Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

F-4 Phantom

F-4 Phantom
F-4 Phantom

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Coyotes

Coyotes and prairies just seem to go together. Most coyotes I’ve seen over the years are half starved scraggly looking critters. Very few ever look reasonably healthy, but, a few years ago I encountered a family of these interesting canines while visiting Oklahoma’s Tallgrass preserve. They were the most beautiful coyotes I’ve ever encountered.
     It was late spring, but quite warm as the summer season was approaching. That area doesn’t receive all that much rain even during a wet season, but that year it was particularly dry with considerably less spring rain than normal. I had spent the better part of the day hiking around taking a few pictures and simply enjoying just being out and amongst this marvelous landscape. As the last half hour of the day began to settle toward its final farewell, I hiked about four hundred yards to the top of high grassy knoll. My intent was to watch and hopefully capture one of those legendary prairie sunsets as it played out across the rolling panoramic that spread out in front of me. This was my pre-digital days and I was still shooting film and by this time in the day my film stock was beginning to run low. I had maybe eight or ten images left that I could take.
     About a quarter mile to the south ran a dry creek bed than cut across and through a lower section of the landscape. It was characterized by steep banks and rocky soil…and because it had been so dry that year…very little water. As I sat on that grassy knoll, I happened to notice some movement along that creek bed. With my lens zoomed all the way out I could just make out three coyotes as they worked their way along the edge of the creek. Too far off to effectively take any pictures, I tried to keep an eye on them with the camera and lens but within a few minutes lost sight of them.
     The sunset progressed over the next ten or fifteen minutes to the point where the sky was beginning to turn golden. I isolated a few cone flowers against the sky and snapped a few shots. I was down to maybe two or three images remaining when I again noticed some movement south of me only this time it was closer…a lot closer. About fifty yards away on the edge where that grassy knoll dropped off more steeply to the south stood one of those coyotes standing broadside staring at me through the tall grass. Thirty or so yards away from that one stood another one facing me his head held high to see over the edge of the knoll. As far as I knew, neither one of us had seen the other until that moment. The light was really low by this time, but I grabbed my camera hoping to get to use the last couple of images to capture these guys. I snapped off a couple quick shots just as they both scampered off. In their haste, I spotted the third one trailing not far behind.
     I’ve never before seen coyotes that were as impressive as these. Their tawney coats were magnificent and full with dark brown and black blotchy areas across their shoulders and neck accenting the lighter buff and reddish color of their undercoat. Their heads were big and eyes were keen. Their bodies appeared larger than most ordinary coyotes.  For a moment I thought they might have been a family of Red Wolves, but the Red Wolf is extinct in Oklahoma now and has been for over 50 years; their habitat destroyed, and numbers decimated by the misguided theory that predators were bad and should be shot on sight or poisoned. By 1930 their numbers dwindled to but a scattered handful in two locations…the Ozark/Ouachita Mountain area of Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri, and along the wooded areas of southern Texas and Louisiana…and in many cases they actually inner bred with coyotes producing a larger hybrid. Fortunately, a few of the remaining Red Wolves were captured and they have undergone a captive breeding program since the late 1980’s and have been reintroduced into suitable habitat in North Carolina. Maybe someday, they will return to Oklahoma.
     Because of their size and color, the coyotes I encountered certainly appeared to have some of that Red Wolf genetics in their makeup. In my heart I wanted them to be Red Wolves, but realistically, I understood the probability of that was very low. I continued watching them for several minutes as they trotted off toward the setting sun in search of their evening meal…a couple of times along their route they stopped and looked back at me before moving on.
     Unfortunately, the quick pictures I took were not very good…blurred as the light was very low…so I don’t have any images to share. Even so, the mental images I have of these magnificent creatures are still vivid and alive.
     Coyotes are one of nature’s most successful and adaptive critters…much more difficult to get close to than one would think. As I continually return to the Tallgrass Prairie I always hope to encounter a few more of these guys. On my last visit I managed to catch sight of and hear the howls and yelps of a family of four or five.  Not sure if they were from the same group, but it was in the same area. 

In my mind’s eye I still hear the coyotes howl at dusk, and visualize the ghosts of the Red Wolves as they drift across the prairie.  Anyone out there with their own coyote encounters?...I'd love to hear your stories and see any photographs you may have.

No comments: