Have you ever wondered what it is like spending an entire day at a badger den? Well, you’re about to find out.
Last summer, Jill and I received a tip about a hole in the ground halfway along the gravel road into Yellowstone’s Slough Creek campground. It wasn’t any old hole, it was, in fact, an active badger den.
Already stationed at the other end of the park, Jill graciously agreed to get up even earlier than normal so that we could make it to the den site before sunrise.
The drive was stressful. I seconded guessed the decision the entire way. What animals were we missing to chase badgers, notorious for changing dens as frequently as people change their shirts?
But, alas, the stress was for not. Upon arriving at the den site, one cub was peeking out of the hole, informing me the badgers hadn’t yet picked out their new real estate.
In fact, from a photography point of view, they couldn’t have chosen a better location.
A few feet from the road, photographers gathered on the opposite side, to ensure the badgers had their space, while still allowing us to get close enough to one of the most fascinating mustelids around.
Unless you’re fortunate enough to find a den, most badger encounters last mere minutes – or sometimes, only seconds. With the den, you have the rare opportunity to sit still and see what activity comes to you.
And I love me a good animal stake-out. Waiting out wildlife is always my preference as nothing is worse than aimlessly driving, hoping to luck upon a sighting.
Yes, the wait can be long and painful, but if the location is almost certain to pay dividends – like a den or a kill – it’s almost always worth the wait.
For me at least.
What are the sacrifices of animal stake-outs?
Usually it involves the aforementioned wait. Long waits. Day long waits.
In this case, the action was intermittent, but just often enough to make you wait for the next show. And though the time between the action gradually became longer, the tease of what you might see also grew stronger.
How can we leave now? What could happen when the sow returns from hunting? What if we can get photos of the entire family together?
Of course, for me, the biggest pull was the light. While the cub was out in decent light upon our arrival, it quickly disappeared and by the time it showed its face again, it was high light, with its harsh shadows and washed out colours.
But even the bad light encounters were worth watching. Especially when the sow made her first run in-bound to the den, with a mouth full of uinta ground squirrel.
The cubs raced into the hole to receive their mother and the labours of her hunting adventure. Normally, once the badger cubs have fed, there wouldn’t be a need to hunt again.
Not with these badgers.
Almost as soon as she arrived, she re-emerged and was off to find more food.
It’s around now that I should mention two interesting events that would occur each time the sow would go hunting.
Firstly, there was a couple from Nevada who were both photographers. They would make semi-frequent runs for the washroom or for food or to stretch their legs. But every time they returned, within one minute, the badger would come back with her prey. No word of a lie.
It was so bizarre, I doubt anyone would believe it if there weren’t a handful of photographers around to witness the strange phenomenon.
Secondly, the badger would take different routes hunting on each excursion, but whatever route she chose, Jill had to be blocking it. Also bizarre and also equally true.
Not having a tripod, Jill moved around and no matter where she moved, that would be the path the badger would want to use. And as we learned during a previously unfortunate event, you don’t want to block a badger on the war path.
Over the course of the day, the sow caught an unbelievable 14 squirrels. Her two cubs clearly would not be going hungry on this day – or, by the look of them, any day.
The sow did disappear at one point for almost five hours. We suspect she was digging a new den. Or maybe she went to a badger dirt spa. She earned it.
She did meet a new friend along the way – from a distance we noticed her tag teaming/hunting with a coyote. Though we never saw her succeed with the coyote, it offered further evidence that Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley is a strange little pocket of the world where badgers and coyotes actually help each other.
I’ve witnessed this interesting alliance six times now over the last two decades, and I know many other photographers who have seen it first hand as well. The coyote will dig while the badger blocks the backdoor exit. Then they’ll switch. Always being fair and alternating positions once someone gets a meal.
When the sow was at the den, being able to record the cubs at play with their mom was priceless.
We got to see those famous badger teeth…
…and thankfully they weren’t aimed at me.
We saw loving looks (and why wouldn’t you be loving if your mother fed you what has to be a world record of 14 times during daylight)…
…and joyful embraces.
It was incredible. Or mostly.
Aside from those long waits, from dawn to dusk we got to enjoy the pleasures of standing next to a gravel road. We weren’t just dusty, we could have gone out as a gravel road for Halloween.
We didn’t eat. Not a meal. And while Jill walked to the bathroom, I was too paranoid to leave the den, fearing I’d miss the action. So I tested my bladder for 15 hours. Probably too much information.
Oh, and did I mention there was a marshy area roughly a 100 yards behind us? Though the day started out cold, it got very hot, without a cloud in the sky. And it wasn’t just the horrible sunburn that made the heat painful, it was also the mosquitos it helped spawn.
All of this is to say, Jill is an incredible trooper. And I’m borderline nuts.
But what made it all worthwhile?
It could have been this…
But no. It was when a car pulled up to ask if we were seeing wolves. When all of the photographers – about a dozen exasperated individuals – replied in unison in the negative, the gentleman asked what, then, were we doing?
I think I told him we were waiting for a badger.
Like the one behind you, he asked?
You’ve never seen twelve people turn around so fast. Or jump so high.
Standing directly behind us, with three dead squirrels in her mouth, was the sow. We had no idea it was there. And it was almost like the badger was trying to figure out a way through without us noticing. Yet the moment we turned and jumped, the badger knew it had been discovered and freaked out. It did a mad dash to the left, then the right and then, finally, right through the crowd – nearly splitting the uprights (Jill’s legs) in the process – before crossing the road and diving into the den.
Everyone lost a year of their life in that moment. And the most shocking part? Twelve cameras and not a single photo was taken of the best moment of the 15 hour day.