Friday, January 29, 2016

When the Barometer Falls....

Coyote Morning                    24 January 2016

Coyotes on the Saint Croix River's ice flows

Nature has no set rules, but there are certainly patterns.  Hunters mind those patterns well.  Nature's best hunters follow patterns instinctively, responding to deep genetic memory, need, and the learned and earned opportunities of a life in wild. As a nature photographer, hunting with a camera, I often learn to match my favorite subjects stride for stride, growing restless when animals grow restless.  I have become a hunter with a diverse palette, learning the biology of many species, feeling the opportunities change with seasons, weather, and subtle shifts in the way light plays on the landscape.  I go by feel, go with my gut, just as my wild photo subjects do.  In my pursuit, I am like the animals.

Unfortunately, there is a certain problem in being a human tuned in to natural patterns.  A single human artifact keeps getting in the way.  It is the calendar.  When the air is just right, when the wind has shifted and a weather system is perched just twenty hours away, the whole of nature cries out to me that I should cut loose and run.  All too often, the calendar has played its cruel joke. I am usually blocked in and must place my focus on duty, responsibility, and the commitment to the human endeavors to which I am promised.  Just every once and a great while, those urgencies of migration or mass movements in the wild suddenly correlate with my freedom.   In those moments, I find myself completely immersed in the natural environment, both witness to and fully part of the natural moments as they unfold.  I find myself to be very much alive.

The 24th of January came together beautifully.  More than a week before, my good friend Bruce had discussed an artistic vision with me.   He painted a vivid picture in my mind of a fox or perhaps even a coyote immersed in a rich aesthetic of wintry ecology.  While the image Bruce painted in my mind seemed like a beautiful dream, I also had a strange and confident feeling that we would somehow make it a reality. In my spare time, I focused my scouting efforts along some of my favorite haunts until I found an area with a lot of carnivore track sign and a lot of promise. Two weeks earlier, I had seen bobcat tracks, and now the consistently strong presence of fisher tracks, fox tracks, and coyote tracks boosted my adrenaline. The lay of the land promised more.  Not only did the landscape present me with a stealthy approach, but the pure beauty of the area promised unique and interesting art forms.  Even without a coyote, we could make some unique images.

Mammalian predators are challenging subjects for nature photographers. I have seldom done well in my attempts to make artistic images with them.  But I have discovered a few consistent truths.  Of them, one truth seems to stand out.  When the barometer begins falling, many predators get up on their feet.   As a coyote lives by its feet, so too will I.   While the forecast called for freezing fog and snow with a sky of pea-soup gray, I kept my focus on the falling barometer.  Any challenges with light would be offset by the promise of opportunity.  Bruce and I followed that falling barometer like hungry coyotes.

We slipped through the forest as the first morning light gathered in muted tones of snow-white gray. We crossed fisher tracks and coyote tracks, coming upon fragments of deer rib matted into snow at the edge of a frozen sedge marsh.  Pressing on through oak, black ash, and maple, we soon reached the place of our focus.  While I felt optimism, I stopped to show Bruce a consolation prize.  If we struck out today, we could return to photograph the snowflakes delicately perched upon mosses.  We cautiously moved the last fifty yards toward a frozen bay.

The pictures tell the rest.  Those specific events that followed our arrival to the bay may not be the most eloquent or interesting story, but there are a few things that stand out strongly in my memory.  What follows is the story of what was learned and what may become part of a nature photographer's toolbox.

As we sat in the snow, we focused our lenses on a family group of Trumpeter Swans.  Five swans occupied an open stretch of water, and their bathing and flapping behaviors were plenty interesting.  Of course, we also anticipated otters.  The otter slides were everywhere.  But here, at this favorite spot, I make a habit of looking far, far, far off into the distance.   This is a wide open sort of place, and animal behaviors, even observed without hope of photography, are great teachers.   We had only been on the bay for a couple of minutes when I spotted a coyote.

The coyote was alone and more than a half mile away, but it kept coming in.  We sat still and watched its approach.  Soon it was within range for photography, but as we readied ourselves, we saw five, perhaps six more out on the river ice.  We kept an eye on the five but focused on the single coyote, now trotting between lanes of open ice and open water.

 When the first set of photographs had been made and that first coyote was gone, we slinked along the shoreline until we reached a narrow point of land jutting out into the river.  To our delight, the local otters had used the point for many days as a place for rolling and drying.  They had stripped much of the snow from the grasses, and, much to our benefit, they had rolled their strong musk scent onto every blade of brown grass.  We had the best scent cover on the river, and five coyotes remained in plain view.  We still had not been detected.  For long stretches of time, the coyotes bounded and played on the open river ice, but every now and then, they trotted in very close to shore.

Maybe it was dumb luck.  Maybe we had tuned our skill sets just that well. For certain, the otters had helped us. We had bested the best set of senses on the river.  For the next two hours, we watched and photographed coyotes at play, coyotes at work, coyotes in love, and coyotes both near and far.  Mother Nature put on a spectacular show with atmospherics, ice flows, and long stretches of contiguous foggy forest. When the last coyote had trotted off into the forest, Bruce and I fell to our backs in the pungent otter stench. Legs and feet numb from our enduring crouch, we lay on our backs, faces to the snow flakes. We laughed and celebrated, feeling thankful and full of life.  It was a great day, mostly because the barometer was falling--mostly because the coyotes knew it and we knew it too.

All images were made with a Canon 7D and a Canon EF 400mm f5.6 lens mounted to a Gitzo tripod and an Induro ball head while sharing the day with Bruce Leventhal.  Bruce and Tamy Leventhal are phenomenal photographers. Check out their work at   

May there be more days with no calendar and a falling barometer!