Tunnel roads under the snow

by Sandy Garland

I’m always intrigued by the tunnels we find at the FWG in winter. They are undoubtedly created by red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) that remain active during the winter and must scurry around visiting their food caches.

Entrances to two tunnels at the base of a spruce tree - one just to the left and behind the trunk, the other directly to the right of the trunk

Entrances to two tunnels at the base of a spruce tree – one just to the left and behind the trunk, the other directly to the right of the trunk

The tunnels must lead to these caches, now buried under a foot or more of snow. Rather than run along the top of the snow, then dig down to the food, the squirrels minimize the time they spend on the surface – who wouldn’t – by digging from the base of their favourite tree through the snow to a food cache. This technique also allows them to keep the stored food a secret from other species.

In the Backyard Garden, squirrels create a maze of tunnels, often with vertical entrances that they pop their head out of to check who’s around before emerging. If the snow is deep, we can see tunnels on either side of a footpath that the squirrel has chosen to cross rather than dig through the packed snow.

More about red squirrels at the FWG
Photo gallery of red squirrels – cute alert! but also many photos showing nests, food caches, and the habits of these busy little creatures
Video showing a red squirrel’s tunnel-making technique

Blue-gray gnatcatcher and more at the FWG

by Christine Hanrahan

I arrived at the FWG at 5:30 this morning, a major effort for someone like me, normally a night owl. I’d hoped to hear a dawn chorus of migrants – warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and so on. That didn’t happen. Until the sun came up fully, the only birds singing were robins and a few song sparrows, joined by some calling crows and one lone tree swallow twittering over the pond.

A green heron arrived just about on schedule. This one was calling from various locations - breeding season is here and he wonders where the female is.

A green heron arrived just about on schedule. This one was calling from various locations – breeding season is here and he wonders where the female is.

However, once the sun peeked over the treetops, activity picked up. Female red-winged blackbirds busy with their nest-making, tree swallows swooping and calling across the garden, song sparrows all over the place. Recent arrivals include several singing yellow warblers and a very vocal green heron. The heron flew into the big walnut tree by the pond, on top of which the male kestrel was perched, and commenced calling. He then flew off to the ravine, the woods, and the slope overlooking the canal, calling constantly.

The phoebe’s nest is now just about complete, and the birds were heard in the ravine and Backyard Garden. As mentioned before, they are a new nesting species for the FWG. Another new nesting species, red-breasted nuthatches, had started a nest in a most unsuitable location, but soon vanished from that site. We thought they’d left the garden, but not so. They are now nesting in a more sensible site, a cavity about 20 feet up in the ash woods.

In addition to many more common birds singing and flying around the garden, I saw a very neat bird, a new addition to our list: BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER. As I stood eating an orange, thinking how nice it was before the heat of the day took over, I became aware of an unusual call. It took a few seconds before I realized, “holy smoke, gnatcatcher.” I saw it for about 3 minutes as it flew after insects and moved from tree to tree, eventually vanishing in a westerly direction. Although I looked for quite awhile, I didn’t see or hear it again. I did manage to get a pathetic photo which I’ll put on the blog.

One green frog was in the BYG pond early this morning, but there may well have been more as the day warmed up. I forgot to go back and check. I hoped to hear American toads trilling, as they were doing last week, but neither they nor gray treefrogs were calling while I was there.

Two mourning cloaks and two spring azures were flitting around near the ash woods, and nomada bees, small carpenter bees, honey bees, bumble bees, andrenids, and so on, were nectaring on the wild plums. Even a snail was oozing its way up the plum tree. We have considerable thickets of this Prunus species, and at this time of year they are a magnet for insects. In the past, I’ve found butterflies also visiting them.

A red squirrel was exhausted by all the activity taking place in his home. Or at least, that is how I anthropomorphically interpreted his pose. A few minutes before, he’d been sitting hunched up, as above him four male cowbirds were carrying on – screeching and fluttering and making a to-do. Eventually they left, and he ventured out along a branch, when in came a yellow-rumped warbler, almost landed on him, and began hopping along a branch just over his head. The squirrel sank down in an exhausted pose, nose to the branch, as if to say, “I give up!”

Everything is leafing out and, in some cases, flowering has just about finished (already). The unusually warm weather has hurried everything along at top speed, as if making up for lost time.

Lots of photos in the May photo gallery here:
www.pbase.com/fwg/fwg_blog_may_2013