Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Unknown Squirrel

All of us in New England are thoroughly familiar with the ubiquitous grey squirrel, the notoriously clever and persistent raider of bird feeders. They thrive virtually everywhere among us. (By the way, those greys that make their homes in the deeper forests are much more wary of humans than their backyard and suburban park counterparts; try to get close to one in the more remote woods (if you even see one!) and you'll discover a different animal. Photographing a truly wild grey squirrel is more of a challenge than you'd guess.)

Gaining (or regaining) ground in many areas, including the northeast, is the black squirrel, which is really just a melanistic grey squirrel. It is said that black squirrels were much more abundant, in fact predominant, in our old growth forests before European colonization occurred. Their dark color afforded them protection in the dense shade of ancient forests.

And raise your hand if you've never seen a chipmunk... I don't see any going up. 

Eastern Chipmunk

Now, I could be convinced that a fair percentage of New Englanders have never seen a red squirrel. Although common, red squirrels are not as numerous as greys. They tend to prefer coniferous forest habitat, but can be found in any type of forest, and in suburbia. I don't think they're very often found in decidedly urban settings, which is why I can believe there are New Englanders who aren't familiar with them. Too bad, because they can be very entertaining as they nervously dart about through the trees. Reds never seem to move slowly from one place to another, poking along like greys regularly do. No, it's more a harried dash from point A to point B, stop to look around for possible threats, then repeat. 

Red Squirrel
About a month ago, I came upon three young reds who seemed to be engaged in a game designed to burn up excess energy; they were gleefully chasing each other through the boughs of hemlocks, leap-frogging over one another, jumping with abandon from one branch to the next. (It brought to mind the kind of fun we used to have as kids, chasing each other around like those squirrels until we just had to stop, double over, and catch our breath). 

I tried to capture this act on video, but only managed to get a couple brief parts of the routine. Here's a couple frames of that game.

Two reds in pursuit

Three reds... let the games begin












The Unknown...

 But there's yet another member of the squirrel clan (actually, two) that we haven't considered here yet. A common, though much more clandestine bunch... the flying squirrels. Chances are good you've never seen flying squirrels (the diminutive star of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" fame notwithstanding). "Flyers" are active in the wee hours of darkness, and stay holed up during the day. Because they're nocturnal, they have large eyes that afford them good night vision.

Flying squirrel
We are neighbors with both the northern and southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys) species here. These little guys are the smallest of our tree squirrels, with the northern being larger than the southern.

I say we are neighbors with them because they do live among us, at least in the forests, both remote and suburban. They may even be dwelling in our attics, which can explain those strange sounds we hear up there at night. More likely though, "home" for them means an old woodpecker hole, or other tree cavity. Some sources state that "witches' brooms" are also used as nests; a witch's broom is an abnormal, shrub-like or bushy growth in a tree (see the photo). Nests are also built from leaves bunched up in trees.

Typical flying squirrel bungalow
Hemlock witch's broom
Flying squirrels don't truly fly (except Rocky, of course, a real flying squirrel). They have large skin flaps between front and hind legs that, when the squirrel does a "spread eagle", become stretched out and act as a gliding sail. This allows the critters to leap from a high point in one tree and glide effortlessly to another. Through slight leg position adjustments, they can control the skin flap to help steer them to their target. Upon approaching the target tree trunk at the end of the glide, they use their sail and flattened tail as a brake, slowing enough to safely grasp the tree. 

Flyers have a varied diet consisting of nuts, seeds, fruit, fungi, slugs, and insects. They're also known to take nestling birds, as  well as eggs, and will scavenge carrion. 

In winter, they're known to nest together in various numbers (reportedly, sometimes as many as dozens), apparently to share warmth. 

Flattened Tail

I have remote wildlife cameras stationed in the forest; I recently placed one to hopefully capture video of a porcupine. When I checked the camera's video recordings one day, I was pleasantly surprised to find that several flying squirrels (and mice) had been busy there the previous night. You can watch the following video to see some of that footage, taken in infrared light.


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