Since moving to the riverside, one of surest signs that winter has entered its final phase comes when I notice a fox squirrel doing a tail-waving balancing act on outer limb-tips of some tree on the island across from the cottage. As I've mentioned before, though the squirrels which daily visit my feeders are grays, the island is populated by larger, reddish-blond fox squirrels.
A squirrel in a precarious balancing position uses its long, fluffy tail as an effective counterweight, much the same way a high-wire walker employs a long pole. Because the big fox squirrels are constantly moving this way and that, shifting positions as they go from branch-tip to branch-tip, their balance point is also changing—thus the tail waves and flicks like some bright semaphore flag. It's invariably the thing that first catches my eye.
What the fox squirrel is doing is "budding," eating the sweet bud tips of certain trees. Late winter is a critical time for fox squirrels. Autumn stores of nuts and grains have dwindled considerably. Food is scarce . Buds offer a valuable source of nutrition. In Ohio, the buds of maples—especially sugar maple, red maple, and rock maple—are at the top of the list, along with elm, willow, and oak.
The fox squirrel in these shots was only about 20 feet up, though it was working various branchlet tips arching over the water. I've included one shot without cropping and enlargement to give you a better perspective. You'll probably have to double-click on all these photos to see much detail; the distance was beyond the best "reach" of my zoom lens.
Sometimes, though, a squirrel will do it's budding in the very top of one of the island's tallest trees, 100 feet above the ground or water. If you watch them through binoculars, you'll see they often have all four paws on a different twig, their body sagging over a fifth, and their long, showy tail draped over yet another one or two tiny twigs…done, I suppose, in order to spread their weight around. Branches sag and bob until you'd swear they were going to break. Plus the limbs and squirrels also swing about considerably in the wind—even as the whole tree sways in slow waltz. The feeding squirrels just ride it out, at home and in control regardless. They'll regularly hang by their back legs only, dangling face-down toward the earth far below, grappling for nearby buds, then holding and nibbling them as you or I might eat corn on the cob—except while upside-down.
Like I said, budding fox squirrels are an annual harbinger here along the riverbank, a sure sign that in spite of cold temperatures and deep snow blanketing the ground, time moves steadily on; soon enough, the seasons will change.