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January 23 • 07:11 AM
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Six more weeks of ...well, winter?


Area groundhog researcher shares insights into legendary marmot



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February 01, 2012
GOODLAND TWP. — Though it hasn't been much of a "winter," if anyone would be able to predict what kind of weather the next six weeks holds based on the emergence of a groundhog, it would be Susan and Joe Sam.

Groundhogs literally abound on their Brown City Road property, which includes several acres of woods, manicured yard and flower beds and fields.

The area around their home has become something of a wildlife habitat—a habitat in which groundhogs not only survive, but thrive.

And in their role as observers of the furry creatures' behaviors and lifestyles, the Sams have become messengers for the often misunderstood marmots, delivering their revelations through stunning up close views captured on hours and hours of video filmed over the past eight years.

Tomorrow, Susan will present their stunning photos to students at Chatfield Elementary in commemoration of Groundhog Day. It's a presentation she looks forward to doing every year.

"Most people get a glimpse of this stubby looking animal darting across the road," Susan says. "They're really fascinating creatures and are far more complex than anything I've ever read, so I feel I'm sort of their spokesperson."

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‘Little One’ soaks up some October sun in preparation of a long winter’s nap.

Susan says that's not an easy role, considering that most people dread it if they spot the burrowing animals around their homes.

Still, every year thousands tune in as the world's most famous groundhog 'Punxsutawney Phil' emerges from his burrow to predict how much longer winter will last.

Though his accuracy is up for serious debate, Susan has firsthand experience with the whole emergence/prediction process. In 2010 one of the groundhogs hibernating in a burrow on their property emerged on February 7th. He was spotted again—and filmed—on February 12.

"That was the earliest we've ever seen one come out of hibernation and guess what," Susan chuckles, "we did have an early spring!"

She says she has no idea what to expect this year, but as always will have her cameras waiting and ready to capture whatever occurs. She and Joe have filmed more than 280 hours of wildlife activity on their property—some of which is growing in popularity on their You Tube channel—chuckland 2009.

They've also created a website, woodchuckwonderland.com, which garnered attention from Pangolin Pictures, an award winning documentary filmmaking company.

"They were working on a documentary for National Geographic for Groundhog Day," Susan says. "I received an e-mail that expressed interest in using some of our stories to feature."

Unfortunately, the project remains up in the air, as the last communication Susan received was that Pangolin was still awaiting word from National Geographic regarding their interest.

That's unfortunate, because the Sams professional quality DVD production entitled 'Groundhogs 2005-2010' offers remarkable footage of groundhogs in their everyday lives. Dotted with stunning images of other wildlife—deer, wild turkeys, red fox and colorful birds—the DVD is both insightful and delightful to watch. Joe Sam serves as the narrator.

"He has a wonderful voice and I'm very proud of the outcome," Susan says. "It was quite a trial to do it, but we're pleased with the outcome."

The equipment required for the high quality production was purchased locally at Radio Shack.

"The biggest challenge was to keep everything really quiet in the house," Susan says. "Sometimes our cat is not very cooperative in that area."

Despite the challenges, Susan says the work in and of itself is rewarding. Through one woodchuck she's been documenting since 2003, Susan says she's been given a rare glimpse into its life and life cycle, and there is much information to share.

"I noticed that the more I watched this animal and compared it with the material written, I said to myself 'this isn't what I'm seeing,'" she says. "I want to share my information which is different, and helpful."

What started as simple, inquisitive interest has become one of Susan's passions.

"Maybe one of the reasons is because I'm married to a Vietnam veteran and the kinds of things that were misunderstood about them is troubling," Susan says. "This gets to me, and I feel I might be able to change it."

According to the website www.groundhogday.org, the Groundhog Day tradition began with Pennsylvania's earliest settlers, the Germans.

"They brought with them the legend of Candlemas Day, which states 'For as the sun shines on Candlemas day, so far will the snow swirl in May…' The settlers found that groundhogs were plentiful and were the most intelligent and sensible animal to carry on the legend of Candlemas Day," the website states.

Groundhog Day was first celebrated in Punxsutawney in the early 1800s. It remains a much anticipated tradition.

Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.
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