Wildlife tracker for a day seeks ordinary California Ground Squirrel (and so can you!).
On a bustling Friday afternoon near the bluffs of Santa Monica beach, I crouched down, iPhone camera in hand, waiting for the creature rustling in the bushes to poke its head out so I could snap a photo. When I heard scurrying in the opposite direction, I leapt up and rushed to the railing, but by the time I hit the camera button, all I could see was its long tail disappearing behind the cliff. The creature I was tracking wasn’t a rare species, as passersby might have assumed; it was, in fact, an ordinary California Ground Squirrel.
I was attempting to partake in a community science program, the Southern California Squirrel Survey, which enlists members of the public across the region to upload photos and details of their squirrel sightings to a site called iNaturalist, in an effort to keep track of native and non-native squirrel populations. The Survey was started in 2011 by Miguel Ordeñana and Jim Dines of the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. Opening up the tracking to members of the public provides scientists with more data points than they would be able to collect alone, as well as access to areas such as backyards that would otherwise be excluded from their research. After scrolling through adorable photos of fluffy squirrels that others had uploaded, I decided to become a wildlife tracker for a day.
The two most commonly observed squirrel species in Southern California today are the Eastern Fox Squirrel and the native Western Gray Squirrel. The Eastern Fox Squirrel is thought to have been introduced to California by veterans of the Civil and Spanish American Wars who moved out West in the early 20th century. Because it reproduces more quickly, has a more wide-ranging diet, and is generally more adaptable than its Californian counterpart, the Fox Squirrel has multiplied widely, while Western Gray Squirrel populations have dwindled.
Scientists are trying to keep track of the magnitude of this population decline and its causes. At this point, the Eastern Fox Squirrel invaders are not the greatest contributor to the decline of Western gray Squirrel populations — there’s development to blame for that.
That’s where animal trackers like Ordeñana, who famously discovered the mountain lion known as P-22, come in. The Squirrel Survey was born of Ordeñana’s desire to get the community involved in animal tracking. “Once people are more aware [of their local wildlife], people become more connected to nature and feel that even if it’s a human dominated landscape, like an industrial neighborhood, that it’s not just about the people, it’s also about coexisting with wildlife,” he says.
Ordeñana thought squirrels would be the perfect species for a community science survey, given that they are out during the day (whereas many other mammals are nocturnal), they live in places where many people can come into contact with them on a daily basis, and they are charismatic, cute animals.
As my desperate attempt to get a picture at the beach indicates, I underestimated how hard it would be to track squirrels. This is a critter so commonplace that I’m sure I see them every day, in trees outside my window, running across someone’s lawn, or tight-rope walking along telephone wires as I drive by. But of course the one time I set out to look for squirrels, they eluded me.
I first embarked on my squirrel scavenger hunt the day before the beach debacle. I opted against the easy route of venturing into a natural space like a park or hiking trail, inspired by Ordeñana’s words about noticing nature within the urban ecosystem. Squirrel sightings on Sunset Boulevard or Melrose Avenue seemed unlikely, so I chose a safe middle ground: off-the-main-road neighborhoods in Santa Monica, where there are plenty of trees and grassy lawns. Novice community scientist that I am, I predicted that I would spot at least ten squirrels within the first hour of my walk.
I meandered along sidewalks, staying hyper-observant and being sure to look up into every tree I passed. Once half an hour passed without a single squirrel sighting, I started to question my memory. Do I actually see squirrels on a regular basis?
Several times, I got my hopes up when I’d hear a rustle in the bushes, but each time, without fail, it was only a bird. Squirrels had always felt commonplace to me. But now, the prospect of a squirrel sighting felt like striking gold.
I walked around for another hour and a half with no luck. So I threw in the towel for the day and decided I needed a different approach.
The next morning, I had my first squirrel spotting, under less than ideal circumstances. I was driving in Beverly Hills, when the current object of my obsession emerged from the bushes. My excitement soon turned to panic when the squirrel darted in front of the car in front of me, just barely dodging the wheels.
In all the hubbub, I couldn’t tell what species of squirrel it was, much less take a photo, so this encounter wasn’t going to be of much help to science. Oh well, I thought, I may not have gotten my data, but at least the little guy emerged unscathed.
Later that afternoon I got the idea to try the beach in Santa Monica. A memory popped into my head of sitting on a cliffside bench, trying to read but being distracted by what seemed like dozens (but was likely just a handful) of squirrels doing a weird but adorable army crawl on the grass nearby.
Now I was waiting at a traffic light, and from across the street, saw a little furry animal crawling on its belly on a little patch of grass. I tapped my foot impatiently, not taking my eyes off the creature for a second, and sprinted across the street as soon as the light turned green.
I snapped photos as I approached the squirrel, which was hanging out by an abandoned pair of sneakers and some Reeses wrappers. I wanted a closer shot, but the squirrel scurried away into the bushes.
Somehow both defeated and encouraged (I had finally caught a squirrel on camera, however blurry the picture might be), I approached the fencing along the cliff. Lo and behold, there, on the other side in a patch of bright purple flowers, were two squirrels. One seemed to be eating something and the other darted down the cliffside. I snapped the closest picture I would get on this trip.
Finally, heading back to my car feeling accomplished that I could now upload a data point to the survey, I saw another squirrel doing its army crawl on a patch of grass. This sighting, too, left me with nothing but distant, grainy photos.
When I got home, I opened the Southern California Squirrel Survey page on iNaturalist. I have to say, I was a bit embarrassed by the quality of my photos. There was only one I deemed good enough to upload on the site. Then I selected the option to “Add Observation,” and a field at the top of the page asked “What did you see?” I looked at photos of squirrels online and decided that this one looked a lot like a California Ground Squirrel, so that’s what I wrote. The site also gave me the option to write notes about the sighting. I wrote: “There were two ground squirrels on the bluff, eating something I couldn’t see. The second squirrel darted down the cliff before I could snap the photo.”
My favorite part of the site is its map, which allows you to drop a pin on the spot where your sighting occurred. My fortuitous sighting became one small red dot in a sea of red dots.
The next step in the survey process is for community members to verify your sighting. One day after I posted my listing, I received an email that another community member had added an identification to my observation, confirming my suggested Fox Squirrel identification, which updated the status of my listing to “Research Grade.”
Seeing my observation online with the taxonomic name Otospermophilus beecheyi at the top (am I a real scientist?!) made me proud. And because I was participating in the survey, walking around places where I might have found myself on an ordinary day was enhanced by my increased awareness of the natural ecosystems integrated within urban environments. I saw how the squirrels interacted with the people strolling along Ocean Avenue and made their home among discarded sneakers, and I developed a greater admiration for this critter I usually take for granted. Participating in this project made me feel as though I had a stake (however small) in the fate of Southern California’s squirrels.
Ordeñana has a suggestion for others interested in tracking squirrels. “Both ground squirrels and tree squirrels exist in Southern California so make sure to look both up in trees, power lines and other high up places in addition to on the ground,” he says. Ordeñana also affirms that low quality images (such as the majority of mine) won’t be a problem. “The beauty of community science is that the photos are not meant for Instagram or an artist portfolio,” he says. The squirrel simply needs to be identifiable in the photo. And to avoid blurry images, try getting as close to the animal as possible and avoid zooming in too much.
If squirrels aren’t your thing, there are other community science wildlife tracking projects in Los Angeles, including the Backyard Bat Survey and Snails and Slugs Living in Metropolitan Environments (SLIME).
“Nature is for everybody and nature is everywhere,” Ordeñana says. Community science not only provides tracking projects with more data, but also, it allows non-scientists to learn about the nature around them and see Los Angeles’ ecosystem in a new light. And despite (or maybe because of) its challenges, tracking wildlife is fun!