Curious Sciurus

A furry plume caught my eye.

Why, I wondered, would a squirrel enter a den to escape a raging snowstorm, but leave its tail hanging outside, waving in the wind? The animal could easily continue into the tree; there’s plenty of room in the hollow trunk. I have seen as many as four squirrels disappear into that den.

I watched, curious. When would the creature withdraw its tail and scamper the rest of the way inside? Twenty minutes passed, and the tail remained outdoors.

So, I turned to my zoom lens for a closer look.

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Scritch Scratch Squirrel

Last spring, a mama squirrel was itchin’ to relocate her babies.

She moved them from one den to another—same tree, different apartment. That tree has four cavities whose entry holes are visible from the house, topped by a skylight. Mama carried each kid out of a lower cavity, up the trunk, and into a higher hole. Why? The most likely answer, my online search revealed, was to escape a flea-infested nest.

I wondered if the move really helped. The entire residential complex seemed likely to house fleas, as it was common to see birds and squirrels enter one hole and exit another. I suspected the fleas roamed freely through tunnels connecting the cavities.

I’ll never know if mama’s work was rewarded by a bite-free zone for her kids. I hope so! Nobody wants to think of babies enduring the misery of bug bites. But if she returns to that upper apartment, I suspect she’ll mark it off-limits for future nesting.

Two squirrels–not necessarily including the mama in question–recently lined the upper cavity with leaves. They’re sheltering inside. The other day, one of them climbed out and gave me ample evidence that a flea-festation has reached the upper abode.

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Feathers and Feelings

You can tell how a crested bird is feeling by watching its feathers.

Uh-oh. Your anthropomorphize-ometer is spinning, isn’t it?  Feelings are an ornithological no-no.

But I’ll argue that it doesn’t take much bird watching to notice the agitated crest feathers of a frightened bird.  Or the smooth, motionless crest on a calmer bird’s head.  If you’re lucky enough to catch their springtime flirting, you may notice that crested birds’ top feathers wag and wiggle in courtship. When they have a family, their nestlings’ crests show visible excitement when mom and dad approach with a meal.

Are the crest feathers expressing feelings? Maybe not, but those top feathers sure seem to convey a crested bird’s state of mind.

I’ve seen plenty of examples outside my window.

A Pileated Woodpecker's crest feathers stand up straight. His mate's crest feathers are smooth and flat.
A male Pileated Woodpecker ends his brooding shift as his mate arrives to take her turn. Their crests reveal which bird is more excited.

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Great Blue Baffling Behavior

A place for everything and everything in its place.

That admonition came to mind as I watched a familiar bird engage in some very peculiar behavior.

Great Blue Herons are a common sight out my window. One fellow (or girl—they look the same) appears regularly on the edge of Eagle Island, about 1,000 feet from our home. He comes out to feed, stalking fish and amphibians as he tip-toes through shallow water in classic heron style. Step. Pause. Stare. Step. Pause. Stare. Step. Pause…Pounce!

But on that July day, something else drew the bird’s attention.

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Red-Bellied Ptooey!

Ptooey!

I wonder. Does the standard onomatopoeia for ‘spitting’ apply to woodpeckers?

Ptooey is a brilliant onomatopoetic expression, but I’ve never had my ear quite close enough to hear a Red-Bellied Woodpecker spit.

I need to take a photography class, so I can show you the look of concentration on the bird’s face the instant he spews the chips. That class is on my to-do list. But the good news is, you can see the bird’s determined demeanor on video if you keep scrolling.

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Mama Sings the Squirrel Blues

Say quaaaaaaaa

Use your saddest raspy voice, and you’ll sound like a squirrel singing the blues.

Quaaa is how biologists describe the squirrel screech that catches my ear from time to time. If you live anywhere near a tree, you’ve probably heard it, too, along with the critters’ kuks and moans, the other documented squirrel sounds.

The scientists call the quaaa an alarm sound, but after seeing one mama perform an extended quaaa soliloquy, I think they’re misinterpreting the lady’s meaning.
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Wiggle Waggle Loon

The loon was wagging its tail.

Such a happy creature, I thought. Then I returned to my senses. Loons are not puppies, whose joyful exuberance might be measured in tail rotations per minute.  Could the tail swish be aimed at keeping insects away? Not likely. Conditions were breezy on Farm Lake, just windy enough to keep flies and mosquitoes at bay. Surely, the loons enjoyed the same benefit of that day’s Algonquin weather.  My kayaking partner and I headed for a closer look.

As we approached, the wagging continued. Six or eight shakes, then a pause, followed by another series of rapid flapping.  The flag-like end of the bird’s tail seemed improbably large. I peered through the camcorder’s viewfinder and bumped up the zoom. The camera jiggled from the kayak’s unsteady movement, but the loon’s details came into view.  That’s when I realized my mistake.

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Please Pass the Fish

Loons are world-class divers.

But not the young ones; at least not for several weeks. On a recent Algonquin paddling trip, I noticed Common Loon parents diving for fish and then surfacing to pass the goodies to their chicks. The fluffy-feathered kids appeared to be good swimmers and sometimes they disappeared momentarily under the water. So why weren’t they foraging their own food?

The answer, it turns out, is in those fluffy feathers.

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Loon Echo

So many loons!

Not on the lake below our home; no loons grace Lake Allegan. But on a recent paddling trip in Canada, we were treated to near-constant loon company. I’ve always understood loons to be shy, so I was not expecting to see so many of them at such close range. The loons did not turn away as we paddled nearby. Sometimes, they even approached us, stopping just a few yards from our kayaks. Apparently, these Ontario loons see a lot of paddlers. Or, they simply share in the Canadian reputation for being extra friendly.

I saw some touching loon behavior—adults feeding their young, including one moment when a parent appeared to be teaching the child a food-finding skill. I also saw some comical loon behavior known as the foot waggle. I’ll share those moments in future blog posts.

My favorite loon encounter was the evening we were treated to a loon symphony.
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Fawn Crossing

My new motto: Never get in a kayak without the camcorder.

Last weekend, when Bert and I took one of our kayaks out,  I left all things electronic in the house. That turned out to be a mistake. We did an hour of uneventful pedaling. (That’s not a typo; this two-person kayak is foot-powered.) Hugging the south shore of Lake Allegan, we enjoyed the usual flora and fauna, the latter limited to a few turtles warming themselves in the afternoon sun. Then fauna became fawna, as a young deer hopped out of the woods and into the water. He (or she? I could not tell) was not more than twenty yards in front of our boat.

I thought the fawn might reverse course on seeing us. Instead, he put his skinny legs in gear and swam.

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