My favorite coyote picture, taken over a year ago in January of 2012.
Coyotes have a complicated and controversial relationship with our modern world, and I’m not sure how this pack will fare now that subdivisions have replaced the meadows on the hills above the refuge. I seen them near the road sometimes as I drive into town before sunrise, but I see them as roadkill too. And there will be conflicts with barbed-wire fences and dogs and cats.
But on this morning, as it hunted for voles with its mate, and as a few snowflakes began to fall, all was peaceful. Only the three of us were around, and since I stayed quiet in my car, they let me watch at my leisure as they worked the the length of the dike.
A peaceful morning for me, if not for the voles.
When I visited Ridgefield a year ago during the winter, I discovered the refuge staff had slightly shortened the auto tour from when I had last visited, removing a bend on the back edge of Schwartz Lake. On the one hand, this meant the loss of some photo opportunities (for example, I once I photographed this young bald eagle drinking from the lake). On the other hand, if the road hadn’t been shortened I wouldn’t have been at the right spot along the meadow to photograph this coyote in the beautiful soft light of a Christmas afternoon.
As I pulled up to the observation blind at Ridgefield, I noticed this coyote standing a little farther up the road. It wasn’t in a very photogenic location, so I got out of the car and just watched it instead of trying for pictures. Eventually it sauntered up the road, occasionally turning back to watch me, before disappearing around the bend. I continued up the short trail to the blind and didn’t expect to see it again, but after returning to the car we met once more at the parking lot to the Kiwa Trail. I drove to the far side of the lot to get better light then gently swung the car into place so as not to disturb the coyote. After searching around in the meadow, it howled a few times, unanswered, then slipped through the gate across the trailhead and disappeared up the trail.
I’ve heard coyotes howl many times but this remains the only time I’ve seen it. While I took a number of pictures, this was the only one where its head wasn’t turned away from me.
This is another picture I edited after sorting through some old images, it was taken in April of 2006. I’ve had another image from the series online before, in that one the coyote’s head was raised further up in mid-howl, but in retrospect I like this one better where its head is turned into the light.
The picture above of a coyote hunting in the marsh is deliberately like this bittern picture, both taken at Rest Lake. The lake is the largest on Ridgefield’s auto tour and has water in it year round, but the marshy areas that ring the lake are my favorite places to watch. To survive in these areas is to avoid being eaten not just by coyotes and bitterns but herons and hawks and harriers and eagles and otters and mink and weasels and raccoons and snakes and bullfrogs and …
I knew it was going to be a good year for coyotes.
During a two week stretch in mid-to-late January, I saw a coyote pair frequently and took some of my best coyote pictures ever. But not long after I jammed up my ankle and took a two month sabbatical from Ridgefield. Even after the ankle healed, I’ve only been back to Ridgefield three times this spring with not a coyote picture to show for it. While it’s been an extremely wet spring here in the Northwest, many of the weekends have been sunny. The refuge gates are locked until well after sunrise and before sunset at this time of year, so the best light on sunny days is lost. And sunny days bring out the crowds, so I prefer to stay home and get in some extra hedgehogging.
I did see a young coyote on my visit a week ago. It was so close that getting a picture was going to be difficult from my angle without risking spooking it, so I just pulled over and watched as it hunted beside the road. But I saw a Subaru coming up quickly down the road, a car I recognized since we have one just like it. I knew they had seen the young coyote, and I also knew what was going to happen next. The coyote watched them approach and as they got on the brakes on the gravel road, the coyote bolted at the sound.
In the real world they weren’t going fast at all, just Ridgefield fast, and even a tolerant coyote won’t tolerate that.
This adult is one of the pair that I watched with such success in January, it’s coat drenched on a wonderfully wet winter’s day. And I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about cars anymore, but this is why I’ve been on the hunt for a quiet car. When I’ve worked to earn an animal’s trust, the sound of the gas engine firing up feels like a betrayal of that trust.