Friday, May 25, 2018

Four Minutes with the Weasels

With the return of the long-tailed weasel to Somme, the ecosystem may come more into balance. See below for photographs of six of them. Six? That may seem like an unreasonably high number, but wait til you see!
Weasels are predators we have often discussed – and so much wished for[1]. They eat voles. Somme's vole numbers are so high that we have to work unnaturally hard to keep the little rodents from extirpating rare plant species[2].

This adventure started on the evening of Sunday, May 20th, as I made an apparently minor decision. We had been trying to finish up many small projects and had a purple plastic sled hauling various equipment. The light began to fade; we were going to need some of this gear the next day and decided not to lug it back to the car. I folded my old raincoat over the stuff that needed to stay dry, then covered all with the sled, and hiked out happy and light. 

May 21 turned out to feature a horrendous, most-of-the-day rain storm. I didn’t head back until the rain stopped in early evening. How wet would my stuff be, after all that? When I turned over the sled, the raincoat looked mostly dry. I picked it up and hung it on a stump. As I did, a small animal shot out of it – as a blur – and disappeared into a hollow log. But within seconds it was back. In fact, it was so fast and so everywhere, I felt almost dazed. It was in front of me, behind me, within inches from my feet. Utterly unafraid. So quick it was hard for my eyes to follow. 

I felt surrounded, enveloped, and confused. 
So everywhere at once, the weasel seemed like a spirit from another world.
In all my photos, she is more or less a blur.
Then I saw what she was after.

Mama weasel retrieving baby weasel
When I picked up the coat, I dumped babies all around my feet. The smart little mama had figured out that my old Goretex coat and purple sled, compared to a leaky log, had made a better shelter from the storm. But now, thanks to me, she had a mess to clean up.  
In this photo, mama blur is hauling baby blur back to their hollow log den
while three others wait by the little log, above right. 
Twenty seconds later, she's back for the next kit. 
Eyes closed and helpless, a baby waits.
Eight seconds after that last photo is taken, she's back. 
One second after that last photo, she and her mouthful are off.
My next two photo attempts miss her entirely, as did many earlier ones. About half the time, I photographed where she had been. But next, I take a different kind of photo.

Now she's racing around, not finding anything. She's missing one. Where is it?
I lose track of her. Then my raincoat starts jumping around.
She's in the hood ... going up and down the sleeves ... in the lining, apparently.
The whole coat vibrates. Where is that last kit?
And then she's gone. Must have retrieved it. The adventure is over - at least the personal part of it. The precision of iPhoto revealed that it took her about 20 seconds to pick up each kit, install it back in her hollow log, and return to grab the next little precious. 
Here's the den she lugged the kits to. She used the hole to take quick looks out.
But the actual entrance is through the crack, which widens a bit under those geranium leaves.
My whole blessed encounter with the long-tailed weasel was completed in about four minutes. Actually, the photographic part of it, as documented by time stamps, lasted from 7:34:11 PM to 7:37:39 PM. That’s 3 minutes and 28 seconds. But I felt like I shared a brief eternity with them.
 Since then, I’ve studied our two Illinois weasels – the long-tailed[3], which this one was – and the least[4], which we can also hope for. A better prey-predator balance means a happier ecosystem. 
The ecosystem here is open oak woods that's been under gradual restoration for decades.  Before stewardship, this area was so dark from invasive trees that the ground was bare dirt. For that reason it had few voles, mice, or rabbits (and of course few birds, butterflies, little of most other nature). 
Habitat looking northwest from den. Huge old bur and white oaks have mostly not reproduced (because of excessive shade) for decades. Now they're starting to have seedlings and saplings, mostly not in their own shade, but in woodland meadows that have replaced what were "pure" stands of invaders. It may take many more decades (or centuries?) before this woods fully recovers its natural patch dynamics of thickets, meadows, and canopy tree reproduction.
So we celebrate each returning feature and species as we can.
Welcome back weasels. We hope you're here for good. 
[1]Returned? How do we know they weren’t already here? Well, we don’t for scientific sure. But long-tailed weasels are curious. If you’re out in an ecosystem much of the day, week after week, decade after decade, you tend to see them pop up, give you a look, disappear, and then pop up somewhere else to look again.

Our region has two weasel species, the long-tailed and the least. Both are ferocious hunters that regularly kill rabbits, that weigh ten times as much. But their principal food is voles and mice. They both have high metabolisms and eat 40% of their weight per day. The least weasel is principally an animal of grasslands. Long-tailed weasels hunt in prairies, savannas, and open woodlands.

[2]Voles (or "meadow mice") are the commonest animal in the grassland and also common (with white-footed mice) in savannas and open woodlands. We find that voles sometimes cut most or all of populations of such rare plants as prairie white-fringed orchid, eared false foxglove, prairie lily, and prairie gentian. Some of these populations revive if we cage plants individually from the voles, but it's humanly possible to do only so much of that.
These vole cuttings are in every square foot of grassland after burns done when the ground was moist.
Voles have a huge impact on every square foot of grassland, which is natural and good,
as long as predation maintains some level of balance. 
Why do we care if some species are wiped out? This blog has published many responses to that question. But some scientists have recently written provocative pieces saying, in various forms, "Who cares? Extinction is natural." Some good responses to those poorly thought-out challenges were recently published by Carl Sarfina.

[3]Long-tailed weasels evolved in North America about two million years ago, from a larger species. The new, smaller species is thought to have evolved to take advantage of the bounty of small rodents simultaneously evolving on the prairie, now five million years old as a new ecosystem type. So it took the long-tailed about 3 million years to catch up. It is rash of our species to lightly dispose of ecosystems, relationships, and gene pools that took millions of years to develop.

[4]We hope the least weasel returns too. This one we'd be less likely to see. They're enough smaller that they spend almost all their time under the grass prowling through vole tunnels. Indeed, they could already be here. But the superabundance of voles makes us doubt it. 

For proofing and improvements to Kathy Garness and Eriko Kojima.
Thanks to you for any comments.


Unknown said...

They are a dizzying delight. Years back I had a 4 minute encounter of mama weasel and her 4 speedy nippy pups running like a chariot horse team in my basement. The mamas are very mindful of their kids. Seldom seen but bold as brazen whenever encountered

STAN TYSON said...

So many wonderful pieces of this thread! Yes we need weasels! I have often wondered if we need to make some sort of dry nest box for them. I know that with rabbits a week or two of wet weather in the spring will decimate the population. Being a grower I really hate rodents, but still do not kill outright unless I have to. My cats and chickens ( pets) are always on vole patrol for me!

Unknown said...

When you see new species move into a portion of habitat that you know has been restored, it must feel so very rewarding! The weasel must have earned its name because it recognized how cozy we humans have it. ha ha I'll be rooting that the new weasel family will contribute to a better rodent balance. How fitting to find a new weasel mother not long after Mother's Day. I have four schnauzers that don't allow rodents in our yard, which is what they were bred to do. They promptly evicted a new group of voles that moved in under our deck. My neighbor had to work over the summer to get them out of her yard. I so appreciate how species know just how to do their part! Sounds like weasels just do it at hyper speed.

LCulp said...

What a delight!! I dream of weasels...and otters...and martens...and minks...thank you for being so quick with your camera.

Anonymous said...

Great story!

Jim Vanderpoel