Gophers: Cute Cuddly Critters, or Unwanted Pests?


Animals – Gophers – Images by Sean Phillips

I’ve been getting lots of contacts lately about my images of gophers. I think this is partly because it is spring on the prairies and these cute little critters are starting to appear again after a long winter underground. But I think it is even more so because they have been making the news a lot lately in Canada due to their recent designation as Pests in the Province of Saskatchewan. Inclusion in the province‚Äôs Pest Control Act means that it is now legal to exterminate these animals along with other pests such as Rats and Grasshoppers.

Although commonly known as gophers, these animals are officially called Richardson’s Ground Squirrels. They are often confused with Prairie Dogs, however that is an entirely different species. No matter what they are called they are very fun to watch and extremely photogenic. I have literally made thousands of images of these funny little critters and I’m always happy to make a few more!

The designation of gophers as pests makes me a little bit sad, because I really do enjoy watching them, but the simple truth is that the prairies are infested with these animals. In the areas where I roam I can scan the ground and see the typical grass and soil conditions in which they live and there are signs of their burrows everywhere. They are especially problematic for farmers because their burrows tend to collapse under the weight of the farm equipment, which can lead to significant damage and expensive repairs, and in areas where the population is particularly dense they can actually ravage the crops simply by eating. Unfortunately this is a man-made problem because our influence has allowed them to thrive on the prairie farmland in several ways: we grow lots of food, such as canola, that they love to eat; we till the ground which makes it easy for them to dig and survive; and we have significantly reduced the populations of their natural predators such as coyotes and foxes.

So does this make them a pest? I guess it does in the eyes of many. But I personally think that they are awfully cute and cuddly too, and I love to share my images of them!

Baby Gophers

Three Baby Gopher

I found a huge family of baby gophers today. They don’t really look all that different from the adults (especially in the pictures) but they really are much smaller. In fact they are less than half the size of a full grown animal, and very cute!

Although commonly known as gophers, these animals are officially called Richardson’s Ground Squirrels. They are often confused with Prairie Dogs, however that is an entirely different species. No matter what they are called they are very fun to watch and extremely photogenic. I have literally made thousands of images of these funny little critters and I’m always happy to make a few more!

Baby Gophers
Baby Gopher
Baby Gophers
Baby Gophers
Baby Gophers
Baby Gopher
Baby Gopher
Baby Gopher
Baby Gopher

Early Morning at Frank Lake

I was out for an early trip to Frank Lake to make images of birds during the spring migration and found this wonderful pastoral scene just before the sun rose. I love the solitary tree in the middle of the field silhouetted against the rising sun.

Panoramic Silhouette of a Solitary Tree against the Sunrise

It was a very calm and beautiful morning at the lake and there many landscape and close-up photo opportunities. These picturesque grasses jutting out of the calm and glassy smooth water were plentiful, and I could have spent the entire morning shooting similar images.

Marsh grasses mirrored in the glassy calm water

Frank Lank is a naturalized wetland that was saved by Ducks Unlimited Canada. It is now listed as an Important Birding Area (IBA), one of almost 600 such sites in Canada. IBA’s are sites “providing essential habitat for one or more species of breeding or non-breeding birds. These sites may contain threatened species, endemic species, species representative of a biome, or highly exceptional concentrations of birds”. At various times through the year Frank Lake is home to almost every wetland bird that you might see anywhere else in Alberta, and some that you aren’t likely to find anywhere else in Canada. It also has a large population of grassland birds as well.

I found lots of birds at the lake, but they weren’t very cooperative for photography. In fact there were more birds than I have ever seen there at one time. We are currently in the early stages of the spring migration and there were literally thousands of birds at the lake. This really is a great time of year to be a birder since so many of the ponds and sloughs are frozen over, water birds are forced to congregate in the few wet places that are already open. Frank Lake has several large areas of open water, but for the most part it is still frozen and so the birds at the lake were all massed together in those open areas.

There were many different species that will only be here for a few days or weeks before they continue their journey north. They really haven’t become accustomed to people watching them yet, and as a result I wasn’t able to get very close without flushing them away. I wasn’t able to make any of the really great portraits or close-up images that I had hoped to make; however, there were lots of birds flying around and so I spent lots of time making flight shots.

Bird flight photography can be difficult at the best of times. I was there quite early in the morning which meant that the light levels were pretty low. This makes for slow shutter speeds and lots of blurry images. I did end up with a few good pictures that I was happy with, but I also had to delete lots. This pair of Canada Geese circled low over me several times before landing on the lake. While Canada Geese are certainly here year round, there are a great many more here now than at any other time of year. Many of them are nesting already and clearly plan to stay.

Canada Geese in flight

Northern Shovelers are also very common at this time of year and they will likely be one of the last of the migrating ducks to disappear. Even they will only be easily found for a few weeks, so I was happy to make a couple of nice images. Once the ice has melted from the majority of the ponds and sloughs the birds that stay in Southern Alberta will become very sparse as they spread out across the prairies.

Northern Shoveler in flight

Goldeneyes are also year-round residents in the Calgary area, but there are many more here now than in the rest of the year. These birds are extremely fast fliers and it is very difficult to make sharp images of them in flight.

Common Goldeneye in flight

I didn’t have nearly the success I had hoped for with the birds, but I did find a large colony of very cooperative gophers. These little critters are actually called Richardson’s Ground Squirrels, but most people around Alberta refer to them as gophers (or sometime Prairie Dogs, but that’s definitely a different animal). Generally considered to be pests, especially by farmers because of the holes and tunnels that they dig wherever they live, they are also very cute. While not exactly friendly, they are very curious and as a result they end up being quite photogenic.

On my way back to the city I stopped several times to make images of the abundant pastoral scenery. I have lots of images like these in my portfolio, but I’m always drawn back to scenes like these and I can’t help myself when I see them…

Grain Bins and a Blue Sky

Farmland in the Spring