Last October I asked my friend Bob, who works at the Conservation Department’s Rockwoods Reservation in St. Louis County, if he had seen any woodchucks on the area in recent weeks. “As a matter of fact I have,” he replied, “in the field right next to the visitor’s center.” My optimism was reserved because I had been frustrated so many times before when trying to photograph woodchucks, a species that is typically skittish around humans. Bob was confident that my luck was about to change.
The next evening after work, I stopped at Rockwoods on the way home to give the woodchucks a try. As I pulled into the parking lot next to the field, my eyes lit up at the sight of three woodchucks (Marmota monax) grazing in the short grass. As soon as I opened the door to my truck, the watchful mammals headed for the thick brush of Hamilton Creek, which meanders through the area. I thought, “Here we go again,” but forged on with my plan to set up my blind near the creek and train my long lens on the field for the rest of the evening.
I waited for almost an hour before the first woodchuck returned to the field. I watched through my lens as it slowly made its way toward my blind, almost close enough for an image. Next, I heard some shuffling in the leaves and turned around to see a second one coming up from behind my blind. Things were looking up. I returned to my lens to find the first woodchuck almost close enough for an image. I decided to wait for it to get a little closer because I knew the shutter click might send it back into the brush.
Unfortunately, this was a mistake because I suddenly heard a vaguely familiar sound, o-o-o, a-a-a, e-e-e, echoing across the field. Yes, it was that monkey sound from the old Tarzan movies, and a young woodchuck was demonstrating it very loudly to his buddies. I watched in desperation as he waddled as fast as he could, back into the brush.
At first, I was a bit aggravated at the disturbance but I began to think about my own childhood and how many times I made that same call among my friends. I was that little boy, a few years back, so I couldn’t fault him for his enthusiasm. Feeling better, I began to wait for a second encounter with what was quickly becoming one of my “nemesis animals.”
About 30 minutes later, the woodchuck returned to the field. All was quiet by then, the conservation area deserted for the evening. I watched intently as the wary mammal closed the distance between us. When I finally clicked the shutter, the woodchuck stopped for a second, took a closer look at my blind, and returned to grazing. After I had plenty of images in the bag, I decided to stick around for a while so I wouldn’t disturb the chubby critter during its supper. I owed it that much.
Learn more about woodchucks at mdc.mo.gov/node/980.
—Story and photos by Danny Brown
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