Nature Notes: The Silent and Unseen

By Joshua Mayer (Flickr: Flying Squirrel on Roof) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commonsby Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

This story happened many moons ago in a garden we used to tend.  It was a sultry late summer morning and Dean and I were meandering through the garden discussing future chores.  We were having a nice walkabout, chatting and discussing one thing or another, and I suddenly turned to him and said, “Do you feel like someone is watching us?”  His perplexed look answered my question and should have set me straight, but I just couldn’t shake the strange feeling I’d had all summer long.  Someone or something had been watching me.

Now, if you read my blog regularly, you know that I’ve had this feeling before. No, I wasn’t being paranoid then, either.  The last time, it turned out that I was being spied on by a pair of squirrels living in a tree near our garden.  So when I got the “let it go” look from Dean, I figured I’d let events unfold naturally.  But it did not come as a surprise to me when, just as we were going inside for a second cup of joe, that I caught the slightest movement out of the corner of my eye.

I silently turned my eyes in that general direction and found myself staring at the empty bluebird box across the yard.  I knew the box was empty because I’d been trying to coax bluebirds (or any birds, for that matter) to nest there for the better part of two years now.  Apparently, the spot was too shady and wooded, even for woodland species like titmice.  I walked over to the box, which still looked to be in good condition and made a mental note to relocate the box before fall came.  As I walked away, I felt watched again.

Later, as I sat on the porch drinking my coffee and absently staring at the bluebird box, I laughed at the notion that the bluebird box could be haunted.  Yet, why suddenly was I preoccupied with an empty bluebird box?  Was I just paranoid?  I decided right then to watch the bluebird box very closely for the next few days.  Eventually, something had to give.

After about a week, I happened to look out of the kitchen window just in time to see a dark shadow move in the entry hole of the box and decided to finish this foolishness once and for all.  I opened the door and very slowly walked towards the box, willing myself not to blink or look away.  This was the moment I had been waiting for and I could not risk missing something important.  I was less than a foot away from the box when suddenly– and quite by surprise – I realized that I was staring directly into a huge pair of black almond-shaped eyes!

I blinked just then and in that fraction of a second, the eyes had disappeared.  I could hardly believe that a wild creature had let me get that close to it before flinching and I laughed out loud.  Besides knowing that I was not paranoid or imagining things, I finally had a really good idea as to what had been secretly watching me all summer long.

Later in the day Dean and I were both able to again get within a foot of the box before the critter ducked.  We never saw more than it’s eyes and a bit of fur, but it was obviously some kind of squirrel – a squirrel with the biggest eyes I had ever seen.  We returned to the house and while we kept watch from the kitchen window with a pair of binoculars, I did a little homework.

By Joshua Mayer (Flickr: Flying Squirrel on Roof) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It didn’t take long to determine that Big Eyes, as I was now calling him, was a Southern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys volans).  The book described them as having dramatically long whiskers and large almond-shaped eyes.  Yep, that’s him, all right.   And while flying squirrels are similar to other squirrels in many ways, they are much smaller than common tree squirrels (about the size of a mouse!) and primarily nocturnal, which would explain why we never saw him outside of the box.

Of course, flying squirrels don’t have wings or fly – at least not in the same way a bird does.  To become airborne, the flying squirrel simply jumps from a high perch and spreads all four of its legs, revealing wide flaps of skin on either side of the body that are attached to their sides and stretched between the front and back legs.   The flaps catch the rushing air, much like a kite or parachute. To control the fall, the squirrel simply uses its body and tail to steer while adjusting the flaps as needed to slow or speed its decent.

By Joshua Mayer (Flickr: Flying Squirrel at Birdfeeder) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Over the next few weeks the flying squirrel became accustomed to us staring into its house.  And despite it’s earlier attempts to be covert, the squirrel suddenly seemed to be enjoying our attention.  In fact, as summer converged into fall, Big Eyes would poke his head, and occasionally his two front feet, out of the box to catch the breeze.  Now, when I felt as if I were being watched, I would turn quickly and try to catch Big Eyes before he pulled himself back inside.  And as I walked away, he’d pop back up and watch me with those gorgeous black almond eyes.

Over the course of the next 6 weeks we tried to catch Big Eyes as he was exiting the box for his nightly run.  I really wanted to see him fly and took great pains to catch him to no avail.  Then one night as Dean and I stood in the yard admiring the stars, something like a shadow passed quickly above our heads.  All we really saw was a small, dark squirrelish-shape zoom in from above the house and land squarely on the trunk of the split oak in front of us.  But before we even had time to think, the little shadow scurried around to the opposite side of the tree and disappeared.  We later learned that this disappearing act is used by flying squirrels to elude potential pursuit of large-winged predators such as owls. That was the first and last time that we got to see anything more of Big Eyes besides his eyes.

IMG_4119Almost two months of flying squirrel games had passed when I stepped outside one chilly morning and the emptiness surrounding Big Eye’s box hit me like a ton of bricks.  The game was  over.  I walked right out to the box to check, but I knew he was gone.  Using a Phillips-head screwdriver I happened to have in my back pocket, I tapped the side of the box softly.  As expected, nothing stirred inside.  I already missed my little furry friend.

I suddenly wanted to see inside the box.  I was curious to know how  Big Eyes had lived all summer and what kind of nest he built.  I grabbed the screwdriver and worked the rusty screw holding the access door closed.  When it swung open at last, I was absolutely shocked.  The box was empty!  Not a blade of grass or a twig, or a single acorn shell.  There wasn’t even a stray strand of fur stuck to the rough wood interior.  Nothing.

Being the secretive creature that he naturally is, Big Eyes had left absolutely no sign of his ever being there.  Apparently the box was merely a summer cabin for a bachelor flying squirrel with no need of nests, refinements, or frills.  Our best guess was that Big Eyes knew that his breezy summer bungalow was about to turn into an icebox and had moved on to something a bit more substantial for the winter.   And if we had known how close our guess was, we would have dug out our own wool sweaters for the first snow of the season that very night.

So the next time you feel like you’re being watched, keep an eye out for the silent and unseen creatures. You might be treated to one heck of a fantastic adventure.

© 2015 Jill Henderson  Excerpted in part from A Journey of Seasons.
Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.


AJOS-214x32813A Journey of Seasons
A Year in the Ozarks High Country

Filled to the brim with colorful stories, wild walks, botanical musings, and a just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor A personal and inspiring tale of homesteading in the Ozark backwoods by noted author, naturalist and plant organic gardener, Jill Henderson.

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Look inside!


Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.


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2 responses to “Nature Notes: The Silent and Unseen

  1. I love this story of your summer with Big Eyes. I have seen flying squirrels only once as my husband and I were driving through the back roads of western Benton County AR. It was magical to spot them as they swooped from tree to tree.

    • Thank you, Kathleen. How lucky you were to actually see so many flying squirrels at one time. I can’t even imagine… I’m going to keep that wonderful image in my mind forever and maybe one day…

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