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Arctic Foxes

July 11, 2018

Dogs have been starring a lot in my photography these past few months. By dogs, I mean of course the wild and various members of the canid family - from the red foxes of south London to the enigmatic wolves of the Abruzzan mountains. On a recent trip to Svalbard I had the pleasure of observing another charismatic species which is unique to the far north tundras - the Arctic fox.

 

The best time to see this secretive scavenger is in the early summer when the snow is melting, as it still has its white winter coat which stands out a mile away. Nevertheless the Arctic fox can be tricky to find in the vast open tundra as it can cover large distances in a short time. With the risk of wasting time searching in vain, not to mention the serious risk of running into a polar bear, our best chance of seeing one was to find a breeding bird colony and hope that a hungry fox might find it too. 

As luck would have it, our group had booked a week's stay in a timber lodge next to an eider duck colony precisely for the purpose of photographing these foxes hunting. Even so we never thought we'd arrive at 2am, straight off the plane, to the sight of a fox taking eggs right outside our kitchen window!

Sacrificing warm beds for our cameras, we spent the whole of that first night watching with grins from ear to ear as she hunted within feet of us. She gave us truly wonderful moments to look straight into her intense orange eyes.

One eye was scarred, maybe a result of a fight with another fox, and her brown summer fur, tattered in places, was starting to come through.

Between 2 and 8am we saw her take over 40 eggs. She never ate any on the spot, preferring to stash them away in various places for when she'll have cub mouths to feed. Eggs buried in the snow can last as long as a year without losing any significant nutritional value, so some of these eggs will also be crucial to her survival next winter. 

It was amazing to see how fearless and opportunistic she was, so focussed was she on her egg hunt. She even chased after geese on occasion, although why she did this I don't know, as Arctic foxes normally go for smaller prey such as lemmings and hares, and would be unlikely to go for a goose let alone its oversized eggs. 

It was hard to predict where she'd arrive from because she had so many hiding places for her eggs. Sometimes she approached the eggs from above, slowly creeping down the hillside, which allowed for some nice images with the historic coal-mining town of Longyearbyen in the background. 

With regular midnight visitations from the fox, I felt like I'd got a decent spread of portraits and behavioural shots. But what was really missing was some tense interaction between the fox and the eiders. This was the story after all that we had all seen night after night. It had been surprisingly difficult to get everything - ducks, eggs and fox - all in one frame. Not to mention I also wanted the huskies which kept an anxious eye out from their kennels.

Luckily on our last night the fox varied her routine, passing in front of the husky enclosures and through the middle of the nesting colony, which tied the different strings of the story together. 

Without doubt one of the greatest photo - and animal encounters - I've ever had the fortune to have. This truly charismatic fox stole our hearts that week and I hope one day I'll return again to the realm of the Arctic Fox.

 

 

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