Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Fascinating Yellow-bellied Marmot

A yellow-bellied marmot stands alert in front of Palouse Falls.
Marmots, or “whistle pigs” as they are sometimes called, are large squirrels.  These mammals burrow underground and hibernate during the winter months.  They are highly social animals that use loud whistles to communicate with one another, especially when alarmed.

Here in Washington State, we are fortunate to be home to three different varieties of marmots, including a unique species found nowhere else – the Olympic marmot.  The Olympic marmot resides at middle elevations on the Olympic Peninsula.

In the Cascade Range, one can find the hoary marmot at middle to high elevations.  While they can be found almost anywhere in the range, one of the most popular places to view them might be Mount Rainier National Park.

Central and Eastern Washington is home to the ever-popular yellow-bellied marmot.  This is the widest ranging marmot, seen throughout most of the western United States and southwestern Canada.  It is commonly seen at lower elevations such as steppes, fields and higher up in alpine meadows.

A yellow-bellied marmot stands alert in the early morning light at Palouse Falls State Park, Washington.I recently enjoyed photographing yellow-bellied marmots while visiting Palouse Falls State Park.  I find marmots in general to be very fun and entertaining to watch.  As already mentioned, they are highly social animals and also very curious.
Not much patience is needed if photographing them in a large concentrated area.  Even if they scurry off to hide, their curiosity always seems to bring them back out to check on things in short time.  Of course, if you are in an area where they have grown accustomed to people, they may have little fear of you and even approach you (this would suggest they are being fed by people, which is never a good idea and I would highly discourage others from doing so).
As for most wildlife photography, soft light works best.  This can be found on cloudy days, or in early morning or late evening on sunny days.
These images were captured with a 70-200mm 2.8 lens and 2x teleconverter at F9.  I like this aperture as it keeps the entire animal in focus while blurring the background for less distraction.  Using a 2.8 aperture setting, for instance, will often blur part of the subject as well (e.g; the nose will be in focus but the hind feet not be).  An aperture setting of F32 will bring everything near and far into focus, and often distract the viewer's eyes from the subject.  Of course, it all comes down to personal preference and what you are trying to achieve.
A yellow-bellied marmot peaks out from behind some rocks with Palouse Falls in the background, Palouse Falls State Park, Washington. Palouse Falls State Park offers the opportunity to photograph the marmots while using the falls as a backdrop, adding an interesting element to your composition and helping tell a story.  The best place to do this is long the trail that explores the cliff edge above the falls, just a short walk from the campground and picnic area.  There is no fence along this section and a slip and fall would be disastrous if not fatal, so be careful!

Along the paved path in the developed area of the park (and fenced!) is another great place for close-ups of these critters, as there is a den with a large family (as of this writing) of 7 or 8 - many young and playful.  They are found just the other side of the fence, and very close.

One word of caution about this area - it is rattlesnake country!  Keep alert while walking the paths and walk "heavy" by scuffling your feet periodically.

There are many other places in our state to view these animals as well.  Hikers and backpackers will find them most everywhere on and off trail in our mountains.  But if you are not a hiker and want some easily accessible places to view them, some places I recommend are Paradise and Sunrise Visitor Centers at Mount Rainier National Park, Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park,  Artist Point in the North Cascades, and almost any rocky, open area in eastern Washington (such as Palouse Falls!)

A yellow-bellied marmot stands atop a rock in Palouse Falls State Park, Washington.When photographing wildlife, make sure you take some time to simply watch and enjoy their behavioral habits as well.  This is important.  The more you understand them, the more your photographs will tell their story and not just be a snapshot.

I hope to have more wildlife images up on my website again soon.  Please feel free to check it out at

Thanks for looking!

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed your article! They are such cute little creatures. - Lenette