Soft light from a November sun that stayed low in the southern sky filtered through the hardwood tree pole stand. I was sitting with my back against a soft rotting log that was covered with green moss. I was feeling pretty lazy on that autumn day; the result of having helped a friend move an impossibly heavy wood stove the day before. My back was aching and resting the small of my back against this log felt good. I hadn’t walked a half a mile and already I was resting. These steep hills will tire you out, but on this day I was just plain dogging it.
The sun on my face felt marvelous. In the recesses of my mind I could hear someone saying to be careful of sun light because it can cause skin cancer. My face, still brown from altogether too much sun and fun during the summer months, was happy for a recharge of Vitamin D. I should have started worrying about skin cancer 50 years ago back in the good old days when a good sunburn was believed to be a necessary evil as the precursor to a “healthy” tan. This wisdom came from the same camp the believed cigarette smoking was a symbol of sophistication.
As I sat basking in the filtered rays from a distant star I pulled out a plastic bag from my pocket. I opened the zip lock top and tried to pinch some sunflower seeds and raisins. I am partial to this particular snack. The nutty taste of sunflower seeds melded together with sweet dried fruit is very pleasing to my palate. As I chewed the tiny seeds and raisins I fully enjoyed the moment. Warm sunlight on my face, a cool mossy log at my back, and sweet and nutty morsels tantalizing my taste buds somehow created the perfect sensory experience; at least for the moment.
As I put my fingers back into the zip lock bag for another sample of this luscious snack I looked through the translucent plastic at my fingers and realized that the vessel carrying my snack was a bit out of place. In the future I might want to reconsider my carrying options. Plastic is so unnatural and hardly fitting for this “wild” experience. A paper bag, envelope, even foil might have been a better choice. I made a mental note to myself realizing there was an 80% chance that this thought would never make it back to the house.
As I sat chewing my sunflower seeds and raisins I could hear a slight rustling noise. My hearing is not as good as it once was. I have a hearing impairment in left ear. This greatly reduces my ability to hear in stereo, which makes it hard to tell accurately where a noise is coming from. As a matter of compensation I have learned to try to locate objects after I hear them by using my eyesight. I turned my head from side to side, pausing for a few moments as I looked in each direction. I could not locate the sound. I heard the rustling again, and again I tried to see what was making the noise. It was then that I wondered if the sound was coming from the vicinity of the log on which I was leaning.
I stood up. My movement caused whatever creature it was making the noise to stop scurrying about. After about a half a minute I heard the rustling again. I decided to roll back the log to see if I could determine what was going on. With a little muscle I was able to roll the log back one full revolution. There in front of me was a sweet little character. He had a chestnut brown stripe from his neck to his tail, nearly the width of his back. On either side of his head and on the sides the fur was grayish in color. He had a short tail, round ears, and really beady eyes. I was looking at a southern red-back vole and he was in the middle of eating a pile of black seeds.
The little fellow did not move. He hoped his chestnut coat would hide him. There were chunks of decayed wood left behind from where I had rolled the log. It was close in color to the vole and would have easily concealed him if I weren’t looking directly at him. The little fellow must have been terribly frightened. He weighed in at about an ounce, and in comparison to my 4300 ounces, he must have felt mighty small. Voles are fairly near the bottom of the food chain. They are consumed on a regular basis by owls, hawks, bobcat, fox, coyotes, fisher, raccoons, opossum, weasels, and a host of other predators. Given the red back vole is omnivorous, meaning it has a diet of plants and animals, it is not on the very bottom of the food chain. As dessert to dining on seeds, berries, and vegetation the vole is not adverse to eating a centipede or two. After all, someone has to keep order under those dark, damp, decaying logs. The vole finally gave up on staying still and scurried into a little hole; likely a nesting area where young could be raised. Once in there the vole made a tiny coughing sound; almost the tiniest of barks. No doubt he was warning me of his mighty prowess.
Woodland voles are a critical link in forest ecosystems. I once had a professor in graduate school that made a habit out of studying voles and he claimed that a healthy hardwood forest contained about 250 voles per acre. Given how tiny these little fellows are that doesn’t exactly sound crowded. However, it does give each vole adequate area to forage, explore, and occasionally mingle. This particular vole, the southern red back vole, can be distinguished from its cousin the northern red back vole by several features. One of the most important features is the area it inhabits. Southern red back voles live in temperate hardwood forests from the southern Appalachian Mountains to central Quebec and Ontario. The northern red back vole is found in frigid boreal forests and the edge of the northern tundra.
Red back voles are seen as a primary food source for many predators. Someone with a lot of time on their hands had determined that the average vole only lives about four months. A vole that is a year old is ancient, although when you remove the risk of predation a vole can live comfortably for two years or more. This tiny little woodland protein source survives by reproducing often. These females have two or three litters in the late fall and winter and can mate twelve hours after giving birth. The female gives birth to two to eight little voles, each of the females is capable of reproducing in just eight weeks. With all of this reproduction prowess it is easy to see how they survive despite being predated by so many other species.
Given that the vole was safely tucked away in his den I decided to gently roll the log back into place. Before doing so I took out my sunflower seeds and raisins and placed a few of each at the opening of the little vole den. I knew the little vole might appreciate this small gesture as a symbol of my goodwill after disturbing the furry little fellow.
I rolled the log back into place and sat back down with the small of my back against the cool green moss. After a few quiet moments of sitting there taking in the glorious forest before me I could hear the vole rustling about again. I took the plastic bag of sunflower seeds out of my pocket and picked out a handful of seeds and dropped them into my mouth. I envisioned the vole snacking on the surprise treat.
The sun was on my face again. It was wonderful to enjoy its warmth on this late Autumn day.