Roll Call and Life Without a Favorite Species 28 November 2014
White-tailed Deer buck, momentarily taking center stage amid missing biodiversity, Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge, Wisconsin
Where have my favorite fox squirrels gone? With no photograph to describe it from this 28th of November, I will paint a picture for you using some carefully chosen words. The fox squirrel, Sciurus niger, is the largest squirrel in the Great Lakes states, a plump, pumpkin-orange-bellied tree squirrel. While it is has the same general build as a gray squirrel, it is larger, sometimes nearly twice the size of a gray squirrel. It is not the tiny, hyper-active red squirrel of the pines. It is a slower, laid-back and stately squirrel of bottomland forests, open oak forests, and equally at home in weedy groves of box elder trees adjacent to corn fields. My grandfather used to hunt them as he walked through corn stubble. I hunted for them in old groves of bur oak in floodplain forest. While some gray hairs adorn the back of this squirrel, the overall impression is a reddish-orange pelt. The fox squirrel wraps itself in a luxurious tail flanked by long hairs tipped in orange.
Red-bellied Woodpecker, showing the red of the belly, Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge, Wisconsin. The red crown on this bird often lends to its being confused with the less common Red-headed Woodpecker. While both species are in the same genus, Melanerpes, the two species have very different field marks. Like the fox squirrel, the Red-headed Woodpecker is missing from this bottomland forest gallery today.
About twenty years ago, fox squirrels were abundant in all of the lowlands containing bur oak and swamp white oak along my favorite stretches of Wisconsin and Minnesota's mighty Mississippi River. In many places they greatly outnumbered the gray squirrels. As I write, I am convinced I will need to spend a few days sauntering through those hardwood swamps of my younger years to collect some anecdotal data. I sincerely hope I am wrong. To the best of my observation, the fox squirrel has all but disappeared.
The wildlife images in today's post were made in an area that used to gain its character from the presence of Red-headed Woodpeckers (gone) and Fox Squirrels (gone). The nature of this lowland hardwood forest is still rich with many other beautiful spirits. It seems obvious to me that such biological treasure could allow just about anyone to see through the phantoms of yesterday's biology. In all of its apparent completeness, this ecosystem now lacks two of my very favorite animals.
Attention-getter! A Tufted Titmouse brings beauty to the bottomland hardwood forest.
A little digging in my memory, roaming to the buried acorns of my past, I can recall harvesting fox squirrels with regularity. I harvested with care and respect, bringing about ten or fifteen to the table each year. Just ten or twelve years ago, I could expect to see a ratio of nearly one fox squirrel to every five or six gray squirrels while I bowhunted for deer in the hardwood prairie edges of Saint Croix County's public land. Two years ago, I saw a fox squirrel in the middle of a country road just a few miles from my home. I have not seen one since then. Is this merely observer bias? Maybe my habits have changed just enough to put me out of step with the fox squirrels of our abundant fields and forests. My stepfather, a man who has lived in an important coulee country ecosystem for fifty years, has noticed the decline as well. While they are still around as a species, I feel I am witness to a widespread regional decline. If the decline goes unnoticed, it may also go without remedy.
All images were made with a Canon 7D and Canon 300mm f4L IS lens. All images were made while feeling sadly aware in the mysterious absence of familiar forest friends.