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Woodland Vole

Look for this furry, rare Missouri resident in woodlands before daylight.

I arrived at the woodland an hour before daylight and found a comfortable spot to watch the morning unfold. A prescribed burn had left the forest floor more open than the week before, providing an abundance of photographic shooting lanes. It was dead calm and pitch-dark as I plopped down on my camouflaged cushion, back against a familiar hickory snag. A great-horned owl began calling softly as I settled in. As the aroma of the charred forest floor wafted around me, I was reminded of why Robert Frost wrote so eloquently of “woods.”

As I began to doze, I was startled by rustling in the leaves, right at my feet. It was too dark to see anything so I just sat, curious. Soon the rustling was accompanied by grunts and squeaks. I eagerly waited for the forest floor to materialize. Minutes later, the first glow of morning illuminated the source of the racket: woodland voles (Microtus pinetorum). I watched as they scurried all around me, at least five, a colony. In the dim light, they seemed unconcerned with my presence and soon began racing back and forth beneath my slightly elevated legs. As I sat there, beguiled by these diminutive forest dwellers, I felt like Gulliver, surrounded by Liliputians, but of the rodent variety. Forsaking rationality, I moved my legs a bit to make sure the little scoundrels weren’t immobilizing me with spider silk. How could I be sure they weren’t conspiring to cart me off to deeper parts of the woods?

As the morning light began to paint the forest floor, my wee friends disappeared into underground runs. I wasn’t discouraged by their retreat because my 500mm lens was useless at such close range. I would return the next morning with appropriate gear. Over the next five days, I sat in the same spot each morning, my lens trained on one of the tunnel entrances. I never saw activity like on the first day and what I did see mostly occurred before daylight.

The woodland vole, a heavy-set rodent with a big head and short, furry tail, is considered rare throughout Missouri but is more common in the Ozark highlands. Reddish-brown in color and about 4 inches long, their tiny eyes and fur-covered ears make them perfectly suited for underground life, just beneath the forest litter. Woodland voles dig their own tunnels and dens with teeth and claws, and feeding occurs mostly underground on roots, tubers, seeds, nuts, and insects. Woodland voles typically live in colonies, ranging over less than a third of an acre, and a female produces several litters each year. Worthy opponents to a photographer, woodland voles are more active at night and spend most of their time underground.

By the fifth morning, I was still waiting for my first image, my gaze transfixed on the tunnel entrance. Suddenly, one of the tiny rodents revealed its face for what seemed only a second. Somehow, I managed a single click of the shutter, capturing the creature’s inquisitive glance before it retreated underground. Gratified at finally documenting my discovery, I relaxed for a while, content to be a part of the “woods so lovely, dark and deep.”

—Story and photo by Danny Brown

We help people discover nature through our online field guide. Visit mdc.mo.gov/node/73 to learn more about Missouri’s plants and animals.

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