Thu, 14/01/2016

During the spring of 2007, Erika and I visited Central Finland. One of the animals on my wish list was the Siberian Flying Squirrel, a very seldom observed but fascinating night-active mammal. What first started as a mission impossible, turned out into an almost surrealistic experience. Here’s the whole story.

Preparing the trip, not so promising for spotting the Siberian Flying Squirrel

Before my travel I got into contact with Eero Këmilä, a talented Finnish nature explorer and photographer. Through the years Eero developed an amazing expertise in spotting birds and mammals in the Finnish Woods. During decades of field experience he became familiar with the behaviour of many of Finland’s enigmatic mammals, such as Wolverine, Brown Bear, Wolf and Siberian Flying Squirrel. When I asked him about the possibilities of spotting a Flying Squirrel during a short ten day trip, he was very sceptical: the Squirrels often use several tree cavities or nest-boxes as a shelter and they often shift during the night to their next shelter. Eero knew a few regularly occupied shelters, but he told me there was only about one chance on three, that an animal was really using it that day to sleep during the day-time. His first advice was not to give it a try on a short trip and focus on other interesting species… But he would hear around anyway and let me know if he had any useful tip.

Chances are growing

When we arrived he told us he heard of a retired man, who had several individuals of Flying Squirrel on his small property in the woods. But the man usually wasn’t very disposed to let strangers on his property. The good news was that he hadn’t refused yet a possible visit. He had asked Eero to call him back when we would be around; he’d then decide if our visit would suit him. Much to our surprise, after a brief call in the morning he was happy to receive us in the evening. When he told us seeing the Siberian Flying Squirrels was guaranteed, we started to get a little nervous. Would we really be able to see the mystic ghost creature from the taiga?

Story of the Owner

Once arrived, the owner happened to be a very charming and cordial fellow. Not at all the crotchety old man, we’d expected… He started to guide us around on his property and told us the story how he discovered the squirrels on his property. Under here, the cordial chap.

The owner was really fond of observing birds and mammals on his property, which was lying deep in the vast woods around Sotkamo. His resort was located on the edge of a large lake, which was home to many water birds such as Whooper Swans, Black-throated Divers and Common Goldeneyes. Under here some images from his meticulously well maintained garden and huts, contrasting severely with the surrounding vast woods. It was a really wonderfully calm place with an almost surrealistic appearance…

More than a decade ago the owner began to hang up nest boxes for the Golden-eyes and passerines. About ten years earlier, while he was having a new-year barbecue with friends on his resort, he was very surprised to observe a Siberian Flying Squirrel. He started to get fascinated by this lovely and mysterious little creature. He decided to hang up a lot of nest boxes, which could be used a home by the Flying Squirrels. He also started to feed the squirrels on a very regular, often almost daily basis. His attempts to attract more permanently Siberian Flying Squirrels soon turned into a fascinating success story. The spot had become during the last years home to several Flying Squirrel families. And what's more, the usually very shy and extremely difficult to observe squirrels became really used to the owners presence: after a while they allowed him to approach them at a distance of about one meter, when they came down to the feeders. In 2007, this resort was home to two Siberian Flying Squirrel families, consisting of at least six individuals.

Barbecue time

As could be expected from a hearty owner, after the short walk on his property we were invited to a barbecue inside one of his huts. My friends know me as someone who seldom refuses food, and although I was quite hungry, eating sausages was really the last thing that would come into my mind in this situation. We had lost quite some time to find the owner’s property on the unpaved forest roads, and it was already around 9 p.m. What if our little friends would be hungry too and would leave earlier while I was still inside the hut? Four hours of relative darkness, were after all really short to gather your food… This could turn out into the most stupid dip of my career! While our host was preparing the fire I was nervously looking up at the nest-boxes close to the hut. But I decided to enjoy the meal anyway in this peaceful place.

Offering meanwhile some fire to the Scandinavian Gods could do no harm…

Sun went under at the lake, and still no movement from the Squirrels...

Rising stresslevel

What was worse, we still had to eat our food inside the hut. I asked politely if eating the sausages outside wasn’t an option, to be sure not to miss the Squirrels coming out. But our host persisted to eat inside the hut. 'Don’t worry, you’ll see the Squirrels well and long enough. But first eat your sausages (compulsory accent)!'

Under here, Eero and the sausages.

The big relief

A little reassuring was the fact that our host went to look outside from time to time, and looked if there was still no movement. When we had almost finished our meal, he told us the Squirrels started to move and one individual was peeping out of his nest box. If I’d been able to, I ‘d have worked everything left on my dish through my throat, just in one huge swallow! After all, I’d been polite enough the past hours… Anyway, after finishing my meal as fast as possible within the far too limited stretching capacities of my jaws, I hurried myself outside and there he was!

The first Flying Squirrel gently came down to a feeder, where the owner had just placed some hazelnuts.  After enjoying a few minutes the sight of this lovely tiny creature with its huge eyes, I decided to take some pictures, despite the dark circumstances.

We witnessed about five individuals coming out a short while after sunset, and we were able to observe the tiny creatures for almost an entire hour. The tameness of the Squirrels allowed us to make some acceptable pictures in the difficult and dark circumstances.

Under here a more natural looking image of a Squirrel feeding on Birch leaves. I took the picture with my camera in the mirror up modus and with a cable shutter to avoid the slightest movement. It was rather windy, the feeding Squirrel was balancing high in the tree and my shutter speeds were ¼ of a second… Much to my relief another miracle happened on this magical night. Two of the twenty images seemed tack sharp! Here’s one of them. Not bad for these circumstances during the D2Xs era…  

When it was already really dark, we witnessed two of the squirrels climbing up very high in a Norway Spruce. A few seconds later they were gliding to the nearby forest edge! What a magical ‘goose bumps end’ of the day!

Special thanks to Eero and the landowner, for this wonderful evening. Usually I appreciate at most sightings of animals in wild places after a long and rewarding search. But the surreal setting and the quality of the observations were so mind-blowing, that they made me quickly forget this point of view. We couldn't have enjoyed more!

If you want to see the images on a larger scale, take a look at Siberian Flying Squirrel.