On a warm spring evening about a week ago, I asked Nick Hughes if he could guarantee that I’d see flying squirrels.
“They’re wild animals,” he said.
I took this to mean that squirrels have minds of their own and make decisions based on their own needs and moods, not those of Washington Post columnists.
I was at the Brookside Nature Center in Wheaton, Md., which every Friday hosts a free flying squirrel viewing party for the public.
The trees around Washington are full of Glaucomys Volans, the Southern flying squirrel. You just may never have noticed them. The squirrels are nocturnal and come out at dusk to feed.
Nick and his wife, Phyllis Robinson, lead the Friday Brookside events, though food is put out for the flying squirrels most nights, to keep them accustomed to it.
A little before the 7:30 sunset, a pair of little wooden trays that were attached to the side of a large tree with ropes were lowered and filled with the same thing humans get on most of their flights: peanuts.
After that, the waiting.
At 7:45, the peanuts remained untouched. I was nervous. A video crew from The Post had come, too, and, to invoke another furry mammal, I didn’t want to be skunked.
At 7:50, we noticed the flutter of something high above us, silhouetted against the darkening sky.
“A bat,” said Priscilla Taylor, Brookside’s manager.
And then, at 7:59 p.m., the first flying squirrel landed. And then another. And then another.
Squirrels started swooping in from all directions. They hit the tree like arrows loosed from a bow. Most landed on the other side of the trunk, away from us, then skittered around to the front and their dinner. (Or was it breakfast?)
Because the surrounding forest was dark, it was hard to see the squirrels in flight. I’d detect one in the corner of my eye and manage to see only the last few feet of its aerial journey.
But it was easy to watch them on the feeders, where they chowed down, completely at ease. Flying squirrels are smaller than gray squirrels, with big eyes and a loose sheet of furry skin that stretches from the ankles of their back paws to the wrists of their front.
Over the next hour, close to two dozen squirrels flew in for a meal. I was giddy by the end, gripped by the same feeling I get when a pod of dolphins surfaces when I’m at the beach: Nature can be big, and nature can be little. But whatever the size, nature is wonderful.
“It’s one of those love/hate relationships,” said Michael Dupont, who lives in Centreville, Va., and attracts all manner of birds to his backyard: bluebirds, woodpeckers, flickers, cardinals, finches . . .
Inevitably, his efforts also attract squirrels. Michael hates how they steal the sunflower seeds he puts out for the birds. But he loves how single-minded and creative squirrels are in their quest.
“They are very intelligent animals,” said Michael, who works in IT at the College Board. “And if there’s a way to get to the feeder, they will get to it.”
They will climb. They will drop. They will jump. Sometimes they seem to fly. And it’s Michael’s photo of a leaping squirrel that is the winner of my 2019 Squirrel Week Squirrel Photography Contest.
“It’s give and take,” Michael said of the battle that plays out in his yard. “I don’t mind. If I’m focused on shooting birds, I’ll just put a pile of seed on the ground and let the squirrels have that.”
And every now and then, he trains his Nikon on a squirrel. Hundreds of photographers entered my annual contest. You can see 19 of my favorites — a veritable smorgasbord of squirrels — by visiting washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.
For the planet’s 270 or so squirrel species, every week is Squirrel Week. Alas, there’s only one Squirrel Week here at The Post, and 2019’s has come to an end. Next year will mark Squirrel Week’s 10th anniversary. I’m hoping if I start planning now, we can have a big blowout in 2020.
I’m headed to Arizona to see the desert next week. (I hear there are squirrels there, too.) I should be back in this space on April 29.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.