Canoe Creek

Canoe Lake

It was a bright, sunny afternoon with temperatures in the mid-50s. I hitched a ride with my brother Steve and his three-year-old daughter Elanor to Canoe Creek State Park, about 20 miles south of here, to look at waterfowl through his high-powered spotting scope. We went first to the picnic area, where a few buffleheads were swimming in a small patch of open water. But most of the birds were crowded in an inlet at the far end of the lake. Even at 75 power, it was hard to tell what some of them were, and I was surprised by all the heat shimmer off the ice-covered lake.

on the beach

Elanor was delighted by the little artificial beach. Another parent was there with two, slightly older boys, but they left shortly after we arrived and Elanor had the place to herself. She loves water in any form, and can spend hours staring at it, throwing things in it, and generally messing around in it. Fortunately for her, the lake had ignored the “beach closed” sign and had breached the fence.

The real excitement came an hour later, as we were heading back across the picnic area toward the car, having decided to drive to the boat launch on the other side of the lake for better views of the waterfowl. Steve spotted a small animal rooting around in the grass between the picnic tables. A skunk!

Charles Fergus, in Wildlife of Pennsylvania and the Northeast, notes that “The fur industry gives the highest grades to skunk pelts having the least amount of white,” so this was a very valuable skunk. As luck would have it, my mother’s nature column for March was on skunks, which are often seen this time of year. Not only is March their mating season, but they are apt to be famished at the end of a long winter, as this one appeared to be:

Striped skunks fatten up before winter and sleep through the coldest weather. But their body temperature only drops from 98 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit, and they frequently appear during warm spells. Nevertheless, from November to March, females lose from 32 to 55 percent of their weight and males from 15 to 48 percent.

And what do they eat, exactly? It might be easier to list what they don’t eat.

Striped skunks, which find food by using their keen sense of smell and hearing, eat just about anything including garbage and carrion. That’s why they thrive in a wide variety of habitats, including lawns and golf courses where they dig up grubs. But they prefer forest edges, old fields, and brushy farmlands where they do more good than harm, eating an incredible diversity of insects such as beetles, crickets, moths, ants, and grasshoppers, and specializing in such harmful to agriculture insects as bud worms, June beetles, army worms, cut worms, and scarab beetles. They dig up yellow jacket nests and scratch on beehives to entice honeybees outside so they can eat them and are seemingly unperturbed by their stings. They also relish spiders, toads, frogs, snakes, young rabbits, chipmunks, shrews, voles, salamanders, crayfish and earthworms.

And then there are the birds’ eggs, the mice, the roots and berries… For a striped skunk, it seems, nearly every area is a picnic area.

goose girl

On the other side of the lake, Elanor finally got a close look at the creatures that had left all those impressive turds in the grass. Steve and I were more interested in the displaying mergansers, the canvasbacks, and four tundra swans standing out on the ice. And as usual, we were ready to go long before she was, though she fell asleep soon after we got into the car.

The greatest value of Canoe Creek State Park to biodiversity lies elsewhere than in its artificial lake: it has the largest maternity colony of little brown bats in the state, and a bat hibernaculum that includes the federally endangered Indiana bat. With the mysterious white nose syndrome decimating bat populations to our north, and the growing threat of industrial wind turbines, which kill bats by the thousands, Canoe Creek will probably be an increasingly important refuge for these slow-reproducing keystone species. But the recreation-oriented portion of the park has value to wildlife too, and on a nice day in early spring, we were perfectly content with a few close views of some common but undeniably charismatic creatures.

11 Comments


  1. Marvellous. Entirely got my day off to an excellent start. No better way, it appears, to face up to the world, than by having a love-in with skunks. The choice of music for the film is perfect.

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  2. Hi Dave…my Google alert for WNS found you! Re the skunks–they all seem to awaken from hibernation about the same time in these parts and scurry out onto the roads to become flattened fauna–alas, a true sign of spring.

    Re bats: I wonder what percentage roost in niche spots rather than caves and mines? If the larger caves are avoided in the future, do they have the behavioral plasticity to adapt to someplace other than where that particular population has always roosted and wintered?

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  3. rr – Glad you enjoyed that. As for the choice of music, I listened to a few other candidates last night, but the great thing about this piece was this it was precisely the length of the spliced clips — I didn’t have to edit either to fit the other. Am wishing now that I had filmed for just a couple minutes longer. I was worried about filling up my chip, but in fact I didn’t get any great pictures on the other side of the lake other than the last one here.

    Hi Fred! “WNS”? Wildlife News Service, perhaps? Glad I’m findable, at any rate. The site was in serious risk of a Google ban with the spam hacking that was going on before we finally updated it.

    As for bat roosting behavior, so much is still unknown about that, I don’t think even the experts could give you much of an answer yet about that. Some forest bats do appear to hibernate in niche spots, yes. Re: behavioral plasticity, they’ve obviously adopted to human structures and abandoned mines quite well — in fact, at Canoe Creek, the maternity colony is in an abandoned church (now owned by the public), and the hibernaculum is in a gated limestone mine.

    But the bat – turbine problem is serious, and any so-called environmentalist who tries to downplay it has either drunk the industry’s kool-aid or is woefully ignorant of ecology. Bats eat an enormous amount of insects, so there are effects on crops as well as on forests to think about. It’s possible that new designs, with (for example) internal blades or sail-type structures, will solve the problem, but if ever there were a case for the application of the precautionary principle, it would be this.

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  4. Fab video. You’d be amazed and gratified by how excited and delighted I get about skunks, porcupine, groundhogs and other such, to me, exotica :-)

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  5. Looks like it was a fine day for an outing.

    I’m glad to see that you have enabled comments again.

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  6. Jean – I’ll keep a lookout for more critter video opportunities. Even with the low quality one gets with the the video setting on a digicam, they’re still fun, aren’t they?

    robin andrea – They were never disabled, simply rendered invisible thanks to a hacker.

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  7. Lovely to have you back with comments.

    I remember a kids’ adventure story set in N.America somewhere where the villain had a striped skunk-skin coat! I like that one’s little white skull cap.

    Great photos too.

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  8. leslee – It was. I should do these thumbnail sketches of local attractions more often, I guess.

    Lucy – Thanks. A skull cap – yes! Hadn’t thought of it that way.

    There will be a couple more photos of the lake at Visual Soma next week.

    *

    It occurs to me that I forgot to include a note about the video in the post to alert feed subscribers, so only those of you who read the post here will have seen it. Oh well.

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