An unexpected opportunity

An unexpected opportunity

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“Fly me to the moon.” – Bart Howard

Sometimes it’s strange how one thing leads to another.

Nature recently granted me a tremendous opportunity that began in quite unrelated fashion on a cloudy spring afternoon.

A few days beforehand, we had put up the hummingbird feeders in the yard for the summer, anticipating those dazzling ruby-throated gems might appreciate a sugary treat to supplement their diet of spiders and other insects.

We mixed up one-part sugar to four parts water and warmed the mixture to dissolve the sugar. We then cooled the sugar water in the fridge for a while before filling up two hanging feeders.

The first hummingbird I saw this year, which seemed like it had arrived early to me, was in my backyard on May 1.

Now, it was much later in the month and I had seen a few hummingbirds here and there in my quality quarantine travels, so I knew they were back in larger numbers.

In addition to enjoying the beautiful spring visitors to our backyard seed bird feeders, like the rose-breasted grosbeaks, pine warblers and indigo buntings, the hummingbirds are always a welcome sign of spring.

Within an hour or so of our putting up the feeders I saw a female ruby-throated at the larger of the two feeders.

The next day was when things started getting more interesting.

With our family all either working from home, or home from school, we have taken to meeting up to eat lunch each day at the dining room table.

What a treat that is, just in itself.

Halfway through one of the Mool’s delicious grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, I glanced outside and saw a flash of bright color shining back from the chokecherry trees just outside the window glass.

It was a Baltimore oriole and it was moving toward the hummingbird feeder. These birds like sugary treats too and are known to frequent hummingbird feeders.

This bright orange and black male bird – which is a member of the family of blackbirds – was a first-time sighting for the girls.

They both agreed, “He’s pretty.”

We weren’t used to orioles in our backyard. I had hoped they’d at least passed through each spring, but I was never able to see any until now. Perhaps that’s because typically we would be at our offices or school during this time of the day.

This has been another pandemic treat to enjoy the birds during lunchtime.

I remembered we had an oriole feeder in the garage and suggested to the girls that we get it out and set up. It is a metal ring, with about a 10-inch diameter, painted orange. It has a perch and two attached metal skewers, that jut out on opposing sides of the feeder which are filed to points at the tip.

The skewers are used to hold an orange once it is cut in half, exposing the fruit to the perched bird. There is also a small glass cup, with a lip on the top, that is held in place by a metal ring, also painted orange to help attract orioles.

The dish holds grape jelly, which is enjoyed by not only orioles but other birds too.

We set out the bird feeder and the colorful oriole soon returned and was sitting on it, sticking its bill into the jelly dish. In a matter of a couple of minutes, the jelly was gone.

The oriole stayed around for a week or so enjoying the jelly. I took some pictures of the bird, one day along with a male rose-breasted grosbeak, visiting the bird feeders even though it was raining.

Then, I didn’t see the oriole anymore.

However, the jelly bowl kept turning up empty.

I also noticed in the mornings that the suet in a couple of the cage-styled feeders attached to a tree trunk nearby were either emptied or the fat had been picked at significantly through the bars of the cage.

This refilling and depleting exercise went on for a few nights.

I kept checking the jelly bowl before I went to be each night and it was full but would be empty by morning. One day, the feeder itself was lying on the ground, its chain had been knocked free from the shepherd’s crook that held it.

Once the next weekend came around, I was determined to stay up late enough to find out what was visiting the feeder at night.

I turned on some backyard lights to make my job easier.

I hoped I would be able to see whatever was going to happen from my seat at the dining room table. Nothing happened.

I retreated to the living room to watch television for a while, checking the view outside about every half-hour. Then, I finally saw something, but it wasn’t what I expected.

I had ruled out a bear because of how delicately the jelly had been removed from the dish. One of our DNR wildlife biologists theorized the animal would be unmasked as a raccoon.

At first, I didn’t see an animal. I only saw one of the bird seed feeders gliding back and forth when none of the other feeders was doing that. I picked up a flashlight and shone it out into the yard.

I still didn’t see anything at first. Then I noticed what I decided had to be a tail hanging down along the side of the feeder. The animal was concealed on the back side of the hanging cylinder, which was kept inside a cage to deter squirrels.

I softly and quietly opened the door to the backyard.

I snuck outside as quietly as I could and made my way along the side of the house to the chokecherry trees. I heard a brief scratching kind of noise and again saw the feeder swinging back and forth, just a little bit.

The feeder stopped moving. I heard and saw nothing.

I then shone the flashlight up into the branches of the tree and spotted a flying squirrel looking at me from one of the branches about 10 feet above me. I quietly sat down on the wall of the garden flower bed and waited.

Within a couple of minutes, I heard a metallic clang as the squirrel jumped from the trunk of the tree back onto the hanging tube feeder. It was now only about 4 feet away from me.

A quick flying squirrel diet check indicates they eat nuts, acorns, fungi, and lichens, along with fruits and sap – and evidently, grape jelly!

The squirrel’s large eyes glowed back as I shone the flashlight on the animal to try to get a picture. The little night visitor didn’t mind the light, the clicking of the camera or my presence.

He moved a few times between the feeder and the tree trunk. After a while he climbed to the top of one of the chokecherry branches, to a dead limb. I asked him what he was doing way up there so high?

He was sitting about 35 feet off the ground when he jumped into thin air.

Thanks to the glow of the backyard lights, I was able to see the squirrel open the skin fold of its patagium and glide through mid-air toward the front yard. It then banked and flew around a couple of the maples into the darkness.

I heard scratching again as I arrived in the front yard and shone the flashlight. The flying squirrel was situated high above me, looking down right at me, in a tree about 20 feet away.

This was incredible to me! I had seen it glide about 40 feet, maybe more.

I’ve seen flying squirrels before and I’ve seen them shoot off a platform feeder in the night 10 feet or so into the trees, but nothing like this – only on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

This was one of the most fantastic things I have ever seen. I hope to see it again very soon. Meanwhile, it is indeed strange how things sometimes lead from one to another in the most unassuming ways.


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