The late arrival of red squirrels
Due to the correction date in our calendar that we call leap year, the vernal equinox this March will be earlier than most years. We usually expect the new season of spring to begin on either March 21 or 22 annually. This year, spring will arrive during the night of March 19-20; for us, it is about midnight. These days of mid-March are classified as late winter. And yes, we can still have snowfall and cold, but there is also plenty of sunlight and warmth.
During this time of March 2015, the mercury climbed high enough to set three record high temperature readings. Open water on parts of the St. Louis River had already been discovered by the early arriving mallards and Canada geese. Mid-March, with the long hours of daylight, will often act like early spring or lingering late winter.
Changes abound at this time. In the swamps, the furry buds of pussy willows are opening. Similar-looking buds of quaking aspens are higher up on the branches of these widespread trees. In sunlit hot spots facing south or west, we might see green from grass, wild strawberries or mosses as the snowpack recedes. I always find the first houseflies, a few other insects and jumping and wolf spiders in these microhabitats where the temperature is warmer than anywhere else around. Spring begins at these sheltered hot spots. Temperatures here may be many degrees above that of the nearby shaded sites.
And there are more migrants. A few raptors are moving north for some hunting and it is not unusual to see bald eagles and red-tailed hawks early this month. Out along the roadsides, the hardy snow buntings and horned larks, only 7 inches long, may appear, seeking weed-seed meals. And right at our feeders, I often note some movements as well. The wintering redpolls that lasted throughout the cold season with us are now more restless and they are being joined by other finches. It seems like the changing season is causing this movement. The redpolls now share their meals with cousins: pine siskins, goldfinches and maybe some purple finches soon. And recently, I saw another surprise.
Ever since I began the feeder in early October, the local gray squirrels were quick to discover this new source of food and they have been present. I don't think that there has been a day, regardless of the weather, that these bushy-tailed arboreal rodents were not on or near the yard feeders. Since they are diurnal, I have been able to look out and watch them as their day progresses. Typically, they arrive for breakfast and then scatter, with a few stragglers coming later in the day.
We call them gray squirrels, but with genetic variations, some wear coats of black. With ground squirrels like chipmunks, which I expect to see soon now, in hibernation and flying squirrels arriving at night, it was only gray squirrels that I saw during the winter days.
These tree squirrels are members of the forest community and are most common in deciduous trees. Even though they appear to live on nothing but handouts from the bird feeders, they also find acorns, hazel nuts, berries, seeds and buds to be quite acceptable. Many of these foods get cached in the fall and while I was wandering through the woods this winter, I located many sites where they dug up edible treasures from last fall. But the region that I live in is mixed forests. Though it is mostly composed of deciduous trees — oaks, maples, birch, basswood and aspen — there is also a good growth of diverse conifers. And where there are evergreen woods, there are red squirrels, also called pine squirrels.
In most years, the mammalian visitors at my feeders were both the gray and red squirrels, but not this winter, until now. For some reason, the reds were absent this time. Not only did I not see any at the feeders, I did not see them anywhere in my locale. I assumed their population was very low or nonexistent in the nearby conifers. But one day last week, I looked out to see an energetic red squirrel among its larger gray cousins. Two days later, the one red squirrel had become three. What has been happening this winter, especially this late winter?
I think what I am now seeing is another fact of late winter: hunger. Apparently, the reds found enough food in the seed cones of the conifers to keep them well fed. But the winter is long. Food can run out. Like gray squirrels, many reds also cache food and they frequently tunnel under snow. But the crusty hard snowpack of mid March makes that inaccessible. Looking for other food sources, they went to the feeders. I'm glad to see these little agile critters; better late than never.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o email@example.com.