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.
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.
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.