Mole in the ground

“If I were a mole in the ground,” the old Appalachian folk song says, “I’d tear them mountains down.” This hairy-tailed mole (Parascalops breweri) seemed to be trying to do just that on Monday morning, August 29, in the lawn adjacent to the veranda of the main house. This is the video I shot, pretty much unedited, except for the inevitable loss of detail that goes along with rendering it into a format small enough for upload. (I used a couple minutes of the footage to illustrate a poem by a friend of mine, and since it’s a much shorter video, was able to upload it in high definition — “The Last Brave Ship” by Dale Favier.)

The hairy-tailed is one of two mole species resident on the mountain, the other being the star-nosed mole (Condylura cristata), which on very rare occasions over the years has appeared in the basement. Neither is common, probably because our soil is a stony, heavy clay with a chemical hardpan about a foot below the surface. The hairy-tailed mole, according to this very detailed webpage on a site devoted to Adirondacks wildlife, prefers sandy loam, in which it excavates a series of tunnels 10-22 inches down. It’s not necessarily nocturnal, as we discovered: “Although daily activity rhythms are little known, the species appears to be more active during the day, somewhat less at night.”

Earthworms make up 30% of its prey, insect larvae and pupae an equal amount. Adult insects, snails, slugs, sowbugs, millipedes, and centipedes provide the remainder. The hairy-tailed mole uses its highly-developed sense of touch and smell to locate prey, catching some of these animals on the surface — a feeding strategy it is more likely to adopt at night — and the rest in the top layers of soil and plant debris.

Another website says, “When food is scarce they will feel on small roots as a supplement, but cannot live on roots alone. They can consume an equivalent of three times their body weight in one day.” It was hard to tell for sure, but we got the impression that this mole was eating mostly roots.

Being nearly blind, it didn’t seem to notice the three of us watching and filming. The sounds are especially endearing — check out all the panting and snuffling noises it makes. The Adirondacks site says only “Vocalizations include a variety of harsh, guttural to quiet ‘squeaks’, their context and function largely unknown.”

John Davis visits Plummer’s Hollow as part of TrekEast

John Davis' campsite in Plummer's Hollow

John Davis' campsite in Plummer's Hollow

UPDATE (6/22): Listen to Emily Reddy’s interview with John in Plummer’s Hollow for a news story on our local NPR station, WPSU.


We’ve been honored to host John Davis from the Wildlands Network for two nights in Plummer’s Hollow as part of his epic, 6,000-mile journey to raise awareness of wildlands connectivity — “no protection without connection” — in the Eastern U.S. and Canada. He started in Key Largo in February and hopes to make it to the Gaspe Peninsula by October, traveling by boat, hiking, and biking, visiting as many wildlands in the East as possible. You can follow along via the TrekEast blog on the Wildlands Network website, and/or follow @TrekEast on Twitter for more up-to-the-minute photos and brief audio blogposts.

John pitched camp in the woods up beyond the garage, and uploaded three different audio posts last night and this morning, before getting underway around 7:00. Here are those three posts in the order he uploaded them: Energy Assault (3:04); Woodrat (2:48); Nature and Energy (3:21).

John Davis photographing downy rattlesnake plantain in our 3-acre deer exclosure

John photographing downy rattlesnake plantain in our 3-acre deer exclosure

John was one of the founders of Wild Earth magazine and the Wildlands Project, as it was then called, which together played a pivotal role in shaping our own thinking as eco-centric forest stewards, helping us see how our property fit into the larger conservation picture, and making us strong advocates for ecosystem recovery and large carnivore restoration, among other things. So we were pleased to be able to meet John and show him around the property, and compare notes about the environmental movement over the past 25 years. Also, as a long-time blogger and multimedia guy, I must say I’m very impressed by the electronic communications system John and his support staff have set up. He’s an excellent extemporaneous speaker, as the audio posts demonstrate, and also a gifted listener, so if you get a chance to go see him as TrekEast continues, don’t miss it. (His next appearance is this very evening in State College — see the Centre Daily Times for details.)

John Davis - heading out

John heading out on the next part of his TrekEast journey this morning before it got too hot

New discoveries

We’ve kept a biological inventory of our end of Brush Mountain since we moved here in August 1971, and I can’t remember the last time we added three new species in a single day — probably not since the early 70s. Today’s haul shows the value of having additional pairs of eyes to help out; it may or may not be indicative of increasing biodiversity overall.

brown snake 2

We owe two of the finds to our neighbors, Troy and Paula Scott. While moving some old boards around the wreckage of the former McHugh house, they uncovered a brown snake, Soreria dekayi. It’s not an especially uncommon snake, but we’ve never found one on the mountain before. Given especially my older brother Steve’s sharp eyes and tendency to find anything and everything of interest when he was a kid, especially when it came to birds, insects and reptiles, I feel reasonably certain that this species hasn’t been present for too many decades.

painted turtle 1

Later in the day, driving up the road, the Scotts found this turtle in one of the tire tracks. Again, Paula’s cellphone camera helped to clinch the identification: painted turtle (Chrysemys picta). This is a very common species indeed, but not one you’d expect to find marching up the Plummer’s Hollow Boulevard, a half-mile from the nearest pond. It was only a couple hundred yards from the entrance to the hollow, so perhaps it was dispersing from a population in the Little Juniata River. The river doesn’t seem like very good painted turtle habitat, though.

painted turtle 2

One thing’s for certain: it isn’t going to find any habitat at all if it continues up the hollow. The vernal pools at the very top of the watershed, some two miles from the bottom of the hollow, persist in a wet spring just long enough to graduate a few wood frogs before they dry up.

wild coffee 1

I’m perhaps most excited by the third find of the day: wild coffee or feverwort, Triosteum perfoliatum. We’d invited an amateur botanist friend to come take a look at our three-acre deer exclosure, which is ten years old now and beginning to get really lush. We figured she might spot something we’d overlooked, and sure enough, she did. Even better luck: it was in bloom.

wild coffee 2

This was not only a new species for the mountain, but one neither Mom nor I had ever run across anywhere else. Our friend remarked that she’d associated it with a limestone substrate, and was surprised to encounter it on our acidic soil.

wild coffee 3

As the common names suggest, it has a variety of interesting cultural uses: the fruit can be dried, roasted, and ground as a coffee substitute, and the roots can deployed against fever, irregular or profuse menses, and stomach trouble caused by witchcraft, among other things. More than that, though, it’s just a very unique-looking plant, and at over four feet in height, has a real presence. I’m happy to have made its acquaintance.

Plummer’s Hollow after dark

The motion-triggered, infrared trail cam which the Scotts baited with a couple of venison rib cages really brought video pay dirt this month: coyote, bobcat, raccoons, opossum…

and a very hungry fisher (or possibly two different fishers — can anyone tell?).

March has been an active month for wildlife — especially after dark. The woodcock returned, and I heard a saw-whet owl calling, too, along with another creature of unknown identity. I captured it all on my portable digital recorder and included it as the first part of a podcast episode I called Creatures of the Night:


Fisher caught on video in Plummer’s Hollow


Watch on Youtube

Another great game cam moment from Troy and Paula. We’ve had fishers on the mountain for at least seven years now — here’s Marcia’s column about the first sightings — but this is the first video footage (there was one blurry still photo from another game cam earlier this year). The fisher seems simultaneously frightened and fascinated by the swinging deer carcasses that the Scotts used as bait.

Fishers, of course, had been extirpated from the state for over a hundred years, and were reintroduced by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 1994. Wildlife biologist Tom Serfass, who consulted on the reintroduction, told our Audubon chapter at a program last spring that Blair County fishers were more likely to be from a southern population started by a smaller reintroduction effort in West Virginia a decade earlier.

The West Virginia reintroduction project came to halt due to public concern about fishers carrying off children, something they have never been known to do. The Pennsylvania program, by contrast, was hugely popular, possibly in part because the PGC did a better job in selling it to the public in advance, saying that fishers would help keep the porcupines under control, and thus protect trees. In fact, we did find several porcupine carcasses the winter and spring after our first fisher sighting… but we do still have plenty of porcupines. We are more anxious to see them kill off the feral housecats, which are continually restocked here by barn cats in Sinking Valley. Between the fishers, the coyotes and the great-horned owls, it’s a wonder any cats survive at all, but one or two always do.

Troy and Paula say their next goal is to get footage of a bobcat or a coyote. But who knows — someday maybe they’ll get a cougar on film, too!

Young black bear tangles with strangely unresponsive buck

In Paula and Troy Scott’s latest trail camera experiment, they positioned an infrared video camera at the intersection of a couple of trails in Plummer’s Hollow and stationed a deer-shaped archery target as a decoy for whatever might come along. I think they were hoping for footage of bucks attempting to spar with it, but instead they got three, 30-second videos of a young black bear having his way with it.

Black bears often attack things that people leave behind in the woods, such as hunters’ blinds and large pieces of trash.

Music of the mountain

The latest episode of my Woodrat podcast on Via Negativa consists of 35 minutes of natural and anthropogenic sound recorded from my front porch between dawn and full daylight, 7:00 to 7:35 a.m., on Wednesday, October 27 — the music of the mountain. Click through to listen.

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