Next Tuesday, January 21st, is National Squirrel Appreciation Day. Initially founded in 2001 by North Carolina wildlife rehabilitator Christy Hargrove, this event celebrates the squirrel and all of its unique squirrel-ness. Let’s dig in and explore some of the top five reasons to appreciate squirrels!

A pine squirrel tears into a pine cone.

They Provide Beneficial Ecosystem Services

Squirrels can be messy eaters, and that is good news for the trees and plants that produce the pine cones, nuts, and fruits that squirrels consume. Squirrels help disperse the seeds of plants while foraging, and also through their caching behavior.

They Aren’t All Disease Ridden Vermin

While it is possible for squirrels to host disease, their reputation as vermin is much overstated. Rabies is exceedingly rare in squirrels. Plague, an invasive disease introduced to North America by merchant ships, is primarily transmitted by fleas, and if a squirrel is infected it may quickly die.

The burrows of the black-tailed prairie dog support life from reptiles to birds to other mammals.

They Serve as a Keystone Species

The squirrel family includes tree squirrels, like pine squirrels and fox squirrels, as well as ground squirrels, which include marmots, woodchucks, and prairie dogs. Prairie dogs are a classic example of a keystone species – their presence is crucial for the entire grassland ecosystem. Their burrows provide shelter to other animals, including the adorable burrowing owl.

They Are Smarter Than You Think

Ask anyone who has ever tried to keep a squirrel out of their bird feeder and they will attest to their problem solving abilities. Their spatial intelligence and memory is also top notch, helping them to find cached food many weeks later. Another squirrel trick: pretending to bury food in a fake cache to outwit squirrel thieves.

The membrane that allow the flying squirrel to glide is called the patagium – it connects to the wrist and hind legs like a parachute.

Some of Them Can Fly

Flying squirrels are some of the most unique mammals on Earth, and we are lucky enough to have a few right here in Colorado! A recent discovery by Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists confirmed the presence of northern flying squirrels in the remote Roan Plateau region of the state.

Squirrel Appreciation

There you have it, five reasons to appreciate our Sciuridae friends this January. Now get out there yourself and observe or photograph a squirrel and find five more reasons of your own!

Bighorn ram in Waterton Canyon, Colorado

There is often some confusion among newcomers to Colorado between bighorn sheep and mountain goats. I often overhear this at places like Mount Evans, where you could very likely see both in the same day, or maybe even at the same time! I’ll admit, I was a little “fuzzy” on the differences when I started on my journey.

Bighorn ewes near Ouray, Colorado

One of my first photos of bighorn sheep in Colorado came from Ouray, where these ewes were snacking on a hay bale along the side of the road. Whether that bale of hay fell off a truck, or whether someone put it out just for the sheep I couldn’t say, but these sheep were glad for it either way. At first glance, you might see the short horns and think “goat”, but these are indeed bighorn sheep ewes.

A mountain goat on Mount Evans, Colorado

Both male and female sheep and goats have horns, but notice that the horns of the goat above are jet black, and grow upwards and back, not down and around the eye like the sheep. The coat of the mountain goat is white and shaggy compared to the short, brown hair of the bighorn sheep.

Another big clue is range – the mountain goat is only found in a few high altitude regions of Colorado. If you are at lower elevations, such as the canyon country near Salida or Colorado National Monument, it’s pretty likely you are seeing bighorn sheep, not mountain goats. The same is true for Rocky Mountain National Park, which is not home to any mountain goats.

A bighorn ram crossing the river in Waterton Canyon, Colorado

I’ve photographed sheep in quite a few corners of Colorado, but Waterton Canyon remains one of the best places to see these animals. The sheep are often near, or even on, the road, and you can get some great shots without hauling a monster lens along. It’s no secret, so expect some company, but since the road is gated you’ll need to a few miles in to find the sheep, and this keeps the crowds down.

Another great place to see the “desert” subspecies of bighorn sheep is Colorado National Monument. Sheep are frequently seen along Rimrock Drive, so keep your eyes open on your way to the visitor’s center.

Whether it’s sheep or goats, you really can’t go wrong, both are fun to watch and photograph, and a couple of the most accessible subjects for wildlife photography in Colorado.

Desert bighorn lambs at Colorado National Monument

Holy sea cow, it’s 2020. When did that happen?

Ok, I know you’ve seen this post before. The one that starts with “Is been a long time since I’ve posted anything here…

Guilty.

We might have some catching up to do. I’ve nearly completed my Colorado Mammals project. I’ve photographed every species on my original list that is known to exist in the state, and a few more that were somewhat unknown. I can’t wait to share the photos and the journey with you.

I’m still looking for the elusive wolverine. In 2019, I expanded my efforts outside of Colorado into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and Glacier National Park. Unfortunately, I didn’t cross paths with a gulo but that search will definitely continue in 2020.

In other news, I’m working towards a masters degree in biology through the Miami University Advanced Inquiry Program, which is a partnership with the Denver Zoo. I also joined Natural Habitat Adventures as an Expedition Leader in 2019 and couldn’t be more thrilled! It’s OK if you drool a little when you see the trips that they offer (I know I did).

In 2020, I’m continuing my work with Wildlife Protection Solutions where we have assembled some next level camera trapping technology to get photos out of the field faster and identify species or poachers quicker than ever. This is really exciting stuff that has the potential to help find and protect some of the planet’s most endangered species. No joke!

In addition to camera trapping, I’m working with WPS to produce some very unique films on the endangered species we are fighting to protect. We have some exciting plans up our sleeves, but all I’ll say for now is that I left a little clue a little earlier in this blog post that might hint at what the first film will be featuring…

Enough about me. This year is all about the mammals. I have a pile of photos, stories, and adventure lined up for 2020 as I share the journey that has been my Mammals of Colorado quest. I hope you join me for the ride!

Wishing you all the best in 2020!

– JB

Above A playful desert bighorn lamb in Colorado National Monument.

Finding the perfect backpack is a never-ending battle for me. I’ve bought so many backpacks trying to find something that works, and most often they end up for sale on Craigslist a few months later.

A nature photography backpack needs to do three things. First, it needs to carry your camera and accessories for a day in the field. Secord, it needs to have storage for extra clothes, food, and the other gear necessary to survive in the wild. Finally, it has to allow quick and easy access to the camera, ideally without taking the pack off or fiddling with too many zippers.

As a wildlife photographer, this third requirement is extremely important to me. My camera needs to be always ready for those fleeting moments when I cross paths with something like a Canada lynx (and, hopefully, one day a wolverine), and in this regard the MindShift Rotation packs are superior.

I picked up the Horizon 34L pack one year ago and have had a chance to spend some time with it. Prior to the Horizon, I typically used a LowePro PhotoSport 200 for fast and light hiking and various f-Stop packs for lugging around bigger kits with tripods and heavy lenses.

My current kit for hiking is the Nikon D850 paired with a Nikon 300 f4 PF. This combo will just barely fit into the waist pack of the Horizon in the vertical orientation, leaving room to carry up to two more lenses, which for me are typically the 24-70 2.8 (not the VR version) and a teleconverter. The 24-70 will also barely fit into the waist pack when mounted on the D850, although sometimes it is a little bit of a struggle to get the zipper to close. I suspect the newer and larger 24-70 VR would be worse, if it fit at all.

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The Nikon D850 paired with a Nikon 300 f4 PF will just barely fit into the waist pack of the Horizon in the vertical orientation.

The Horizon waist pack has a mesh interior pocket under the lid for small accessories, and then a vertical sleeve intended for a field guide, map, or an iPad. The mesh pocket will hold my cable release, and an extra battery or memory card, but with the main compartment of the waist belt already bursting at the seams, this makes the situation worse, so I often avoid using it. The situation with the vertical sleeve is similar. I will sometimes carry a circular polarizing filter or a map, but even these items start to interfere with the ease of getting the camera into the main compartment and closing the zipper.

The Horizon can carry a tripod on the front of the pack, or by using the MindShift Tripod Suspension System. I’ll admit, I haven’t tried the suspension system, but I really can’t see myself ever using it. The straps on the front of the Horizon pack work okay to carry a small to medium sized tripod, but there is still a lot of flopping around due to the way that the straps are attached. At the very least, this is aggravating, but it is also potentially dangerous to have your load shifting and causing a loss of balance, so for longer hikes or more technical terrain it is good to have an extra length of webbing to cinch the tripod down with.

The Horizon has a nice size compartment for day hike essentials. It can comfortably fit a rain jacket, puffy, and fleece, with enough room left over for some food, water, and first aid/survival items. I’m not crazy about the zipper on the main compartment, and would perhaps rather have a drawstring closure. The lightweight zipper can be troublesome when the pack is very full and I anticipate this will be the first part of the pack to fail.

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The Horizon 34L has a nice sized compartment for day hike essentials.

The lid has additional storage for things like sunglasses and a headlamp. I appreciate that they included a snap to keep your car keys from falling out on the talus. There is a front pocket that I use to carry my hat, gloves, and MicroSpikes, and a vertical zip side pocket that was designed with a hydration bladder in mind. After my camera and lenses, water is the heaviest thing in my pack, so when I carry a hydration bladder, I want the weight centered close to my body, not out to one side.

The pack does have the typical mesh interior sleeve for your hydration pouch, so you aren’t forced into using the side pocket. There is an opening for your hydration hose on the left side, so if that is that is the side you prefer to route your hose, you are in luck. Unfortunately, MindShift only provides one elastic loop about a third of the way down the shoulder strap to secure the drinking hose, so you’ll want to improvise something to keep the hose from flopping around.

I like that they have included a water bottle pocket, which I don’t use for water bottles, but rather to stash my trekking poles. I haven’t tried carrying this pack up a snow climb yet, but there is a single ice axe loop on the front and some webbing ladders to theoretically attach some crampons.

The waist pack has an attachment point on one side that I use for bear spray, an extra lens pouch, or binoculars. I really wish that MindShift had sewn a standardized PALS webbing ladder instead so that things wouldn’t slide around so much.

Overall, it is a functional backpack with one absolutely outstanding feature – the ability to get to your camera when you need it and get it the heck out of the way when you don’t. It’s the best of both worlds between a chestie and a back panel loading pack, and it is a breeze to switch between having the waist pack in the front position and stored out of the way in the back. I find that I take more pictures now along the trail, because getting the camera out and then putting it away again is so much easier. As a bonus, since the waist pack is detachable, you can leave the main pack behind for short hikes or urban exploration.

Pros

  • The Rotation180° system works extremely well, and is a game changer!
  • Will fit (barely) a Nikon D850 mounted on lenses up to a 300 f4 or 24-70.
  • Enough capacity for clothing and essentials for 3 season day hiking.
  • Doubles as a stand-alone fanny pack.

Cons

  • The camera storage compartment is just a little bit too snug for a Nikon D850 with a 24-70 mounted. Since this is a common combination, it would be great if MindShift would expand the dimensions just a smidgen. There is a larger size available, but it is a much heavier pack and overkill for this size kit. The Horizon 34L really only needs about 1″ more material to make all the difference.
  • The attachment point on the waist belt allows accessory pouches to slide around too much – I would much prefer a PALS webbing ladder.
  • The tripod attachment points are too floppy.
  • The hydration pocket on the side is superfluous, and the opening for the hose is not centered, so the hose can only be routed to the left shoulder strap. Furthermore, there are not enough loops on the shoulder strap to keep the hose from flopping around.

Conclusion

The Rotation180° waist pack system is outstanding and elevates this pack from middle-of-the-road status to complete game changer. I wish for a little more refinement other aspects of the pack, but perhaps these will be improved in future designs. In the meantime, the Horizon 34L is my top recommendation for the hiking nature photographer shooting lenses up to the 300 f4 PF. In my part of the world, there seems to be a considerable market for this type of pack, so I hope to see MindShift continue to thrive and innovate.

MindShift Rotation180° Horizon 34L Manufacturer Page

 

Virginia Opossum

What’s the difference between a possum and an opossum? In the United States, the two words are used interchangeably to refer to the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), even though, technically speaking, a possum is an Australian marsupial of no close relation. Whatever you prefer, this is is a fascinating creature that often carries an undeserved bad reputation.

I grew up in rural Michigan where we called them ‘possums, and if you said “opossum”, people would look at you weird. Often, you’d see them crossing the road at night, and during the day you could see even more as road kill.

Photographing an opossum in Colorado turned out to be more of a challenge than you might expect. The species is mostly found in the far eastern parts of the state along the Platte, Arikaree, and Republican Rivers in agricultural and riparian areas. There may also be a small introduced population in Grand Junction. Here in Boulder County, there is just one record – a suspected captive escapee that was found in Green Mountain Cemetery in 1919.

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My first attempt to photograph opossums was a total disaster. My wife and I drove down to the Republican River near Hale with spotlights and the “frankenflash” (a hacked together combination of spotlight and strobe that I tried to use to photograph nocturnal animals before I wised up and started using camera traps). Not only did we fail to see a single opossum, but we both wound up with miserable cases of poison ivy from stumbling around in the dark.

I knew there were opossums around Julesburg, because I had seen them dead on the road just over the Nebraska border, but finding places to camera trap in the area was a roadblock. Finally, I stumbled upon nature photographer Mack Hitch of Sterling, who helped me with access to a site that was a bit closer to home.

It took me about five site visits to get the shot below. That’s roughly 1,300 miles of driving, and roughly 40 hours of effort spread out across two months. Not too bad compared to my search for hog-nosed skunks, but probably a laughable amount to folks who live in places where opossums are plentiful.

Not only are they so ugly it makes them kind of cute, there are some reasons to appreciate the opossum. First, opossums are the only native marsupial to the USA, which is kind of cool. Like their more glamorous relatives down under, they do have a pouch and their babies are called joeys. The joeys will hang out in their mother’s pouch for about 10 weeks before they grow large enough to climb onto their mothers back to hitch a ride.

Second, they eat ticks by the thousands. There aren’t many things in nature that I can’t find some way to appreciate, but ticks are an exception. Opossums are also resistant to pit viper venom which gives them the mutant power to fearlessly take on rattlesnakes.

Finally, just like a world cup soccer player, they have the not-so-super power of “playing possum” (aka dead) in the face of danger. This might work to deter a predator who would rather have a fresh meal, but is a quick way to become roadkill in our modern world. Combined with their average life span of under two years, opossums have a pretty rough gig.

This species is a milestone in my Colorado mammals project. It is actually the last species for me to photograph that is currently known to inhabit the State of Colorado, and not part of the mythical “X-Files” group (extirpated from Colorado, or potentially expanding their range into the state from elsewhere). Everything from here on out is a mystery waiting to be solved. In case you were wondering, those X-File species include grizzly bear, gray wolf, nine-banded armadillo, eastern spotted skunk, and of course, the wolverine!

Virginia Opossum

Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) near Sterling, Colorado

 

Tofino, on Vancouver Island, is one of those places that the minute I heard about it, I knew I had to go. Vancouver Island is just a quick hop from the mainland, and has one of the most amazing landscapes imaginable. Mountains and coastline, what more could you ask for? How about great coffee? Abundant wildlife? Surfing? Yes, that and more. Let’s make this our little secret, eh?

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Leaving behind record temperatures in Seattle, a city where nobody has air conditioning

Our journey began in Seattle where we boarded the Victoria Clipper and motored though the heart of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We spent most of the voyage above deck keeping a sharp eye out for wildlife, and in Lana’s case, fending off sea sickness. It didn’t take long before the first of many harbor porpoises made an appearance.

The smoke from wildfires burning in British Columbia began to thicken the air as we worked out way to open water. Just about 30 minutes before reaching Victoria, we spotted some large black dorsal fins off the stern. Orca! We didn’t get a good look, nor any good photos, so we left rubbing our eyes wondering if it had been a trick of smoke and waves. I still haven’t had a good look at an orca, so I’m not ready to tick this species off the list yet.

After making land and picking up our rental car in Victoria, we met a friend for lunch before beginning the trip to Tofino. Lana was pretty much out from taking a dose of Dramamine on the boat, so we only made a couple of stops on the four hour drive. Little Qualicum Falls was a nice place to stretch the legs, but the real show was sunset over Kennedy Lake, just before reaching Tofino. The haze from the forest fires combined with the reflections on the lake created one of the most magical sunsets I’ve ever seen.

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Sunset over Kennedy Lake, Vancouver Island

 

We enjoyed three days of beach combing, hiking, and exploring around Tofino. Sea lions were far from shore, but unmistakable on the eponymous named Sea Lion Rock off  Combers Beach. One of the highlights of the trip was a bear watching tour from a Zodiac boat with Remote Passages Marine Excursions. I was really impressed by our guides knowledge, and in particular his respect for the wildlife. We saw six black bears in the course of the afternoon, as well as harbor seals, more harbor porpoise, and some great bald eagle photo opportunities. It was incredible watching the bears foraging at low tide, rolling over massive rocks with no effort whatsoever. Just as we were coming back to port, we had a really special treat: six river otters at close range! Of course, most people were there for the bears, but if you are a mustelid nerd like me, you know I got my money’s worth!

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A parade of North American river otters on the banks of Clayoquot Sound.

We saw another black bear on the side of the highway later that night, for a total of seven bears in one day. That is a record for me! Bear scat and tracks were everywhere you look, and it wasn’t hard to see why with the twice a day crab buffet at low tide and abundant berries.

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Surfing for the first time at world famous Cox Bay.

On our return voyage to Seattle, Lana spotted the spout of a whale shortly after leaving Victoria. It fluked a few hundred yards off the stern of the boat. I wasn’t able to get any clear photos for an identification, but I’m going with humpback whale based on the dorsal fin. Gray whale and minke whale are also present around Vancouver Island and Puget Sound, and there are numerous options for whale watching tours in the area, even though we weren’t able to fit one in this trip.

One creature that we didn’t get to see was the gray wolf, but Tofino is still as good as place as any to look for them. Maybe a little too good, based on the increasing number of human-wolf conflicts at places like Long Beach and the abundance of warnings at trail heads. I think with a couple of weeks to work with, we would have gotten a shot. Maybe next spring during gray whale season!

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Sow bear and cub foraging at low tide along the banks of Clayoquot Sound.

 

 

 

Two southern flying squirrels and their nest box in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan

The flying squirrel may own the title of Colorado’s rarest mammal because just one single specimen has ever been recorded in the state. Although they are only found in a small sliver of the state, this probably has more to do with how difficult it is to find them, and not as much to do with the size of the population. The northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) is common in northern latitudes of the US and Canada, but its range barely extends down into northwest Colorado. Just reaching a suitable site to search for them is a long drive on rough jeep roads into some of Colorado’s most remote country. And then there is the fact that they are nocturnal. And they fly (well, glide, actually). Basically, a photographer’s worst case scenario.

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Nest box shop class

Back in the summer of 2014, Lana and I took a road trip back to Michigan to visit family. My mom’s house has a nice stand of hardwood forest out the back door, and ever though she’d never seen them there before, it just seemed like a nice place for flying squirrels. Both the northern flying squirrel and the similar, but smaller southern flying squirrel (G. volans) inhabit Michigan. At Mom’s house in the southern Lower Peninsula, only the southern flying squirrel might be found.

 

Before we left Colorado, I whipped up a couple of flying squirrel nest boxes using some plans that you can download here and put them in the truck. When we arrived in Michigan, I mounted the boxes as high as I could reach using the tallest ladder in the garage and we all crossed our fingers.

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Nest box installed at my mom’s in Michigan

It was more than a year before we made another trip back to Michigan – this time for Thanksgiving. It was a cold, drizzly weekend, but we had to make it out to check the nest boxes. I noticed some gnawing around the opening – not enough to allow a fox squirrel or gray squirrel to fit through. Lana gave the tree trunk a rap and two little squirrel noses poked out.

 

We knew immediately by their giant round eyes that they were flying squirrels. We’d seen a captive southern flying squirrel once before when Rob Mies brought one to a presentation at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. But to see them living in the wild was a lifer for both of us! It’s not uncommon to see flying squirrels in pairs at this time of year. During the colder months, they “buddy up” to stay warm. One of the squirrels crawled completely out of the nest box onto the tree trunk, giving us a good look at its broad tail and patagium (the “wing” membrane connecting the legs and body that allows it to glide). After snapping a few photos, we left them alone so they wouldn’t feel the need to “evict”. Hopefully they’ll stick around and I’ll have a chance to photograph them in flight on a future visit.

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This southern flying squirrel briefly climbed out of the nest box at my mom’s house in Michigan, giving us a great view.

 

Back in Colorado last summer, I was able to capture some infrared video footage of northern flying squirrels in the wild. It was a taxing job, with many trips to the western slope, and at least one seriously epic 4WD adventure. I’m nowhere near satisfied with any photos that I have capture so far, but just to locate a site to photograph these squirrels and confirm their presence is half the battle.  The videos will help me to understand their habits and better position my cameras when the snow melts next spring.

Bat in Flight

Madera Canyon, Arizona, is one of my favorite places to unwind, explore, and photograph nature.  Just a few miles from the mouth of the canyon, Bill Forbes has a backyard pond that provides a unique opportunity to photograph bats in flight using a camera trap system called the Phototrap, which Bill builds and sells.  With my sights set on capturing photos of Colorado’s rare flying squirrels, I thought trying my hand at bats would be a great way to learn the ropes of photographing flying mammals in the dark.

Bill’s backyard is well known by birders as a go to spot for photographing Sonoran species like Gambel’s quail and roadrunners from the convenience of his many blinds.  Indeed, upon arrival I immediately spotted a lifer bird, a striking male pyrrhuloxia, but the mammal geek in me was even more exited by the enormous antelope jackrabbits grazing on the mesquite bushes.

Antelope Jackrabbit

Photographing the ginormous antelope jackrabbit was an unexpected surprise.

We set up and I got acquainted with the equipment.  The bats would leave their roosts at dusk and predictably visit the pond for a drink, skimming the surface of the water with mouth open. With an infrared beam break sensor connected to the Phototrap controller, the bats would break the beam when they hit the sweet spot.  In a normal camera trapping scenario, you would typically connect the sensor to the camera which would then open the shutter and fire the flashes.  For bats in flight, though, this configuration is too slow.  In the split second it takes for the mechanical shutter on the camera to open, the bat has already moved out of the frame.  The way around this is to keep the shutter on the camera continuously open, and connect the Phototrap controller directly to the flashes.  In darkness, the flash creates the exposure in one burst of light equivalent of a shutter speed of 1/4000th, or even faster.

Bat in Flight

A bat swoops in for a drink.

I set up two cameras – one with a 600mm lens at the far end of the pond, and another with a 300mm positioned  a bit closer.  Before it became too dark to see, I prefocused both cameras on the point where the bats would break the beam and then set the shutter for continuous 15″ exposures.  The easiest way to accomplish this is with a remote cable that can be locked into bulb mode, but the downside is that Nikon cameras are hard coded to shut off after 100 continuous shots.  I think the intention is to keep the camera from filling your memory card with photos of the inside of your camera bag, but unfortunately there is no way around it for situations where you want to take more.  If you can’t restart the camera every 25 minutes, using an intervalometer works almost as well.

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A close up of a bat drinking from the pond by skimming the surface.

Once everything was set, all we had to do was wait for the bats for arrive.  Bill has a closed circuit television watching the pond with infrared lighting, so we could watch the action without disturbing the set.  Like clockwork, the bats arrived and began swooping across the surface of the pond.  Sometimes they would come in at the wrong angle, or swoop back up before breaking the beam, but it wasn’t long before a burst of flash signaled that the beam had been broken.

Although it was unseasonably cool and windy during my visit, there was still plenty of action and I brought back some exciting photos.  I also lots of great ideas and practice that I hope will help me towards my goal of photographing flying squirrels in Colorado.

Bat in Flight

You win some, you lose some. A bat going the “wrong way” through the camera trap.

 

 

Western Painted Turtle

When you think of wildlife in Colorado you might think of a bull elk bugling amidst the aspen, bighorn sheep tip toing up a canyon wall, or maybe pronghorn grazing on the prairie. Regardless, I’m willing to bet that one critter you haven’t considered is the turtle!

There are five species of turtles native to Colorado. Four of them are aquatic; the western painted turtle, snapping turtle, yellow mud turtle, and the spiny softshell turtle. The sole terrestrial turtle is the ornate box turtle.

Western Painted Turtle

Western Painted Turtle

The western painted turtle is the most common of the Colorado turtles and happens to be the Colorado State Reptile. They are easy to identify and can frequently be seen on logs or rocks in wetland areas.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping Turtles

The snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) can be up to 20″ in shell diameter and is equipped with a pair of sharp and very strong jaws. It has a rough, jagged shell and a long tail that looks a bit like an alligator tail. They can be seen swimming in ponds or lakes and also crossing roads in the springtime when they may travel several hundred yards from water to nest. It should be pretty obvious that this turtle is capable of inflicting a nasty bite so don’t try to pick one up unless you know what you are doing. Watch for the tail cutting through the water as the snapping turtle swims just beneath the surface.

Yellow Mud Turtle

Yellow Mud Turtle

Yellow mud turtles can be found along the eastern margin of Colorado around ponds, reservoirs, and rivers.  They are omnivorous, feeding on crayfish, tadpoles, and other aquatic insects, as well as vegetation and plant matter.

Ornate Box Turtle

Ornate Box Turtle

The ornate box turtle is Colorado’s sole terrestrial turtle species and can be found across the Great Plains, including in the short grass prairie of eastern Colorado.  Loss of habitat and collection for the pet trade have threatened the ornate box turtle in recent years.

Spiny Softshell Turtle

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The spiny softshell turtle is one of Colorado’s largest turtle species. They are found mostly in waterways along the eastern margin of Colorado.

If you are interested in learning more about these species, visit the Colorado Division of Wildlife Natural Diversity Information Source page about turtles.

This article was first published at www.jamesbeissel.com on May 12, 2012.  I’ve reposted it here in celebration of World Turtle Day 2016.

Kit Fox

Kit Fox

Blue light fills the cab of my pickup as lightning crashes into the ground all around me. In the midst of a fierce desert thunderstorm, I am watching an animal that hasn’t been documented in Colorado for nearly 20 years – Vulpes macrotis, commonly known as the kit fox.

The kit fox is an arid land fox inhabiting the sagebrush and shrubland west of the Rocky Mountains. It has a slim body with a grizzled yellow-gray coat, long slender legs, and a bushy tail. Its exceptionally large ears are the biggest of any North American canine relative to its size. The kit fox is well adapted to life in the desert. It needs to drink little or no water, utilizing liquid from prey to stay hydrated. The pads of its feet are insulated with tufts of course hair for protection from scorching sands. During the day, the kit fox rests in its multi-entrance den to stay cool and conserve water. By night, it forages for prey, which primarily consists of jackrabbits, cottontails, and rodents, including prairie dogs and kangaroo rats.

The kit fox is listed as a State Endangered Species in Colorado. The eastern margin of its range just barely extends into the state in Mesa, Garfield, Delta, and Montrose counties. Although it was probably never common in Colorado, historical records suggest that populations have declined since the mid-20th century. The reasons for this decline are not well understood, but likely factors include climate variability, use of poisons for predator control, and competition with coyotes and red foxes. The last kit fox recorded in Colorado was in 1996 during a study by J.P. Fitzgerald.

Swift Fox

The swift fox is similar to the kit fox, but has smaller ears and inhabits the grasslands of the eastern plains.

Beginning in 2008, ecologist Melissa Reed-Eckert began an extensive search for kit foxes in western Colorado as a master’s student at the University of Colorado. Baited stations consisting of track plates and wire brushes to snag hair samples were strategically placed at 136 sites throughout the kit foxes historical Colorado range. As part of her thesis, she sought to demonstrate how variations in climate affect species like the kit fox at the margins of suitable habitat. The effort of surveys such as this are commonly measured in trap-nights. That is to say, the number of traps deployed times the number of nights the trap is left out in the field. Reed-Eckert’s study resulted in a total of over 3,800 trap nights in Colorado. The stations detected red foxes, dogs, raccoons, and skunks, but no confirmed kit foxes. Only a questionable, but probable, track at one station hinted at the possibility of a kit fox existing in the study area.

After reading Reed-Eckert’s thesis, I felt the odds of photographing a kit fox in Colorado were abysmal. It appeared that the kit fox may be gone for good from the state. Nevertheless, I wanted to roll the dice myself and spend some time exploring Colorado kit fox habitat. I’ve had success finding swift foxes on the eastern plains by driving the backroads at dawn and dusk and watching for the tell-tale glint of golden fur on the prairie. I knew I couldn’t top previous efforts by the likes of Fitzgerald and Reed-Eckert, but I decided to spend a few days using this approach on my way to and from photographing known kit fox sites in Utah.

Kit Fox

A young kit fox explores the outside world near Moab, Utah.

I was astonished when my tactics worked in short order. Was my sighting a one in a million occurrence? If not, how many more kit foxes might be living in Colorado? Perhaps climatic conditions have been favorable in the years since Reed-Eckert’s survey, promoting the survival of both prey and predator.

In 2005, 12 man-made dens and 42 quick escape tunnels were installed by Rocky Mountain Wild and the Bureau of Land Management. With openings that are large enough for a kit fox, but too small for a coyote to pass, these dens help protect future kit foxes against predation. To avoid extirpation in Colorado, kit foxes need suitable contiguous habitat, away from human build up and the associated red foxes, coyotes, and domestic dogs that follow. Additionally, they need an abundant prey base of rodents, rabbits, and hares. Finally, they need suitable den sites with the proper soil for digging, undisturbed by development and recreation. Additional measures are currently needed to identify and protect critical habitat to promote the kit foxes future in Colorado.

The storm barrels east and a rainbow appears. At its end is a kit fox, and for me, that is better than a pot of gold. The fox stretches, yawns, and then disappears into its den for good. I return several more times over the coming days, but never see it again.

Kit Fox Rainbow

A kit fox at the end of the rainbow.