Monday, February 11, 2013

Christmas Adventures - Squirrel spotting

While in Scotland, it was my second priority (after Loch Ness) to see a red squirrel. We did some googling and discovered that while red squirrels can be found throughout the Highlands, there were a few woodland spots that were well-known squirrel hangouts. One of the Scottish squirrel groups had posted a map online, so we picked one that looked good and decided to head out on an afternoon squirrel hunt.

Unfortunately the map had very poor directions, and we spent quite some time looking around for the site. Eventually we found another picnic area, and although this one didn't have a squirrel feeder it had a steep walking track to a swing bridge. It was good exercise, but a little discouraging to have to hike back uphill to the car in the rain, having seen no squirrels. But we weren't giving up yet.

We drove back along the main road and finally settled on what we are pretty sure was the site listed on the trust's map. We think it was so hard to find as the site was closed so that the pine hillside could be cleared for logging... Not a good sign when you're looking for squirrels that live in pine trees! 

There was an alternate path up the hill which we followed for over an hour, but we weren't in luck. There was not a hint of wildlife in the area - not even the distant chirp of a bird. Only the noisy burr of chainsaws cutting down precious wildlife habitats.

We walked a long way up the steep logging track, but when the light started to fade we agreed it was time to call it a day.

We had seen a signpost on the main road pointing to a nearby loch, so we decided that might be worth a quick visit while we were in the area. It was definitely worth it as there was a strange mist that kept appearing over the lake, although it proved too elusive to be captured in most of our photographs.

The next day we decided to try again. Squirrel-hunting is important stuff! We took a gamble on another of the sites listed on the local squirrel trust website - a woodland that we soon discovered was behind a new housing subdivision and a popular spot for locals to walk their dogs... I almost dismissed the site outright, but my squirrel sense started to receive a weak signal. I dragged Adam out of the car and into the rain. It was time to find us some red squirrel.

The Sciurus vulgaris was the only squirrel in Europe until the American grey squirrel was introduced in the 1880s. They might be cute but that doesn't make it ok... greys quickly outnumbered reds, and the UK now has an estimated 2.5 million greys but only 140,000 red squirrels. Of the red population, around 75% live in Scotland (another tick for Scotland!) and there are even some pockets of the country that don't have any greys (the only time you will hear me say "Yay, no squirrels!").

So why are greys such an issue? They are more resilient as they are better able to extract the nutrients from their food, and they are able to live in greater density with other squirrels. Reds prefer to live in a density of one per hectare, and even less in coniferous woodland areas, so they struggle to gain adequate nutrients when there are other squirrels competing for their food sources. Greys weigh more and to sustain this they consume more food. Although this affects the availability of food for the red, it can actually mean that the red has a better chance of long-term survival as it needs less food to stay alive - as long as it can make it through the short-term!

The other big threat to red squirrel populations is the squirrel pox. The grey is less susceptible to the pox and ends up being a carrier, transmitting it to other greys and on to reds who have no natural antibodies to the disease. The pox has a high mortality rate among red squirrels, but scientists are currently working towards creating a vaccine.

So Scotland really is a haven for reds, and they thrive in certain pockets of the country. They live in both broadleaved and coniferous woodland, and they like to eat seeds, acorns, berries, fungi, and even bark and sap. The red squirrel prefers to live in a drey - a nest made of twigs, moss, and grass - so when I saw one of these, I knew we were on the right track...

A squirrel's drey
We felt like nutters, mooching around in the depths of the pine forest, away from the main walking track, gazing up into the pine trees above us with our heads tilted. My Mum is a keen birdwatcher, so I've been on many bushwalks where I learned to stay very quiet, walk with soft footsteps, and listen for the sounds of animals moving. I am usually not very patient, but squirrel-watching brings out the good in me! After about 15 minutes of standing like a statue, I heard a noise. In a tree about eight metres away a small, red squirrel was scratching his way up the bark of a tall pine tree. A RED SQUIRREL!!

I then realised that Adam had the camera, and he was across the forest. Boy these squirrels can move! By the time Adam had taken a few steps towards me, this wee red was at the top of the pine tree, then jumping across to another tall tree to hide in its foliage. Buoyed by the sighting, we waited, still as mice. After ten minutes of very patient waiting, we saw a movement in the treetops high above us - a squirrel was jumping between a group of pine trees. A second sighting!!!

We waited another 10 minutes, and saw nothing more. I decided to try looking in a nearby area of leafier, wetter forest. Another 10 minutes but no sightings. We decided that that 35 minutes was enough squirrel watching, and we had seen all the squirrel we were going to see. How wrong we were. 

As we walked back through the first area of thick pine trees, I saw a movement in the trees high above my head. ANOTHER SQUIRREL!!! This squirrel was spooked by us, and did his special squirrel trick - the freeze. I was sorry to have scared him, but he sat there very quietly for about five minutes before another squirrel leapt into his tree and together they made a dash for cover. It took a while to point out the first wee squirrel to Adam, as he was so high up in the trees. To give you an idea of how tall the pine trees were:

This photo is from the website, and gives you a bit of an idea what a squirrel habitat is like. I was so surprised to see just how high up the trees the squirrels live - right up in the leafiest parts with the thinnest branches!

It was really, really special for me to get to see a red squirrel, and I think even Adam was charmed by these wee critters. I felt so lucky to see four squirrels - and even luckier when Adam found an online newspaper article where a journalist had gone into this very area of woods with a seasoned squirrel watcher, and they'd sat in the forest for two whole days and not seen a single squirrel. The squirrels must have known how much it would mean to me to get to see them...

See him?

See his tufty wee ears?

Finally, I've listed some links to information about Scottish red squirrels. I gathered my information from these, but they also contain some really lovely pictures of squirrels, so you should have a look now!

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