Woodchuck Journal

By: Danny Brown

Nov 09 2012

Tags: , , ,

Category: Mammals


November 9, 2012

Over the past few weeks I’ve been photographing woodchucks (groundhogs if you prefer) at MDC’s Rockwoods Reservation. After logging 15 hours over three afternoons, I finally made some decent images. It all started when I ran across Bob Bryan, a friend and MDC employee. Somehow our conversation turned to woodchucks and how much trouble I’d had photographing them due to their wary nature. “I know where you can photograph some woodchucks,” Bob said, and he proceeded to fill me in on the details of a field at Rockwoods where he had been observing woodchucks grazing every day. I had a new mission and my account is as follows.

Day 1

I arrived at the field in mid-afternoon and the presence of two woodchucks grazing on the short grass made me think, “Done deal.” As I jumped out of my truck to begin assembling my equipment, both of the chucks high-tailed it for the woods, fat butts waggling back and forth with each awkward stride. I wasn’t too discouraged because I had a good feeling they would come back after everything settled down. I set up my turkey chair, which is basically a camouflaged beach chair, along a brushy, riparian thicket adjacent to the field. As usual, I covered my legs, tripod, camera and lens with cut-leaf camo which I attached to a couple of fiberglass tomato stakes with clothes pins. Some of you have been to my seminars where I demonstrate my equipment so you are familiar with the set-up I’ve described. About 20 minutes after I had settled in, the first woodchuck stuck its nose out of the thicket for a look. It kept watching me but continued to ease out into the field where it had been feeding. As it began to graze on the freshly cut grass it continued to look my way for any movement between each bite. It seemed to sense that something wasn’t right over my way so it never approached within camera range. After an hour or so, the woodchuck began to close in on my position as it became accustomed to my presence, but suddenly it waddled off into the woods in response to a jogger crossing the field about 100 meters away. It was thirty minutes later before it poked its head out of the thicket again and the entire process repeated itself until another distraction sent the fat chuck back into the woods. Each time the wary mammal ran off, I had to wait another 30 minutes before the next sighting. As the sun dropped below the trees on the tall hillside behind me, I accepted “Day 1” as a learning experience.

Day 2

This time I made my stand on a Saturday but quickly learned that the Rockwoods was “the place to be” on a beautiful, fall weekend. I assembled my chair-hide a little closer to the woodchuck’s favorite grazing location but still along the creek thicket. As before, I saw the stout muzzle of a woodchuck emerge from the woods after about 20 minutes. It finally made it out into the field and began feeding. I sat for almost an hour before I realized the chuck was close enough to photograph. I hadn’t taken any photographs up to that point because I didn’t want to scare it off with a shutter click unless that click would bring me a nice image. Just as I began to commit to capturing images I heard a noise out on the main road, “…..oo-oo-oo-ah-ah-ah-ee-ee-ee-whoof-whoof-whoof” coming from a young boy walking along with his parents. Well, my quarry didn’t appreciate the young lad’s Tarzan sounds one bit and all I saw in my viewfinder after that was a furry butt and a flared, bushy tail. It was getting late so I declared Day 2 a bust and headed back to the truck. I was a little upset at the kid at first but then remembered all of the crazy animal sounds I loved to make when I was a kid. I had been just like him.

Day 3

On the last day of my visits to the woodchuck field I brought my pop-up blind in hopes that the chucks would be less skittish. When I arrived at the field, it was full of school kids but I knew they were finishing up a morning field trip. I was eager to get started as I knew the woodchucks would be hungry because the school kids had been visiting the conservation area all morning. As the youngsters marched off to their school bus, I staked my blind and began the requisite 20 minute wait. Finally, a chubby chuck emerged from the thicket and took a long look at my blind before it eased into the field. It was over an hour before the woodchuck started working its way toward me, checking me for movement between every bite, as usual. After about an hour and a half I made my first image and the shutter click didn’t seem to bother the bear-like critter. Thirty minutes later I had captured the woodchuck standing on its haunches, showing off its huge chompers, and flaring out its bushy tail. My switch to a hunting blind and a lucky lull in visitor activity had finally rendered success in photographing one of the nervous woodchucks of Rockwoods Reservation. I packed up my equipment and headed home, thinking about the challenges of my next project along the way.

Canon 1D Mark IV; Canon 500/4 L IS with 1.4 TC; 1/100 sec at f/5.6; ISO 400; Aperture Priority; RAW Capture; Gitzo GT3530LS Tripod with Wimberley II Gimbal Head; Converted and Processed in Canon Digital Photo Professional (DPP)

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4 comments on “Woodchuck Journal”

  1. Capturing these shy animals needs a lof of patience and it’s one factor I point out, when people complain to me about “just going out, clicking the creatures, and then selllng the photos for high prices” :)))) what crystal clarity!

    • Thanks Deepa for realizing what really goes on out there. Also, I wish I could sell “more” images for “high” prices. That would be nice!

  2. I’ve been enjoying your email subscription for a while and your story has inspired a comment.

    At our old house, woodchucks were a real problem: digging giant holes under the garden shed, eating all the tender garden plants. Even approaching the house for snack on clover. I noticed they especially liked clover, which our somewhat over-grown yard had plenty. Woodchuck heaven? yes.

    One year we used live traps to diminish the population of critters, chuck, chuckette, and the little chuckles. Then we learned it was rather cruel to transport them to State parks miles away, especially at the end of summer or beginning of fall. They are territorial creatures and in the late season they have little chance of establishing a territory of their own.

    I don’t know, was it a “kindness” that our neighbor used his live-traps to drown the animals in his bathtub? At least they didn’t face death by hawks in unknown territory? IMO no. When his wife found out, the bathtub drownings stopped.

    But seeing a woodchuck in a live trap, likely not something you’d photograph, I was stuck by how fierce they are. Ever since, it is their large, strong, and dangerous claws which epitomize their nature for me.

    In subsequent years, I’d just run outside and clap or whoop at the woodchucks. They learned that nothing happened except a bit of noise, and though they still ran away they quickly returned to graze the clover. I could sit openly on the patio near the house and the chucks would come quite close. It never occurred to me to take pictures of them.

    At any rate, I’m wondering if you have a suburban neighbor like me who had “trained” the chucks to not be afraid? I’ll think if you do that you might manage to get a photograph of a woodchuck standing up and exposing his (nasty) claws.

    • Hi Tess — Great to hear from you and loved you account of your groundhog visitors. I did get a pretty nice shot of one on its haunches with the big claws but the light was a little on the harsh side for my taste. I often photograph urban wildlife at people’s homes after they contact me and the images usually look just as nice as the more wild versions of the same animals. After all, my lens pretty much blurs out everything but the narrow plane across the critter’s face. As always, thanks for following my posts. Take care.


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