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August 2011: Washington Ground Squirrel

From the Photographer...

Rick McEwan

The black night sky eased toward morning, as a steel-gray hue diffused into cobalt blue. Sluggishly, I extended my cramped legs, stretching my 6-foot 2-inch body into all available space of my gear-packed compact vehicle—where I had slept that night.

With the approaching dawn I surveyed the surrounding landscape: the Boardman Grasslands in north central Oregon.

Ecologists have long viewed these grasslands as the most extensive of their type in Oregon. The rich habitat diversity supports an array of wildlife species recognized as sensitive or vulnerable in Oregon.

One of these important species is the Washington ground squirrel, once thought extinct in Oregon but rediscovered on the Boardman Grasslands in the 1970s. Today the squirrel is state-listed as an endangered species.

The Washington ground squirrel is of particular interest to biologists because of its unusually long estivation (inactivity during summer). Once the spring bunch grass food sources have stopped growing, the squirrels remain in underground burrows for up to 8 months, escaping the summer heat and drought.

Capturing Images of a Playful Creature

The previous day I had scouted the grasslands for photo locations.  This location turned out to be the residence of a colony of ground squirrels; their small statuesque poses casting long shadows in the warming morning light.

Although, the colony’s young squirrels seemed quite carelessly unabashed in their romping, they would instantly vanish down holes whenever I jockeyed for a closer viewpoint. Finally, I decided it would be best to leave them and continue my planned shots for the Conservancy.

Around 3:30pm I returned to the colony with my 300-800mm lens mounted on a tripod and my vest pockets stuffed with whatever I might need for the evening. I slowly and carefully moved through the sensitive grassland habitat to my selected new location.

Ground squirrels must have a great sense of humor. After about 30 minutes of waiting, the white spotted, brown-gray back of a squirrel suddenly stood erect, a little more than 100 feet from me, too far for a good shot and precisely where I had already been that morning. Another hour later, as I still leaned motionless against my tripod, a squirrel stood tall near a hole a few feet away, teasingly too close this time for my telephoto lens.

Then suddenly the action was all about me and for a very entertaining hour I slowly moved my lens, as much as I dared, capturing several nice portraits of this rare spices.

People are most likely to be drawn to images that affect their mood in a positive way and these playful squirrels were just the images of Boardman I wanted. Nature relaxes us and restores us. Wildlife images can bring us a sense of connection to life, a feeling of love, and pleasurable entertainment.

The Nature Conservancy and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are currently working in partnership, conducting extensive Boardman area studies and monitoring the activity of Washington ground squirrel colonies.

Rick McEwan is a volunteer professional photographer for The Nature Conservancy who captures images of conservation across Oregon and beyond. For more of his work, go to


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