Sunday, October 28, 2007

Trench Warfare

Fall is here in all its glory. Autumn near the northern California coast is nothing like what we used to have in the Northeast, but it is very pleasant just the same. October is usually a month where we enjoy an extended Indian Summer. This year has been no exception.

But about a month ago, I was unpleasantly surprised to find a series of conical mounds rising out of the lawn in the back yard. In fact, I actually watched some of them being raised. The dirt would be pushed out in a little core from the center of the mound, like an erupting volcano, then fall off to add more dirt to the rising sides. Some research online told me that it was the tell-tale sign of a mole. So each day, I would take a shovel out and redistribute the dirt to other needy areas of the yard. Then usually by the next day, there would be more dirt there or at a new location.

I wanted to stop the mole before he ruined the lawn

I camped out one night early on with my rifle and a flashlight casting red-tinted light over the active mound. At one point, I saw a subtly moving silhouette at the top of the mound, raised my rifle and centered it in my scope. In the darkness, it was hard to see what exactly the creature was. Just before I took the shot, I realized that it was actually just a large clump of dirt standing vertically as it was being pushed up out of the ground. That's when I did more research and realized that moles seldom go above ground. I knew that my rifle would not be the likely solution.

So one afternoon I was out back, taking a break from some wood chopping I had been doing when I saw the dirt being pushed up out of a nearly flat spot in the grass. So I swiftly grabbed the axe, strode to the spot and with a hefty swing, buried the entire head of the axe deep under the surface of the grass. There was no blood on it when I pulled it out, and the chances that I would have happened to strike the mole were one in a thousand. What I do know is that the mole activity only occurred once more after that, and hasn't resumed since. Go figure.

If I could have gotten this view, I'd have definitely killed him

Then yesterday, I saw new digging at a different spot in the yard. Under the tree where I place my bird feeders at the back of the yard I saw a little hole, flush with the ground, and some fresh dirt spread around it. I didn't know what had made it, but I knew it was not a mole. I went outside late last night to see if I could spot the culprit with my binoculars and the flashlight, but had no luck.

He couldn't have picked a less fortunate spot - right under the shooting tree!

Then this morning, as I watched a bunch of sparrows out enjoying some seeds on the ground, I saw that there was fresh dirt out there. So I walked out to get a closer look. The birds all flew away at my approach, but sure enough, there in the hole was a little brown furry head poking out! It definitely wasn't a mole, but I couldn't tell if it was a gopher or a vole. As quick and as low to the ground as I could, I slunk back into the house to get my rifle.

I loaded it with a .20 Field Target Special (FTS), snuck out and sat myself in one of the patio chairs about 15 yards away. I went with the FTS instead of the Crow Magnum this time because I felt I could pinpoint the shot a little more reliably with it. I thought that level of precision might be needed on a small target that was quickly darting in and out of his hole. I placed my left elbow on the arm of the chair to brace and steady the rifle, and brought the opening of the hole into scope view. Once the birds came back and were again enjoying seeds all around the hole, I watched the rodent pop his head back out. He did this several times, coming out and pushing a little dirt onto the growing pile at the back of the hole. The next time he came out, he turned to the right, giving me a profile of his little head. It wasn't a clear shot, there was intervening grass that slightly obscured him, but I could tell where his head was. He paused just long enough and I squeezed the trigger.

The birds all scattered, and there was no sign of anything above ground. I walked over and there he was. He had dropped himself back down into the hole but his head was plain to be seen. And he was as dead as can be.

Taking a dirt nap

I used a couple of sticks as forceps and pulled the little digger out of his hole. An investigation revealed that the pellet had gone in right behind his ear...

...and had come out opposite at his cheek. The Beeman Field Target Special does not mess around. That pellet could not have flown any more true.

A case of terminal lead poisoning

Having never seen one up close, I was uncertain, but believed it was a gopher rather than a vole. From my previous research online, I knew that voles were much more mouse-like in appearance than this little guy was. After disposing of him, a quick online search proved that this was indeed a pocket gopher, most likely the Botta's Pocket Gopher (Thomomys bottae) which is the common variety in California.

After the frustration of the mole debacle, it was satisfying indeed to have dispatched this little varmint before any major damage could be done to the lawn or the tree.

In the words of the immortal Carl Spackler, "Au revoir, gopher"