Red squirrel stand off

Red squirrel stand off

My mind is busy, tired and full. I need a break. So I step out the door into the fresh air.

Birds are singing in a pocket of pine woods to my left, so I wander that way. Walking alone, quietly and slowly, I hope to stumble upon something...

It's cool among the trees. The soft layer of needles below my feet cushions and quieten my steps. The area has recently been disturbed; some trees felled. Mixing dying golden colours with vibrant green regeneration.

After a couple of minutes down the path, I spot some movement on the ground in my peripheral vision. I freeze momentarily, excitedly yet sub-consciously engaging stalker mode and not daring to look directly in the direction of the movement.

Seeing no more for a few moments, I step as silently as I can to a tree from which I can peer around and look in the direction of that mysterious movement...

But I am spotted first. A small, rusty coloured creature bounces over twigs and skips through grass towards me. Can it be a red squirrel? They are so rare, I don't believe it.

But sure enough, as the creature approaches it is unmistakable. I see its tufty ears, big black eyes and bushy tail - more orange than red, in truth. I can't believe my luck. I've read and written about the threats to this endangered indigenous species, but never seen one with my own eyes. Here, in Scotland, are some of the last strongholds.

Panarama of the pine wood scene © Will Ashley-Cantello

About five paces from me, this rare rodent pauses. I am still 'hiding' behind the rough barked pine trunk and craning my neck around, but there is no question my furry friend has seen me and is directing its attention right at me.

Astonishingly, the squirrel rears onto its hind legs, stands tall and pumps its shoulders towards me - left, right, left, right... for several seconds. The rapid pumps reminiscent of a Gorilla thumping its chest trying to impress and intimidate. Only smaller, and quieter.

After this display, the squirrel drops down on all fours again. It is poised on a fallen tree that lies diagonally towards me. My challenger steps forward and pointedly rubs its under side and rear on the log as if it might be trying to leave its scent and mark its ground.

A few hops closer and the squirrel is back up on its hind legs in a flash.  I have to peer around the other side of the trunk now as it has approached so close that it has moved across my line of sight. I find my new viewpoint and there the squirrel is still standing proud.

It pumps its shoulders at me again - and for a longer spell this time.

Squirrel's eye view... © Will Ashley-Cantello

My mind boggles. I know squirrels not to be territorial. Yet, I must pose a threat that the squirrel feels it can respond to.

I am the target of two more phases of shoulder pumping. Then with a quick sniff of the air, the squirrel returns to all fours, spins and scampers up a nearby tree.

I am taken aback by the surprising turkey-like gobble-gobble noise the squirrel makes as it rapidly climbs.

It pauses again, half-way up the tree to turn give me another look. I follow its lead and freeze too.

Only in this quiet and still moment of the stand-off do I notice the gentle and cool rain that has been falling, finding its way down from the thick, white clouds and through the canopy to reach my grateful face. Tuned in again to my surroundings - but still locked in stare - I also realise there is a cool breeze blowing. And I hear the chaffinches chirping, which I see in my peripheral vision moving all around us.

Another gobble-gobble and my counterpart has shot further up the tree before pausing again. 

The movement is subtly but distinctly different to that of the grey rival. It is more jerky, but each movement seems quicker once in motion. Somehow this red squirrel has a more athletic style to that which I am more accustomed to seeing from its grey cousin.

My red-tailed friend leaps through the air to another tree, then another - each further away from me. It leaps with skill not just strength, like a gymnast.

In the final, furthest tree, from its high vantage point, the squirrel turns and freezes entirely. I feel it's black-eyed stare again.

After a minute or so, I chance my luck and take a few careful steps forward - my first movement in minutes. No reaction. A few more. I stand, looking and waiting. No reaction.

I decide this is my cue and I turn to leave this squirrel to the wood in peace.

You never know what you will find in the woods if you look and listen carefully enough - I am grateful for that today.

My mind is energetic, free and focused as I leave the pocket of trees. 

Celebrating the stars

Celebrating the stars

Tracks in the snow

Tracks in the snow