Saturday, August 15, 2015

Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)

This disarming little bird is everyone’s favourite.  I had seen Atlantic puffins on the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland, and in the north of Scotland, but the first time I had the opportunity to photograph them close-up was on a trip to Skomer Island in June. 

Skomer Island is a ten-minute boat ride from Martins Haven, on the west coast of South Wales.  It is a National Nature Reserve owned by Natural Resources Wales, and managed by the Wildlife Trust of West Wales.  Small boats transport up to 250 visitors each day, six days a week, to spend about five hours on the island.  About 15 kilometres of walking track  (6 or 7 km to walk around the island) keep visitors generally well spread out.

Puffins are found on the island from mid March to early August during the breeding season.  They build nests in burrows in grassy banks above the sea cliffs in April and May.  Chicks hatch from the eggs in June and fledge in July, so these two months are the most interesting for visitors.  Adult birds are making the finishing touches to their nests and catching fish to feed their nestlings.  Puffins returning with a beakful of small fish (known as sand eels) are often harried by gulls, which are after an easy meal.

With a beakful of nest material

With a beakful of sand eels

The Skomer Island puffins are very tame, as they are used to visitors walking along a trail that passes through the centre of one of their main breeding colonies.  They scuttle across the path on their way from the cliff top to their burrows carrying a beakful of sand eels or nest material, dodging between the legs of visitors and photographers’ tripods.

Showing long tongue

Having such a deep bill with sharp edges makes it easy for puffins to catch and hold a number of small fish at once.  As each fish is caught, it is held between the tongue and upper mandible, leaving the lower mandible free to catch more fish.  In this way a bird can hold a dozen or more at a time.  Their strong beaks are also used to excavate nesting burrows, which may be several metres long.

When they leave the nesting colony in early August, Atlantic puffins spend the winter in the Atlantic Ocean, not returning again until March.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Hoary Marmot

The hoary marmot (Marmota caligata)

I have seen hoary marmots in several locations throughout the north-western states of the US.  These were photographed in Mt Rainier National Park.  Marmots are well known for occupying conspicuous ‘look-out’ rocks, with a burrow in talus or in the ground beneath their rock, allowing a rapid retreat if necessary.  This habit makes them stand out against the background so they are relatively easy to photograph.

Hoary marmots are alpine specialists, living above the tree line among rock and snow.  They are attractively marked, looking as though the frost has caught the outer tips of their fur, as the hairs are tipped with white.  The fur on their tails is orangey coloured, as you can see as this individual scurries into his burrow.

Hoary marmots hibernate between September and May, so they have a relatively short period of activity.  They usually excavate their burrows under large rocks to prevent them being dug into by hungry grizzly bears, and are more communal than other marmots living in quite large family groups.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels

Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel in Yosemite National Park

I find golden-mantled ground squirrels the easiest of all squirrels to photograph.  They occur throughout the mountain areas of the western United States, so I see them almost everywhere I go when I am travelling there in summer.  These squirrels are usually not wary of humans so readily allow a photographer to approach them.  And campgrounds are favored foraging areas.

A real 'Copperhead' in the Eastern Sierra

Siblings Interacting (Colorado)

Playing and Grooming

We watched these young squirrels playing in a camping area in Colorado for several days, under the watchful eye of their mother.  However, on our last day, the adult disappeared and her offspring dispersed to different areas where they searched for food separately.  Now if one young squirrel encountered another, it would chase the intruder away.  Food gathering is an important activity later in summer as although these squirrels hibernate for much of the winter, they also hoard food in their burrows to see them through either unusually warm or cold periods, when they wake to feed.

Here are a couple more images of young golden-mantled ground squirrels photographed in Wyoming:


Natural food

 There must be something interesting in there......

In Yosemite National Park

Looks like he's found it......

All the photographs so far have been of the most widespread golden-mantled squirrel. This is Callospermophilus lateralis, which occurs in higher areas from Arizona and New Mexico to Canada.  Another species, with less distinctive dark side stripes, Callospermophilus saturatus, is found only in the Cascade Mountains of Washington and southern British Columbia.  There is a third species in northern Mexico.

This squirrel has been collecting nesting material for its burrow:

Cascade Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel in Mt Rainier National Park

Cascade Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel in Mt Rainier National Park

Notice that the colour of the fur varies markedly in both species of squirrel.

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.