Friday, March 14, 2008

Dances With Coyotes

If you didn't already know, Kevin Costner's multi-Oscar-winning epic "Dances With Wolves" was filmed almost entirely in South Dakota. Costner still has a presence in the state, with his Midnight Star casino/restaurants and the Tatanka buffalo museum in Deadwood.

Wolves, however, do not live here on a regular basis. There have been a few rumors of some wandering into the western edges of the state in recent years, but basically they aren't here.

So the wild canines we do have are coyotes. They are spread across the entire state and populations are fairly high in some areas. That doesn't mean you are real likely to spot one, and even if you do it's harder to get one to stick around for a picture.

My dilemma is that the coyote is the state animal. Therefore my office needs a picture whenever we publish a list of the designated state symbols. That would go right beside the picture of the state flag, the Black Hills Spruce tree, the ringneck pheasant, the state sport of rodeo, etc. So, as the state photographer (not officially designated as such and pictured on the state map, but you know what I mean), I am expected to produce pictures of coyotes from time to time. Unfortunately they are much more elusive than the other state symbols.

As with lots of cool wildlife that we photographers would like to take pictures of, coyotes are most active at night. They are also usually pretty skittish around humans and seem to break into a full sprint as soon as they spot one.

With all the traveling I do across South Dakota, I do see coyotes in the daylight every once in a while. Not for very long, though. I have some pictures of them, but nothing I would call great. Each year I had thought about how to get better coyote photos.

I should explain that I am for the most part an opportunistic wildlife photographer. I am not the guy who spends days huddled in a blind or treestand waiting for critters to come to him. I also do not know how to use a call of any kind except making squeeking noises with my mouth. Most of my wildlife photos are unplanned, they just happen when I see an animal in a photogenic situation.

So, for 14 years, this was the best coyote shot I had been able to capture that wasn't taken in a zoo. Not that it's bad, but it could be better. I came across this guy and a partner hunting prairie dogs in Wind Cave National Park. It was late winter with not much traffic in the park and they stuck around for a little while before deciding my vehicle had sat in one place long enough and hightailed it across the prairie.

The picture above was taken with a 400mm on my Nikon D200 and cropped a little bit, so you can tell the coyote was out there a ways.

After all that frustration, imagine my surprise last fall when wandering the gravel backroads of Wind Cave again I came across this hungry fellow.

He was hunting grasshoppers and so focused on scaring them up, following their movements through the air and then pouncing on them that he didn't even seem to notice I was inching alongside him in a mini-van.

With an 80-400mm lens he was at times so close that I could only get a tight head shot.

I followed him for around 20 minutes, a ranger passed by and waved, and the coyote would look up occasionally, but then continue searching for a meal. He eventually crossed the road in front of me and trotted off over a hill.

So my advice for South Dakota coyote photos? Either put in your time in a blind and/or learn to use a call. Or just keep searching. Some day everything will just fall into place.

As you can tell, Wind Cave National Park is one of my favorite places for finding wildlife. Buffalo, antelope, prairie dogs, and sometimes elk can be spotted along most of the roads in the park. Two large prairie dog towns are located on US Highway 385 near the park headquarters, and one is along State Highway 87 at the Rankin Ridge fire tower turnout.

Prairie dogs are pretty used to people, but for other critters, staying in the vehicle will help keep them from fleeing the vicinity of your camera. Even though the van I was driving when shooting the coyote above had very squeaky brakes, he paid no attention to it. If I had stepped out, I'm sure he would have been gone immediately.

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