My Red Squirrel Family

As regular readers of my blog will know, mountain hares are the animals I love spending time with and photographing more than any other. (This is the first blog I’ve written in I don’t know how long without any images of mountain hares). However a few other mammals and birds do come close – puffins, gannets, otters and red squirrels. Being in the company of red squirrels, if even for a brief, fleeting moment is joyful. I can’t think of a better word to describe the experience. It’s impossible not to have a smile on your face. So full of character and the way they bounce as they run is one of my favourite things to see (so difficult to photograph well though!) They are the animal I have spent the most money on to see and photograph, I’ve visited a number of excellent paid hides and some free ones to. All of these I’ve documented in my blog about where to see and photograph them. I’ve had some lovely experiences and have images I adore. Here are just a small selection of those images, many more in previous blogs and on my various social accounts & website.

However, it’s long been my dream to have my very own squirrels. When I moved to the Highlands the first thing I did was put up a squirrel feeder as the previous owner told me she sometimes saw them in the garden. However, no squirrels ever visited and the food went mouldy. A neighbour down the road showed me a photo of a squirrel in his garden, and sadly, I came upon a dead one close to there, so I knew they were close by. Every time I walked through the woods behind my house I looked up, hoping to see a flash of orange, but again nothing… Then suddenly one appeared on a trailcam. I had put up a bird feeder which, to my great excitement was attracting a pine marten, but I never expected to see a squirrel there, as it didn’t seem to me to be the right kind of woodland (deciduous). I immediately purchased another squirrel feeder, and after a great deal of trial and error due to the awkward shape of the tree trunks, I finally found somewhere I could attach it. A squirrel soon appeared on that trailcam footage too and then a 2nd one! They struggled with the feeder at first, there was a lot of scratching of heads and botched attempts to access it before finally they sussed it out. All very funny to watch on my camera footage, but sadly not great quality for sharing (my newest camera the Browning Recon Force Edge has far better daytime images). However I’m going to share these two, because they made me laugh out loud (especially the 2nd of them). They are much more proficient now!

Just to prove they’ve mastered it!

Over the next few weeks I found a few fallen branches and some logs to add to the site as potential props. The tree itself is, I think, an old birch tree. The bark is completely covered in moss and lichen, and truth be told I wasn’t even sure if it was still alive, however leaves are now appearing in places. It has a number of long low branches with some beautiful lichen. The site is 5 minutes from my back door along a path directly from my garden (so I think of it as an extension of my garden!) Very few people walk through this part of the woods as it’s not easy to access other than from the gardens of a handful of residents. It’s on the bank of a hill so obscured from anyone walking by unless they are being really observant. Aside from the slope, there are a couple of awkwardly placed beech trees, so finding the right spot to erect a chair hide was tricky, but I found one eventually. I wasn’t sure how photogenic the site would be, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised, especially when the squirrels go on to the branches of the tree.

Personally I prefer images of squirrels without nuts, and as you’ll see from the (many!) photographs I’ve included in this post I’ve managed to do this. It isn’t always easy to achieve as the primary reason for them coming to the feeding station is obviously to feed! However I find that they do sometimes pause when approaching or after they finish eating a nut. Plus once most of the nuts are gone they start exploring a bit more. The light is actually pretty good for a wood. I am mostly at an ISO of 400-640 at F4 or F5.6 depending on lens. Shutter 320 or 400. Not fast enough for action shots but perfectly acceptable for others. All these images are taken using my Nikon D850 with either nikkor 500mm pf 5.6 or Nikkor 300mm F4. Hand-held. I think the ideal focal distance would be 400mm but both of these work ok. Decent trailcam footage comes courtesy of my Browning Recon Force Edge – I highly recommend this camera for the quality of its video. Haven’t yet tried photographs. And do purchase via Naturespy who are excellent. (The Browing Strike Force HDX Pro is pretty good for night time videos but poor daylight).

Great news is all the squirrels look very healthy other than a few tick bites. There’s no sign of damage to ears or tails nor can I see any evidence of squirrel leprosy which I’ve witnessed at quite a lot of other locations (mostly the squirrels affected have strange noses and/or ears but seem healthy otherwise). They must find enough food naturally to eat, and from watching them from my hide, they aren’t there continuously, in fact sometimes an hour or two in the morning passes with no visits, or just one squirrel comes in all morning. I do see them in the distance running up and down the trees and bouncing about. I have to say I’m amazed they haven’t appeared in my garden as they are very close by, but truth be told the wood is more photogenic and I don’t have my dog or the neighbourhood killer cat to worry about.

Watching the squirrels has been fascinating. As mentioned above, I’ve always photographed squirrels for short periods and it’s always had to have been about the images – I’ve loved it but for me, wildlife photography has always been as much about familiarising myself with the species which is one reason why I tend, for the most part, to stick to a mere few different species and also to stay in Scotland rather than going elsewhere to tick a box. It’s one of the things I love about the mountain hares, spending so much time with them I have come to recognise behaviours and in some cases individuals. It makes the whole experience so much more rewarding and interesting. Therefore it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to study these squirrels and learn their behaviours and individual personalities. I’m not 100% sure as yet how many squirrels there are. There are definitely three as I’ve seen that many at once.

I’m pretty sure there are at least 4 as none of the squirrels in that video look (or behaved like) the dominant animal, but can’t say for sure. It’s rare to have more than one squirrel feeding down at the hide at the same time though, they aren’t keen on each others company, although I have seen it a few times both on my trailcams and in person.

It’s late April and they are still caching a lot of the nuts – all the hazelnuts in shells and the majority of those out of the shells. So there’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing.

Caching a nut

There are 3 animals I am getting to know now – one male and two females. I read online that more often than not the dominant squirrel is a male. That is certainly not the case with my animals. My dominant squirrel is a female. Continuing my theme of naming the local wildlife after some of my favourite Americana musicians, I named her Patty (Griffin). She spends more time at the hide than all the other squirrels put together, and chases any animal that dares approach away. She’s now showing teats, so I really hope she is pregnant, I’m presuming she isn’t nursing as yet because she appears too often. She’s also the only squirrel to be losing her ear tufts so far.

In this image you can clearly see Patty’s teats
Look at that piercing stare – another squirrel had had the temerity to approach

Here’s Patty chasing Slaid (see below)

The male squirrel I’ve named Slaid (Cleaves). He’s a plucky fellow and does try and sneak in when Patty is about. He’s very funny to watch as he sits high in the tree watching her movements. As soon as she goes to cache a nut, or sometimes when she turns her back to feed, he darts down and stuffs as many nuts as he can into his mouth then scarpers before she returns/notices. Sometimes he’s caught in the act, but he often gets away with it! Right now he is looking like he’s in heat too, with very pronounced testicles – the first time I’ve ever spotted those on a squirrel! He also likes to wear his tail over one shoulder. He will tolerate other squirrels at the hide when he’s there as long as they don’t come too close.

Stuffing as many nuts as possible into his mouth before Patty returns
above & below – he likes to “wear” his tail over his shoulder

Slaid has also been known to chase other squirrels away. On this occasion (I think) Emmy Lou (see below) or squirrel 4 tried repeatedly to approach. Not sharp I’m afraid, but gives an idea of what happened.

The third (this may be 2 animals) squirrel is Emmy Lou (Harris). She looks younger, so is maybe one of last year’s young. She is shyer than the other two, and appears less often although she is gaining in confidence. She has quite a few tick bites, so I imagine her drey must be infested, but she is the prettiest of the three. I can always tell when she’s approaching because she does so via the trees and often stops on a couple of branches with her paws clutched to her chest checking out the area before coming down. She does the paw clutching a lot and always has what looks like a worried expression on her face.

I think there’s at least one more squirrel, but I can’t say for sure. It’s tricky as their colouring is almost identical. At the moment Patty is recognisable by her teats and disappearing tufts, Slaid by his over-the-shoulder tail and his “maleness” and Emmy lou by her tick bites (she may actually be 2 different squirrels though!), as well of course as their individual personalities. I’m hoping once they moult to their summer coats their colouring is a bit more diverse.

The dynamics between them are fascinating, and I also think I’m beginning to read a few of their behaviours a bit better although I have a lot to learn as yet. The clutching of the paws to the chest is one of the most endearing things they do, but that seems to be when they are nervous – mostly of Patty’s appearance or a dog barking in the distance. When they do this, they often also stand up on their back legs. This is an image of Patty in that pose.

I’ve seen them wag their tails too. This can be when they are startled or alarmed, or a sign of aggression. In my observations it has tended to be one of the less dominant squirrels that does it when another squirrel is visible. They are also spooked when a buzzard calls out. How they deal with this is that they run slightly up the tree trunk and freeze for a couple of minutes, lying flat against it, before continuing as before.

The squirrels scratch and groom a lot! Often they will grab a nut and bounce off, only to stop suddenly for a quick scratch before continuing on their way. Possibly this is because they are beginning to lose their winter coat, I’m not sure. Or maybe there are a lot of itchy beasties about. These are all of Slaid taken on one morning. He must have been uncomfortable that day!

The more confident squirrels tend to approach and leave via the ground, not through the trees. But, that said, if there is a fallen branch on their route they will always run along that rather than choose the ground. They’ll often leap onto the base of a tree too and immediately leap off again.

I’ve really only ever photographed red squirrels in pine woods, maybe with a few deciduous trees, so having an entirely deciduous wood of old beech and birch trees is a new experience for me. The squirrels aren’t interested in pine nuts for example (a little annoying as I bought a large bag of them!) Here’s one turning its nose up at the pine nuts!

Maybe that’s because it’s not something they’ve ever eaten, or too small to make the effort. They do eat the moss and lichen, which I’d not observed before.

Last year’s leaves are still trying to hold on to the beech trees, so there is often a gorgeous dark orange backdrop which works well with the orange of the squirrels’ fur.

The lichen covered branches can be photogenic too and I’m always delighted when they choose to run along them, often when eating the lichen.

This is one of the perches they tend to go to when spooked, or hiding from Patty.

I do see quite a few birds at the hide too as well as this little mouse – they are always fun to watch as they dart out and then disappear again all in the blink of an eye.

A male great spotted woodpecker appears every so often looking quite resplendent in his breeding plumage. I hear him a lot, the sound of his drumming reverberates around the wood.

A treecreeper is a regular visitor

And this wren likes to do a pretty good impression of the treecreeper!

I’ve seen a jay a couple of times on my trailcam, and briefly one day when I was in my hide, but I haven’t managed any images, buzzards fly over and call out. There are of course great and coal tits too who appear the moment I put nuts out. Blue tits and a pair of chaffinches turn up too and I’ve seen one long-tailed tit.

Overnight pine martens and badgers visit and roe deer pop along sometimes too, but sadly none of them are appearing in daylight which is a little disappointing. Still… it’s only April!

A few final image of the squirrels that I like:

I’ll no doubt continue to spend a fair bit of time with my new squirrel family over the coming months and I’m excited to see how they change both in appearance and personality as the months go by. Obviously I have everything crossed that Patty will have kittens and that they’ll visit my feeding station, that would make my year! At the moment the squirrels are still spooked by me so I have to remain in my little 1 person hide. I do need to progress very slowly and it’ll probably be a while yet before I can leave the hide. However I do have a few ideas of things I can do using remote cameras and other locations (they cross the river a lot). Plus the Browning trailcam footage is excellent.

I’ll be sharing more images and videos on my social accounts so please check those for updates until I write another blog about them.

UPDATE 23 May – coming soon, new blog. But here’s “Wee Bruce” as a taster…

Highland based nature photographer and guide specialising primarily in Scottish wildlife but available to cover live music and events.

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