Red squirrels can be pesky, but their nocturnal, endearing cousins, the flying squirrels, are rarely seen. Volunteer Earth and Beyond host and producer Robin Song tells about recent interactions with both of them, and some of the goings-on at Birch Creek Ranch. Audio is 9:15. Photos by Robin Song.
The summer of 2013 has been a roller-coaster ride for me. While the weather has been spectacular, with week after week of seemingly endless sunshine, for this cold-weather gal, it’s been trying. The long hours of heat and humidity has forced me to stay in the cabin, doing what I can to keep cool. In June I built an outdoor cage under the May Day tree for my two doves and I would put them in it for a couple of hours each day. Songbirds working the tree for insects would hop amongst the branches near the cage, peering down at the doves, which would peer back at them. I wished I could tune in to what the birds were thinking as they looked at each other.
When the temperature would start to descend to something decent in the evenings, I would take Lyra for a walk out in the hayfields. I would have to slather down with my usual concoction of sunblock and bug repellent, still being followed by a cloud of hungry skeeters. The late spring had made several of the migratory bird species keep heading on north, so the forests and hayfields were down in both populations and species of birds. I didn’t get to see any flickers, kingfishers or Wilson’s warblers this summer. The light-morph Harlan hawk, which has followed the haying machines the past three summers in a row, was also absent. I only heard a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Swainson’s Thrushes, and snipes, whereas in years past I’d hear many more throughout the season. Some of the birds seem to have left early, too. By mid-July I was no longer hearing the song of the Myrtle Yellow-rumped Warbler, and the winnowing of the snipes was absent at night.
Of course fledgling time is always a high-point of the summer for me. Seems like one day the area around the cabin is suddenly full of fledgling juncos, siskins, chickadees and white-crowned sparrows following their parents about, begging food. With the population explosion of rusty-tussock moth caterpillars, the birds had plenty of food to bring to their voracious youngsters. Fledglings are curious and they would visit the cabin porch, landing on the railings, unafraid of my comings and goings. They picked amongst my potted flowers and hanging baskets, keeping my pair of budgies entertained from their vantage point inside the cabin, watching through the open screen door. Thanks to all the birds, my porch garden was kept fairly clean of caterpillars.
A pair of mated but non-nesting Sandhill Cranes visited the ranch all summer, keeping everyone charmed and entertained. This was the first time cranes had come near the buildings, walking along the drive, flying in to land inside the currant nursery, gleaning food from the mowed grass. Often I stepped out onto the porch in the mornings on my way to the barn, to find the cranes striding past my car, calling in their ancient voices before taking wing and flying out to the hay fields.
Red squirrels kept me particularly busy this summer. Normally there are a couple of resident squirrels. They have a family and the offspring move out into the forest. But over this past winter several squirrels moved into the territory by the cabin. There were more squirrels than I could handle. I counted seven and they were causing all kinds of mischief. In particular they seemed to enjoy digging in my hanging baskets. I would discover holes next to the plants, and dirt scattered onto the porch under the baskets. Sometimes the roots of the plants had been exposed overnight after the squirrel had been digging, and I lost several sensitive plants. This was just one of the problems the squirrels were creating and I decided it was time to take action. I set up the live trap, baiting it with peanut butter and nuts.
Over the course of a couple of weeks, I live-trapped five squirrels and drove each one a few miles down the road to a place I had chosen carefully for their new home. I had thought I was done with catching squirrels after number three had been captured, but upon returning and pulling up in front of the cabin, I stared in amazement to find- not one but two- squirrels on the porch! Apparently I was catching the dominant squirrels, and as soon as they were gone, the subservient squirrels moved into their territory from the forest. I took comfort in knowing all five squirrels were being reunited in their new home, and that they had plenty of time to settle in before winter.
Disaster came in the form of an opportunistic horse. I let the mare out of her corral each night to go graze in the hayfields. Jody discovered a gap in the garden fence one night and had herself a vegetable feast. On another night a greenhouse door was left open and she went inside, with alarming results. After the damage was assessed, morale was low, for a few days. Then an unexpected gift arrived.
I was up late, working on an art project, on July 30th. As the clock moved towards one a.m., I heard a noise on the porch. Lyra didn’t alert like she would if she smelled a bear or a moose, so I got the camera and opened the cabin door. I looked around but didn’t see anything, at first. Then a movement caught my eye and I looked up. A squirrel was clinging to a crossbeam under the eaves on the west side of the porch. I played my flashlight over the form and my heart skipped a beat. This wasn’t a red squirrel. I was staring at a Northern Flying Squirrel!! Over the next twenty minutes I took photos and made a couple of videos of the squirrel, admiring its beautiful markings and flat, rudder- like tail. I put out a treat cup with nuts, apples, raisins and peanut butter, leaving it on the beam near the squirrel.
The next morning I showed the photos to the Kingsburys. They were as delighted as I that a flying squirrel had finally been documented at the ranch, for the first time in over thirty years of their residency. Like me, they knew that the presence of flying squirrels means that the forest is healthy and old growth. A primary food source for flying squirrels is the fungi referred to as ‘truffles’. These squirrels need a large territory-nearly twenty acres per squirrel- and they’ll make several drays, often traveling between them during their nightly forays, and sleep in them during the day. In winter, when the temperature drops, flying squirrels will forsake their solitary ways and two or more will come together in a dray, witches’ broom or tree cavity, curling up close and entering a semi-hibernation state called “torpor”, until the cold snap passes.
Doing some research, I discovered that flying squirrels are omnivores, and their diet includes insects, nestling birds, fungi, lichens, vegetation, berries, carrion, and tree seeds. They live an average of four years, and females raise two to eight young a year during their short lives. 50% of the young fall prey to predators. Babies are born pink and hairless, blind, deaf and completely dependent upon mama. Their eyes open 25 days later. They nurse for about 60 to 70 days. They are fully-grown 240 days after birth and indistinguishable from their parents. Predators of flying squirrels are owls, hawks, and martens. Being nocturnal, this species is not nearly as vocal as their daytime ‘cousins’, the red squirrels. Their best defenses are their light-sensitive eyesight and silent stealth. If pursued by a predator, they have one more trick up their squirrel sleeve- they can launch off a tree limb, spread their four legs, stretching out the fold of skin between their front and hind legs, and glide- surprising distances -to safety.
The night after I discovered my special visitor, I put out some peanut butter and nuts on the porch’s beam. Just after midnight I heard a soft thud on the porch. My guest had arrived. I carefully opened the cabin door, camera and flashlight ready. The light played over the beam and lit up my visitor sitting under the eaves, chowing down on my peanut offering. It was much less nervous on this second visit, having learned that I am not a threat. After finishing its peanut, I watched, transfixed, as the squirrel darted across the beam, stopped briefly at the east end, then sailed off into space, legs spread, skin stretched taut. It glided down to the ground, landing in amongst the native Alaskan plants and scampered up the nearest tree. It gave me one final gift- I heard it’s soft song come back to me from the trees. Very different from the noisy chatter of the red squirrel. Its gentle voice befitted this creature of the night, which must always be on the lookout for nocturnal predators.
The genus name of the Northern Flying Squirrel also befits it well: Glaucomys –glaukos from the Greek, meaning “silver, or gray”, and mys meaning “mouse”, Sabrinus– from the Latin, meaning “river nymph” (referring to the squirrel’s tendency to live near streams or creeks), and Yukonensis, referring to its northern home range across North America. There it was: this 4.9 ounce “silver mouse river nymph” had made its presence known on the ranch, and brought smiles to everyone here once again. Like the other gifts of this extraordinary summer, this one was memorable, indeed.
By Robin Song