Arguably, one of the cutest alpine critters in the Sun Peaks area is the Columbian ground squirrel. This little rodent sports white around the eyes, and has a coat of orange and brown with a mix of gray. It can weigh up to 800 grams.
As a young nature photographer, these burrowers were one of my favourites to photograph with my dad’s camera during trips to the Alberta Rockies. Even now, I pause once in while to try and capture another with the lens. In fact, rodents such as the Columbian ground squirrel, are great subjects for those just getting started in nature photography. Use them to learn how to control the focusing system in your camera and to anticipate behaviours such as feeding and communication among colony members.
Many hikers often walk right past these squirrels without a second thought, but there’s more to them than meets the eye. Depending on the elevation, they only feed for roughly four months every year, which is pretty amazing for such a small critter. The rest of the time is spent in hibernation.
Up in the alpine, hibernation might occur as early as July. During their “awake” time, a huge amount of food must be consumed each and every day if they’re to survive such a long winter. Fat must be put on quickly and experts say the amount of food required each day would be somewhere in the range of 20 per cent of their body weight. Could you eat that much food in a day?
The Columbian ground squirrel will look for grass, leaves, seeds, insects and occasionally small birds and mammals to round out its favourite menu choices.
These little guys live in colonies that can be quite large if the habitat can support them. The female squirrels almost always stay with the colony they were born into and continue populating the group, while the males seek out other females and look for places to start their own colonies. This will preferably be in an area free of predators, but Columbian ground squirrels are an important food source for other creatures on the hill. The fox, badger, bear and coyote all rely on meals of squirrel from time to time and in the case of the badger, it may be critical.
With a little observation and some photographic fun, Columbian ground squirrels can enhance your hike in the alpine. Look for them among some photogenic wildflowers, listen for their chirping call amid the meadows, look for signs of a predator digging up a burrow, and keep an eye out for the young ones that have just begun their life on the hill. It’s all fun and educational, and a few moments connecting with nature just might make your day.