Ohio (April 2024)

I’ve previously looked at the most commonly observed mammals on iNaturalist in my home country of the United States to see which common species have still eluded me. The third most common species was the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), yet somehow it wasn’t on my life list. In the places I’ve lived, it seems to be either nonexistent or uncommon. I expect I’ve probably seen one at some point a long time ago, but if so, I’ve never positively identified it. That is, not until this past Monday.

My parents, mother-in-law, and siblings-in-law gathered at our house in Pennsylvania and drove up to an Airbnb in Ellicottville, New York, in preparation for the total solar eclipse of April 8, 2024. We chose the location so that we would be in the path of totality without needing to drive on the day of the eclipse. However, the forecast for upstate New York was not looking good, so we decided to aim for northern Ohio, which was more promising. We picked an initial gas station for the two cars to meet up at on our way to a good viewing location. While letting the dog out to relieve herself, we noticed a large, orange-ish squirrel on a nearby fence (as my partner exclaimed, “Woah, that’s a weird squirrel!”). I could tell right away it was an eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger). I managed to snap a photo, albeit blurry, from my phone.

Our eventual eclipse viewing location was a park on the shore of Lake Erie, in Vermilion, Ohio. After the eclipse ended, as we were walking back to the car, I noticed another fox squirrel jump up onto a tree near the sidewalk. Later on, I looked up on iNaturalist and saw that fox squirrels are indeed the most common squirrel species in this region of Ohio. Just goes to show how easy it can be to see new species for the first time if you go to a new place.

Obviously the point of this post is about mammal watching, but it would be a shame to not mention the eclipse. This was my third total solar eclipse (after 2017 and 2019), and once again, it was absolutely incredible. To anyone reading this, I would highly encourage you to see one from the path of totality if you ever get the chance. In the partial phases, you can see the moon covering more and more of the sun through special eclipse glasses, which is cool, but you’d never notice otherwise, as the daylight is still at normal levels. In the last ten minutes or so before totality, the light starts to get noticeably weird, like there is a yellow filter over everything. It starts to get a bit darker, and a shadow can be seen gathering on the eastern horizon. It is not until the last few seconds that it starts getting much darker, and then suddenly totality hits and you can look directly at the sun without eclipse glasses. There is a dark hole in the sky where the moon is blocking the sun. The sun’s corona streams out of this dark spot. This eclipse, we could even see solar prominences shining redly from beyond the moon. The sky was the dark color of dusk, every horizon looked like a sunset, and Venus and Jupiter were visible near the sun they orbit. At the very end of totality, a small bit of the sun’s light shines through a crater on the moon, causing what is described as a diamond ring effect. Then, suddenly, it gets light again, and the partial eclipse happens in reverse. It is truly one of the most incredible and awe-inspiring things I have seen, and it is definitely worth traveling for.

Shortly before totality, I did notice robins in the trees making noises I tend to associate with them making around dusk. It would be interesting to see how different mammals react; I’ve heard of bats and other nocturnal animals emerging, but I did not see any. I was curious to see how my dog would react, but she seemed pretty indifferent to it as far as I could tell. There was a 1935 paper by Wheeler et al. that looked very extensively at the behavior of a variety of animals in response to a total solar eclipse, which is interesting to look through, and I know a similar citizen science project happened during this eclipse.

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  • ChadJ

    Thanks for this. Will be headed to Northern Ohio in a couple of weeks for some birding (I know, I know) so will be on the lookout for fox squirrels. Agreed on the eclipse. My wife and I made the drive from northern New Jersey to Adirondack Park in New York to see it. Very cool experience and was happy to see how many other people also came out to see it even if they congested the rest areas. Our dog was also completely indifferent to it. Also, where we were, one person had to blast Total Eclipse of the Heart on their car stereo. Should have known there would be one…

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