American Dirt Baller

By Chuck Graham   |   June 25, 2024
Looking for wildlife… crickets… oh wait, a spider!

It was another 2:30 am wake up call to drive from slumbering Carpinteria out to the Carrizo Plain National Monument. I was chasing another breathtaking sunrise in partly cloudy weather, another hopeful moment with whatever grassland fauna revealed itself.

Although it would’ve been real easy to sleep in, wildlife waits for nobody. It would’ve gnawed at me if I hadn’t risen at zero dark thirty. 

Maybe these will lead to somewhere good…

After arriving, from 6 am until 10 am I searched for dens, mostly hoping for kit fox burrows. There were a pair of loping coyotes, a small band of pronghorn antelope, and about 200 tule elk browsing between Soda Lake Road and the seemingly barren Temblor Range. I saw five types of raptors, and three species of owls. After five miles of poking around on the Carrizo Plain, I tried some locations that in past years bore fruit.

I tried an old dirt road that for the last four years had been reliable for burrowing owls, occasionally sharing their den space with frenetic California ground squirrels. 

Recently the road was closed to vehicle access, but foot traffic was permitted. It’s now an addition to the Carrizo Plain Ecological Reserve. As I walked the muddy route, there was plenty of long-tailed weasel spoor etched in the mud. As I moved along, I inspected any visible mounds for kit fox possibilities. Mostly, I was scouting around for sites to return to at a later date.

I didn’t see any burrowing owls, but it didn’t mean they weren’t around. There were plenty of ground squirrels though, and they let me know about it. 

I scanned with my binoculars, maybe the most important tool I have for successful wildlife spotting on the Carrizo Plain. I hiked all the slopes off the road and studied every mound, every burrow. Nothing of significance stopped me in my tracks. 

Hiking southwest, where in the past I’d seen at least a dozen burrowing owls sunning the afternoon away, I followed a rolling ridge overlooking Soda Lake to the northeast. There was water in the alkali lake, but it wasn’t brimming following the winter of 2022/23.

As patchy clouds swept over the Carrizo Plain and the Temblor Range, I spotted a mound of dirt that appeared like no other. The dirt was pushed up and out, and it was freshly dug, the soft loam a tad darker than the surrounding earth.

Do you see any wildlife buddy?

I decided to give it a try, but I wasn’t totally prepared. Sure, I had my binoculars and camera, but I didn’t have a warm jacket or gloves, no water. I wasn’t far from my other gear, maybe a half mile, but I was afraid I might miss an opportunity, so I decided to deal with any discomfort. Temps were in the 40s, but when clouds blocked the sun, it got a little frigid.

It was well worth it. A male American badger emerged maybe 10 minutes after I concealed myself in low-growing grassland flora. Except – he exited the other end of its den, 40 feet west of me. He didn’t see me as he enjoyed summersaulting in freshly excavated dirt, his fur a rusty color from rolling repeatedly in the reddish earth. Then, he rambled through the low growth toward the other entry closest to me.

When he arrived, he sensed something was askew, and dove into his den –  reemerging within seconds. He was looking right at me, but he wasn’t seeing me. He actually dozed off a few times, no doubt enjoying the warm, sunbaked earth. Then he would come to, raise his head, and gaze my way, never appearing alarmed.

Twenty minutes passed, and then he was down for the rest of the day. I waited another three hours, but I got too cold and had to move.

The entire time, I scanned. There were lots of ground squirrels standing at attention like fuzzy centurions on the plain. I even walked into an unsuspecting burrowing owl. They better watch it, the ultimate dirt baller smells all and hears everything.  


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