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Timing is Everything

San Joaquin Kit Fox...sort of

The San Joaquin Kit Fox is one of the rarest mammals in North America, having the great misfortune of being adapted to the dwindling habitat of California’s Central Valley. What was once a great arid grassland is now largely a world of farms and pastures; most of the native species (like this small fox) are endangered.

Few photographs exist of this shy, nocturnal animal – a fact that has prompted me to spend a considerable amount of time tracking them in southern California over the past two years. On this expedition I am working with camera traps to try and capture their behavior in the dark when they are most active. But camera traps are, as I have pointed out in previous posts, challenging tools. You will probably have seen stunning pictures of rare animals taken with camera traps in National Geographic and elsewhere – including those by a couple of the masters: Nick Nichols (tigers) and Steve Winter (snow leopards).  What you don’t often see are what constitute the vast majority of camera trap photos: the “mistakes.”

Wild animal movements are unpredictable, which is a good thing. But this simple fact also makes setting up a camera trap a challenge. The best pictures usually grow out of some predictable behavior in a known location – a regular feeding spot, a narrow, well-used forest trail, or a breeding den. Just placing a camera out in the open will, as you can imagine, almost never result in a decent image.

However, even having a regular location doesn’t guarantee a good picture. There are still many variables: the direction of your subject’s movement, the speed of travel, the distance from the lens, and the limitations of your camera to recycle quickly. Anyone who has worked a lot with camera traps will tell you the same thing: they take TIME.

In this case, I knew the foxes used this area, but wasn’t sure when or how, so I set up the trap, choosing a good background.

In one night I got two pictures : one of him coming into the frame from the left – out of focus. Then it took almost 6 seconds for the camera to take another shot, the one you see here. To me it has an evocative feeling of a mysterious, nocturnal animal – but oh yes, I’d like to get his face in the shot.  So I’ll make some adjustments, change a few settings…and try again tonight. Wish me luck.

Nikon D300 with 18-200mm lens