Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

Hunkered Down - Columbian Ground Squirrel

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In the Field

Hunkered Down - Columbian Ground Squirrel. Findlay Creek, BC, Canada. May 4, 2023.

This spring I'm traveling a little less than in recent years. This has given me some extra time in April and May to do something I've wanted to do for quite some time - shoot the local wildlife found on our property. I've had a few little photographic projects in mind for several years and I'm quite enjoying pursuing them.

One of the projects is to photograph our Columbian Ground Squirrels (nope, they're NOT "gophers"). I've always found these colourful and chubby ground dwellers interesting...and getting eye-catching shots of them is really challenging (and darned good practice). Like with any animal, the more time you spend with them the more interesting they become. No...they're not as charismatic as a grizzly bear or wolf, but to my mind they are still worthy wildlife photography subjects!

After a little gear experimentation I found that the absolute best lens to use with them (on my Z 9) is the Z Nikkor 400mm f2.8S. Not only are its two "built-in" focal lengths (400mm and 560mm) pretty much perfect for the working distance with (and size of) the ground squirrels, but the ability of the lens to isolate subjects at wide apertures is also immensely helpful. I'm mostly shooting these squirrels right at ground level and have found the tilting LCD pretty much indispensable in getting the shots I want.

Along the way on this little project I've decided that coming back as a Columbian Ground Squirrel in my next life wouldn't be such a bad thing...especially if one has a bit of a lazy streak to them. They're only active for about 4 months per year - they spend the rest of the year in deep hibernation. The adult males enter hibernation the earliest - often in early August ('s safer down in their burrows than it is up above!). And they're certainly not early risers - the ones on our property don't come out of their burrows until between 0800 and 0830 in the morning. Very civilized wildlife photography! Once up for the day they appear to do two main and keep an eye out for predators (i.e., they perform "vigilance behaviour"). If you can avoid becoming a meal for a badger, coyote, or hawk it isn't such a bad life!

Here's a larger version (4800 pixel) of this young Columbian for your perusal:

Hunkered Down - Columbian Ground Squirrel: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 3.8 MB)


1. These images - in all resolutions - are protected by copyright. I'm fine with personal uses of them (including use as desktop backgrounds or screensavers on your own computer), but unauthorized commercial use of the image is prohibited by law. Thanks in advance for respecting my copyright!

2. Like all photographs on this website, these images were captured following the strict ethical guidelines described in The Wildlife FIRST! Principles of Photographer Conduct. I encourage all wildlife photographers to always put the welfare of their subjects above the value of their photographs.

Behind the Camera

Hunkered Down - Columbian Ground Squirrel. Findlay Creek, BC, Canada. May 4, 2023.

High Efficiency* Compressed RAW (NEF) format; ISO 160.

Nikon Z 9 paired with Z Nikkor 400mm f2.8S with TC engaged (560mm). Hand-held (with front of lens supported on small bean bag). VR on in Sport mode. 3D-tracking AF area mode with subject detection on "Animal".

1/800s @ f4; -0.3 stop compensation from matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

Hunkered Down - Columbian Ground Squirrel. Findlay Creek, BC, Canada. May 4, 2023.

Initial noise reduction and sharpening on the .nef (raw) file using the DeepPRIME XD algorithm of DXO PhotoLab 6.5 Elite.

Subsequent adjustments to the adjusted linear DNG file (exported from PhotoLab 6.5) and conversion to 16-bit TIFF file (and JPEG files for web use) - including all global and selective adjustments - made using Capture One Pro 23. In the case of this image there were no global adjustments. Selective local adjustments performed using Capture One Pro's layers and masking tools. In this case selective adjustments were made on 9 separate layers and ALL were under the general umbrella of "exposure balancing", with one or more targeted selective tweaks to contrast (a levels adjustment) brightness (mid-tone exposure), clarity (mid-tone contrast), the highlights, blacks, and whites.

Photoshop modifications were limited to the insertion of the watermark and/or text.


Hunkered Down - Columbian Ground Squirrel. Findlay Creek, BC, Canada. May 4, 2023.

Species Status in Canada*: This species is not designated as at risk.

The Columbian Ground Squirrel (Urocitellus columbianus) is the second largest member of the 13 species found within the genus Urocitellus - only the Arctic Ground Squirrel (Urocitellus parryii) is larger. Within Canada Columbian Ground Squirrels are found only in western, mountainous portions of Alberta through to the interior of British Columbia. Those that haven't already emigrated from the United States reside in the mountainous portions of western Montana through to central Idaho and both northern and eastern portions of Washington.

Studies of Columbian Ground Squirrels in Alberta found that they hibernate around 250 days a year, with only 69-94 days of activity observed. The amount of time active varies depending on local climate as well as variations in behavior of animals of different sexes and ages.

Columbian ground squirrels live in colonies distributed discontinuously throughout their range. They are " of the most vegetarian of all the ground squirrels". In the early part of the season, they primarily eat succulent fresh vegetation. When the vegetation grows more tough, they are inclined to eat more grains and seeds.

Mammalian predators of the Columbian ground squirrel include the Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos), Coyote (Canis latrans), Pacific Marten (Martes caurina), Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) American Badger (Taxidea taxus), weasels (both Mustela and Neogale sp.), and Mountain Lion (Puma concolor). Predatory birds include the Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), and goshawk (Accipter gentilis).

*as determined by COSEWIC: The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada