Updated information on finding some of Californnia’s Chipmunks
Back in 2015, before Venkat Sankar was a household name, he sent me this useful post. Likely written by him during an elementary school recess.
Venkat just provided some updated information so I wanted to share this again. Particularly appropriate given it is almost Halloween: “What chipmunk is this?” may be the most terrifying question any mammalwatcher will ever be asked. Unless of course you have been on a trip with my daughter and heard “How much further are we walking?” . At this point you know all hope is lost.
A great spot for seeing Siskiyou Chipmunk (and probably more accessible than both Oregon Caves and Grayback Road) is Church Tree Road near Crescent City, CA. Just drive to the end of the road, park and watch the feeders at the house on the right; they should be pretty easy to find.
2023 Update: Siskiyou Chipmunks are another narrow endemic, this time far NW CA/SW OR. The best field sites for this species are in the Oregon Caves area of the Siskiyou Mtns. But chipmunks in Jedediah Smith SP & Church Tree Rd are very likely this species as well (I say very likely as this population hasn’t been sampled RECENTLY, only in the 70s I think). A different subspecies from those in Oregon Caves though – here you have the low-contrast, brown coastal ssp. humboldti. BTW I wouldn’t ID townsendii group chipmunks of coastal NW CA on basis of pelage as ochrogenys, coastal Allen’s (N. senex pacifica), and coastal Siskiyou (N. siskiyou humboldti) are externally identical. Pelage converges as they occupy really similar habitats, despite being different species (based on bacula). So no ochrogenys in Del Norte.
Very easy to see on the road across South Fork Mountain (locally called Forest Route 1); it is a 2 hour drive between Mad River and Horse Mountain and pretty good for all kinds of mammals (Black Bear and Western Gray Squirrel especially). If you don’t want to do the whole thing, they are easy to find near the start of the road at Horse Mountain Saddle.
A good site for this species is the dense Ceanothus/Manzanita chaparral and scattered Ponderosa pines around the area where Friday Ridge Rd intersects with 299 in the Trinity River Canyon. Just drive up Friday Ridge Rd from 299 a little (less than a mile), park in a pullout, and walk the road. If you squeak, you should be able to get decent looks as they dash from the dense vegetation. I found a couple within a minute of getting out of the car.
2023 Update. Muir Woods is way too crowded these days and I’d recommend trying other places. For example there are great sites for this species in Pt. Reyes e.g. Five Brooks and Bear Valley trails. The catch is you’d best to go in May-Oct, when Bobcats are harder to see in the park.
Easier in other places but if you want this species in NW California, the top of Forest Route 1, especially near Blake Mountain in the Red Fir forest is quite good. Squeaking and sharp eyes while driving should yield sightings.
This drab lurking species can sometimes be tricky to find but the picnic area in the California Federation of Women’s Clubs Grove in Humboldt Redwood SP is a very reliable spot; they should be easy to hear squeaking in the maples and you should be able to track them down from there without too much trouble; they often frequent the tables looking for food.
2023 Update. Yellow-cheeked Chipmunk is a narrow endemic found roughly between Jenner (Sonoma Co.) and Ferndale (Humboldt Co.). Endemic to the coastal zone, and often associated with redwoods. Per comments from Karen Reiss (who studies chipmunks of NW CA at College of the Redwoods) to have this species 100%, you want to look well to the west of the S Fork Eel River. The best places are immediately along the coast e.g. Albion/Little River/Russian Gulch, Gualala, Petrolia, etc. It starts to get hazier as you go inland toward the Eel but to me at least, chipmunks of Bull Creek Flats area of Humboldt Redwoods SP should still be ochrogenys. E of the S Fork Eel out to Alderpoint & N along the main stem to Rio Dell you get into an intergrade zone between ochrogenys & senex. This would include Cal Federation of Women’s Clubs grove, Hidden Springs, etc. so my earlier post ought to be corrected on this basis.
2023 Update: this species is really struggling in CA with the impacts of climate change. It needs permanent water and pinyons, which are both contracting in the desert. Barker Dam in JTNP was the traditional site, but it’s much harder there now. The stronghold these days is probably pinyon-juniper woodland on the desert slope of the San Bernardinos e.g. Cactus Flat/Baldwin Lake and Pioneertown. That’s probably the last area in CA where N. obscurus is BOTH common & the sole chipmunk present. Idyllwild is much more complicated than I’d realized back in 2017 – sorry to lead you astray there. Long story short, both merriami and obscurus are in that area (confirmed by studies on bacular morphology & vocalizations at Black Mtn back in the 70s when the species were split). Apparently they separate somewhat on habitat, with Merriam’s in the dense chaparral and California in the more open, rocky pine-oak woodland. Which is the habitat around the nature center. But, in retrospect given that these are cryptic species I was probably naive to oversimplify things like that. I wouldn’t ID a chipmunk seen there to species either way now. As a side note, be careful with iNat as there are a lot of incorrect/optimistic chipmunk IDs floating around.
2023 Update: I can confirm that Saddlebag Lake remains a good site for this species, as of 2020 at least. The problem is, as you point out, there are Lodgepole Chipmunks there too. N. alpinus is basically restricted to above tree line; speciosus out-competes it below. So chipmunks on the S, N, and E side of the lake will almost always be speciosus. To see Alpine Chipmunks, you have to search carefully on the W side of the lake ONLY, where it’s all just bare talus with no conifers. The chipmunks are shy and hard to photograph (typical of this species), but with patience you get decent views. Gaylor Lakes/Gaylor Peak is another good area to try.
Some other mammals in Northern California
Finding other mammals in this part of the state is tougher, but a couple of notable things I thought I’d mention are: 1) Tolowa Dunes SP is probably the best place in CA to see North American Porcupine – the trail between Kellogg Rd and Yontocket is the best site, but they can be seen pretty much anywhere (Cadra Point, Pacific Shores, etc.); and 2) the road between Hoopa and Red Cap (Big Hill Rd, becoming Red Cap Rd in the Six Rivers NF) is I suspect the best place in the west to try for Fisher – a biologist I know sees them regularly while driving the road doing fieldwork and once saw 3 in a day (on one pass of the road)! I tried to get in touch with some people regarding Sonoma Tree Vole, but didn’t get any info.
A little known recreational trail (Stagecoach Hill Azalea Preserve) near Big Lagoon is a great place to see Western Red-backed Voles at night. In June 2014, the forest floor was full of various fungi and if you walked around at night on the trail quietly, listening for rustling/scurrying, you could track the voles down. The forest is dense Sitka Spruce with a relatively sparse understorey and lots of decaying matter. It’s also a reasonable spot for Northern Flying Squirrels, but you need to be lucky (or put in a lot of effort).
To get there, drive up Kane Rd just N of Trinidad/Big Lagoon and after 0.5 mi turn left at a junction. I’m not sure if the sign is still there but there should be a poor (but short) gravel track that will take you to a small parking area in the spruce. Just take the trail there.