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Spring’s signs: The red squirrel knows

photo of a red squirrel
We just don’t see squirrels at our place.

This last winter was long, icy and cold. Last week, the temps finally started to climb back into the normal zone. An eternal optimist, I started to wear my Costco Capri pants and my Duluth Trading Company long-tail T-shirt, thinking this act might force spring and then summer to come more quickly.

Rebecca Otto

At our home, we have a back patio that we put in several years ago for one of the great rites of passage for kids in Minnesota – high school graduation. Families spruce things up around the house – painting, carpet cleaning (if you have carpet), and taking on projects that you never got to because of all the time you put into fundraisers for the Boy Scouts, the High School Drumline, the PTO, and even a levy-referendum campaign.

My husband and I decided to invest in landscaping for our celebration. Even though we had the money to pay for the work, it almost felt wrong at the time. We had designed and built our house. We were used to putting in labor to pinch pennies. We knew how to do the work, but we went big and paid Abrahamson’s to design and install the landscaping, which included a new approach to our garage and a back patio made out of red pavers. We also had two maple trees planted by the new patio to give us some shade so we could sit out there comfortably in the summer.

For our son’s graduation party, we had a build-your-own taco buffet in the kitchen. I cooked up so many delicious different fixings. You could carry your food outside through the new French doors from the kitchen to the shiny new patio. The party was a great success and our son went off to college and graduated in four years. I think the patio was a great way to send him off into the world.

A front-row seat

So while the purpose of the patio was to celebrate a rite of passage with the community and family, the patio has since taken on a life of its own and I have a front-row seat to the magic that plays out there.

As I was drinking my coffee the other morning and staring out the French doors at our 6-year-old maple tree, I spotted an odd sight. All of the woodpeckers filling the tree were something I was used to observing. They line up to eat suet out of the basket that hangs from our green shepherd’s hook. No, what was different that day was a squirrel – a red squirrel in our tree. We just don’t see squirrels at our place. This little one was running up and down the trunk of the tree with its tongue shooting out at lightning speed against the bark as it ran.

I love photographing nature, so I grabbed my iPhone to capture the moment with a video. As I was focusing in on the squirrel by tapping its image with my finger on the screen before I started shooting, I saw that the tree was weeping. It looked like tears were falling from several branches at about a drip per every three seconds. They sparkled in the sunlight – liquid diamonds. I was confused – it wasn’t raining, and the snow had already melted and had been gone for days.

Had to explore

Once the squirrel moved on, I had to explore why the tree was crying. Upon further inspection, I saw that the bark was popped open in several spots on the branches. It was dripping sap – sap flows when you have freezing temps at night and above freezing temps during the day. I had never seen this.

The next morning, as I returned from the barn after feeding my animals, I just had to stop at the tree. In the morning sun on the east side of the trunk, I could see glistening trails of amber flowing down its graceful trunk. Out of curiosity, I touched my finger to one of the trails and licked it. Nothing — it was dry.

I had to do it. I went in, tongue out, and I licked the dried trail. To my surprise, it was sweet and delicious! It warmed my insides with pure joy. It was maple syrup that had dried in the sun on the tree.

That squirrel came quite a ways to find our tree, somehow knew that it was sapping, and was in pure ecstasy as it lapped it up. I was privileged enough to witness the whole thing occurring by the patio. Spring has sprung!

Rebecca Otto, of Marine, is a former Minnesota state auditor.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Robert Ahles on 04/06/2019 - 01:06 pm.

    I just have to tell you about the encounter I had yesterday with a peregrine falcon. As I was about to make breakfast I noticed a peregrine falcon sitting on the floor of our deck quite close to the house. These falcons are formidable hunters that prey on other birds (and bats) in mid-flight. Peregrines hunt from above and, after sighting their prey, drop into a steep, swift dive that can top 200 miles an hour. We have five bird feeders around the deck and also a heated water dish that keeps the water from freezing during the winter months. I just assumed that the falcon was waiting in ambush for birds to come to the feeders. I decided to wait at the kitchen window in hopes of actually seeing another successful hunt by a falcon from our kitchen window. A couple of years ago I saw a peregrine falcon catch a starling in midair and then drop to the ground in our backyard.

    Well, I waited and waited and waited and no birds came to the feeder which I thought was unusual. The falcon continued to sit in the same place with the only movement being the turning of its head which it could rotate like an owl to see behind its back. After about 45 minutes the falcon stretched its neck out and opened its beak wide and I thought it was choking on something. After a couple of rapid neck stretches out came a ball about the size of the grape. I didn’t know what that was but thought the falcon had eaten a nut and could not swallow it. The falcon then lifted its tail to a 45 degree angle and shot a stream of white shit to the ground below. I waited another 15 minutes in hopes of seeing a falcon and bird encounter but had to leave to also visit the bathroom. When I returned the falcon was gone and was sitting in one of our apple trees in the backyard. I again watched the falcon for another few minutes until he took flight and was gone. After missing a falcon bird attack I became curious about the little round ball lying on the deck. I went out and picked it up. As I said before, it was the size of an average grape and consisted of some dark brown material with feathers throughout. Apparently the falcon had been successful hunting before I noticed him on the deck and it was just chilling out and digesting its meal. It apparently regurgitated that which could not be digested easily. My wife, Marty, was yelling from the lower level for breakfast so after an hour plus I got back to the task at hand.

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