Thursday, July 3, 2014

Delmarva fox squirrels

"If you travel much in the wilder sections of our country, sooner or later you are likely to meet the sign of the flying goose—the emblem of the national wildlife refuges. Wherever you meet this sign, respect it. It means that the land behind the sign has been dedicated by the American people to preserving, for themselves and their children, as much of our native wildlife as can be retained along with our modern civilization."

—Rachel Carson

One of the primary missions of Chincoteague NWR (located not on Chincoteague but on its neighbour Assateague) is the conservation of the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel (Sciurus niger cinerius). The squirrel's range originally stretched north along the Atlantic coast as far as central New Jersey, but contracted as mature forests were fragmented and destroyed, until only a few populations  on the Delmarva peninsula remained. The population on Assateague is not original, but the result of translocations from Blackwater NWR and Eastern Neck NWR in Maryland. The releases began in 1968, just a year after the subspecies was listed as endangered, and continued through 1971. Today there are approximately 200 squirrels on the refuge.

In some parts of their range, including where I live in eastern Nebraska, fox squirrels are habitat generalists. Farther east, however, the generalist niche is occupied by eastern grey squirrels, and fox squirrels tend to be more closely associated with loblolly and longleaf pine woods. On Chincoteague NWR, greys were removed to reduce competition and simplify management.

[Maritime forest, here dominated by loblolly pine, along the Woodland Trail.]

Refuge visitors are made aware of the Delmarva fox squirrel's endangered status and reminded to drive carefully.

Provision of nesting boxes is one management tool used on the refuge. Some squirrels are also trapped and radio-tagged for habitat-use and population studies.

Jessica would like it to be known that these photographs, taken by the two of us, came at a cost—blood was shed, in fact, or at least drawn. This being her first visit to the islands, she was not prepared for the abundance and ferocity of the local mosquitoes. In just a short walk down the Woodland Trail, Jess killed over 50 mosquitoes on her person, and suffered a great many more bites. I'm not sure she believed me when I told her it had been a relatively light morning. So please enjoy these photos of a Delmarva fox squirrel foraging, and remember the sacrifices made by your intrepid correspondents here at Flyover Country.

[This is a fairly dark individual, with a blackish face reminiscent of the fox squirrels found in the Deep South. Most of the Delmarvas that I've observed, both here and at Blackwater, have been lighter, closely resembling greys but larger.]

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