Squirrels in the Sycamores

Stripped bark

Against a clear blue sky, the winter sun picks out slashes of creamy white on the top branches of a tall sycamore, which I suspect are the result of grey squirrels stripping the bark. There’s no sign of damage on the adjacent oak but its bark, loaded with tannins, is probably not as nutritious as that of the sycamore.

The sycamore is probably the nearest that the squirrels can get to the tastier-sounding sugar maple, which, like the grey squirrel, is a native of North America.

In the topmost branches of another sycamore, a squirrel leans out to pick off buds from slender twigs which it eats, one after the other: a healthy snack.

Hornets’ Nest

Hornets at the nest hole, 13 August, 2017.
New shoots springing from the old ash stump: a natural equivalent of a coppice stool.

In the summer and early autumn, hornets nested in an old ash trunk in the parkland near the Pleasure Grounds. By mid-autumn the trunk had rotted through at the base and come adrift from its roots but it was prevented from falling towards the path by the surrounding stout stems, which had sprung up around it: a natural equivalent of coppice shoots.

Frass in old cavities in ash.

Now it has fallen back in the other direction and it lies on the ground. I can’t see the cavity that contained the hornets’ nest – it’s probably hidden on the underside – but all the timber is riddled with tunnels, some of them stuffed with frass, which has set hard like fine-textured chipboard.

Parkland Birds

Fieldfares and starlings

The fine cold morning has brought in fieldfares, twenty-five of them. We’ve been expecting them to turn up here on the grassy slopes of the Obelisk Park.

Also back this morning, on a small, partly iced over pool in the corner of a grassy field just beyond the park boundary, are fifty wigeon, which often graze on the short turf here.

Joining the regular great tits, blue tits, coal tits and robins in the lakeside woods is a goldcrest, which, thanks to its size – along with the firecrest, it’s our joint smallest British bird – can inspect the slenderest of twigs.

A jay flies up into a sapling and we notice that it seems to be keeping an eye on a kestrel, a falcon of open spaces which seems a bit incongruous in this woodland setting.

It settles for a while, looking out over the lake. We rarely get such a good view of a kestrel and I make a mental note of its yellow beak, tipped in black; the tear-drop shaped dark patch beneath its eye; and the russet tan plumage of its back, speckled with dark brown.

As it flies to another perch, it shows pale grey tail feathers, banded with dark brown, almost black, at the tips.

Mallards and Mute Swans

Midwinter is hardly over but already, on the ice-fringed Lower Lake, the mallards have mating in mind. A drake head-bobs as he swims around the duck prior to mating.

As we round a corner by a lakeside bench, we disturb a heron. It must be getting tired of seeing us as we disturbed it here, same time, same place, yesterday morning.

One of the two cygnets of the mute swan family on the Middle Lake has now lost the last of its grey feathers. It’s now almost an adult, except for its bill which gives it away as a juvenile: this looks as if that has been given a coat of grey undercoat prior to the final coat of orange, which looks so striking on the adults.

The other cygnet still has a some grey on its back, as do the four cygnets of the swan family on the Lower Lake. They seem to be spending more time away from the adults, this morning at the far end of the side arm of the lake.

At the lakeside, a cigar-shaped seed-head of reedmace disperses a couple of wisps of its downy seeds. It has been calculated that one stalk can produce 200,000 seeds.

Squirrel-nibbled Cones

grey squirrelSquirrels will make an appearance in my Dalesman nature diary this autumn, so I picked up these squirrel-nibbled cones at Nostell this morning to illustrate the article. I’ll be writing about the red squirrels of Snaizeholme near Hawes but these cones have been nibbled by greys.

An ecologist recently told me that the last red he’d seen near Wakefield had been running down the road at Newmillerdam; I think that this would have been in the late 1970s or possibly early 1980s.

It sounds as if the unfortunate creature had an inkling that the greys had taken over and was heading off like a lemming on one last desperate migration. Lets hope it finally arrived at Snaizeholme.

Squirrel Baffle

8.45 a.m.: We’ve been waiting to see whether the squirrel baffle on our new bird feeding pole would defeat a really determined squirrel.

After nibbling a few spilt sunflower hearts from the lawn beneath, a grey squirrel looks up quizzically at the feeders. Taking a leap at the pole, it gets to within a foot of the steel cone and hangs there for a moment until gravity kicks in and it starts to slide back down, like a fireman on a pole.

It scampers off towards the patio then climbs to the top of the cordon apple and looks back towards the pole. After checking out the patio table and discovering the odd sunflower heart that I’d spilt there, it goes over to the shed and climbs to the apex of the roof, to check out the challenge from another angle.

You can imagine the thought processes that it’s going through. It completes a circuit of vantage points by climbing the clothes pole and the crab apple (where it samples one of the squishy apples).

Then it’s back to the feeding pole for one last attempt. Taking a running jump, it succeeds in propelling itself right up into the cone. For a few moments all that we can see of it is a bushy tail, dangling and swishing slightly. That’s as far as it gets, then it lets itself gently back down to earth via the pole.

I think that now we’ll be able to go back to using plastic feeders, in addition to the robust ‘squirrel-proof’ metal feeders that we had to start using a year ago.


RSPB Pole-mounted Feeder Squirrel Guard

Squirrel Chase

The grey squirrels in the Pleasure Grounds wood by the Lower Lake  at Nostell  have spent much of the autumn burying acorns and sweet chestnuts and they’re now starting mating activity. Apparently it’s the female who leads the chase; she leads the slightly smaller male around the trunk of a tall oak, spiralling down then up again into the branches. She then she sets him the challenge of leaping over into the branches of a conifer.

Studies of red squirrels have revealed that their chases can last five hours, so this male might be busy for a quite a while.

Caphouse Beck


squircross2 p.m., 40ºF, 5ºC: Caphouse beck is coloured by ochre which I suspect might come from old mine workings.

A grey squirrel climbs into the trees to cross the stream where the branches of the willows meet.

I find that I’m rushing to complete my watercolour in the time that I’ve allowed myself and it doesn’t help that on my three-legged stool I keep feeling rather unstable as I perch on the the steep bank by the beck! I withdraw to a more level vantage point halfway up the slope when it comes to adding the watercolour.


squirrel 1986squirrel 1986A grey squirrel approaches the bird feeders but I rattle open the patio doors and send him away. The problem is that our bird feeders aren’t squirrel-proof and we’ve had the plastic perches and seed-hoppers nibbled away in the past. Time to grease the pole, I’m afraid. I don’t like doing it but I’ve yet to come up with a better solution.

The leaping squirrel is another rough from my children’s picture book Deep in the Wood. I was trying to see the world from a squirrel’s point of view. What would it be like to be up there leaping with the squirrel?

You can see where I’ve had to adjust the head, sticking on a new version. The darker lines on both these drawings show where they were traced down onto watercolour paper for the final artwork. The squirrel with the nut was an early version of the cover. We didn’t use it because it looked as if the book was just about squirrels. A new version of the cover featured all the animals that appear in the book.

The Edge of the Moor

IT’S TOO WET and windy for us to continue up onto the moors after our stop for a flask of coffee on the bench overlooking the River Little Don upstream from Langsett Reservoir so we take the shorter route back to the car park through the plantations. Some of the tall – but shallow-rooted – conifers have recently been blown down.

There’s a flock of between one and two hundred Redwings in one of the pastures sheltered by the top edge of the wood. Amongst them what appears to be a bird with a much paler version of the plumage. I think the term would be leucistic, which means lacking in pigment – the word comes from the Greek leukos meaning white. This one I would describe as a pale biscuit colour.

My sketch is of a normal Redwing from the earlier years of this diary, which explains its dotty quality as in those days I always scanned at 72 rather than 100 dpi and this is a GIF, a compressed image file that uses a limited range of colours. In those days of painfully slow dial-up connections, I could get away with this kind of image when it was viewed on the lower resolution monitors of that time.

A Nibbled Cone

I picked up this nibbled cone by the side of the track. I’m guessing that this is the work of a squirrel rather than a Crossbill, which we’ve seen here in the past. A Crossbill tends to tweak and twist the seeds from between the scales while a squirrel would eat it like a corn-on-the-cob, discarding the core.

We saw several Grey Squirrels on our walk through the woods, including two pairs. At this time of year the males are likely to be trailing around after the females or giving chase.

The Hawk and the Squirrel

Harris HawkWatching a Grey Squirrel carrying bedding to its drey the other day, I was thinking what an easy life these suburban squirrels must have, with no natural enemies apart from the occasional Fox, which can’t follow them up into the tree-tops. But the squirrels of Spring Mill Park must be well aware of one powerful predator that has been hawking around the area for the last 14 years; this North American Harris Hawk, Parabuteo unicinctus, one of three which belong to a local falconer.

grey squirrelHe exercises them regularly but confides to me that it’s now getting a bit too much for him. When the bird goes down on prey it’s not like a retriever dog, it won’t bring the prey back to him, so it might end up half a mile away – as the hawk flies – up the slope in one of the pastures between Spring Mill Park and the motorway.

This hawk can easily tackle prey such as Rabbits and Magpies but if you’re hawking for Grey Squirrels – which, for all their cuteness, are often seen as a pest species, here in Britain where they’ve been introduced – the hawk needs to be equipped with special leg-guards as the squirrel, when caught, can swivel around and use its impressive incisors to bite into the back of the hawk’s legs, potentially inflicting permanent damage.

Flying weight is critical for hawking; fly a bird that’s even a few grams over its ideal weight and it will happily soar about all day without bothering to go for prey. This female Harris Hawk, I’m informed, needs to weigh in at precisely 2 pounds, 1 ounce and 3 grams, when it is taken out to hunt.

goshawkThe falconer was once surprised, when he was calling back one of his hawks, by the sudden appearance of a Goshawk which flew down and perched on the fence nearby. It had jesses so he managed to get near it and take it back to his avairy. The ring, which all captive falcons wear, revealed that it had been lost by a falconer who lives at Addingham, 23 miles to the north-west of Spring Mill, so he was able to reunite the bird with its owner.