It was a scorcher of a day in Munich. I had arrived in the great Bavarian city after a long flight from Singapore. Espresso and sunshine would be the just the tonic for jet lag, and with temperatures at a steamy 34 degrees Celsius sunshine was aplenty. I decided to walk the flight out of my legs and, of course, my camera traveled with me.
I took a short and picturesque cut through the historic Alter Südfriedhof cemetery. The last resting place of some of history’s most notable Bavarians, as well as victims of great plague, laid to rest in 1563.
The late afternoon sun sent wind blown shadows dancing through the gothic monoliths, while the stone eyes of the long dead appeared to follow my footsteps. A screaming Green woodpecker exploded from the grass beside me, setting my heart racing. A Great-spotted woodpecker flew low before sticking like velcro to a gnarled tree trunk. This small area of green in the city felt like an ancient woodland frozen in time with a peace that was at odds with the bustling city beyond the cemetery walls.
A movement caught my eye. A flash of rust, set on fire by shards of the sinking sun. There it was again, a Red Squirrel! I couldn’t believe my eyes! In England the Red Squirrel is an impossibly rare sight. I had only seen a fleeting glimpse of one animal during a visit to Ireland. Now here I stood in a German city within touching distance of this gorgeous little rufous rodent.
Suddenly another movement above and the rat-ta-tat-tat of claws on bark, as two small squirrels scuttled full speed along a branch. They were in hot pursuit of each other, looping around the trunk as the chaser became the chased.
Any child with an interest in nature will surely have been introduced to the works of Beatrix Potter. Her most famous character was Peter Rabbit, but her most infamous was Squirrel Nutkin. Nutkin was an impertinent little fellow, and that impertinence was on full display as the squirrels dashed from branch to branch and tree to tree, chasing each other and anything else that ventured into their territory.
The Red squirrel is a small squirrel at around 20cm (8 inches) with the length doubling when the bushy tail is included. This group of cemetery squirrels were varied in coat colour. I watched individuals that ranged from bright ginger to fiery red and even a smokey dark reddish brown. The most distinguishing and alluring feature of the adult European Reds are the ear tufts.
Suddenly a call went up. Cock blackbird was the first to notice the arrival of the local cat and delivered a scolding alarm. Everyone froze and tufted ears went up. The squirrels made a dash for it, rushing up the nearest tree. From height they could safely keep a watchful eye on the deadly predator.
The squirrels watched the cat crawl into the undergrowth, disappearing into a knot of weeds. They appeared to know this cat. They looked confident that squirrel wouldn’t be on the menu.
Just in case the cat came out again, a large crow kept a close eye on the situation. The crow was ready to squawk the alarm or perhaps even stab a peck onto a furry cat bottom.
With the cat risk assessed as “mostly harmless” the squirrels returned to their shenanigans. I watched three squirrels chasing each other through the canopy at tremendous speed. I leaned back and tried to chase the red runners with my zoom lens, but the shade of the canopy combined with the speed of the targets made photography impossible. Suddenly, one of the little squirrels in my focal point started to get big. It started to get huge, and I reeled out of the way of a plunging rodent. The little squirrel hit the floor with a thud on the spot where I had been standing. It must have fallen 20 meter, and sat stunned where it landed for a few minutes, before scampering up to a low branch and into the V of the trunk.
One of the squirrels involved in the chase came to check on his fallen friend. I’d like to think it was coming to make sure that his playmate was okay, but he might just as easily been looking to see if his enemy was dead yet.
The stunned squirrel stayed in a huddled trance for some time before disappearing into the foliage. It had never occurred to me that a squirrel could fall from the canopy.
All the charging around in the oppressive heat was thirsty work. With the cemetery fountain dried up and out of commission, the squirrels had to search for other sources of water. The concrete grave flower holders still held just enough water to provide a thirst slaking slurp. These stone cups that are designed to honour the dead provide life to the cemetery wildlife.
As the last of the light faded the squirrels broke off from playing and fighting to forage for a final feed. Old acorns and young hazels provided a tasty supper that would see them through the night.
Perhaps a little lick of sweet nectar from a few flowers planted on a grave would be a perfect dessert. A final sniff of the flowers before scooting up into the canopy for a good night’s sleep. The squirrels need to get their strength up to do it all again the next day.
I didn’t arrive in a grand European city expecting to see wildlife. Maybe a duck on a park pond or a songbird would have provided a wild interlude from the concrete jungle. To spend unexpected time with an icon of children’s nature stories and an animal that I have long wanted to see was a wonderful surprise and a real privilege. There is much joy to be found in the company of the Red Squirrel.
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