October and early November means tree climbing for me.

I’m an autumn predator. I pull myself up into the palette of fall foliage and settle among the limbs with the hope of ambushing a whitetail deer with my recurve bow and arrows.

The waiting can be onerous and almost boring. Pretending I am merely a part of the tree offers a great opportunity to simply watch the day unfold. 

This fall there was an abundant mast crop of acorns. Pounds and pounds  fell to the ground. These all represent necessary calories for deer, turkeys, blue jays, chipmunks, mice and of course squirrels. I once watched a pair of beavers snuffling up acorns at a river’s edge.

I’ve noticed more squirrels with this acorn production. In this part of Minnesota I mostly see gray squirrels, but this fall I have seen all three of the common squirrel species found here: gray, fox and red squirrels. (Our two flying squirrel species, the northern and southern, are quite common but they are less seen due to their nocturnal habits.) 

More than once, squirrel shuffling in the dry leaves has quickened my heart rate when I thought it might be an approaching deer.

I mostly enjoy watching the squirrels as arboreal acrobats. They nimbly run along high limbs, towards the bending tip, and then leap and cling to the neighbor tree. They scramble on their pathway of twigs, branches and limbs.  Their short muscular legs and fine clawed toes are perfect adaptions for the high life. Their bushy tail serves many functions. It is an umbrella when curled over their head, a winter duvet for added warmth and it is critical in enhancing their balance. 

Watching the squirrels, it becomes apparent that these treetop paths are as familiar to them as the sidewalk that curls from my driveway to my house is to me.

Recently I watched one gray squirrel make its way through several treetops. Fifteen minutes later, a second gray followed the exact route.

Was this a trail they all learned and used or did the second squirrel scent the route like a rodent bloodhound?

I watched one gray squirrel scurry, leap, pause, scurry, leap and repeat for at least fifty yards through the treetops without descending to the ground. Early frontier settlers in the Ohio River valley might have embellished squirrel feats somewhat, but maybe not. They recorded that those early forests were so dense and broad that squirrels could travel through the connected tree canopies for miles and miles without ever coming to the ground. It was noted that gray squirrel populations were so dense that “…it took a month for an army of squirrels to pass.” In fact, as the region was cleared for agriculture, gray squirrels disrupted early farming efforts in the state to such an extent that Ohio law required each taxpayer to turn in a quota of squirrel skins along with their tax payment.

Sometimes there is a real thrill-seeking squirrel who under estimates the span required to soar to the next tree. I suspect those are young, inexperienced animals. And it’s not unusual to witness a jump from one branch to a dead branch that snaps and breaks. Friend Nels, (another autumnal tree climber) watched one gray fall from high in the oak canopy. Instead of spreading out its limbs and broad, bushy tail to slow the descent into a sort of fur-covered parachute, the squirrel assumed a tuck position, as it if were cannonballing out of the tree. It hit the ground, bounced and then bounded easily away.

Fox squirrels with their yellow-orange pelage are a treat to see as they are less common around here than they used to be. As an adolescent I first hunted squirrels in these very woods where I now sit for a deer. Bagging a fox squirrel in those years was celebratory as they were more shy and elusive besides being slightly larger and more brilliant than a gray.

Fox squirrels generally don’t mingle with the other squirrel species. When they move they don’t hop as much as a gray squirrel. Instead they almost crawl or sneak around.  

Red squirrels are the hyper characters in the woods and for some reason we have more of them around than I ever remember.  I consider these squirrels saboteurs of my hunt. They have no patience for my trying to blend with their trees and they vociferously call me out on that. Likewise, I have no patience for their tireless chattering, cursing, scolding, and chittering vitriolic aspersions spat at me. I’ve got to believe that any nearby deer know that red squirrel cursing is something to avoid. 

Small like red squirrel perched on a branch of a tree looking out to see if theirs danger.

In their jerky movements, the three vociferous red squirrels close in on me on my perch. I glare at them and that only seems to turn up their volume and intensity. So I try to ignore them and stare meditatively into the gaiety of autumn.

Hours had passed since dawn and I still hadn’t seen a deer. However, there was plenty of leaf rustling. Consequently I pulled up a refrain from a 1968 hit: “I’m a girl(squirrel) watcher. I’m a squirrel watcher. Watching squirrels go by.”

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