by Jeff Goulden
When my daughter was in college near Pittsburgh, I spent many days roaming the backroads of Western Pennsylvania, enjoying the rural countryside and rolling woodlands. One day I happened upon the small town of Punxsutawney, northeast of Pittsburgh. Punxsutawney is typical of the small towns in Western Pennsylvania. It's a quaint town in a small river valley surrounded by rolling hills. Gobbler's Knob is one of these hills and it's where the locals and tourists celebrate Groundhog Day every February 2nd. According to legend, Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog emerges from his burrow on this day and if he sees his shadow we are in for six more weeks of winter. If he doesn't see his shadow, there will be an early spring.
The whole premise of a groundhog being able to predict the weather was intriguing so I decided to drive up Gobblers Knob, look for groundhogs and check things out. Along the way I passed a group of wild turkeys (gobblers) which seemed promising considering I was on Gobbler's Knob. Reaching the top of the knob I drove into a large park that's used for the Groundhog Day celebration. There was nobody around to answer questions and I didn't see any groundhogs either. Information on a sign said that Punxsutawney Phil and his "wife" Phyllis actually lived back in town at the library. So back to town I headed and found the library. Sure enough, I was able to see Phil and Phyllis from the outside of the library through the viewing window. Disappointed that I was unable to see a groundhog in the wild, I left town and continued my travels.
Years later, when I started selling my photography through Getty Images and Istockphoto I noticed a sales trend. Every January there would be a sudden spike in volume, especially in pictures of marmots.
Puzzled by all the sales of marmot pictures, I decided to find out how my pictures were being used. After a few Google searches I found that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had used my picture of an Olympic Marmot to represent a groundhog. That got me thinking. The groundhog must look a lot like a marmot. Obviously, it was time for more research.
Marmots are large furry members of the squirrel family. They are about the size of a small dog. I see them a lot and photograph them when I'm hiking. Marmots typically live in burrows dug from the soil or within rockpiles. They hibernate in their burrows through the winter. Marmots are highly social animals and may be seen in families. To communicate, they whistle loudly, especially when alarmed.
In my home state of Washington we have three distinct varieties of marmot. The Hoary Marmot (Marmota caligata) lives in the Cascade Range, the Olympic Marmot (Marmota olympus) is endemic to the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula and the Yellow-Bellied Marmot (Marmota flaviventris) dominates the "desert" of central and eastern Washington. Marmots are mainly herbivorous. Their diet consists of grasses, berries, lichens, mosses, roots, and flowers.
Groundhogs (Marmota monax), also called woodchucks, land-beaver or whistle-pigs are a very close relative of the marmot and are similar in size and appearance. As I found out, it is very easy to use a picture of a marmot and call it a groundhog.
I've given up looking for groundhogs these days. However, when I am hiking in the mountains, I always enjoy listening for marmots and watching their antics among the rocks and meadows.
More pictures of these fascinating animals can be seen in my Marmot Gallery. Signed fine art prints from many of my photographs are available for purchase on Fine Art America. For special offers and to follow my photographic journey please Join My Email List.
Jeff's Photo Blog
In this Photo Blog I have combined my 50 year passion for photography and my love of the natural world, creating a portfolio that reveals nature in its pure and simple beauty. I am pleased to share my passion with you through this blog.