Our Fiftieth Anniversary

Fifty years have passed since we first saw our mountaintop home on the Fourth of July weekend. Following directions from a local realtor, my husband Bruce slowly drove our red Volkswagen bus up a steep, deeply rutted, private road.

A vehicle coming up the Plummer’s Hollow Road (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

A vehicle coming up the Plummer’s Hollow Road (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Our three sons—Steve (7), Dave (5), and Mark (2)—were in the back of the bus peering out the windows at the slope and the stream beneath.

“We could really go over the edge there,” Steve shouted excitedly.

“Are we going to live up in the woods? Dave asked hopefully.

After what seemed an interminable time, but in reality was only a mile from the highway, we reached a fork in the road.

“The realtor said to take the left fork,” I told Bruce.

We bumped over a plank bridge, and after a few minutes we emerged from the dark forest into an open field lit by the bright July sun.

A view of the barn taken in 1958

A view of the barn taken in 1958

Rounding the final curve in the road, we passed a tenant house, tool building, and large bank barn on the right and looked up a bluff on our left at a white farm house surrounded by black locust and black walnut trees. At the base of the bluff was an old stone springhouse.

It didn’t take us long to decide to buy the property, and we’ve never regretted it. We were young then, and Bruce had plenty of energy to tackle the repairs of old buildings that needed many renovations, including roofing the barn and installing heating ducts to the second floor of our home.

I was so impressed by the natural beauty of our surrounding acres that I began a career as a natural history writer based on my observations of our unique property.

Dave, left, and Steve examine an insect in 1971

Dave, left, and Steve examine an insect in 1971

Our sons became amateur naturalists and eager explorers of the woods, stream, old fields, and even the rock slides of the mountain.

Much has changed in 50 years, both for us and our sons. We have grown old and our sons middle-aged. They have stayed in our guesthouse, sometimes for months and even years at a time, and have revisited old haunts of their childhood. All three have retained a love and interest in the natural world wherever they have lived.

Bruce retired from his librarian position at Penn State University’s Library more than two decades ago, and much of the repairs and upkeep of our home, property, and access road are now done by our caretaker couple.

But I keep obsessively walking, recording, and observing the natural world and the many changes I have seen here over the last half century. I’ve kept a nature journal, written innumerable columns and articles in newspapers and magazines and five books about our mountain home. My sons and I have lists of the plants and wildlife we have observed on our square mile of mountain land and just last spring, summer, and fall Mark added considerably to our bird list. Dave’s specialties have been trees and wild plants, and Steve’s have been birds and insects. Our caretakers, with their trail cams and own observations, also have added to our knowledge of what is happening here.

During our first decade, our bird feeders attracted dozens of evening grosbeaks and American tree sparrows as well as common winter birds such as tufted titmice, black-capped chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos, and one year we even had an immature red-headed woodpecker and a hen pheasant. Even though folks all over Pennsylvania last fall reported grosbeaks, not one came here, our tree sparrow numbers are now between two and four for most of the winter, and we’ve never seen another hen pheasant or red-headed woodpecker at our feeders.

A hen turkey on her nest (Photo by Mark)

A hen turkey on her nest (Photo by Mark)

But Mark established last year that we continue to host most bird species we recorded that first decade, although their numbers have declined. However, our wild turkey numbers have increased greatly since then and only a few years ago bald eagles became a common sight flying above First Field.

That first decade we had many mid-sized mammals—woodchucks, opossums, raccoons, stripped skunks, red and gray foxes. But in the 1980s the first black bears arrived, followed by eastern coyotes in the 1990s and fishers in this century. Our caretakers, a few of our hunters, and our sons have seen bobcats but so far I have not.

We always have had many eastern cottontails and white-tailed deer, numerous mice, shrew, and vole species, least, long-tailed and ermine weasels, gray, fox and red squirrels, eastern chipmunks, porcupines, and mink, altogether over 40 mammal species, but a deadly fungus disease from Europe has killed most of our bat species this century.

Our greatest losses, in addition to the bats, have been tree species. When we first arrived here, a large butternut tree, also known as “white walnut,” grew in the guesthouse yard, and we found a couple more scattered throughout our forest. But in a few years they died from an infection caused by an imported fungus. They produced nuts consumed by both humans and wildlife and they were tastier than their close relation, the still-thriving black walnut trees.

Dave’s photo of gypsy moth cocoons (On Flickr)

Dave’s photo of gypsy moth cocoons (On Flickr)

Then, in the early 1980s, the imported gypsy moth caterpillars defoliated all of our oak trees and other species except for tulip trees. They even ate the needles of the Norway spruces we had planted at the top of First Field in the spring of 1974. Luckily, we had only one bad year and most of the trees recovered.

By the 1990s we began to hear more about invasive diseases and insects coming from Europe and Asia. At the same time, the adjacent property of 150 acres was logged. We managed to acquire it afterwards, but we were not able to stop the invasion of Japanese barberry, privet, tree of heaven, mile-a-minute, and Japanese stiltgrass there, although last autumn our hunters took a few mornings to rescue First Field from those invasives.

Worst of all the invasives are the hemlock woolly adelgids sucking the life from our eastern hemlocks beside our stream and the even more rapid killing this last decade of our ash trees by emerald ash borers, still another Asian import. First identified in North America in 2002, and in western Pennsylvania in 2007, they have attacked all North American ash species including those in our forest and backyard.

All of these tree species provided food and cover for wildlife and coupled with changes in our weather patterns, wildlife food here has been scarce. Last winter, for instance, there were no wild fruits and few acorns and black walnuts. Even the Norway spruces, white pines, and remaining eastern hemlocks produced no cones.

A female wood duck on our vernal pond (Photo by Mark)

A female wood duck on our vernal pond (Photo by Mark)

Still, our wildflower species have mostly survived, except for a couple orchid species that came and went, and our reptile and amphibian species are still here, including wood frogs in our series of large and small vernal ponds on Sapsucker Ridge that have developed and spread over the last couple decades. Mark even recorded wood ducks there last spring.

And then there are my memories. As I walk our trails, I can recall the animals and plants I have seen along every one. In the hemlock-shrouded, so-called “dark place” by our neighbor, I saw my first fisher, a large male heralded by a flock of protesting songbirds as he came down to drink from the stream.

Off Laurel Ridge Trail, where I was sitting among the mountain laurels listening to a hooded warbler, I saw my first black bear come up the ridge, dip its face down between a double oak tree to drink, and then unknowingly headed straight toward me. When it was about 15 feet away, I stood up slowly and it stopped and stared as I spoke quietly to it. Instead of running away, it paralleled my walk along Laurel Ridge Trail continually peering at me, before finally running off.

Once I saw a mother bear and four cubs near the stream, but they never saw me above them on Rhododendron Trail and I quietly watched them until they wandered off. From across the Far Field for two springs I watched a red fox den. Another year I followed behind four coyote pups as they scampered along Sapsucker Ridge TraiI, and later I watched them playing in front of the spruce grove.

I remember releasing the first eastern golden eagle that had been live-trapped by researchers from a blind on our rock slide. When I let her go, she flew off slowly, then landed on a nearby white pine tree, before flying away.

A swallow-tailed kite in flight (Photo by Andy Morffew on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A swallow-tailed kite in flight (Photo by Andy Morffew on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

And then there was the spring morning when I reached the spruce grove and something made me look up in time to see a swallow-tailed kite circling above the grove higher and higher.

Never Enough of Nature by Lawrence Kilham has a title that has been my mantra throughout my life. There is always more to learn and no lifetime is long enough to grasp even a small understanding of the natural world of a central Pennsylvania mountain.

 

Wild Parenting

June is a month when I often observe wild parenting during my walks. On the first day of June last year I was halfway down Pit Mound Trail when a doe ran off. Something in the way she moved made me believe she had a fawn nearby. I walked off-trail to look for it in the underbrush, but I couldn’t find it.

Fawn near Pit Mound Trail (photo by Mark Bonta taken June 1, 2020)

Fawn near Pit Mound Trail (photo by Mark Bonta taken June 1, 2020)

I turned around to retrace my steps, my feet crunching in the dead leaves on the forest floor. When I returned to the trail, I was surprised to see a wobbly-legged fawn directly behind me.

“I’m not your mother,” I said quietly to it over and over even as it came close to me and sniffed both my legs.

I tried to resume my walk alone, but the fawn followed at my heels. Apparently, a fawn doesn’t imprint as easily on its mother as animals do that spend most of their time with their mothers, according to Leonard Lee Rue III in his book The Deer of North America. And while a doe will return to nurse her fawn, she mostly stays away from it to keep predators from scenting her and finding her offspring.

A fawn nursing (Photo by James St. John on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A fawn nursing (Photo by James St. John on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A fawn will sometimes try to nurse any doe if it is hungry, and if it tries to nurse a doe that is not its mother, the doe will sniff the fawn carefully and will either walk away or hit the fawn with her head or forefoot.

Rue recounts watching a doe give birth and after she ate the afterbirth, she licked the fawn dry and then nursed it. Since that doe was living on a deer preserve, she was comparatively tame and allowed Rue to take photos. But the fawn tottered to its feet and went over to him. Rue asserted that the fawn had approached him because he was moving.

It would have been very easy for him to imprint the fawn, he thought, so he moved quickly away and the fawn returned to the resting doe. Furthermore, Rue maintained that the fawn had been attracted to his moving because does move their offspring from their birthplace as soon as they can walk at about 18 minutes of age.

I didn’t know all this at the time, but I did wonder if that explained why the fawn continued to follow me and that it had sniffed around my legs in search of milk.

The fawn and I continued to descend Pit Mound Trail a couple hundred feet to Ten Springs Trail. There I turned right in the direction the doe had run. Still, I couldn’t shake my little shadow.

Then, after a few minutes, the fawn must have decided I wasn’t its mother after all, and it went down the wooded slope below the trail. I watched from above as it sniffed and examined a couple likely places to settle down. Finally, it curled up beneath a shady tree beside a fresh clump of squawroot.

I was hopeful that the doe would find her fawn since it wasn’t far from where she had run when I had disturbed her. Also, I had been careful not to touch the little creature because Rue claimed that about five percent of does will abandon their fawns if they detect human scent on them.

A porcupette (Photo by California Department of Fish and Wildlife on Flicker, Creative Commons license)

A porcupette (Photo by California Department of Fish and Wildlife on Flicker, Creative Commons license)

A porcupine mother has a different approach to caring for her offspring. Her porcupette follows her when she goes off to forage in the night and lies down at the base of her parent’s feeding tree to wait for her. During the day, while her mother sleeps high in a tree, the porcupette stays hidden under logs or in the base of a tree nearby. But after six weeks of age, the porcupette travels off and finds different trees to rest in during the day, and the mother travels to find her porcupette every night. Often they forage together.

Here on our mountain, we see porcupettes wandering around on their own during the day. Last June 14, I walked down our hollow road. A porcupette walked into the road in front of me and appeared to be eating gravel. Since porcupines crave salt, especially in spring, I thought that might be what it was after, even though we never put salt on our private road. But our caretakers, their family and ours, drive on salted roads during the winter, and I wondered if salt had been left on our road from our tires.

Several researchers over the years in Alaska, Arizona and the Catskills in New York state have watched porcupines lick or try to eat salt-encrusted mud, sand, or even chew on wood or animal bones and all have been impregnated with salt.

The porcupette at last sensed my silent scrutiny and looked up. Then it retreated to the stream bank side and belly-flopped into the greenery, thinking it was hidden. I said to it several times that I wouldn’t hurt it and continued down the road. When I returned to the spot later it was gone. I assumed its mother was sleeping in a hemlock tree and the porcupette had been left on its own.

A brown thrasher in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Mark Bonta)

A brown thrasher in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Mark Bonta)

Bird parenting includes many strategies, and last June our forest was filled with bird species disturbed by my presence. One June morning I tried to sit on Alan’s Bench at the edge of the Norway spruce grove and was heartily scolded on and on by a pair of birds hidden in the spruces. Finally, I stood up, looked around, and caught a glimpse of one of the affronted birds—a brown thrasher. It must have had a nest somewhere on the ground in the thick brush near the bench.

A black and white warbler in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Mark Bonta)

A black and white warbler in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Mark Bonta)

That same day I made a stop at Coyote Bench on the Far Field Road. I watched what looked like a young black-and-white warbler foraging in the trees. Then there was scolding behind me as a male black-and-white warbler appeared with food in his beak. He came close enough that I could see that he had a caterpillar. He flew from branch to grapevine back and forth and then flew off. Next, a female black-and-white flew in with food in her beak. She was not as brightly-colored as the male, but not as dull-colored as the first bird I saw. From this I assumed the black-and-white warblers had been feeding at least one fledgling and possibly more hidden in the tangle of shrubs and vines in front of the bench.

But the Norway spruce grove remained the center of bird family activity. On June 17 a chipping sparrow emerged from a cluster of spruces with a large, green caterpillar in its beak. Both that bird and another chipping sparrow flew around as if they had a nest somewhere close by in one of the smaller spruces at the edge of the grove.

A black-capped chickadee in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Mark Bonta)

A black-capped chickadee in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Mark Bonta)

And late in June for several days I watched a family of black-capped chickadees as they fed their fledged young on a tangle of large fallen spruce trees where I found all of them foraging on subsequent days. Unlike the many birds that protested my presence, they didn’t act with alarm as I sat nearby.

Then, near the end of June, Guesthouse Trail became a center for concerned bird parents. One morning I heard a “chirr, chirr, chirr” from a Cooper’s hawk that dove low at me, first from one side of the trail and then the other. Assuming it had a nest in the area, first I followed a deer trail in one direction and the Cooper’s hawk was quiet. But when I went in the opposite direction, the bird’s protests grew louder. Yet although I peered into every large treetop, I could not find the nest.

I wasn’t worried about aggression from the large raptor because years ago a Cooper’s hawk pair had allowed me to observe their nest life from a hill a few hundred feet above the nest and often they sat quietly in the trees beside me. But every individual bird, as well as species, can behave differently from each other, as I soon learned.

A blue-headed vireo in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Mark Bonta)

A blue-headed vireo in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Mark Bonta)

On that day, as I neared the top of Guesthouse Trail, I heard songbird protesting and when I pished, I was hit a glancing blow atop my head by one songbird, as another flew about on low limbs of saplings and scolded. To my surprise, they were blue-headed vireos. Years ago, I had found and observed a blue-headed vireo on her nest and had never been attacked.

Two days later, I walked up Guesthouse Trail again. A Cooper’s hawk verbally scolded me and dove close to me three times, but that day a blue-headed vireo scolded but didn’t attack me. Still, I stayed clear of that trail for several days. But I never saw either the Cooper’s hawks or the blue-headed vireos again.

Different strokes for different mammal and bird parents. Yet all those creatures used different but effective methods to keep predators away from their vulnerable young.

 

Those Darn Empids

Keen birders are aware that the best time to identify the five small, look-alike Empidonax flycatchers that breed in Pennsylvania is in May when they are singing and calling during migration. Easier to identify by their voices than by their appearance, all empids, as birders call them, have gray heads, backs, wings, and tails, white wing-bars, light eye-rings, and whitish breasts and bellies with beige edges.

A willow flycatcher (Photo by Mark Bonta)

A willow flycatcher (Photo by Mark Bonta)

Over the nearly five decades we’ve lived on our Ridge and Valley mountain, I’ve heard four of the five empids, but I was thrilled last May 17, when our son, Mark, found a willow flycatcher singing from the old apple tree beside our driveway.

I rushed out to see and hear the bird as it flew into the top of a yard black walnut tree and sang—“fitz-bew,” “fitz-bew.” A half hour later it was in our backyard, where it clung to a tall grass and poked into our forsythia hedge, still singing. It stayed another day and then was gone.

Until 1972 willow flycatchers were lumped with alder flycatchers and called Traill’s flycatchers. Then ornithologists split the Traill’s into two species based on their songs. While willows sing a sneezy “fitz-bew,” the alders sing “tree-bee-a,” that sounds like “quick, three beers.” Although willows retain the species’ name traillii, alders are alnorum, meaning “of the alders.”

Willows breed across the northern two-thirds of the United States. Here in Pennsylvania they nest in brushy wetlands, wet meadows, and streamside thickets below 2300 feet. The females build compact cup nests several feet above ground in a forked branch of a shrub or small tree.

According to The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania (BBA2), there was a large increase in willows from the first Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania (BBA1) that covered the years 1983-88, especially in the southeastern part of the state, the Ridge and Valley Province and the Northwestern Glaciated Plateau section but a decline in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania.

With an estimated 135,000 singing males in the state, it seems as if willow flycatchers are thriving here and also in the disturbed habitat in Central America where they spend their winters.

An alder flycatcher on elderberry (Photo by Caleb Stemmons on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

An alder flycatcher on elderberry (Photo by Caleb Stemmons on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Many Mays ago I walked past our small wetland below our guesthouse and heard an alder’s “quick, three beers.” I never did see the bird but it, like the willow, was migrating through our property on its way north. Last May 30, Mark briefly heard and saw one in black locust saplings on the edge of First Field at the base of the powerline right-of-way.

Alders have the northernmost breeding range of any empid—across sub-Arctic Canada and Alaska, south to Ohio and Pennsylvania and through the Appalachians to North Carolina and Tennessee. Usually alders breed at an elevation between 820 and 2300 feet in denser, wetter, and more wooded habitat than willows, such as alder bogs, shrub swamps, and even recovering clear-cuts, but sometimes in the same habitat as willows.

Unlike willows, northern Pennsylvania is the southern edge of the alders’ core breeding grounds in the glaciated sections of the Appalachian Plateau, most notably Erie and Crawford counties in the northwest, according to BBA2. With a whopping 161% increase from BBA1, and an estimated 28,000 singing males, this species also is thriving here, although the wooded wetland habitat it depends on needs to be protected from human changes in the landscape.

Alders build their nests near the ground in the upright fork of a shrub in June and sing in migration from the third week in May until the second week in June and on their breeding grounds as late as the second week in August, a week before the bulk of the population begins heading south to their wintering grounds in north and central South America.

A least flycatcher (Photo by Fyn Kynd on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A least flycatcher (Photo by Fyn Kynd on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Least flycatchers E. minimus sing an emphatic “che-beck” over and over, a song I hear most springs during their migration up from Mexico and Central America when they arrive on our mountain as early as April 15, but usually by the first week in May. Like the alders, northern Pennsylvania is the southernmost breeding range for leasts, except for those that move down the Appalachians to North Carolina and Tennessee.

Last May Mark recorded them singing in the barberry shrubs and small walnut saplings in First Field and from large oaks and tulip trees in the higher hollows beyond Dogwood Knoll, and I heard one on May 24 in the old apple tree behind the guesthouse. The previous summer (2019), they were still singing and Mark hypothesized that they may be breeding here occasionally.

Leasts breed in open deciduous and mixed forest, woodland edges, orchards, and wooded suburbs, and in a recent 2008 study, they nested close to each other, probably to help deter predators, attract females or both. Their deep, cup-shaped nests are on deciduous tree branches less than 20 feet high and have eggs in them in late May and early June.

According to BBA2, there were scattered breeding records from the Pittsburgh Low Plateau and Ridge and Valley Province, but most leasts breed across Pennsylvania’s northern highlands. Unfortunately, breeding was down 6.6% from BBA1, with an estimated 138,000 singing males.

An Acadian flycatcher (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

An Acadian flycatcher (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Acadian flycatchers E. virescens are now the most common breeding empid in Pennsylvania. Their loud, explosive “pit-see” is unmistakable once you hear it. However, I’d been hearing it for several years in our north-facing hollow and thought it was an alarm call of another songbird. Then, on May 22, 1994, as I led a field trip along our hollow road for our Audubon group, Stan Kotala identified the caller as an Acadian flycatcher. Once I knew the caller, I also heard it in the large oaks where we built our exclosure in 2001.

On May 22, 1995, the first Acadian was back and singing and on June 12, as I walked our hollow road, an Acadian started scolding me. I followed it with my binoculars and saw it go to a nest hanging from the end of an American beech branch 70 feet from the ground. It was a new breeding species for our property and for Blair County and suited the description in BBA1 which stated that the Acadian flycatcher “inhabits woodlands near streams, where it frequently builds in the pendant branches of a beech…”

Acadian flycatcher babies in nest (Photo by Brian Henderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Acadian flycatcher babies in nest (Photo by Brian Henderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

On July 5, while driving my Dodge truck, I asked our son Steve to climb out on to the truck bed and check the nest. He saw two fluffy young still in the nest as a distressed adult Acadian called. We quickly retreated and late in July examined the empty nest constructed mostly of hemlock twigs and spider webs.

According to BBA2, Acadians reestablished their range in Pennsylvania and other eastern states in the early 1900s after a long absence probably due to nineteenth century deforestation because Acadians breed in lowland areas in old-growth woodlands near streams especially narrow, hemlock-lined ravines. They prefer a closed canopy and an open-to-moderate understory, but further south they breed in deciduous forest and bald cypress groves.

Pennsylvania is near the northern limit of their population that ranges west to Nebraska and Texas, south to the Gulf coast and central Florida. They breed in most of south, central and northwestern Pennsylvania with a 30% increase from BBA1 to BBA2 and an estimated 149,000 singing males. By late July until the third week in September they begin migrating south to their wintering grounds in south Central America and northern South America.

A yellow-bellied flycatcher (Photo by Stan Lupo on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A yellow-bellied flycatcher (Photo by Stan Lupo on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The least common of the empids here are yellow-bellied flycatchers E. flaviventris. Breeding across Canada to southern Minnesota and Pennsylvania, these shy birds hide in dense thickets during migration and rarely sing. They breed at elevations from 1660-2250 feet in bogs and open swamps with sphagnum moss and scattered canopy deciduous and conifer trees and build nests on the ground on sphagnum hummocks hidden by shrubs or ferns. They sing “killink,” and call “chu-wee” from prominent perches.

Once thought to have left Pennsylvania after nesting in the Mt. Pocono area in the early twentieth century, in 1980 Douglas A. Gross found an adult yellow-bellied with young in a Sullivan County hemlock grove, the first confirmed nesting here in 42 years. They breed as early as May 24 but as late as June 20. The nest Gross first found fledged young on June 23 but the male continued feeding them until July 7. Later studies by Gross found that a few pairs are double-brooded with new nests as late as August 2.

Today a few breed mostly on North Mountain in Sullivan and western Wyoming counties and have been listed as Endangered by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Pennsylvania Biological Survey.

Mark recorded what was incessant calling by a yellow-bellied that he saw below our Greenbrier Trail last May 20 in the early morning, proving that May is the premier month for hearing the songs and calls of those darn empids.

 

Pop Goes the Weasel

Last spring, we had several encounters with a long-tailed weasel that was probably denned up under the guesthouse. Whether it was only a male weasel, a female with young, or both we never knew because we only saw one weasel at a time.

William and Catherine Plummer, the original settlers in the hollow named for them.

William and Catherine Plummer, the original settlers in the hollow named for them.

Our guesthouse was built in 1865 by the original settler, William Plummer and his 10 sons (one had been killed at the siege of Petersburg during the Civil War). The log cabin they had lived in beneath the knoll where our house now stands had burned to the ground. Their new home had six-pane sash windows and vertical board and batten siding and the central portion was constructed with only a crawl space beneath it.

Ever since, a variety of mammals—porcupines, woodchucks, rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks—have lived under it or in the nearby stone wall. With the stream below, it provides ideal habitat even for long-tailed weasels, because they favor woodland edges with dense cover near a stream and will live near humans if there is abundant food and suitable den sites, all of which describe our guesthouse, our house, and its surrounding habitat.

A long-tailed weasel (Photo by Jerry Kirkhart on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A long-tailed weasel (Photo by Jerry Kirkhart on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Both our sons, Dave and Mark, in the guesthouse, and I in our sunroom, heard more noise than usual beneath our homes last spring. Then, one morning in mid-May, Mark watched a long-tailed weasel bound under the guesthouse and into its walls and emerge with a mouse dangling from its mouth. That old, porous house provided happy hunting grounds for the weasel.

After all, biologists maintain that deer mice are the second favorite prey of long-tailed weasels, but meadow voles are their favorites and I unwittingly provided an easy source of them. I had been throwing bird seed out on the dirt below our back steps for ground-feeding birds. This not only enticed meadow voles to feed there too, but they constructed several tunnels beneath the seeds so they could quickly grab a seed and duck back into their underground refuge. Then they grew bolder and did not disappear when I looked out at them. I spent several weeks watching them feed side by side with the birds.

A long-tailed weasel carrying a vole Photo by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A long-tailed weasel carrying a vole Photo by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But the day before Mark reported his sighting of the long-tailed weasel, the whole area beneath our back porch had been dug up and the meadow voles’ tunnels destroyed. The voles were gone, no doubt victims of one or more weasels. Apparently, long-tailed weasels can easily creep into the burrows of meadow voles and kill them by suffocating, according to biologists and to the video on YouTube I watched which showed a long-tailed weasel doing that.

The long, sinuous bodies of long-tailed weasels enable them to move underground when hunting prey, and while they make their own dens in banks or under stumps, they construct their nests at the end of underground tunnels built by their prey, most notably chipmunks. After they eat their prey, beginning with their heads, hearts and lungs, they use their victims’ fur, along with dried grasses, to line and construct their nests, which are 9 to 12 inches in diameter and often cluttered with the bones of those they kill.

The next morning, as I walked down to the guesthouse, a long-tailed weasel ran up the hill toward our house. I had time to admire its dark brown body, triangular-shaped head, white underparts, and black-tipped tail and the way it bounded along, its back humped when it crossed directly in front of me. It appeared to slip around the foundation of the house probably searching for the several chipmunks that had burrows there.

Long-tailed weasels are generalists both in their habitat requirements and food. They eat 40% of their weight every day and over 90% of their prey consists of small mammals, chiefly rodents including Norway rats and house mice, but also red, gray, fox and flying squirrels, moles, shrews, muskrats, and young cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares.

They are not ruthless killers but cache excess prey for several days for themselves or to feed their young. They don’t suck blood as legend insists, but lap blood that seeps from the back of their prey’s skull after they kill it by holding it down with their feet and body and biting the base of its skull or severing its spinal cord.

Long-tailed weasels also eat deer, beaver, and woodchuck carrion, insects, earthworms, and any birds they can catch on nests. Red-winged blackbirds, tree sparrows, song sparrows, northern flickers, dark-eyed juncos and blue-winged teal have been noted by various observers. In addition, they will raid birds’ nests for eggs. They readily climb trees in pursuit of prey and even though their eyesight is poor, they have excellent hearing and sense of smell, both of which they use to track prey.

Bluebirds on power pole box (Photo by Mark Bonta)

Bluebirds on power pole box (Photo by Mark Bonta)

Knowing all this I was not surprised to watch a weasel run from our garage a couple hundred feet above our house across our driveway to the bluebird box on an electric pole and into the field grasses. The bluebirds had been feeding young but disappeared shortly thereafter and when I checked, the nest was empty.

Still, long-tailed weasels have plenty of enemies including red and gray foxes, coyotes, bobcats, rough-legged hawks, great horned and barred owls, domestic cats and dogs, large snakes and humans. And not all weasels’ hunts are successful as Mark observed.

A meadow jumping mouse (Photo by the Seney Natural History Association on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A meadow jumping mouse (Photo by the Seney Natural History Association on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Early the following evening at 7:45, he set out for a walk in First Field. Suddenly, right at his feet, a long-tailed weasel chased a mouse, totally ignoring Mark. But then the mouse jumped away. It was a meadow jumping mouse, another favorite prey item, but the weasel couldn’t seem to pick up the mouse’s scent even though it kept trying. In the meantime, the meadow jumping mouse was long gone. Finally, the weasel gave up and headed deep into the field for other prey.

That was the last we saw of long-tailed weasels because the grasses and wildflowers on our home grounds and First Field had grown tall enough to hide all small and even medium-sized mammals. But throughout the spring and summer, I would often observe the birds and squirrels in our overgrown front yard scolding and looking down to the ground and I wondered if they were seeing a weasel.

The long-tailed weasel, also called the New York weasel, big stoat, and ermine, is the most common and largest of the three weasel species in Pennsylvania. But unlike the short-tailed weasel and least weasel, which are the true ermines, turning white in winter, the long-tailed weasel only does so in the extreme northern part of our state. It is also the widest ranging weasel in the Western hemisphere, living in all life zones from alpine to tropical except desert from central Canada south through the United States except for the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, and south through Central and South America to Peru and Bolivia.

It is 12 to 17 inches long including its 3.2 to 6.3 inches-long tail. The male’s home range is 25 to 60 acres and includes more than one female. While normally a male may cover 600 feet in hunting, a female covers half that range most days and nights.

The male mates in midsummer when a female is receptive for three to four days, but the embryos only continue to develop in early spring, a process called delayed implantation. So even though gestation is on average 279 days, it takes only 27 days for the embryos to become blind newborns with long white hair and weighing as much as hummingbirds. Altogether, there are four to eight young born in a single litter in April or May.

An adult weasel carrying its infant (Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

An adult weasel carrying its infant (Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

At three weeks old, they are trilling and squeaking, like the adults do, they can crawl out of their nest, and their teeth are sharp enough to eat the meat the female has supplied them. Their eyes open at five weeks, they look more like adults, and they are weaned. They are also eating their weight in food daily.

The female continues to bring food to her offspring and takes them hunting until midsummer when they are then on their own. The young females are already sexually mature and mate, but the young males are not sexually mature until they are a year old.

Every time I briefly glimpse a long-tailed weasel, I am reminded of the old children’s song “Pop goes the Weasel,” but after doing a little research, I learned that it was the nonsense name of a popular dance in Victorian England especially in the 1850s. There are many versions of the jig’s lyrics but each verse ends with “Pop Goes the Weasel,” and none had anything to do with the animal.

Still, weasels do pop their heads up when disturbed and so I’ll end this account with the song we sang as children: “All around the cobbler’s bench, the monkey chased the weasel, the monkey thought twas all in fun, pop, goes the weasel.”