Tom Shermer Imagery

Photojournal - 26 August 2017

Little dudes

My wife Dorothy and I had a plan: we'd spend Saturday going out to Manning Park to look for squirrels. By squirrels I don't just mean tree or ground squirrels, but rather anybody in the family Sciuridae. This includes marmots, chipmunks, prarie dogs, and flying squirrels. We like to call non-marmot squirrels "little dudes," so it was to be a Day of Little Dudes.

So around 9am we left home driving eastward. We stopped at the Chilliwack Airport for breakfast and pie ("I fly for pie!"), which was superb, as always. At breakfast we discussed our quarries: first up was the Pika (not a squirrel but definitely a little dude) and the White Pine Chipmunk, at the Hope Slide. At the lodge of Manning Park, we'd look for the Columbian Ground Squirrel. At the lookout on the way to Blackwall Peak, we'd scout out our native Cascades Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel. And on the rest of the way up, hopefully we'd find both Yellow-Bellied Marmots and Hoary Marmots. That's five different squirrels and the pika—we had ambition. And if we were really lucky, we'd find a weasel or two in the mix. I've seen an ermine at the Hope Slide before.

We finished our pie and made it to the Hope Slide by a little before noon. The sky was clear and it was a scorcher. We headed a little out into the talus and soon Dorothy heard someone squeaking little squeaks. Following them, and then being patient, we eventually found our first target, the American Pika. Our pika came up quite close to us.

He didn't stay long, though, and didn't come back. We moved along, hoping to catch him or one of his kin in a different part of the rock field. Moving through the rocks was slow and I took some time to take a few shots of the rocks as we went. From afar, the rocks appear rather boring, but up close, they have all sorts of color variation.  
There are also many rocks with lichen, moss, and other such things growing on them, slowly breaking them down.  
We were baking out in the sun, so we pretty quickly called it quits at the slide. The only other critter we found there was a grasshopper.  

It had colorful yellow wings in flight, but was fairly cryptic on the ground; that's pretty typical for grasshoppers around here.

So we left the Hope Slide around 1:30 and drove on into Manning Park. We kept on until we reached the lodge; here we hoped to find the Columbian Ground Squirrel, a striking (but invasive) highly-communal squirrel that takes over the lawn in front of the lodge in the summer. We stopped at the convenience store for snacks and Coke Zeroes, then proceeded onto the lawn which was parched and brown. It was a grim reminder of the hot, dry summer we've had in most of the province—leading to our record number of forest fires. In previous years, whenever I'd been here the lawn was lush and green.

The lawn was also quite notably sans squirrel. It had plenty of evidence of squirrels in the form of filled-in or collapsed holes in the lawn, but none of the animals themselves were around. We did, however, find a girl playing with a Clark's Nutcracker. I hustled back to our truck to get my camera, and took some shots of the Nutcracker.

Although I thought the bird would be having a tough time with it being so hot and dry, he assured me that he thought that things were looking up for him.  

Some Stellar's Jays were flitting around the lawn, too, but they never stayed still long enough for me to get any photos. We get plenty of those in town, anyhow.

It looked like we were too late in the year for the Columbian Ground Squirrels at the lodge, and indeed we later found out that they go into hibernation starting around the beginning of August. We'll have to go earlier next time. We'd now missed two of our squirrel targets.

We got in the truck and headed up towards Blackwall Peak. And as we reached the lookout, our squirrel luck changed. The chipmunk that had been absent from the Hope Slide was present at the lookout. Here he is, the White Pine Chipmunk. He came out to greet us.


Cute little dude, that one.

We were also greeted by the squirrel I thought we might find there, the Cascades Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel. There were several, and one in particular seemed to take quite an interest in Dorothy.


With the animals in this close, my long lens was going to be useless and so I took a few minutes to change to my macro lens. I was hoping I wouldn't miss much action while doing so, but it turns out I didn't need to worry. The squirrels were still doing their thing when I was finally ready.

That fellow's bulging cheeks indicates that someone's been feeding him. And if that wasn't enough of a clue about what he wanted, he made the universal gesture of pointing to his mouth: "Feed me. Here."  
The squirrels didn't just take an interest in Dorothy, though. They were equally curious about me and the whole photography process.  

(That photo, natch, was taken by Dorothy. With her phone.)

There were several nutcrackers up at the viewpoint, too, including this one, who is being charged by a chipmunk. The chipmunks were always running around, hardly ever staying in the same place long enough for me to get a decent photo

About the only time I was able to get them was when they stopped to nibble on something.  
We stayed at the lookout for about 35 minutes, although with the squirrels running around on us, the chipmunks running around us, and the nutcrackers flitting here and there, it seemed like much longer. I'll show you a final pair of shots of the Golden-mantled.  

I love the way they lie down by spreading the back legs and letting their tummies hit ground.

With that, we left the viewpoint and drove up to the parking lot for the sub-alpine meadows at the top. We saw no marmots along the way, and suspect we were too late for those as well.

At the top, however, more surprises lie in wait for us. First up, we saw a Columbian Ground Squirrel—the same species that had already gone underground back down at the lodge. They seem to stay awake longer at the higher elevation.


I love the red-and-yellow color scheme of the Columbian.

Normally if one sees a Columbian, one sees many of them. However, this guy was the only one we saw around. Maybe he's a hermit like me. He's certainly cute like me.


We moved along, walking the trail that takes one behind the telecommunications building. The building itself had some interesting weathering and so I took a few photos. I had to back up to get what I wanted, as I had the long lens on the camera.

Here's a couple of those photos, the first showing an interesting spalling pattern,

and the second showing much smaller-scale cracking paint on some sort of fixture.  
Rounding the building, we found a bird on the path in front of us. It was a sparrow, and sparrows often present identification challenges. In the field, I just filed it away under "sparrow." Looking at my references at home, I think we saw a Vesper Sparrow.  

The field marks I note that lead me to this conclusion are the white tailfeather, the white eye-ring, off-white belly, and the shape of the pattern on the side of his head. Also indicative is his solitary behaviour; no other sparrows seemed to be around. I'm willing to be corrected on his identification, though.

In the distance, we could see a couple of places with smoke rising from them, reminding us of all of the fires burning. In this shot, the long lens makes this seem much closer than it really is.


We finished the loop and passed the parking lot to continue along the trail for a short time. As we crossed back into the woods, we encountered yet another squirrel. We only had a chance to view it through binoculars before it disappeared. It was a uniform grey color above, with a whitish belly and eye-ring, and a bushy tail. From this we've decided that it must've been a Western Grey Squirrel. It's only slightly out of the range reported for it in my mammal book. That was an unexpected find; it's just too bad that I didn't get any photos of it.

That was our last encounter up near the meadows, and at around 5:00 we headed down the mountain. Before leaving the park, we stopped at the Lightning Lakes day use area. In previous years, this park area had been thick with Columbian Ground Squirrels, but like the lawn at the lodge, the grass here was parched and the holes all sealed. We acquired some cold beverages and I amused myself with a few shots of a Gray Jay (a.k.a. Whiskeyjack or Camp Robber) before we hit the road.


They're kinda cute when they're not after your french fries.

Once back on the road, we decided to stop again at the Hope Slide. It promised to be less scorching than our midday stop, so we thought we might be able to tolerate the conditions better.

It turned out that the slide was in shadow by the time we got there; the sun sets early when there are mountains to the west. Luckily, the sky was still quite bright and so there was enough light left to do some photography. I had Dorothy pull over a ways from the main tourist parking, and we entered the talus there.

We picked a good location and as soon as we were in the rock Dorothy was hearing the squeaks or barks that the pikas made. They were all around. We saw a pika come out, go up a grassy little incline, and come back to the rock with some vegetation in its mouth. Since the hill looked like it had good foraging, we set up with a good view of it. It took a few minutes, but soon enough we had a pika come up and act like a sentinel, keeping an eye on us.


Here's another individual who went up the slope. He was squeaking back and forth with another pika who was behind us.


I could hear their calls when I was watching the animal and saw their mouth move, but I couldn't pick it up when I wasn't. Dorothy claims it was the same volume and same sound all of the time, and doesn't understand why I can hear it only sometimes. It's a very endearing little squeak they make.

Our watch-pika sometimes ventured a bit closer to us, but was always pretty wary.

As we sat among the rocks, we were treated to a real slice of pika life. There was posing,  



zooming about,


chatting with friends,


and more foraging.


(He'd better watch where he's going with that!)

We'd been at the slide for about an hour, and it was getting darker all the while, so it was about time to wrap up the photography for the day. Just before we did, though, one of the pikas came up to within about two meters from us and said goodbye.


It was a fitting end to our Day of Little Dudes. We thanked the pikas for their hospitality and headed on our way.


Glad to be with friends again,