A (small-scale) photographic quest

Forget big game; a seasoned pro finds a greater challenge in photographing North America's little ground squirrels

06-01-1991 // Erwin A. Bauer

Franklins ground squirrel by Erwin A. Bauer


Early one July morning, long before the sun's debut, I was on the trail, making my way toward the small blind I had built the night before. After inspecting for rattlesnakes, I crawled in and quickly began setting up my equipment. Tripod assembled, camera affixed, I pushed my telephoto lens through a slit in the wall and drew a bead on my bait: a pine cone smeared with peanut butter. Then I waited. "I'll get my shot today," I told myself. "I feel lucky."

And a little silly. My quarry, after all, was not some savage or endangered beast. Rather, I had staked out a site near Colorado's Dinosaur National Monument to photograph Spermophilus lateralis—the golden-mantled ground squirrel. Not far from the spot where, in 1909, a paleontologist unearthed the bones of giant prehistoric reptiles, I was waiting for a close encounter with a run-of-the-mill rodent.

For half a century I have traveled the world photographing nature and wildlife. My film trophies include the most magnificent of creatures, from tigers to birds of paradise. Yet I have always felt a special fondness for the smaller, less-showy mammals. About a dozen years ago, I realized I had virtually ignored some of the most abundant of them all, so I set out to photograph every species of ground squirrel in the country. I soon discovered that, because they are so tiny and quick, the ubiquitous rodents are among the most challenging of camera "game."

Golden-mantled ground squirrel by Erwin A. Bauer

Of the world's 32 species of ground squirrel, about half of them—estimates range from 14 to 22—live in North America. These "spermophiles" (a name that means seed-eaters) number in the many millions, their range blanketing the western three-quarters of the continent. Most species are active from spring thaw to autumn freeze, when they burrow underground to sleep away the cold months.

People often overlook ground squirrels, but animal predators surely do not. More numerous than any other mammals except possibly bats, they are vital to the ecology of North America, serving as an important food source for many meat-eaters. Badgers, foxes and coyotes, for example, would not thrive in such numbers without the bounty of spermophiles.

My great ground-squirrel roundup began one morning as my wife, Peggy, and I were hiking across Snake River Birds of Prey Area in Idaho. A dappled, brownish-gray creature with a reddish tail darted across our trail. Instinctively, I reached for my camera. Next thing I knew, we were stalking a Townsend's ground squirrel.

Back home (then in Wyoming), a neighbor called to tell me about an arrogant old "chiseler" in his yard. That's what some area residents call the Uinta ground squirrel for its habit of chewing on things. The animal in question had consumed a welcome mat and was now working on porch timbers. As it was late summer, about the time when Uintas disappear underground for eight months, we grabbed our cameras and rushed over.

My spermophile odyssey has since taken me all over North America. From a ghost town in Wyoming, with its abundance of Richardson's ground squirrels, I traveled to the Yukon, where I photographed an arctic ground squirrel hurriedly fattening up for its long winter's nap.

Columbian ground squirrels in Glacier National Park strolled right up to our tent looking for handouts. Less accommodating were Beechey's, or California, ground squirrels. The creatures are exceedingly prolific and cautious, perhaps in response to farmers' efforts to eradicate them. They evaded my camera better than the wariest of white-tailed deer.

Not even Beechey's, however, can resist corn chips, crackers, peanuts and bread. So I scattered some of these treats in a spot where I had seen some Beechey's commuting between two dens in Central California. Then I parked my pickup truck not far away and sprawled out under a canvas sheet in the back. Steadying my camera on a sack of oats, I fired off frame after frame of a grizzly-colored male.

Most spermophiles have a dull, brownish-gray coat that makes identification difficult. But there's no mistaking the coppery head and cream-and-black racing stripes of the golden-mantled ground squirrel. It was my hunt for this chipmunklike creature that had me out before dawn at Dinosaur National Monument.

I waited cramp-legged in my blind for more than an hour before a solitary golden-mantled, plump from gorging, appeared in my viewfinder. Suddenly, he was joined by another, and the two fought furiously for the pine cone. Dirt flew and feet flailed as I watched, transfixed.

The battle ended as abruptly as it had begun. Only when the victor peered into my camera and flashed his saberlike teeth did I realize I'd failed to take a single picture. I quickly squeezed the shutter—I had my shot. An instant later the squirrel was gone, pine cone and all.


Washington State photographer Erwin A. Bauer died in 2004. This article is reprinted from the June/July issue of National Wildlife

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