Daytime ends with the onset of darkness, and while it slows down the activities of materialistic man, it is time for other creatures to come out and play. Many years ago, while returning from the forest edges after an evening safari, we heard some sound at the tree canopy level and stopped the jeep. We saw some movement in the canopy and noticed a square shape flying overhead – something I had never seen before during my numerous forays into the forest. With a lot of excitement, someone uttered “flying squirrel!” following which we repositioned our jeep and patiently waited for some activity. A few minutes later, we could spot a few more squares gliding from tree to tree. It was amazing to see them enjoying their near-flight jumps. From here started my desire to watch these little masters fly! In every safari since then, I looked at the forest canopy to try and relive the moment. I checked with many wildlife enthusiasts about this little creature, but sadly, they had not been seen more than a couple of times. I unsuccessfully tried to spot the Indian Giant Flying Squirrel (Petaurista philippensis) for years!
On a visit to Mookambika Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka, I heard some sound at night—a sound similar to something I had heard before—and I excitedly checked with the people around. These local men had good knowledge of the forest, and I was told that the sound was that of a flying squirrel; they are quite commonly found in dry-deciduous and evergreen forests, at elevations of 500-2500 m. Since it was dark, I could not see them clearly, but their sound was unmistakeable.
At a later date, while on a safari at Bhadra Tiger Reserve, we spotted a movement near a tree hole. It was a black and brown coloured thing, looking like someone had placed it there. Though quite far, my binoculars revealed that it was clearly the little master I had been looking for all these years! The flying squirrel excited me so much that I did not move at all and kept on looking at it for a while. It was beautiful to relive the moment I had experienced many years ago. Yet another day, I saw something small like a mongoose walking on the track at a distance, but it soon started running and climbed a tree. It was confusing at first, but to my sheer luck, it was the flying squirrel again, holding the tree trunk tightly.
I had always heard that the flying squirrel stays in tree canopies and is a super glider, but only after I witnessed this event did I realise that it could walk on the ground and run very comfortably too. Nature has so many mysteries in almost everything it has to offer, and every time we get an opportunity, we should all cherish these moments and learn from them.
In another incident, when we were driving at 20 kmph, I saw something like a ghost sitting on a tree branch, and something about the shape of the creature was shocking. I asked the driver to stop the jeep and we spotted a Spot-bellied Eagle-owl. It was a “wow” moment for me: it may be common in some places, but in Bhadra Tiger Reserve, it is always a delight to spot one of these owls. While I was happily enjoying the sight, my driver noticed something at its feet. Our binoculars gave us a clearer view and we could now see that it was a squirrel kill – and not just any squirrel, but my coveted flying squirrel! It was a rare sight, and the idea of both appearing in the same frame was simply mesmerising.
Owls may be important predators of squirrels. The calls of certain owls are loud and scary, and tend to induce alarm calls from other creatures, giving away their location in the pitch darkness. The Spot-bellied Eagle-owl’s call is scary for anyone, let alone flying squirrels, so the squirrel group may have given out alarm calls to alert the others. In the meantime, the owl could have located the gliding squirrels and hunted down one of them. A rare mammal being hunted down by a rare owl was an outstanding moment for me.
The Indian Giant Flying Squirrel, being nocturnal, takes care of its business during the dead of the night and tends to take rest and sleep in tree holes. Flying squirrels are frugivorous and mainly eat fruits of fig (Ficus recemos) and jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) trees. Bhadra Tiger Reserve has a good density of such tree species, and so the landscape promises to be a supportive home to these squirrels that are thriving there.