Monday, February 18, 2019

A sheltering ash tree

By Beth Sullivan
There is a really big, old Ash tree at the edge of the woods in our yard. Ever since we can remember, it has had crevices and holes at several places up the trunk that seemed to house lots of things, from nuthatches to flying squirrels. Most often though, it was home to the far more common eastern gray squirrel.
For years these creatures enchanted my children and tormented my dogs with their antics. They could usually out run a dog while on the ground and always escaped when they reached a tree anywhere near the woodland edge. From there they could easily travel long distances , from limb to limb, tree to tree, back to safety, without ever touching the ground again, and disappear into one of their holes. Often though, they would sit, safely out of reach, waving their tails and chattering, truly baiting the poor dogs below.
This was a mother out to eat; she had five little ones to feed.
The split in her ear allowed us to identify her for several seasons.

At home anywhere

Our gray squirrels are truly adaptable. They are creatures of the forest, yet, they are perfectly at home in urban parks and back yards. Their favored foods are various nuts and therefore are most often found in woodlands with many oaks, hickories, and beech trees. Our small woodlot has numerous oaks, and we have always enjoyed looking for places the squirrels have been picnicking. They will find a flat rock, stump, or some other elevated platform where they will enjoy their acorns or hickory nuts. A sure sign of a squirrel is a pile of nutshells left behind. The acorns often look like they have been peeled in strips, which is how they get into them. They are famous for their ability to stash their resources for the leaner times of winter.
Gray squirrels do not truly hibernate, but they may simply hide out during a long cold or stormy spell. Then they emerge to dig through snow to find their hidden cache. In the spring and fall, it is fun to look on the forest floor under pine trees for small nest-like creations among the pine needles. These are not nests, but places where a squirrel has dug under the needles, looking for a buried acorn. I like to think of them scratching their heads, wondering “is this the place?” “ Nope”. And then moving on to another spot. During the winter they usually den up in the hollows of big tress, like my Ash. But the winter is also time to spot their summer nests called dreys, which look like messy accumulations of leaves and twigs. These are far from fragile; they are actually very tightly woven and lined on the inside with all sorts of material, even man-made, to create a soft and waterproof lining.
Last year, very early in the spring, the family in the Ash tree produced five babies. They were likely born early March, or even late February, and emerged in April, fully furred and ready to roam. Their sibling antics were just such a joy to watch. Sometimes it was laughable, to watch one misjudge a leap and land awkwardly, or even fall, only to look around, shake itself off, and run up again. They aren’t quite as enjoyable when they all begin to run back and forth over my roof, from front yard feeders to back yard feeders, sounding like a herd of horses and again, tormenting the dogs by posing in the windows.
As messy as it looks, a squirrel's drey is actually tightly woven and secure.

Squirrels will leave acorn remains in piles, Many of the m look like they have been peeled.

While searching for their hidden stashes, squirrels dig scrapes that look like little nests in  pine needles.

A flash of red

We occasionally get a cute red squirrel to join the fun. They don’t often get along with their bigger, gray cousins, and usually it is the scrappy red ones that do the chasing. While there are certainly similarities, there are some interesting differences. The red squirrels prefer evergreens for their nests and will often use old woodpecker holes for their winter sites. They also will live in underground burrows in rocky areas, near stone walls, and will often stash their food deeper underground. They prefer smaller nuts, seeds, and pine nuts, ripping apart the cones easily.
As winter winds down, the squirrels will be more active, and they will be searching for their last stashes of food and visiting the feeders. The females are likely already pregnant.
My big Ash tree houses a family again. But sadly, its days are numbered. The invasive pest, the emerald Ash borer, is in our area. Some of this tree’s lower limbs are dying. It is less vigorous. I hope its hollow trunk will remain as a shelter for many more years.
Red squirrels will come out to bird feeders, and often chase away their bigger cousins.

When part of the big ash tree came down, its hollow core was revealed. A home in the shape of a heart.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

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