Red Squirrels – In The Garden!!

As friends will testify, for years I went on and on and on about how when (not if!) I moved to the Scottish Highlands I wanted red squirrels in the garden… and pine martens would be good too. When I looked at Rightmove listings I always checked the info about the garden and the precise location first – annoyingly, but not unexpectedly! the presence of red squirrels wasn’t often mentioned.

But then I went to view what would become my house. The then current owner Rosemary showed me the garden, and if the amazing view across the Beauly Firth to Ben Wyvis wasn’t enough…

…she told me that, yes, red squirrels visited the garden, badger cubs had been spotted playing on the road and pine martens were in the area too. Obviously I was straight on the phone to my lawyer with instructions to purchase the house for me, whatever it took!

The very first thing I did when I collected the keys was put up a red squirrel feeder, but sadly no squirrels appeared. During the first year I did have a couple of visits including this gorgeous kitten, but, to my knowledge (and I didn’t spend all my time looking out the window!) the squirrels didn’t return even although I was straight out with a handful of hazelnuts.

I couldn’t really complain though because I had my ever-growing red squirrel community 5 minutes behind the house in the woods, and I could go and see those squirrels whenever I wanted, and they are totally brilliant – I’ll write another blog dedicated to them very soon.

However, not wanting to be greedy, it was always a dream of mine to have red squirrels in the garden.

And then, suddenly, I spotted a red squirrel kitten at the feeder, which was, by this time, looking a little worse for wear. The perspex had come out and I couldn’t get it to stay in place. However I ran out and put a few hazelnuts in it and soon afterwards I saw the squirrel eating them.

This time it wasn’t a one-off. A day or two later I saw two playing together on the fence, but I couldn’t get any images, and then a slightly larger one with tufts appeared, and then another! So within the space of a week I went from no red squirrels to four. Amazing. Of course this brings with it all kinds of stress – the road; next-door’s killer cat; the carrion crows who are territorial thugs and there’s a sparrowhawk too. But none of that can quite take away from the joy of having these wonderful little animals in the garden. I can’t adequately put into words how fantastic it is to look out the window and see a red squirrel sitting munching on a nut – and boy, do they get through the nuts! I’m presuming they are the overflow from the woodland squirrels. Given that there are so many there now, it was maybe getting a bit too busy. These ones are the winners though as apart from all the dangers, they get way more hazelnuts. Red squirrel kittens don’t have a high survival rate, and late season ones I presume even less so, therefore being able to help “mine” out with some tasty treats is great and I have everything crossed they make it to adulthood.

Once I saw that the squirrels were returning regularly I purchased a new feeder. Now, I’ve looked at, and used, a number of different squirrel feeders and quite frankly the perfect one has yet to be developed. The wooden one in the garden as I mentioned above has lost its perspex front and the lid is really thick and heavy. The woodland one has perspex which can only be removed with a screwdriver, also has a heavy lid and gets full of water which can’t drain away. Both of them only have one hole for a screw/nail at the top so aren’t very stable. I had to buy a bracket to attach to the bottom of the woodland one to keep it one the tree, especially given the visits by the over-enthusiastic pine martens. You can see the bracket which I (very poorly) attached below. I love this image of the two squirrels!

So… I went for the CJ Wildlife metal feeder. It has a few advantages over the wooden ones – it has a much lighter lid which even the kittens can open with ease and has two holes at the top both of which are designed so the feeder can be lifted off to fill/clean. It sits nicely on my feeding station table. However… it is far too deep and a little too narrow. The squirrels, even the bigger ones, have real trouble trying to get at nuts more than halfway down. Therefore I had to fill the bottom third with stones (I’m looking for something better) and put a stone, then a rock in front as the little ones just couldn’t use it properly. Fortunately they are all now fairly adept at it so long as I keep it full – not easy when they eat so many nuts!

This was the first rock I tried.
This is the 2nd rock, you can see just how teeny the kittens are!
This is one of the two older squirrels – just to show the difference in size.

A while ago I created a table-top feeding area using a garden tray and some of the moss from my lawn (I have more moss than grass). I added a couple of mossy rocks and some bark I found in the woods and positioned it on a little table outside my kitchen window. I’m lucky in that the glass is ok for photographing through. The idea was of course to photograph the birds at (fake) eye-level. However it’s worked a treat for the squirrels with a few modifications. I’ve put branches up both sides for them to scamper up and down (the kittens had a bit of a struggle getting up sometimes). I can now sit in the comfort of my kitchen and watch/photograph them and they don’t seem to be disturbed by it. Fortunately Murphy, my dog, can’t see them unless he stands up or they have the temerity to go into his garden which can be seen through the patio doors – lots of barking ensues when that happens.

The first squirrel who ventured to the feeding table was one of the kittens. They are quite hard to tell apart other than one is male and one is female. I think it was mostly the female appearing, and given that the first few days she came over were during Storm Aidan I decided to call her Etta, after Etta James who sang the song “Stormy Weather“. The other kitten, the boy, I’ve named “Dizzy” after Dizzy Gillespie as I decided to for a jazz theme. The older two, also a boy and girl are Louis (Armstrong) and Ella (Fitzgerald) (I love their duets!).

Initially I hung one of my bird feeders so that it was lying on the table. This was fairly easy for the squirrels to access, they also managed to reach one of my sunflower heart feeders.

During the storm Little Etta/Dizzy would perch on one of the rocks totally absorbed in eating the nuts as the wind and rain lashed against her/him.

… I so wanted to bring them in and give them a cuddle and a towel-dry!

Here are a few more early ones of the kittens. Being in the house with only windows to photograph through has made photographing them a little bit limiting, but I’ve done okay!

More? Well okay then…

In that final image the kitten is sitting on the fence at the edge of the road. The two kittens often bounce across the road (there’s a field there, no houses) to cache nuts and then appear to run along the middle of the road when they’ve had enough nuts to get to wherever they are going – I hate it, it’s so worrying!!!

The other two squirrels, Ella and Louis are quite a bit bigger than the kittens although I think they too are youngsters. They, again, look alike, but the difference in gender is more obvious. Both of these have ear tufts.

I managed to capture them together once:

Again, being able to look out the window and see any of these four amazing creatures is a real dream come true for me. I am so incredibly lucky. I was, however, getting absolutely nothing done as I sat at the window for hours waiting for visits. I did therefore take some photographs of the birds too…

Included in that selection house and tree sparrows, blue tits, coal tit, great tit, chaffinch, robin, long-tailed tit, great spotted woodpecker, greenfinch, treecreeper and carrion crow. The latter are huge and seem to think that my front garden is part of their territory. I often see them chasing any buzzards that drift over the front field away; the other day one kept dive-bombing a young rabbit in the garden (who held its own) and yesterday a sparrowhawk flew across with 2 in hot pursuit (the squirrel kitten wisely dived into a shrub at that point!).

The bird that most surprised me though was this one – a stonechat. I really wasn’t expecting to see one of those on my doorstep. Lovely birds and their plumage works beautifully with the autumnal colours.

Over the past few days I’ve torn myself away from the kitchen window and visited the woodland squirrels. I’ve been sitting outside the hide to try and get them used to me and it’s worked amazingly well. That’s for my next blog though. Buoyed by my success I thought I’d see how the garden squirrels felt about seeing me. It wasn’t as successful sadly and only Louis ventured to the feeder although he was a bit wary, as I skulked at the edge of the house (I have gravel around three sides which makes creeping up on wildlife nigh on impossible). The views of my feeding table weren’t as photogenic, but it was more about finding out how the squirrels would cope with shutter noise etc.

I went and sat by the fence and suddenly spotted two squirrels in the birch tree which has sadly dropped most of its leaves over the past couple of days. I presumed it was a kitten and Louis, but it transpired it was the two kittens. Up until this point I’d been pretty certain there were two youngsters but didn’t have definitive proof, so I was delighted to discover I was right. However, what happened next was wonderful. The two little ones interacted together in beautifully intimate way before sitting close to each other for a groom.

It was pretty windy and Dizzy (I think that’s him on the ledge), blew off. He popped up again moments later, and Ella looked quite concerned and came to check he was ok.

It was totally completely adorable. The light was nice but the pesky twigs on the birch really annoyed me. They are gone now! Typically, if I’d been in the kitchen I’d probably have had a better view, but I obviously do prefer to photograph without a window between me and my subject!

I have a few plans if I can get the squirrels a little more used to shutter noise, including possibly a reflection pool, but that’ll involve finding a spot in my garden with a photogenic backdrop and more importantly level ground! I really do want to be able to get outside with them, even if in a hide, before too long. Everytime I visit my local wood I come home with lichen covered branches too, so need to find spots for those as well!

*20 November 2020 Update:

I bought myself a new toy – a Gopro Hero 9 Black and I immediately tried it out on the garden squirrels who all turned up! I’m looking forward to experimenting further with it. Anyway… watch this with the sound up for the full experience.

Also, I am sad to report I think one of the kittens (Etta) may no longer be with us, something deposited a head on my back doorstep (I won’t go into details but although hard to tell exactly what it was but it’s the right size for a squirrel. Maybe a sparrowhawk took her? Hopefully I’m wrong, but I’ve only seen 1 kitten since then.

So… I’m very happy right now. I’m not getting a whole lot done, but with all that’s happening in the world at the moment, being able to sit and watch all this fantastic wildlife on my doorstep is such a privilege. Nature really is good for the soul, especially when it involves super cute baby red squirrels. If you’re interested in a red squirrel workshop please do get in touch, I’ll be adding details of those to my website very soon. And don’t forget cards & 2021 calendars available on Etsy – look out for a Black Friday offer in the near future.

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

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