We’ve just returned from a week’s holiday staying with my sister in the Scottish Highlands: gannets, black guillemots, seals and a dolphin in the Loch; spotted flycatchers in the woods and – best of all – red squirrels visiting the peanut feeders outside the living-room window.
The squirrels – smaller, daintier cousins of our familiar grey incomers from America – have been visiting my sister’s garden since she moved to Loch Fyne and as, like me, she is an obsessive observer and note-maker, she now has comprehensive records stretching back seven years. What kind of records, you may wonder. Well, for a start there’s the easy stuff – seasonal variation in visits, first appearance of juveniles, preferred routes to and from the feeders. But also, once she could recognize individuals, she began to compile dynasty records, now reaching back three generations. Luckily these attractive animals show variation in colour, some with quite a dusky sheen, others bright foxy red – some with blond tails, others various shades of brown. The characteristic ear-tufts, which add so much to their general ‘cuteness,’ also vary, not only seasonally but also between individuals. Also, their habit of hanging nonchalantly upside down beside the nut-holder – often holding onto a branch by one long-toed hind foot and a loose curve of tail, with white chest and belly stretched taut – makes sexing them an easy matter.
Once you reach this point of expertise, you can start the really fascinating stuff – the study of behaviour, interactions and individual character. Currently there are three of this year’s juveniles visiting. Squirrels are not by nature gregarious and the more dominant characters will not tolerate the company of another animal, chasing it off repeatedly with much tail quivering and chittering. However, the youngsters first came in a gang and fed on the same dispenser, completely covering it in a furry muff. Last week, this pattern was changing, the little male often coming on his own and we watched him as, with much scrabbling and slithering, he figured how to open a hinged box holding cobnuts.
Red squirrels are rare now in Wharfedale, but there are lots of other species to study. I did a three years study of my garden hedgehogs – using tippex dots to identify individuals. Garden birds make good subjects, blackbirds especially. You just need observation and records. You don’t have to be an obsessive – but it helps!