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The Sunflower Hill Chronicles, Part 5: A Slow Afternoon on Sunflower Hill

By Birgitta Jansen

April 28, 2022

The weather forecast on the radio tells me, “Partly cloudy and partly sunny in the East Kootenays; overcast in the afternoon.” Does this sound familiar? We’ve had quite a few days like it this spring. Nights are cool, often a little below freezing; during the day it’s warm in the sun but when a cloud is on the move, the temperature drops precipitously. I see people securely wrapped in coats and others in shorts and t-shirts. Raingear, windbreaker, gloves and hat are in my pack even today when the temperature is around 9 degrees Celcius. Mountain weather is changeable, no question about that.

Much to my relief, Campground Trail has dried up and the mud has solidified. Today I turn right on Jimmy Russell Road to walk up the Sunflower Hill Trail. A narrow shortcut connects the two and I follow it. As I trundle along deep in thought, my attention is suddenly pulled back into the here and now by a high, sharp peeping sound. Bird? But when I listen to the repeated squeaks, I realize that it has to be the alarm call of a Columbian ground squirrel (Spermophiluscolumbianus). My eyes search the hillside but all I see are piles of freshly dug sand. The Columbian ground squirrels are so ubiquitous in our area that we tend to take them for granted and most of us don’t pay them much attention. But the more I learn about them, the more impressed I am. They are truly remarkable critters.

A grassy hillside with several sandy piles excavated by ground squirrels
The Columbian ground squirrels are superb excavators. They each have their own burrow but tend to live in colonies. Photo credit: Birgitta Jansen.

The ground squirrels become active in our area in April, and later at higher altitudes. When the time is right, they tunnel up from their hibernation chambers.

The males surface first and spend their time fighting with one another to establish mating rights. A week or so later the females emerge and the successful males finally get to mate. Gestation is approximately four weeks. An average litter consists of two or three little ones. A month later, the young are weaned and able to venture out into the open air for the first time.

The ground squirrels eat roots, leaves and stems of a wide variety of wildflowers and shrubs in the colony’s area but never stray far from their burrows. Their burrows are remarkable feats of engineering. The ground squirrels excavate a main chamber from which other tunnels radiate with well-hidden entrances allowing for quick escapes.

A Columbian ground squirrel stands on its hind legs and nibbles on clover and grass
Columbian ground squirrels like their grasses and flowering plants, especially clover. Photo credit: Derek Ryder.

But summers are short, which means that the squirrels spend approximately 70% of the year underground in a dome-shaped hibernation chamber (hibernaculum). This chamber is lined with finely shredded grasses. They even excavate drainage holes to prevent flooding in the spring or fall. The males remain solitary whereas many of the females will have that year’s litter with them for their first winter.

The alarm peeps I am hearing are meant to warn all colony members. Apparently these animals have developed a superb communication system to let each other know what’s out there. There are many dangers, such as two-footed beings walking by or winged creatures in the sky. It’s interesting that I have seen the ground squirrels in other places but have never managed to see them here on Sunflower Hill. They are elusive, and with good reason. These squirrels are considered a tasty meal by predators such as coyotes, badgers, bears, hawks, eagles and many more. Their survival depends on a mad dash into a burrow, but they can’t always outrun a four-footed predator.

However, it is the two-legged creatures that present the most significant danger. These rodents are regarded by many as serious pests and they have been exterminated especially from agricultural areas, and in most of the interior range. But here on Sunflower Hill, they have found their place in this ecosystem.

A ground squirrel stands on a rock, alert to its surroundings
These animals have to be constantly aware of their environment and potential danger. Researchers have observed that they spent approximately 50% of their waking hours sitting upright. Like any other creature, they prefer not to be someone’s breakfast. Photo credit: Derek Ryder.

Other than the ground squirrels, this afternoon is turning out to be a slow amble with much time spent just looking and photographing various details. I notice that the larches, which are sprouting their bright little green tufts, have not made a lot of progress in the last few weeks. Is the temperature still a little too low or is there still too little sunshine?

The Balsamroot plants aren’t looking very good. No surprise that is. When plants are stressed, they seem to produce leaves just large enough to photosynthesize and sustain them but then put all their energy into the flower. Reproduction is the priority. The Balsamroot plants are small, the leaves are curled and withered around the edges, and only a few plants are attempting to flower.

Two yellow flowers rest on the ground with fairly wrinkled leaves
The Arrow-leaved Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) is struggling this year. Could this have been due to last year’s or this year’s less-than-favourable conditions? Or various challenging conditions? There is much we do not know… Photo credit: Birgitta Jansen.

However, the resilient dandelions brave whatever conditions befall them, much to the distress of many a gardener. But this spring, even their leaves are small, and the plants are not very tall. Still, those cheerful yellow flowers deserve some praise for brightening up the landscape. And many a child’s face has lit up when blowing on a ball of silver-tufted fruits and watching a cloud of silky little parachutes take flight with the wind. I must admit that I admire the plants’ tenacity and perseverance.

It’s just another slow afternoon on Sunflower Hill.

A closeup of a yellow dandelion flower
The dapper dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Photo credit: Birgitta Jansen.


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