up.


In the distance, high in a tree, I saw a dark blob against the sky. It was not normal – and not something I’d seen in that tree before. The tree was swaying in the morning breeze. It was hard to tell what that blob might be – a large bird, probably. Perhaps a hawk… or even a turkey? nah. I pulled out the binoculars and, sure enough, it was a porcupine.

I spent the next half hour circling the tree, while the porcupine snoozed comfortably, high up in the tree – I mean, really high up on the narrowest of small branches. I struggled to find a good angle to photograph this prickly fellow. The tree was on a hillside with the sun streaming in low from the downhill side. If I stood on the uphill side of the porcupine, I was closer to its level but it was backlit. If I stood on the downhill side, it was front-lit but I was farther below. It seemed bored, unconcerned with me as a threat. I could tell it was watching me, but it was impossible to see its eyes, buried in that dark face in a brown body backlit in the morning sun. I fiddled with the camera exposure, trying to gain a good depth of field (with a 500mm lens, it takes a remarkably small aperture to get the whole porcupine in focus) and not blow out the highlights on the quills and yet capture any sort of detail in the face. I ended up with a 2-stop 3-shot HDR, and still can’t truly see his smiling face.

To really get a sense of his location, watch this fourteen-second video in the gallery of images.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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