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Following the Squirrels Lead

Categories: Blog, Nature Preserve

by Andrew Wollenberg | Andrew is a guest blogger writing about Filoli’s Nature Preserve. This is the second in an occasional blog series. Enjoy!

As the temperatures lower and plant and animal life prepare for winter, I often find myself entertained by the lively preparations of the squirrels. Effortlessly bounding up and down trees, keeping an eye on life from the tree tops to the landscape I walk on. As I watch them, I drift into questions about them being master gardeners. Were the squirrels the ones who planted the forests? Does a forgotten winter stashed acorn become a mighty oak? Are they the curators of our larger garden?

One particular early morning upon my arrival I noticed a significant number of squirrels calling and my curiosity was instantly peaked. They sounded agitated and were “bark squeaking” over a really large area. From the top corner of the fruit garden all the way over the formal gardens the squirrels were clearly talking about whatever was out there. The sound reminded me of a previous visit where I had heard squirrels alarm. On that visit I followed the sound to the area of peak noise only to come upon a bobcat slinking through the area. I remembered that experience and headed to the same place I had seen the bobcat. This time, something seemed different. I found myself following along the outside edge of the fruit garden along the dirt road investigating this mystery. I thought to myself, today I will let the squirrels lead my adventure.

Approaching the spot where I had previously seen the bobcat hoping to find the source of the raucous calls but didn’t find anything. I paused and listened. As I listened with more awareness I was struck by the difference in the agitated calling of the squirrels and the sheer distance it covered. It sounded like all the squirrels in the entire garden, as far out as I could hear, were talking about something, but I just couldn’t figure out what it was yet. I noticed their calls seemed to be more focused towards the tree tops, not the ground.

I thoughtfully and slowly continued down the dirt road behind the Woodland Garden letting my ears be my guide. I felt what I can only describe as a wave come through the area. It was similar to a gust of wind, but the air was totally still. I turned around to look back towards the direction the wave came from but there was nothing there. What was happening today? The area seemed so active when I arrived, but it was hard to decipher the story of the day. I paused in the silence of the moment and in what seemed to be about 20 seconds later a pickup truck came cruising down the dirt road from the same direction as the wave. Is that was caused the wave I felt? We shared a friendly hello as he passed, and a dusty cloud was left behind the truck that glowed a golden color in the morning sunlight. I decided to wait a few minutes to avoid the dust cloud.

All of a sudden, a squirrel made a raspy call behind me. I spun around again since I had decided to let the squirrels lead the way and slowly moved a few steps in its direction. The squirrel was in an oak tree just above the fence line and focused in my direction. It paused for a moment, and during the pause I heard another noise from behind me. I spun around once again to see a familiar family of deer making its way up the dirt road towards me. The deer hadn’t seemed to notice me yet. Perhaps the lack of wind and angle of the sunlight were in my favor. The deer family was made up of four healthy does, three young ones who had grown up quickly, and a magnificent 6-point buck. Instinctively, I stepped behind the oak tree and out of view from the direction the deer were coming and waited. The squirrel quieted down. As the deer crossed the dirt road and onto the leaf covered area I could hear their gentle steps. There was a peaceful silence and I felt for a moment as if I could hear everything around me breathing. I felt as if time was standing still. Moments later a relaxed doe stepped into view just ten feet away from me and in tow were her three young ones. They stopped for a brief moment, glanced in my direction but with no sign of concern of my presence.

It was then that a slight rush of excitement went through me because when I had first noticed the deer I had seen that the 6-point buck was walking to their left and if he had stayed in line, he would end up even closer than the other deer. Again, I almost held my breath as I heard footsteps approaching from behind the tree. With his head low to the ground the buck stepped into view just three feet from me and seemed as though he didn’t have a concern in the world. I held, frozen in amazement of this moment the squirrels seemed to have orchestrated perfectly for me.

Time continued to stand still. I heard a gentle breeze pick up through the trees in the direction the deer had come from. As if the wind were a comedian, it swirled through the trees behind my back and blew past me right towards the buck. I had been observing him closely and in that very moment could see his nostrils flare as he took in the information the wind brought him. He suddenly whipped his head up and looked straight at me with the most startled expression I had ever seen on a deer. The look of surprise on his face seeing me at arm’s length was actually humorous. He stood for a second and then blasted about 40 yards away turning back to look at me. The other deer scattered only a few yards and all stood looking at me as well. I was familiar to them but this was our closest encounter to date. I doubled over filled with laughter and joy at the hilarious expression on his face and thanked the squirrels for the incredible close up experience.

I continued down the dirt road along the fence line, filled with joy from the comical and special moment I had just shared with nature when I heard another very distinct squirrel alarm. This time it seemed focused straight towards the ground. The sound was coming from the meadow just inside the gate leading to the Estate Trail. I sauntered along and as quietly as possible entered the garden through the gate and looked south towards the alarming squirrel. Fifteen feet up a tree a squirrel was crying out, whether to let his neighbors know or in mourning, I couldn’t tell. To my surprise, below the squirrel on the ground, was a Golden Eagle eating a large animal about the size of a gray fox. After a few moments the Golden Eagle took flight closely over my head while still clutching its prey. I wondered if the mystery of the squirrel alarms had just been solved?

The Golden Eagle flew off over the horse pasture and landed in a tree on the edge of the field. A large murder of crows, easily over one hundred, instantly picked up from the field and started circling and mobbing the Golden Eagle that was just trying to enjoy its meal. I debated if I should go and stand under the tree as the crows circled the Golden Eagle but instead decided to listen from where I was, as I had already passed when I needed to start the rest of my day.

As I have shared this experience with friends even more layers and questions have emerged. Could the squirrels have been talking about the presence of the Golden Eagle the entire time? Were the squirrels reacting directly to the Golden Eagle’s presence or was their reaction a result of the shift in the other animals’ behaviors? Does the Golden Eagle live locally and know the area or was it migrating through? Could a bobcat have actually been using the Golden Eagle as cover to hunt as well? Were the Cooper’s Hawks, known wake hunters, using this situation to their advantage? What is the relationship between the squirrels as gardeners, living among the oak trees and the Golden Eagle?

While I don’t know the answers to these questions yet, I did discover that when I trusted the squirrels to lead the way, they took me on an adventure that opened my eyes to things I had never seen or experienced before. The depth of mysteries the nature at Filoli holds makes it so easy to keep coming back!