Thursday, August 13, 2015

Philadelphia's Secretive Nocturnal Wildlife --Guest Post--

    My partner Gigi and I arrived just after dusk with our peanut butter, lawn chairs, and hot ginger tea in a thermos. I walked to the old Norway maple across the path and spread peanut butter on the bark. Then we sat back and waited. We were confident that, despite the gloom, we could just make out small shapes should they appear on the tree, which was good; fruitlessly staring at trees in the dark is no way to spend a Friday evening. 

    I can’t say exactly what moved me to track down a southern flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans), but I do think it was the Fairmount Park Natural Lands Restoration Plan that moved me to action. The document, from 1999, lists species for Philadelphia’s park system based on then-current surveys and on historic records. According to those historic records (up to 1942), southern flying squirrels were, “of uniform abundance.” 

    That sounded like a challenge. I’ve been hanging out in these parks for 10 years and I hadn’t seen one of these “uniformly abundant” squirrels. But then flying squirrels are nocturnal, and I hadn’t gone out much at night. Whether due to actual or perceived danger, we urbanites tend to avoid our evening forests. 

    I was willing to brave the dark woods, but where to start? Philadelphia is blessed with a large network of forested parks. The Haddington Woods tract is a current focus of ecological restoration work, and it’s near where I live. So I rode my bike to the trailhead, locked up, and entered Haddington Woods. 

    I didn’t walk very far. Maybe a hundred yards in, I chose a gnarly Norway maple that had lost one large limb about ten feet up and wore a thick, hairy poison ivy vine around the trunk. I spread some peanut butter – the internet’s bait of choice for flying squirrels – on the bark in two patches as high up as I could reach, closed up the jar, and walked back to my bike.  

    The next day when I rode back to check the tree, the peanut butter was gone. Indeed the ridges of the bark where I had spread it had been chewed down, presumably to get whatever had soaked in. I kept feeding my new friend over the next few weeks. I couldn’t make it out every day, but I reapplied the bait when I could, and it kept on disappearing. 

    Everything was consistent with it being a flying squirrel, but I needed to stake the tree out to be sure. 

    So that Friday evening we set up and tried to stay quiet. Faint city sounds drifted into the woods: a far-off siren, trains running and then stopping at the El station a few blocks away. I wondered at little rustles and chirps we heard around us. Were those squirrels? Finally I thought I kind of saw something was moving maybe 25 feet up on the branches, and then a moment I thought I saw it again next to the peanut butter. “Did you see that?” I whispered.

    “I think so,” Gigi whispered back, and we kept watching carefully as a quick little shape, a little bigger than a chipmunk, moved around the peanut butter. 

    I reached for my camera to take a photo, but it wasn’t in my pocket. I had forgotten it.

    I immediately planned a second trip. My companion this time would be my daughter Magnolia, nearly three years old. My idea was to sit quietly together and snap a few photos of the cute little flying squirrel - a great father-daughter bonding trip. 

    Of course that plan was ridiculously optimistic. How long can any toddlers you know sit quietly in a new and exciting place, at night, no less? The questions began immediately: 

    “Daddy, are there owls?” (Magnolia is inexplicably afraid of owls)

    “Yes honey, but they won’t hurt you. Shhh.” 

    “Are there spookie-wookies?” 

    “No. Shhh.” 

    “Daddy, can I have that stick.” 

    “Yes, but be quiet.” 

    There were a few thirty-second stretches during which she managed to be both still and quiet, but I was sure every creature of the forest was keeping far away from us as possible. I picked up my flashlight to take one last look at the tree before we left. 

    And that’s when I saw its big black eyes staring back at me from about 20 feet up the trunk. I took a photo, grabbed Magnolia, and whispered at her to look. Surprisingly the squirrel descended towards the peanut butter (love of peanut butter overpowering fear of giant primates), and I got a photo of it at about fifteen feet up.
    That it only took one tree to find our flying squirrel is a good indication of their abundance. I could have gotten freakishly lucky and chosen their only home in the city, out of thousands of acres of urban woodlands. More likely, though, is that they are still “uniformly abundant.” Various species of flying squirrels inhabit forests throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. If you live near a forest in the northern hemisphere, they’re probably there too. All you need to see them is some patience and a jar of peanut butter.

    Friends were generally surprised that something as strange as a flying squirrel (These are rodents, and yet they gladly launch themselves through the air to glide from tree to tree) would be common in urban Philadelphia. Still, I bet if they did that in broad daylight we’d barely notice. An organism can be both ubiquitous and exotic as long as it does a good enough job of avoiding us.


Bernard Brown is a nature writer living in Philadelphia, PA. He co-hosts and produces the Urban Wildlife Podcast

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