Behind the Image – Yellowstone Red Foxes

In February 2013 I was in Yellowstone for a week.  I was looking forward to photographing the wildlife – and, in particular, red foxes.  These animals are amazing hunters but they are also opportunists – like most animals they’ll take an easy meal over one they have to work for.  Yellowstone’s winter climate is unforgiving.  Temperatures frequently drop below zero at night and range from zero to 20 degrees during the day.  Life is difficult for the animals.  Those that die from the weather or illness provide an easy food source for other animals.

Most of the park is closed to traffic during winter but the roads are open between the North and Northeast entrances (this is from Mammoth to Lamar Valley). The rest of the park requires snow mobile or private snow coaches to get around.  I spent a few days at Mammoth, making daily trips through Lamar Valley and the surrounding area, and a few days at Old Faithful, getting around in a snow coach with a group of other photographers.

Photography is a combination of patience, luck and skill. A great image is created when all three come together.  While driving through Lamar I spotted an elk carcass about 75 yards or so from the road.  A carcass will provide food for a number of different animals – but there’s a pecking order.  In winter the wolf is at the top of the food chain.  When the pack is done picking at the carcass other animals will take their turn – such as coyotes and red foxes.

After finding a place to park I hiked up to a spot where I could get a good view.  A number of other photographers were already there.  Just as I walked up two of the photographers started “high-fiving”, laughing and saying something along the lines of getting the “shot of the trip.”  There was nothing there!  I asked what was going on and they explained that a Golden Eagle was feeding on the carcass, stopped, hopped up on the elk’s antlers and spread its enormous wings before flying off – all within about 30 seconds of my arrival.  Nuts.  I stayed for an hour or two and saw nothing but a few magpies.

The next day I returned and had better luck.  A red fox was feeding on the carcass.  It was really skittish – frequently jumping around and checking his surroundings.  It was nervous for a good reason:  a coyote was taking a nap in the snow about 25 feet from the carcass, curled in a tight little ball.  I didn’t even notice the coyote at first.  The fox paid close attention to the napping coyote but it was concerned with more than that one single coyote.  It would periodically stop what it was doing and look around.  It did this a few times, convinced he was being approached from all angles.

 (Doug Oglesby)

The fox worked all sides of the carcass, pulling meat from the bones wherever it could find it. He was working on the rib cage and stopped to look over his shoulder and check on the coyote.

A Red Fox checking the status of a nearby (and sleeping) Coyote while it feeds on an Elk carcass in Yellowstone National Park (Doug Oglesby)

Shortly the coyote awoke.  It immediately moved into an aggressive posture, arching its back like a Halloween cat.  Snarling, it moved towards the fox.  As you can imagine, the fox bugged out pretty quick, first running down the hill towards me and then taking off for good. The coyote didn’t pursue it.

A Coyote running off a Red Fox from a carcass in Yellowstone National Park (Doug Oglesby)

A Coyote and a Red Fox in Yellowstone National Park (Doug Oglesby)

The coyote now had the carcass all to itself and took advantage of the opportunity. Soon it decided to move down towards the road – towards me and a few other photographers. It stopped a few feet from the road off to our right, pulled a piece of meat from behind a bush, stepped on it and began gnawing on it. It then looked up – presumably at me or another photographer – and let us know in no uncertain terms that this was his food.

A Coyote protecting its food in Yellowstone National Park (Doug Oglesby)

After a moment it returned to the carcass then left the area a few minutes later. We were all alone again. With the magpies. But, this time I had a wonderful memory and some nice images to go with it.

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