Down East 2013 ©
By Virginia M. Wright
photographed by Lori Prosser
Dusk is falling fast on the steep banks of the Aroostook River when Mark Bloomer turns on his outdoor floodlights and leads me onto his porch, which hovers high among the cedars surrounding his home. The air is cold and windless and the forest is silent, as if the fresh snow blanket has absorbed all sound. We wait in this perfect stillness until a shadow flickers just off the porch’s end. “Are they here?” I ask. We peer into the trees. Another flutter, this time off the front railing. A fuzzy blur races along the eaves, up the rafters, and drops with a soft plop onto a platform feeder suspended from the ceiling. A squirrel, round and plump with reddish brown fur and a white belly, fixes his inquisitive big black eyes on us as he nibbles on a sunflower seed.
It isn’t long before the little critter is joined by several more of his kind. It’s time, Bloomer quietly announces, to show what they can do. Reaching up, he jiggles the feeder, and the squirrels spring in all directions. Legs outstretched, they sail in long, graceful swoops to distant trees. They scramble up the trunks and fend off again, gliding down into the darkness beyond.
Northern flying squirrels are not uncommon, but because they are nocturnal and dwell in mature coniferous forests, they are rarely seen. So it is that Mark Bloomer’s flying squirrels — and there’s little doubt that they are his squirrels — have become celebrities, of a sort. Word of their reliable nightly visits to the cabin in Fort Fairfield has spread since Sir David Attenborough spent several days in the spring of 2002 gathering footage of their acrobatics for the BBC series The Life of Mammals. (Watch a segment at videosift.com/video/BBC-Life-of-Mammals-Flying-Squirrel .) Bloomer has hosted film crews for a Canadian children’s television program, a British wildlife production company, and the BBC again in the fall of 2011. Evolutionary biology students from Brown University have twice visited to study the squirrels’ aerodynamics.
About ten inches from its nose to the tip of its tail, a northern flying squirrel is about the same size as a red squirrel and, at 2.5 to 4.5 ounces, half the weight. The dark stripe separating its bronzed back from its white belly is the patagium, the membrane that, when unfolded by outstretched limbs, allows the squirrel to glide from tree to tree, sometimes as much as fifty feet at a time. The rodent controls its speed by moving his legs to vary the patagium’s tension. He uses his tail like a rudder.
Soft-spoken and mild-mannered, Bloomer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Caribou, is unabashedly affectionate about the flying squirrel colony he has nurtured since moving to the County from Connecticut in 1999. “They are gentle and enchanting creatures,” he says, “and they are very social. They will eat two, three, four, or five together in a group, and sometimes in winter, you can have as many as twenty cuddled together in the hollow of a tree. That’s very different from red squirrels who are territorial and don’t like other squirrels around.”
Bloomer had never seen a flying squirrel before he moved into the riverside home he shares with his wife, Yueying, and their two young children, Caitlin and Jasper. He started putting out food to attract red squirrels and chipmunks and quickly became captivated by his unexpected nighttime visitors. “On New Year’s Eve 2000-2001, there was a big snow storm, and I had all my floodlights on,” he recalls. “The squirrels were flying through the trees and the falling snow. It was absolutely beautiful.”
He set out to learn everything he could about flying squirrels, a project that led him to exchange information and photographs with Steve Patterson, a flying squirrel expert in Ontario (Patterson made Canadian national news a few years ago when he successfully fought a government order to deport his adopted flying squirrel, Sabrina, to her native United States). It was Patterson, whose own squirrel colony was decimated by owls in 2002, who referred the BBC to Bloomer, thus putting the Fort Fairfield flying squirrels on the radar of documentarians in North America and Europe.
Bloomer’s flying squirrels seem to be as curious about him as he is about them. They gaze at him intently while they dine and even allow him to pet them. Of course, he has earned their trust. Besides offering sunflower seeds (which the squirrels eat at the feeder) and peanuts (which they take away, guaranteeing an aerial show), Bloomer has installed roughly forty nest boxes throughout his forty acres of cedar forest — perfect habitat for the squirrels.
Bloomer is aware of the cruel irony that his nurturing of the squirrels makes them vulnerable to predators. To that end he has designed an elaborate feeding system “for flying squirrels and only flying squirrels.” A network of thick branches affixed to the eaves and rafters provides an owl-proof pathway to the feeder. A basket suspended beneath the feeder catches spilled seeds so the squirrels won’t forage on the porch floor, where they could be snatched by raccoons, feral cats, and other creatures of the night.
Snowstorms, like the one that fell on that New Year’s Eve eleven years ago, remain Bloomer’s favorite time to watch because the moist air enhances the animals’ sense of smell and the flakes provide cover from owls. He turns on his floodlights so he can see his flying squirrels float through the curtain of snow. “It’s magical,” he says. “I can stay up all night watching them.”