Speaking up for moles

Winter 2018 Newsletter cover

The article below (how appropriate, considering the subject, don’t you think?) appears in the latest issue of The Quarry Farm Newsletter. Download your copy by clicking on the cover to the right.

Not long ago after autumn rains had softened the baked lawn around Red Fox Cabin, little volcano-shaped mounds erupted here and there, heralding the arrival of moles. Moles don’t alarm me because their burrowing hasn’t seemed to cause lasting damage in the garden. However, convinced that the humans on a nature preserve should be knowledgeable about their fellow inhabitants, I went online to learn more about moles.

Members of the family Talpidae, moles are found in most parts of North America, Europe and Asia. Seven species live in the U.S., the Eastern Mole being common in our region. They are 5 to 7 inches long, larger than shrews and voles. Males are called boars; females are sows; and the young are pups. A group is a labor (perhaps because they are so industrious?). They are carnivores, not herbivores. Their diet is primarily earthworms, grubs, and the occasional mouse, but not our garden plants. Once they have eaten the food in one area, they move on.

Moles are amazingly adapted to a subterranean life. They can distinguish light from dark but not colors. Although their eyesight is dim, their hearing and sense of smell are so acute that they can detect prey through many inches of soil. They have large, powerful, outward-pointing front legs and claws for pushing dirt aside as they “swim” through soft, moist earth. They are able to disappear from rare ventures to the surface in 10 seconds flat, to tunnel 1 foot in 3 minutes and to run through established tunnels at about 80 feet per minute. Their short, velvety fur is non-directional, causing little resistance as they move rapidly through tunnels. (Their soft, dense pelts once supported a thriving moleskin industry.) Moles can survive in their low-oxygen environment underground because they can tolerate the high carbon dioxide levels in the exhaled air they reuse. Their saliva paralyzes prey, which they store, still alive, in underground “larders” for future consumption. Moles can detect, capture, and eat their prey faster than the human eye can follow.

Moles make 2 types of tunnels: feeding runways close to the surface where the molehills pop up and permanent tunnels about a foot or more underground, leading to a nest about 2 feet deep. What might look like the work of many moles can be the product of one busy tunneler.

Moles are solitary and highly territorial, coming together only to mate. Breeding season runs from February to May. From 2 to 5 pups are born after a 1-month gestation, and leave the nest 30 to 45 days later in search of their own territories. Although tunnels may overlap, moles avoid each other and will attack and even fight to the death when they meet.

Many online gardening experts write about moles in terms of their being destructive pests that must be eradicated. They suggest many methods of doing so: poisons; traps that choke, spear, slice or confine for removal; buried repellants like broken glass, razor blades, or thorny branches; or natural, more humane repellants like plantings that smell bad to moles (daffodils, alliums, marigolds, castor beans, etc.), castor oil drenches; and reducing lawn watering that could force moles close to the surface.

However, I lean toward a smaller set of gardening experts represented online who believe that moles are more beneficial than destructive. Rather than taking offense at molehills, they point out that moles improve soil by loosening, aerating and fertilizing, and the cones subside quickly. Any soil that has been lifted off roots can be pressed down again with a foot. Moles receive the blame for plant damage caused by chipmunks, mice and voles, and generally receive little credit for destroying lawn grubs. I myself would rather let moles eat pesky soil-dwelling larvae than chase moles out by spreading harmful poisons to kill the grubs. In the view of one expert, Roger Mercer, “Moles aren’t all bad. In fact they’re 99% good.” As a 15th century saying goes: “Do not make a mountain out of a mole hill.”

—The Gardener at The Quarry Farm

Weekend for the birds

20170218_103256This Great Backyard Bird Count weekend is unusual in more ways than one. To begin with, this is the first in which I wore shorts outside.

20170218_103128Today is Day 3 in the 19th year that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society have coordinated this international weekend of documenting birds. It’s a four-day snapshot of what birds are where. Some years, a few days after the count is over, I see a bird that wasn’t on our checklist and think, “I wish that had been here last week.” But that’s the point; as long as the species made someone’s checklist somewhere, all is well for now.

A breeze was promising to build Saturday morning, so I started out at 8 a.m. with binoculars. Cardinals, house sparrows, juncos, wild turkey, red-winged blackbirds, gold finches and this flock of mallards made themselves known visually.

Since I am not an audio birder, I recorded sounds at various locations in the nature preserve with the hope of blog-reader assistance.  Anyone care to share your identifications? Click on each photo to listen:

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NW corner of the back field

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SW field tree line, above oxbow

 

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Base of catalpa tree, south central back field

By 10 a.m., the wind was high. Birds took shelter, skittering into and through the woods. Eight people joined me the scheduled Quarry Farm 2017 Bird Count. All had binoculars and good hiking shoes.

Our party of nine walked the floodplain trail, past the quarry, up the main path to cross the back field. We looped back through the oldest tree groves, past the oxbow.

Fortunately, our party included a father and son who drove all the way from Jenera in the county to the east. They knew their birds by sight, sound and movement, honing their birding skills by challenging each other to car ride bird identification games.

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Springing moss at the oxbow

We documented 26 species and two other taxa. You can view this checklist at: http://ebird.org/ebird/gbbc/view/checklist/S34534270

Check out all documented species from “The Quarry Farm Nature Preserve & Conservation Farm, Putnam County, Ohio, US” at http://gbbc.birdcount.org including the entire number that we will file for February 17-20, 2017, and explore the worldwide count.

It’s now Sunday evening and there is an American Woodcock buzzing outside the window. That wish I mentioned before? One just came true.

Winter 2017 News

winter-2017-newsletter-1Download the Winter 2017 newsletter by clicking on the cover on the left.

There are two big walks–one to count birds for the international effort and a winter walk under a sky full of stars. Hope to see you in the Seitz Family Pavilion before each program.

Winter 2016 newsletter

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Prepping the back field for the Bee Buffer Project is one of the items in the latest issue of The Quarry Farm Newsletter. Click here to read all about it and what’s happening here as the snow flies and the seeds sleep.

Winter news

2014 Winter NewslettercoverS'moreWith temperatures above 0°F and sun overhead, the visuals are breathtaking on the banks of Cranberry Run today.

Turkey track

Goat-tracked corridors criss-cross the upland sanctuary. Wild turkeys are on the move on the paths as these elusive birds forage in the floodplain and on the cover of the 2014 winter newsletter. Click of the cover to the left to read more.

Hope to see you under the stars later this month. Don’t forget to RSVP.

And the Tally Is…

BirdingOver the course of a lifetime, we count any number of things: the number of cars we’ve owned, the dates we’ve had, the hours or minutes left before the end of the work day, the children in a school group we’re chaperoning and on and on and on. This past weekend, we counted birds. And it wasn’t just us, the folks who showed up at The Quarry Farm for this latest event. It was people all across North America and around the world participating in this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count.

Cooper's hawk

Cooper’s hawk

Sponsored by the Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, this four-day annual event provides data about bird populations and migration to these giants in ornithological research. For us, the event has provided the opportunity to specifically record some of the birds that live here. The birds spotted and identified included: house sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, gold finches, white-breasted nuthatches, American crows, turkeys, great-horned owls, eastern screech owls, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, juncos, American robins, Downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, northern cardinals, blue jays, horned larks, starlings, mourning doves, rock doves, brown creepers, Canada geese, mallards, great blue herons, black-capped chicadees, tufted titmice, song sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and one bird species that, a little over a year ago, perplexed more than a few of us.

Northern shrike

Northern shrike

Last year, on our annual Winter Walk, we discovered a vole skewered on a thorn in a hawthorn tree. At the time, none of us were sure how the vole came to be there, though we threw a lot of guesses around and came to the mistaken conclusion that a passing raptor had dropped its dinner and it was inadvertently pinned in the tree. Three seasons later, on yet another walk, a naturalist and amateur ornithologist told us that it was likely the result of a Loggerhead shrike pinioning the vole for later. Well, he was close. One of the birds we discovered on our walk was not the Loggerhead shrike, but the Northern shrike, a close cousin to the Loggerhead.

vole 1Although classified as a songbird, all shrikes share a behavior commonly associated with raptors: that is, they prey on small mammals, lizards and amphibians. Not only do they prey on these small animals, they store them away for later feasting by skewering their prey on thorns. So the cause of our earlier conundrum came clearly into view and was the highlight of our count this year.

It was a good weekend and a stellar bird count. In total, we identified nearly thirty different species of birds. That, and we definitively put to rest the bizarre and somewhat gruesome puzzle of the impaled vole.

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