Becoming a Flying Squirrel Landlord
The flying squirrel may own the title of Colorado’s rarest mammal because just one single specimen has ever been recorded in the state. Although they are only found in a small sliver of the state, this probably has more to do with how difficult it is to find them, and not as much to do with the size of the population. The northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) is common in northern latitudes of the US and Canada, but its range barely extends down into northwest Colorado. Just reaching a suitable site to search for them is a long drive on rough jeep roads into some of Colorado’s most remote country. And then there is the fact that they are nocturnal. And they fly (well, glide, actually). Basically, a photographer’s worst case scenario.
Back in the summer of 2014, Lana and I took a road trip back to Michigan to visit family. My mom’s house has a nice stand of hardwood forest out the back door, and ever though she’d never seen them there before, it just seemed like a nice place for flying squirrels. Both the northern flying squirrel and the similar, but smaller southern flying squirrel (G. volans) inhabit Michigan. At Mom’s house in the southern Lower Peninsula, only the southern flying squirrel might be found.
Before we left Colorado, I whipped up a couple of flying squirrel nest boxes using some plans that you can download here and put them in the truck. When we arrived in Michigan, I mounted the boxes as high as I could reach using the tallest ladder in the garage and we all crossed our fingers.
It was more than a year before we made another trip back to Michigan – this time for Thanksgiving. It was a cold, drizzly weekend, but we had to make it out to check the nest boxes. I noticed some gnawing around the opening – not enough to allow a fox squirrel or gray squirrel to fit through. Lana gave the tree trunk a rap and two little squirrel noses poked out.
We knew immediately by their giant round eyes that they were flying squirrels. We’d seen a captive southern flying squirrel once before when Rob Mies brought one to a presentation at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. But to see them living in the wild was a lifer for both of us! It’s not uncommon to see flying squirrels in pairs at this time of year. During the colder months, they “buddy up” to stay warm. One of the squirrels crawled completely out of the nest box onto the tree trunk, giving us a good look at its broad tail and patagium (the “wing” membrane connecting the legs and body that allows it to glide). After snapping a few photos, we left them alone so they wouldn’t feel the need to “evict”. Hopefully they’ll stick around and I’ll have a chance to photograph them in flight on a future visit.
Back in Colorado last summer, I was able to capture some infrared video footage of northern flying squirrels in the wild. It was a taxing job, with many trips to the western slope, and at least one seriously epic 4WD adventure. I’m nowhere near satisfied with any photos that I have capture so far, but just to locate a site to photograph these squirrels and confirm their presence is half the battle. The videos will help me to understand their habits and better position my cameras when the snow melts next spring.