They May Be Small, But They Can Be Fierce

We have four varieties of squirrels living around us: flying squirrels, fox squirrels, gray squirrels, and red squirrels. The first two types have been seen by us only rarely. The flying squirrel has visited only once on a night a couple of years ago; it moved so fast snatching food on our deck that we barely saw it then. The impressive fox squirrels (about twice the size of gray squirrels) live primarily in the piedmont and coastal regions of North Carolina, but a small, growing population lives in the three county area which includes our homeplace. Still, we’ve only seen this rare creature twice and never before two years ago. Our most common encounters are with the familiar gray squirrels and the perhaps less-well-known little red squirrels, both of which are frequent daily visitors.

All of the squirrels are amazing to watch. I admire their agility and daring in moving from tree to tree, finding a path through the maze of interconnecting branches, sometimes leaping great distances or dropping from one tree to another. They climb the posts and beams on the deck, clamber down wires and chains to reach hanging feeders, and then hang upside down by the toes of their back feet while helping themselves to the seed or suet that was mostly intended for the birds. I can’t help but marvel at the intelligence and determination they apply to their pursuit of food, as anyone who has birdfeeders knows very well.

I enjoy observing all our wildlife neighbors, but I’m especially fond of the little red squirrels. It’s difficult to imagine an animal cuter than these characters. And the poses they strike appear so friendly, tiny paws clutched in front of their chests and big, dark eyes seeming to beg, “Can I please have some more sunflower seed now?” Who could resist such a plea?

Who wouldn’t be charmed by this cutie?

The little red squirrels (notice that I usually add the adjective little; it just seems a natural part of their name) don’t appear particularly disturbed by my presence when I am near them on the deck. As long as they can continue eating, I can go about my activities; they are not bothered by me and I’m not bothered by them. They will actually come up to the food bowls while I am still adding sunflower seed or corn. Occasionally when I have been attempting to shoo one off a suet feeder so the birds can get something to eat, I’ve had to poke the little squirrel with my finger to get it to yield its place.

Other animals and birds aren’t tolerated as well by the little red squirrels, at least when it comes to food. We usually have at least two containers (bowls, trays, and pans all work) with sunflower seed or cracked corn available on the deck. Many times we see a squirrel enjoying its meal while sitting in one of the two food containers. Several feet away is the second bowl with plenty of food available for another squirrel to come and dine. Yet, if another red or gray squirrel approaches, it is likely to be charged by the fierce little red squirrel who was on the deck first. Back and forth they go, first contending over possession of one bowl and then the other. If the intruder is another red squirrel, it is likely to be persistent enough and fierce enough to eventually win a grudging truce that allows each squirrel to eat from its own container. However, if a gray squirrel is involved, it’s much more likely to give up and go elsewhere looking for food, even though it is twice the size of the little red squirrel.

The standoff

Recently we’ve observed several encounters with crows competing with the red squirrels for their share of the food. Crows also like sunflower seed and corn (and just about anything else that might be available) and are frequent visitors on our deck. Crows are surprisingly large birds. They also are very wise, very observant, and very cautious. But when they see a good serving of food waiting to be taken, they are willing to risk a confrontation. The bravest crow will land on the far end of the deck, usually backed by several of its companions. Gradually and cautiously the crow will begin edging its way toward the food, its zigzag path allowing it to check that we are not coming out onto the deck to interfere. It also keeps its eyes on the little red squirrel sitting in the food bowl, assessing the potential threat from the much smaller creature. A few steps closer, a few steps back, approaching first from one direction and then another, the crow moves toward the food. But eventually the squirrel makes its charge and the crow jumps away. The red squirrel is such a tiny little thing, but fierceness is not necessarily determined by size. No doubt the crow will eventually get some of the available seed, but only after the little red squirrel has its fill. What fun it is to watch their dance around the food bowl. 

Sorry, but the little one ate it all this time.

A House Open to the World

The kitchen window makes a perfect frame for this winter scene.

When we go into town or travel to cities around the country, we are struck by how different our daily environment is. The close proximity of other people and houses and streets necessitates different living conditions for city dwellers and even those living in closer rural communities. Obviously different people like different things. Many people would not care to live at the end of the road here on our mountainside, but this is just what we were looking for. I can understand the many reasons why people choose to live in cities, but I’m always glad when we get back here to our homeplace. One of the main reasons is that I love the openness of our house compared to the much more closed nature of many houses and other buildings, shut off from natural world, isolated from the occupants’ surroundings.

Our house has lots of windows. With the exception of cold wintry days or blowing rainstorms the windows are usually open. We have shades on most of our windows, but they are hardly ever pulled down. Living where we do at the end of our driveway at the end of our road, we have no reason to block the outside world. We can only see one other house from our location and we can barely see that when the trees are leafed out. We have no traffic passing by; the rare vehicle that appears is either for a delivery or someone who has taken a wrong turn.

The openness of the windows allows us better to see and experience the natural world in which we live. We are open to the sounds and scents that surround us. We hear the winds blowing over the ridges and through the trees. Dogs and coyotes bark and howl in the distance, cows moo in the pastures, and owls call in the night. The birds, squirrels, raccoons, and other animals come onto our deck or pass through the yard. The deer and turkeys move through the edge of the woods or walk down our drive. The clouds move across the sky and their shadows play across the mountains. We are aware of these things because our windows are uncovered. We delight in these experiences. They bring joy to our daily lives. We are so glad to be here.

Here are a few views from within our home.

Rhododendron in full bloom viewed through our living room window

Some visitors watching another visitor and vice versa.

It’s best to stay indoors to look out at this picnic table on our deck.

Rabbit and chipmunk enjoying lunch on the deck.

Eastern phoebe babies viewed through our porch door. Adult phoebes have used this nest for several years.

We look out at the snow because we can’t open the door.

Even our dear cat enjoys observing the outside world through the door.

One of our skunk friends. Some visitors are best viewed from inside the house.

We look out the window while this deer looks in.

Beautiful and Cold New Year’s Day

Mountain to our east in hoar frost and snow

Our first day of 2018 dawned beautiful and very cold. The fine snow that started in the afternoon yesterday continued through the night, giving us a bit more than an inch by morning. The snow is very light and powdery because of the extremely dry air and bitter cold, -1 at its lowest overnight. 

We had to get out for a bit to walk through the quiet beauty and take a few photos. We already have so many we’ve taken on snowy days over the years but can never resist taking a few more. Seems that having the camera in hand focuses my attention on the beautiful sights to be seen all around us. The snow also accentuates the shapes and forms of the mountains and trees. The fluffy snow sits in puffs atop the pine and spruce needles, occasionally coming off in a cloud of snow dust when a sudden gust shakes the branches. Rhododendron leaves are curled tight against the cold. Even though we see these places every day, each new day is unique and every view is rewarding.

Tracks in the snow reveal that our rabbit friends have been out and about, going up and down our road, sometimes individually and sometimes in pairs. A neighbor cat who frequently comes to check us out has also left the prints of its slow, methodical walk. Someone else has been running along the road, larger than a cat but smaller than most dogs – perhaps a fox. I would love to be able to see all the coming and going during the nights.

The birds are staying close around the suet feeders today; cold weather brings them out in profusion. They all appear about twice their normal sizes, feathers fluffed up to provide extra insulation against the cold. Melting snow drips from a corner of the roof  and is forming a large icicle on one of the feeders, making the diners dodge the possible cold shower. 

Returning to the welcoming warmth of our house in winter is always a delight. We can sit and watch our little friends and still enjoy the views of the snow-covered landscape. What a great way to start this new year. I hope your New Year’s Day and all your coming days will be great also. May you enjoy them all!

Puffs of snow on pine needles

Fraser Fir with snow sitting atop hoar frost

Icy suet feeder

Visits from Our Closest Friends and Neighbors

Living here at the end of the road, we can’t see any other houses, except one a few hundred feet away which is only visible in winter when the trees are totally bare. That house is occupied during its owners’ occasional visits, but most of the time we’re the only people around. If a vehicle is coming down our road, either family members are coming for an expected visit, a package is being delivered, or someone is very lost. But we do have plenty of friends and neighbors who come for visits every day.

The first visitors of the morning are the juncos, chickadees, tufted titmice, and nuthatches. No doubt they are close by each night for they are here almost immediately when I replenish their supply of cracked corn first thing each day. Who can tell how many there are; it’s impossible to count them with all the coming and going.

Downy woodpeckers and the larger hairy woodpeckers are soon attracted by the activity and come to join in breakfast at the suet feeder. The red-bellied woodpeckers do not appear quite as early nor do they show up every day (perhaps they have other stops on their rounds to add more variety to their diet), but they are reliable enough that we know there are two pairs.

Usually by now there will be at least one grey squirrel, if not all eight of the nearby clan. Frequently the lovable and less skittish little red squirrels will beat them to the food. The few fox squirrels we’ve seen in the past year have made it to our driveway a time or two, but haven’t come up yet to see what’s available to eat. We look forward to getting a closer view of those rare creatures; most live nearer the coast with smaller populations here and in a couple of adjacent counties.

Bluejays swoop in usually by mid-morning, one whole family of six and sometimes their relatives. They can be a greedy and fussy crowd, trying to dominate the available food. The squirrels are pretty good at holding their places though and the smaller birds are fast enough to dart in to grab a bit and fly off to a quieter spot to eat.

The bluejays stir up enough commotion to capture the attention of our wonderful crows if these smartest of birds haven’t spotted the spread earlier while flying over or surveying the scene from one of their nearby perches in the treetops. We love to hear their varied calls announcing to the family that it’s time to dine. At least one crow always sits apart to watch for danger while the others strut around or hop over each other to get to what is perceived as a better spot to get at the food.

Each group takes its turn at the table, some staying all day, others coming and going as their appetites dictate. In the past year 2 to 24 doves have joined in the gathering, though they are much more gentle and definitely less pushy than many of the others. They tend to wait until things clear out a bit and then cautiously come to pick through the remnants for their part of the feast.

Depending on the time of year, the year-round crowd is joined on the deck by Carolina wrens, warblers of various sorts, eastern phoebes, goldfinches, purple finches, evening grosbeaks, rose-breasted grosbeaks, catbirds, thrushes, towhees, song sparrows, cowbirds, starlings, indigo buntings, grackles, and hummingbirds. We’ve even had hawks sit on the corner of the deck or in a tree a few feet away to see if a squirrel was foolish enough to venture out at the same time, but they have always flown away after a few minutes when no one showed up.

In winter the birds have always been our main feeding population. The healthy chipmunk tribe we have around in all other seasons is no doubt snuggled away in their numerous underground burrows, enjoying the sunflower seeds and corn they hauled away in preparation for the cold weather. When they were out gathering, there were usually three or four at once at the food bowls stuffing their cheeks to maximum capacity, then running off to sequester their supplies in their winter homes. They are also thoughtful enough to plant some of the seeds (especially sunflowers) in lots of spots in our garden for us to enjoy the beautiful golden blooms in the summer and fall and for the birds to have some extra sunflower seed heads as well.

Raccoon families have joined us on our deck since we first built it many years ago, usually coming after dark, though one young raccoon mama and her kids started coming as early as 1:00 pm this past year to avoid the rush and the bigger, grumpier older raccoons. They would even dine on one end of the deck while we sat fifteen feet away on the other end and enjoyed watching their antics. Over the years we’ve had as many as thirteen eating at once. Younger generations appear to come back in subsequent years, bringing along their kids to a favorite place to eat out.

Possums also come to visit with their unexpectedly charming pink ear tips, noses, and tiny little feet and toes. They enjoy most foods that they find waiting for them, but are especially fond of leftover baked sweet potatoes and baked butternut squash or pumpkin with remnants of butter and brown sugar.

This past summer at least three different adult skunks also started checking us out. Each had different coloration and markings: one black with a few white markings vertical on its sides, one white with black stripe down its back, and one black with a white stripe down each side of its back. One of these was kind enough to grace us with bringing her two babies for visits. All were some of the most beautiful animals you could imagine.

We see plenty of rabbits around, but only one ventures onto the deck from time to time to get a little snack. Less frequently seen, but ever present and often heard moving through the meadow and woods are wild turkeys; if we are very fortunate, we get to see two or three adults leading up to a dozen young ones on a foraging expedition. As might be expected, there are also lots of deer hereabouts, but they are so stealthy and so well camouflaged that we don’t catch sight of them very often. However, a few years ago during a particularly difficult winter when lots of lingering snow made it hard for the deer to find food, we saw nine searching to the east of the house and nine more on the west side of the house. We put corn out overnight and the next day at least eight came again, ate the corn, then lay down in the sun and rested for several hours about fifty to seventy-five feet from the house, a treat for them and us. And while we have made no effort to feed the black bears, on at least two occasions we had a bear enjoying the contents of a bird feeder in the front yard about fifteen feet from the house. Then there was the time a bear was on the deck while I was in the living room about ten feet away separated only by the sliding glass doors; needless to say the bear and I were both startled.

So while we may not have many people coming by the house daily or stopping in for a visit, we have lots of company. We could enjoy watching them for hours and do whenever other things don’t keep us from doing so. We absolutely love being able to share this place with our delightful friends and neighbors. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Hopefully they wouldn’t either.

So Much To See

Our quiet place here at the end of the road first greeted us with a meadow covered in a profusion of daisies, black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s Lace, and wild strawberries. But it had not always been that way. Not many years before we came here the land had been cleared and farmed. The son of a nearby neighbor whose family had once owned this land told us of helping his family clear the land and then grow cabbage, a common crop throughout the area even for some years after we arrived. The decaying remnants of split rail fences they had built bordered part of the property and locust posts remained where barbed wire fences had been placed. The woods still covering two-thirds of our homeplace even now contain stumps and moss-covered logs of the chestnut trees killed by blight in the early part of last century. Since chestnut trees made up an estimated one-fourth of all hardwood trees in the Appalachians before the blight, no doubt this mountainside was once covered with chestnuts.

The land continues to change. Obviously our presence here has had a large impact on the land closest around the house and garden, but that is a small part of our homeplace. The woods have retaken naturally part of the meadow that we were not using otherwise. An abandoned project of ours to raise Christmas trees in part of the meadow now gives us a sizable patch of 50-75 foot tall trees, mainly Norway Spruce, loved by deer and birds and who knows which of our other animal friends. Were we to stop maintaining the yard and garden areas, this would all quickly revert to woodland through the natural progression of an Appalachian hardwood forest.

We came here wanting to be in a place in the mountains, surrounded by nature, and we certainly are. To name a few of the things we have found here:

Trees: oaks, maples, cherries, black birches, hickories, elms, beeches, black locusts, tulip poplars, mountain magnolias (cucumber tree), ashes, hemlocks, cedars, white pines, sourwoods, serviceberries, hawthorns

Flowering plants: rhododendrons, flame azaleas, mountain laurels, dog hobbles, daisies, black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s Lace, wild strawberries, blueberries

Birds: chickadees, house finches, purple finches, tufted titmice, nuthatches, pileated woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern phoebes, evening grosbeaks, rose-breasted grosbeaks, bluejays, crows, barred owls, screech owls, barn owls, starlings, barn swallows, Carolina wrens, red-tailed hawks, sharp-shinned hawks

Mammals: red squirrels, grey squirrels, fox squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, skunks, possums, rabbits, grey foxes, red foxes, black bears, coyotes, mice, voles, bats

Reptiles: black snakes, corn snakes, garter snakes, ring-neck snakes

Amphibians: red-spotted newts, black salamanders, spade-foot toads, wood frogs, spring peepers

Grasses, “weeds”, and other small/low-growing plants: too numerous to begin listing

There are so many fascinating things to be observed even in this small patch of the world where we live. I get the feeling that many people never even see some of the most obvious things around them, too busy with the affairs of their everyday lives or perhaps thinking the natural world not important or not interesting enough to merit their attention. Many don’t know the names of the most common birds, trees, or flowers that surround them every day and are amazed when we recognize a wildflower from a distance or identify a bird by its flight pattern or call. So much is there to be seen by merely taking the time to notice. So much delight is there to be missed when we don’t pay attention to our natural surroundings.