Just two days ago tree swallows started showing up for the first time this year and their acrobatic flights are so enjoyable to watch; one of the wonderful treats of summer.
For the past two summers a pair of them have nested in an old bluebird house that is fastened to a small pine tree not far from our house. Having just seen the swallows come in I went out today to clean out that old house for this summer’s tenants and found a big surprise awaiting.
As I removed a panel on the house so the accumulation of twigs and other nesting material that had nearly filled it could be removed, I saw a small head with huge eyes appear at the entrance and soon after a small and very surprised animal (about a foot long) emerged and scampered a few feet up the tree. A squirrel! No, something else: our squirrels don’t look at all like that.. something else. What in the world? My mind quickly reviewed all of the small mammals I know of in Montana. “Squirrel” was as close as I could come.
I noticed that the contents of the house included two babies and so I carefully tucked them and everything else back into the house. The animal by this time had retreated further up the tree.
A quick search on the internet using “Flying squirrel, Montana” (I recalled seeing something similar from South America on a National Geographic film) immediately produced a link to a website called “Montana Field Guide” and a photo of my strange animal, labeled “Northern Flying Squirrel, Glaucomys sabrinus“. I had no idea there was such a thing in these parts! A call to our local wildlife biologist with the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks confirmed it, and I was told that not only are they not rare, but they are quite common and plentiful, however seldom seen because they are nocturnal.
After watching for awhile from a respectful distance, I saw the mother come back down the tree and re-enter the house, unfortunately in poor light conditions and right at the useful limit of my 300mm lens.
Northern Flying Squirrels occur from Alaska through most of Canada, southward to the mountains of southern California, southern Rocky Mountains, western South Dakota, Great Lakes Region, and southern Appalachians.
Their diet consists largely of fungi and lichens plus plant and animal material (insects, nuts, buds, seeds, fruit).