Trip Report: Vancouver Island, Montana and a bit of Wyoming and Washington

I spent the last week of August looking for mammals around the north west of the USA.

Vancouver Island
My first stop was a return to Mount Washington on Vancouver Island to try again to see the critically endangered Vancouver Island Marmots. In August 2010 the weather – and the presence of my kids – was against me. This time it was sunny, I was alone and I was armed with excellent information from Dave Robichaud on where to look. Sure enough I saw several marmots in the late afternoon about half an hour’s walk from the parking lot. Lovely things and not particularly shy.

Marmota vancouverensis 2

Marmota vancouverensis 3
Vancouver Island Marmots

I set some traps along a roadside lower down the mountain and caught a bunch of Keen’s Mice that night.

Peromyscus keeni
Keen’s Mouse

Glacier NP 2
Logan’s Pass, Glacier National Park

Next stop was Glacier National Park. Glacier is a long drive from everywhere. I flew to Spokane the next evening and drove the 5 hours to Whitefish Montana, and had a run in with a kamikaze deer en route in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho.

The next day I took a back road into Glacier NP and camped at Bowman Lake in the west of the park for no better reason than Curtis Hart had heard wolves here the year before. It is a pretty spot.

Bowman Lake Dawn
Bowman Lake

There were plenty of Columbia Ground Squirrels, Red Squirrels and Chipmunks on the road and a few Mule Deer. I saw several chipmunks on the road over the next 36 hours and my impression was that most of them were Red-tailed though I didn’t get more than a fleeting look at most of them so I am not certain.

Odocoileus hemionus
Mule Deer

My key goal in the park was Red-tailed Chipmunk and, thanks to Scott Flamand’s trip report, I saw them well and easily at Avalanche Lake. Like Scott I didn’t see any chipmunks on the trail up to the lake, but there were all over the log jam at the end of the trail.

Neotamias ruficaudus
Red-tailed Chipmunk

I was in the park for about 30 hours and hiked up to Hidden Lake Overlook twice, looking for some of the Long-tailed Weasels that Scott had seen the year before. I didn’t see any (and the ranger I spoke to on the trail said he hadn’t seen any that year either on that trail). But both days I saw plenty of very approachable Columbia Ground Squirrels and a couple of even more approachable Hoary Marmots each day along the trail, as well as Golden Mantled Ground Squirrels around the overlook.

Marmota caligata
Hoary Marmot

Urocitellus columbianus
Columbia Ground Squirrel

On the first day I saw several Mountain Goats (the males all collared), but none the second.

Oreamnos americanus
Mountain Goat

Elsewhere I saw Black Bears twice. A mother and cub were next to the Camas Road (I was driving into the park from the Polebridge side at 2pm) and there was another in a tree above the Loop later that same afternoon. I also saw a North-western Jumping Mouse dash across the road in the early evening near Whitefish. A brief but clear view. The very long tail is diagnostic.

Ursus americanus
Black Bear

Its a 7 hour drive from Glacier to Billings Montana, and I spent the night at Lewistown en route. I caught a few Meadow Voles and Deer Mice in traps set overnight along a back road.

Microtus pennsylvanicus
Meadow Vole

Cheryl Anontucci had told me that Zoo Montana was a failsafe spot to see Richardson’s Ground Squirrel so I decided to detour there on my way south to Wyoming, rather than agonise over identifying animals further west that might have been Uinta or Wyoming Ground Squirrels, or heading north into areas where I wasn’t so sure I’d find them (see the discussion here).

If only all mammal watching was this easy: I saw my first animals before I slowed down.

Urocitellus richardsonii
Richardson’s Ground Squirrel

There are also a bunch of them in the zoo plaza Cheryl told me, though by late August the males are already underground, with the others to follow before the end of September.

Urocitellus richardsonii 2
Richardson’s Ground Squirrel

Fossil Butte 2
Fossil Butte

Next stop was Kemmerer Wyoming, where I wanted to visit Fossil Butte National Monument for a night to try to see Pygmy Rabbits, which Matt Miller had alerted me to.

When I got there at 6.30pm the weather had cleared after a wet afternoon. I focussed on the area immediately around the visitor centre and in the first couple of hours saw a Least Chipmunk and a few Mountain Cottontails along with some beautiful vistas. Sunset was at 8. By 8.45 I was beginning to lose hope and using a flashlight to patrol the area around the visitor centre when I got eyeshine under a Sage Bush. Definitely a rabbit. It froze in the light and when I got closer I could see the steel gray fur and inconspicuous grey tail through the foliage: a Pygmy Rabbit though impossible to photograph. I took another circuit in the hope that it would come out but it was still there 15 minutes later. I walked closer and it shimmied away never to be seen again. I kept looking until 10pm and spotlilt along some of the roads in the monument. No more Pygmy Rabbits but plenty of Black-tailed Jack Rabbits, Mountain Cottontails, a few Mule Deer and some Pronghorn.

I spent 2 hours there pre-dawn the next morning and didn’t find any more Pygmy Rabbits. It’s a pity they weren’t as cooperative with me as they were for Matt, who managed to get some nice photos: one for my “to see again” list. Perhaps the wet weather had dissuaded them from moving around too much.

Fossil Butte

Mount Rainier
I flew back to Seattle for some non-mammal time with my girlfriend, but did spend a morning back on Mt Rainier for a fourth attempt to see Cascade Golden Mantled Ground Squirrels. No one has ever failed as often as me to see any common species I am sure. Cheryl Antonucci had seen them here 10 days before I arrived and gave me some very specific instructions. She’d seen them all over the rocks by the lookout at Frozen Lake where they were begging for food, a mile and a half along the trail with the same name. Meanwhile her mother had seen and photographed one in the picnic area along the main trail 100 yards from the visitor centre. She would, she said, “be amazed if I missed them”.

Such confidence always makes me nervous. And rightly so. I was in the car park at 7.30, after seeing Elk and Mule Deer on the drive up. By 9am, I was desperately searching around the lake. The weather was cloudy and cool, with patches of low cloud drifting across the trail and reducing visibility. Heaps of Yellow-pine Chipmunks and perhaps some Townsend’s Chipmunks too. As well as a couple of Pikas in the steep talus slope about 5 minutes before frozen lake (only the second time I had seen that species). But no Ground Squirrels, despite my very ostentatious rustling of food wrappers and noisy – ooh this food is so tasty – chewing.

No squirrels on the way back down either, whereas Cheryl had seen a couple cross the trail. So I decided to try 10 more minutes in the picnic area and wandered around squeaking my lungs out. Sure enough, at 9.45, I spotted a Ground Squirrel squeaking back on top of a picnic table. Thank you mammal gods. I was about to hang up my binoculars for good.

Callospermophilus saturatus

Callospermophilus saturatus 2
Cascade Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel

Finally! Though the weather was not great I am surprised that I didn’t see them more easily given Cheryl’s experience. I think this species must be a reluctant early riser and dislike anything but perfect weather. Perhaps they evolved in Palm Springs.

A big thanks to the help I got from Cheryl Antonucci and Dave Robichaud, as well as trips reports like Scott Flamand’s and Matt Miller’s. This community makes finding mammals much easier than it used to be!



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