October 2010: Umpqua National Forest
Are we crazy or what! Three out of the past four days we’ve driven 80 miles to a campground in the Umpqua National Forest, spent a chunk of the day there, but didn’t camp.
There is some method to our madness. We are opportunists. Right now the opportunity is chickarees, the western cousins of the red squirrel. We first noticed they were busy harvesting a month ago when I posted “Fall Harvesting – Chickarees.” At that time the squirrels were high in the lodgepoles, nipping off cones, one after another. Today we’re watching another chapter of their busy work.
Here, in the campground, the chickarees are somewhat tolerant of humans. They have already dropped hundreds of cones, most of which have been barely tucked into the loose layer of twigs and pine needles that cover the forest floor between campsites. These little pockets hold anywhere from one to a half dozen cones. The area the size of my modest living room might have 50 mini caches. Scattered all about like this, the cones would be hard to find under the snow pack. Now it’s time to cache them in great basketfuls, called ‘middens,’ for winter.
We’ve been watching one chickaree in particular. No one is camped near here and he is busy, busy, busy. He seems to have established rights to this particular area. When another squirrel dares to trespass a wild chase ensues, up one and down one tree after another. After lots of chattering , the intruder leaves.
When gathering cones, the chickaree floats over the ground like a weasel – quick as a wink. In an eleven minute period he cached ten pine cones and then was interrupted by a bicyclist. After depositing a cone he comes roaring out from a little grove of lodgepoles where his midden is tucked under a rotting stump and log.
He zips 50 to 150 feet to a new cone, grabs it, twirls it around until he can put the narrow end in his mouth like an oversized cigar and back he runs.
We’ve been trying to get photos. Ha! Ha! We’re using the car as a blind. We prefocus on about the right distance and lean on the trigger when he flies by.
Occasionally I’m on my target, at least good enough photos to draw from and about 3 sharp photos out of 300. I love digital. I would never have tried this with film.
At first I thought the rapid fire of my camera (six frames per second) was catching six frames of the same leap. But then I realized my camera happens to fire at almost the same speed it takes for one leap. The skinny little squirrel must be all muscle. He switches from flat out to tucked, six times per second. I think he touches the ground once in awhile, but it looks as though he is flying! No wonder I have a hard time getting my camera on him.
Every so often the chickaree takes a break. He sits on his hindquarters, tail curled with the curve of his back, and munches his way through a lodgepole pine cone. The ones he is gathering are still closed and somewhat soft. He holds it like an ear of corn, discarding parts and eating the rest. His favorite eating spots become littered with scraps and the cores of the cones. For a little variety he nibbles on mushrooms. The area offers both boletus and I’m pretty sure he is finding truffles. I even caught his neighbor holding a small, red amanita, just ready to take a bite when we disturbed him. Why can squirrels tolerate the toxins in amanitas and we can’t? Amanita look absolutely delicious.