Friday, April 17, 2015

Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrel

Thirteen-lined ground squirrel

The thirteen-lined ground squirrel is one of my favourite squirrels, although I have seen it on only two occasions.  It is beautifully marked, and is well camouflaged among the vegetation of the short grass prairie where it resides.  I was able to photograph this squirrel in a rest area in southern Wyoming where a colony had established and was taking advantage of the well-watered grass and occasional titbits from passing travellers.  My other sighting was a more distant view on the prairie of the Pawnie Grasslands in Eastern Colorado.

Thirteen-lined ground squirrels feed on grasshoppers as well as on grass and seeds, are active during summer, and like many squirrels, hibernate through winter.  They are very wary of predators, as although their spotted coats generally provides good camouflage, on the open prairie they are vulnerable to coyotes and birds of prey.  So as not to give away the location of their burrows, the squirrels carry away the excavated soil in their mouths rather than leaving a pile of dirt by the entrance.  They also tamp down grass and soil into the entrance to help conceal it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Olympic Marmots

Marmota olympus
Olympic marmot, Marmota olympus

These rare animals occur only in the Olympic mountains of western Washington State at altitudes between 1700 and 2000 metres.  They breed only once every two years, and are declining in numbers.  Marmots are not early risers, emerging from their burrows only when it is warm and pleasant outside.  Like other marmots and many squirrels, they hibernate during the winter.

I photographed Olympic marmots in summer 2014 on Hurricane Ridge.  It was only on my fourth trek up to to the ridge that I was able to photograph them.  On the first visit, I saw marmots in three different locations, but there were lots of visitors around and I couldn’t approach close enough for a photograph without leaving the trail.  It is really important not to disturb these animals, and I did not want to encourage other visitors to try to get too close, so we just watched them through binoculars.  On the next two occasions it was cold and misty, so no marmots in evidence.

Early morning for marmots

Olympic marmots have black feet

On my fourth visit, fairly early in the morning, when no one else had yet arrived, there were three marmots out at the first spot where we had seen them previously.  Conveniently, they were closer to the trail this time.  The light was against me, as you can see here, in the image of two of them, but I managed to move round a little and one animal cooperated by perching atop a convenient rock.  This image shows the animal’s characteristic black feet.

Surveying the world

Sunbathing on a rock near its burrow
I found another marmot, also on a prominent rock close to its burrow, which was sunning itself and watching the world go by.  The Olympic National Park is monitoring marmot populations throughout the park, using volunteers under a Citizens Science program, in order to find out why they are declining and hopefully do something about it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Two unusual birds in the southwestern United States

Montezuma quail (Cyrtonyx montezumae)

This male bird was photographed in Chiricahua National Monument in southern Arizona.  We were excited to see a family of quail on the side of Lookout Mountain.  Montezuma quail has a very limited range in the USA: in parts of southern Arizona, southern New Mexico and western Texas.  This secretive quail is declining in numbers, possibly because it is very sensitive to overgrazing.  It feeds on bulbs and tubers growing underground, in dense grassland and scrub country at higher elevations.  Because the bulbs provide a source of moisture, even in dry conditions, this quail is not dependent on free water so occupies arid habitats.  However, it appears to need summer rains as a cue for breeding.

Elegant trogon (Trogon elegans)

The elegant trogon occurs in very limited areas of southern Arizona, in canyons of oak and sycamore.  This female bird was photographed in Cave Creek, in southern Arizona.  I was very pleased to see it early one morning, as it flew towards us.  Females are less easy to spot than the male birds, which have a characteristic call.  The male bird is colourful, with a bright orange-red breast and metallic dark green head.  Elegant trogons that breed in Arizona migrate to Mexico for the winter.  Although the elegant trogon has a very limited distribution in the USA, it is relatively common in Mexico and as far south as Costa Rica.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Photographing the Commonplace

Female House Sparrow

I remember a photograph that I saw in an exhibition some years ago that made a great impression on me.  It was a close-up image of a male blackbird.  Blackbirds are so commonplace that usually no one will take the trouble to point a camera in their direction.  The photographer had chosen an angle that shed new light on a familiar subject and produced a memorable image.

Male House Sparrow

I cannot pretend that I have the imagination and creativity to emulate the photographer whose image I recall, but I was moved to grab a few images of the familiar house sparrow last week on a visit to Orana Park, our local wildlife park.  While we ate our lunch, watching the giraffes in the background, these little sparrows hovered expectantly awaiting the inevitable dropped crumbs.  We are careful eaters, so they soon moved off to another table occupied by several young children, but not before I had their likeness in my camera.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


I love photographing squirrels, and intend to write more about them later.  For the moment, I am posting images of three very different squirrels: a tree squirrel, a ground squirrel, and a chipmunk.  Marmots and prairie dogs are also ‘squirrels’, and more closely related to ground squirrels than are tree squirrels.

This tree squirrel is a Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii), which has been feeding on pinecones in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. 

The ground squirrel pictured here is a thirteen-lined ground squirrel (Spermophilus tridecemlineatus), which inhabits the prairie country of the central United States.  It hides the entrance to its burrow by taking the excavated soil away, and tamping down the disturbed area around the entrance.

This little Uinta chipmunk (Tamias umbrinus) was photographed in the pine forest on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Uinta chipmunks are unusual in that they often nest in trees, rather than on the ground like other chipmunks.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Clay Cliffs

Just pictures this week.  I have been away on a photography field trip, and then to a convention, so there was not a lot of time to add material here.  The field trip was to Otematata, in the Mackenzie Country, one of my favourite areas of New Zealand.  One fine sunny morning we visited the Clay Cliffs, near Omarama, and here are some of the pictures from that morning.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Northland Kauri Forest

Forest Canopy
Kauri trees (Agathis australis) are conifers in the family Araucariaceae, which grow very large.  They can be more than 50 m tall, develop a girth up to 16 m, and live for more than 2000 years.  The genus Agathis includes other kauri trees from Australia, SE Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Kauri tree

Kauri, Agathis australis

New Zealand kauris were heavily exploited for their timber and their gum in the past so they are far less common now.  Fortunately, there are many small areas of forest habitat in the north of New Zealand where kauri is regenerating well, across much of its original range.  These regenerating groves of trees are commonly found on steep ridges and hillsides.

Kauri bark and gum

Kauri trees have distinctive greyish-coloured bark, with a ‘hammer’ mark texture caused by  flaking pieces of bark.  There are both male and female trees, which produce cones of different kinds.  Male cones fall to the ground once they have released their pollen, while female cones take 3 years to mature, turning from bright green to reddish brown.  Once mature, they release their seeds.

Green kauri cone

Kauri trees produce a sticky gum, or resin that oozes from their bark, leaves and cones, fills in holes or damaged areas, and then hardens.  This protects the trees from disease, and allows them to grow to a very old age.  Kauri gum used to have high commercial value, mainly for use as a varnish.  Gum diggers extracted the gum from swamps and soils where kauri trees had grown in earlier times; dropping branches, and eventually falling to the ground and becoming covered by debris.

Forest remnant in Whangarei

 Many other trees grow in kauri forest.  Some are large, some small, and many of them are restricted to northern parts of the country, including tanekaka, or celery pine (Phyllocladus trichomanoides) pictured here.  The tree fern is another common feature of these forest areas.

Tanekaka, celery pine

Tanekaka, celery pine

Tree fern