by Whit Gibbons

October 30, 2016

When we walk down the trail from our cabin in the woods, we pass a tree we call the Hollow Holly. We always poke a stick inside to see if anything will run out. Nothing has, but we knew something had to live in there.

Any nature-oriented person would be intrigued by the almost 50-foot-tall, 2 feet in diameter tree with its gray-barked trunk covered below by a skirt of bright emerald green moss. Ruby red holly berries against sharp-pointed dark green leaves are a pretty sight in winter. But the real attraction is a large, cavelike opening at the base with an apron of soft dirt marked by many animal tracks. On the inside, three well-used burrows, each large enough to accommodate a possum, lead away from the hollowed-out base in different directions. The tree is unquestionably the home, or at least a stopover site, for wildlife.

We decided to find out what visits the Hollow Holly by setting up wildlife cameras aimed at the trail and at the base of the tree trunk. Hunters use trail cameras to ascertain when and where the best hunting opportunities are for particular game species. Wildlife biologists use the cameras to assess population abundances, feeding patterns and general behavior of various species to understand the basic ecology of the animals. Our more modest goal was simply to determine what happens at the Hollow Holly.

Turns out a lot happens. We recorded seven different mammalian visitors. Upon viewing activities on the first night the camera was set up, we saw an armadillo enter the opening and disappear down one of the tunnels without hesitation. Presumably we had witnessed one of the original architects of the burrow system. Later in the evening, an adult woodrat emerged from a different tunnel. Woodrats are large native rodents with chubby bodies and somewhat furry tails. The Hollow Holly is probably home for a family of woodrats.

Around midnight, three raccoons moved over the ground in front of the hollow. One disappeared into it and came out a minute or so later. A passing possum later did the same thing. Were both checking for an easy insect meal inside the tree or did they actually have a room in the wildlife apartment complex?

A white-tail deer, a young buck, stuck its head into the photo shoot, sniffing the grass and chewing a blade. It turned its head and looked in the tree hollow as if curious what might be inside.The most impressive visitor showed up around 4 a.m. This was just after a possum left, which proved to be fortunate timing for it. A huge bobcat appeared, stuck its head inside the hole like someone peering into a refrigerator wondering what there was to eat, looked around and left. At early light, a pair of gray squirrels came into view, not from under the tree but from above, and foraged around in front of the opening at the base.

Revealing wildlife’s hidden biodiversity brings a greater appreciation for natural habitats in a region. Knowing that our little woodland habitat has such a rich assortment of mammals is not only gratifying but also exciting, although we seldom experience any of them face to face because most come out only at night. Also, the educational lessons learned from a wildlife camera are many. For one thing, even an old stump can be somebody’s home and needs to be appreciated as a safe haven for certain animals.

But the most important message for everyone, especially commercial developers, land managers and anyone interested in conservation of native wildlife is that when we destroy habitat we are destroying wildlife that lives there even though we may never see the animals. The Hollow Holly is living proof that our woodland communities are full of fascinating treasures that may be out of sight but that should never be put out of mind.

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