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Wild Side — Photographing Wild Canids in Winter (full story)

©John E. Marriott
Coyotes, Jasper National Park, AB
Gear/Settings: Canon 5D3, 500mm lens, ƒ5.6@1/1250 sec., +1 EV, ISO 1250

Story and photography by John E. Marriott

Regardless of where you live in Canada, winter opens up a new world of wildlife to most of us photographers — both in terms of the weather we have to deal with and the ways in which we can find our subjects. Many of the hardest yet most gratifying animals to photograph throughout the year come from the canid family: foxes, coyotes and wolves. And fortunately for us, winter makes finding and photographing each of them a little easier than it is at any other time of year.


For three seasons from spring to fall, most of our wild canid encounters happen by luck. We drive down a road or are hiking along a trail and voila, a coyote appears and we get off a flurry of shots in a few brief moments of excitement. However, once that snow starts to fly, the ability to locate these animals is made considerably easier if you know what you’re doing and how to look for them.

The first key element in finding foxes, coyotes and wolves is to educate yourself on what their individual tracks look like, including the gait, and to learn which of them may be found in the area you’re exploring. It can often be tough to tell a wolf track from a large dog’s track, for instance, so study the subtle differences and be prepared to ID Rover’s tracks from his wild cousins when you’re in the field.

Once you have your basic identifications down-pat and have outfitted yourself for the cold weather, tracking wild canids is one of the most rewarding pursuits there is for a wildlife photographer in the winter. I begin in the dark each morning, driving remote roads that I think may be fruitful. Sometimes that means driving hundreds of kilometres before coming across an interesting set of tracks. Once I have found tracks, I note their location and the direction of travel and try to determine how fresh the prints are (taking a tracking course from a local trapper or outdoor enthusiast can be well worth your while). In summer, you would never have a clue you were missing a wolf by half a minute on a back road, yet in winter, fresh snow lays out a quilt-like calendar that tells you what’s around, when it was around and what direction it could be headed. It’s like someone telling you three of the six numbers in a lottery before the balls get drawn — you’re not guaranteed a win, but your odds of a great encounter grow exponentially.

©John E. Marriott
Wolf pack, Banff National Park, AB
Gear/Settings: Canon 5D3, 500mm, ƒ5@1/500 sec., +1 EV, ISO 2500

I try to plan my trips in winter so I can spend a number of days in a row in a spot looking for wildlife. This allows me to keep tabs on each road or trail or riverside in the area and check them regularly for new tracks. It also means that if I do discover a set of fresh fox tracks leading to the north along a road late one day, I can try to pick up the fox the next day in the same location.

When I do encounter a fox or coyote or wolf, I tend to remain in my vehicle and shoot out of the window, using my car as a blind. While this is not critical with foxes or coyotes, it’s a big difference maker in getting good wild wolf shots. Many wolves are used to seeing cars and trucks and will not react the same way to a vehicle stopped and motionless on the side of a road as they would to seeing a person step out of the vehicle. For this reason, it’s important to pull over in a safe spot and turn off your vehicle as quickly as you can, then wait for an opportunity to develop (and don’t forget to roll your window down first or open up your sunroof so you’ll be able to get a shot without having to restart your car).

Because it’s cold outside during our infamous Canadian winters, I usually drive around with my heat off for most of the time (yes, you read that correctly). This accomplishes two things: one, it freezes your buttocks suitably to the seat (which is not a good thing) and two, it means that if you do get a split second with a red fox out of the car window, heat waves rushing out of your vehicle won’t ruin your shots (which is very much a good thing). Similarly, because it’s white outside throughout the winter, I always have my cameras set to at least +1 exposure compensation and then adjust accordingly if I’m photographing a coyote in a vast white expanse or if I happen to run into a black wolf or cross fox, or get fortunate enough to fill the frame with a tan-coloured coyote or a grey wolf.

©John E. Marriott
Red fox, Flin Flon, MB
Gear/Settings: Canon Mark IV, 500mm, ƒ4@1/400 sec., +0.3 EV, ISO 1600

The best areas to look for wild canids are in parts of our country that don’t allow hunting or trapping — ranging from national parks like Jasper and La Mauricie all the way down to the small local parks in our towns and cities that often have healthy coyote and fox populations. I’ve also had a lot of luck along highways that don’t allow hunting off of them, like the Alaska Highway in northern British Columbia or the Trans-Canada Highway in northern Ontario.

Put these tips to use at the next fresh snowfall, and get prepared to capture some of the best images of your wildlife photography career of foxes, coyotes or wild wolves.

To read more of this not-to-miss issue please pick up the Winter 2018 issue today online or at your local newsstand. To never miss an issue you can subscribe here

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