Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Spring harbingers are popping up in area


Q: Spring must be coming as a large flock of red-wing blackbirds showed up yesterday to join a large flock of robins who have been here for awhile. They are clearing the apples off a crab apple tree, which was overloaded from last fall.

Daffodils have pushed through the ground on the south side of the house about two weeks ago. It must be near, unless we get a surprise snow fall in April for a reality check.

— Fran [and Pat]

A: You are correct, spring must be coming, and I wish you told us where. Both birds are on schedule, if not a little early. The robins may either be migrants from the south or wintering birds that will probably be moving north. Either way, they inspire thoughts of season's change.

Also, love is in the air, if not spring weather, with both of our bluebird boxes already being occupied by house sparrows, that I will soon evict. This is one of the few species we can evict, discourage or otherwise intimidate legally. I prefer bluebirds, but will settle for bluebirds in one box and tree swallows in the other.

Q: While hiking up the Gorge Trail above Schermerhorn Falls in Lenox Dale/Lee, Mass., I saw some movement out of my peripheral vision. I saw three of these "fly" from a small ash sapling into this huge hemlock.

When I say fly, I mean they jumped and soared at least 10 feet from tree to tree! This guy stayed where I could get a photo of him. Never saw anything quite like him. Doesn't appear to be a squirrel, let alone a flying squirrel. Doesn't seem to be a chipmunk, at least not by the fur and those big eyes. Any thoughts?

— Tom H.

A: Because flying squirrels are so nocturnal and rarely seen during the day, or at all for that matter, it is easy to think of them as rare. They are not rare, and are far more common that we think.

The photos you included confirm it is a flying squirrel, but does not say which species, but the northern species is almost entirely nocturnal. Here, in the Berkshires, we may encounter both the northern flying squirrel and the southern flying squirrel.

Northern flying squirrels occur at altitudes of 1,000 feet or more, often in cool, dense forests of mature mixed hardwoods and conifers. Apparently, they prefer pure stands of hemlock-birch or hemlock-maple forests. while southern flying squirrels prefer hardwood forests of red maple, oak, birch, beech and aspen. To confuse the matter, they sometimes occur in mixed coniferous-hardwood forests, even old orchards and occasionally attics or lofts.

The name "flying squirrel" is a misnomer as they do not fly as do bats and birds, but instead glide by jumping off a tree and gently dive on parachute-like membranes outstretched between wrist and ankle. Sometimes they can glide some 150 feet from a height of 60 feet. While they can't glide upward, they can and do make turns to avoid slamming into a tree trunk or other obstacle as in cartoons.

I once raised a baby flying squirrel whose parents had abandoned the nest and young. It was comfortable spending the day sleeping in my shirt pocket as I went about my duties at the Berkshire Museum.

Bird feeder report

I read in your column about a birder with a shortage of birds this year and I was writing to let you know that up here, in Florida, Mass., I have more birds this year than in the recent past.

This year, I have a pair of cardinals, six titmice, a few nuthatches, many gold finches, about eight woodpeckers and, of course, dozens of chickadees and blue jays. All of these birds except the finches wintered here. The finches showed up in January.

I even had a cedar waxwing eating in my mountain ash trees in January.

It has been a very unusual year for birding up here. I am only feeding them with black oil sunflower seed and suet.

I can't explain it, but I like it.

— Chuck, Florida, Mass.

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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