By Colleen Gara
It was one of those winter days where the snow was falling heavily, the wind was blowing and the visibility was poor. A perfect day to stay inside beside a warm fire with a mug of tea and a good book. So what did I do? I grabbed my camera and headed to the mountains! Ha-ha!
After a few long hours of driving, I made it to my destination. I didn’t have any particular agenda for the day but I hoped that with the freshly fallen snow I would have a good chance of spotting something. Fresh snow is awesome for several reasons. First, it can provide a beautiful backdrop for wildlife images. Often the white stuff will help eliminate background distractions letting the animal shine in the image. Snow can also enhance the look of the animal you’re photographing, whether it’s the snowflakes accumulating on an animal’s back or antlers, or the way they stick to the animal’s fur, changing their appearance. Snow can also be great at giving you a day all to yourself. There have been so many days when I’ve headed out in poor weather and had the best wildlife encounters because the masses are gone and I’m often left alone with the animal I’m watching or photographing. And best of all, freshly fallen snow is amazing for helping to track wildlife.
Actively looking for tracks and other signs of wildlife is an important part of wildlife photography and it’s easiest (at least I find) in the wintertime. Locating prints, figuring out what type of animal made them and how long ago can be a lot of fun. It can teach you a lot about the animal and their travel patterns. In winter, I’m constantly looking for tracks and recording where I’ve seen them and how often, so that in the summer months I’ll have a better idea of where to find the animals. As I’m driving, I’m constantly scanning the sides of the road and the ditches/hillsides for fresh tracks. When I’m out hiking or snowshoeing, I’ll do the same and always be looking for signs. I love being able to tell which types of animals have been in a particular area and it’s so exciting to find fresh tracks to follow. One of the hardest parts of wildlife photography is actually finding wildlife so being able to discover and identify tracks can be extremely valuable.
So back to this particular day, I was out driving, scanning the roadside for tracks, when I spotted a set of small tracks running alongside the road. They continued on for a bit and then veered off up a small hill, disappearing into the woods. I pulled over to investigate and discovered that they were fresh fox tracks (you can tell by the size, shape, gait (straight line), and claw marks). I quickly gathered my gear and headed off into the forest. It was still snowing heavily but the temperature was decent and after walking for quite awhile I was starting to really warm up. It was such a beautiful day, completely silent and peaceful. I followed the prints as they weaved in and out of the trees and finally came to a small meadow. And there, off to one side in amongst the bushes was a gorgeous adult red fox.
He glanced up at me and I quickly shifted to statue mode – standing completely still. I made sure not to make any sudden movements or sounds. The fox looked at me for another few moments and then thankfully turned his attention back to the snow in front of him. I slowly sank down and sat and watched as the fox listened for signs of prey from deep under the snow. His head would tilt back and forth, ears twitching, hearing sounds that we as humans would never hear. He stood like this for a few minutes and then suddenly pounced into the air and then crashed into the snow, burying his face. I watched as he emerged with a vole in his mouth. Interestingly, rather than gulping it down in one bite, he trotted off with it still in his mouth. I slowly got up and followed him, making sure to keep a good distance back. I watched as he went into a different area of the forest, stopped, and then started digging a hole in the snow. He dropped the vole into the freshly dug hole, and then used his nose to push snow over it, covering it completely. Then he was off again. I followed. A few minutes later, he stopped. Again his head twisted slowly back and forth, ears twitching. Then a giant pounce, and another vole. This time I thought he would eat it for sure. But no – again he was off and ended up burying it in a different area. I watched this fox do this several times, each time catching the vole and then caching it in the snow for a future meal. It was amazing to watch.
I chose this image to share as I think it shows the fox’s active listening and attention to the vole deep within the snow. I also really like the snow that is accumulating on his beautiful fur (especially on his tail). This day was one of my favourites, not only because I always love seeing foxes (anytime, anywhere), but because my tracking had paid off and I got to witness some really interesting animal behavior as a result. Next time you get outdoors, I highly suggest looking for and studying animal tracks. Find them, study them in detail, and photograph them. Even feel them – often touching the track can give you additional information you may miss just by looking at them (i.e. feel the number and size of toe impressions etc.). Tracking adds a whole other layer to the enjoyment of wildlife photography.
If you already enjoy wildlife photography, or are interested in pursuing wildlife photography, I really recommend investing in a quality tracking book (this is the one I use the most!). They’re a fantastic resource and provide tons of valuable information about the wildlife you’re photographing (or hoping to photograph). Often these books will not only include information about wildlife tracks, but also about trails, animal scat, and prey. I recommend keeping the book with you (or at least in your car) so that you can easily reach for it when you need help identifying tracks you’ve seen. It’s quite hefty so I don’t carry it with me but I always have it tucked away in the glovebox of my car. I never leave home without it!
Colleen Gara originally wrote this article for our private online photography community here at OFFBEAT. There are dozens more where that came from. If that sounds like something you like the sound of, sign up for our community!