Fun with Squirrels

Still summer, but for the last month I’ve felt that desperate annual anxiety, knowing that I can’t possibly fit in all the warm-weather fun I fantasized about last February. Instead, I need to prepare for winter.  My to-do list is much longer than the already-done list: weatherstrip the door to the new office, finish the floor insulation (requires laying in the dirt – ugh), caulk windows, repair leaks in potting shelter cover (MAYBE it will last one more winter), move into the greenhouse plants that tend to suffer in sodden pots.  You get the picture.

I have done some canning and freezing (with lots of help from my sister Kay and niece Heather), including freezing a small cache of Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) and canning syrup from native Trailing Blackberriy (Rubus ursinus).  My friend Debbie says that she gets in squirrel mode in August storing up food and preparing for rainy weather (rain?  That stuff AGAIN?).  I’m trying to think like a squirrel.  It gives me something positive (even fun) to do to counter my late-summer angst.

I think squirrels have fun getting ready for winter.  Sitting outside the other morning. I periodically heard a series of clunks.  The noise came from high up in a tall Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis) in the forested wetland.  I watched a Douglas Squirrel zip from branch to branch, often scurrying out nearly to the tips, nipping off still-green cones.  Clunk, clunk-clunk, clunk, the cones fell through the branches to the forest floor.  The small dark-brown-and-rust-colored Douglas Squirrel, also called a Chickaree, creates stashes of conifer cones to munch on all winter.  They do well here, where we still have native forest.  They don’t adapt to urbanization, unlike the Eastern (non-native) Gray Squirrel, which thrives in suburbs and cities.

In my former office across the field, I looked out on a big Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) that stands apart from the other trees near the driveway.  The squirrels loved that tree and distracted me from my work, chirping at me. I’d try to answer back in squirrelese.  They are sociable and fearless.  I watched them skittering around the tree trunk.  They watched me watching the computer screen.  This time of year, they’d harvest cones from high up, bombing the humans and their cars.

Over the years, we had kept the English Ivy (Boo hissii) at the tree’s base from clambering up the trunk, and finally made a concerted effort to pull it all out to free the struggling native plants underneath.  But, until the native undergrowth recovered — Cascade Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa), Salal (Gaultheria shallon) and Trailing Blackberry – the squirrels did not use that lone tree.  They had lost their protective cover.  They eventually came back, but last spring, we limbed the tree up quite high to allow more light to reach the ground (for improved human habitat).  Once again, the squirrels have forsaken that tree.  Apparently, they needed the mid-level branches.  Or they’d appreciate it if we planted a smaller understory tree like a Vine Maple (Acer circinatum) or Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) right next to the Doug Fir.  Luckily they have a whole forest just 50 feet away, but I miss seeing them.

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