Moving Slowly to Capture the Swift Fox

Moving Slowly to Capture the Swift Fox

Photographer Michael Forsberg is a patient man. A very … patient … man.

This trait came in extremely handy during an assignment to photograph swift foxes in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland in western South Dakota. Forsberg visited the prairie lands multiple times over a three-year period to capture images of the tiny canids, which are about the size of a house cat.

This involved an extreme amount of lying and waiting in photo blinds—small, camouflaged tents that he could barely sit up in. He would enter the tent before sunrise and stay there until the sun went down, sometimes even spending the night. And he very rarely shot photos.

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“They don’t like human presence, so you have to let them come to you on their terms, not the other way around.” Photograph by Michael Forsberg

An excerpt from his field notes:

Conata Basin, Buffalo Gap National Grassland, South Dakota.
Agate west and Agate hillside den sites

  • 5:00 am. Summer solstice. Rain and no sunrise. Winds out of the north 20 mph and gusty. No foxes up and no movement on the prairie dog town minus a few horned larks shuffling in grass. Their calls sound like the tinkling of little bells. A lone pronghorn doe that bedded down overnight on the p-dog town is facing south chewing her cud.
  • 8:30 am. Rain stopped but winds continue. No foxes.
  • 11:00 am. No foxes.
  • 1:30 pm. Still no foxes …
  • 4:00 pm. Finally. A fox pup pokes its head out of the den and looks my way.

And so it went for more than a hundred days in the field over the course of three years, Forsberg slowly building a collection of images showing the playful pups and their predator parents in their natural environment. (Check out the video at the top of the page.)

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A swift fox mother is seen with her pups in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland in western South Dakota. Photograph by Michael Forsberg

“It was difficult because they are mostly nocturnal, they live in holes in the ground, and their location changes all the time,” said Forsberg in a recent phone interview. “It’s like playing wack-a-mole at the county fair. It’s failure most of the time. But you spend enough time and you get to understand where their territories are, where their families are. You spend enough time and you start to figure it out.”

In addition to the photo blinds, Forsberg used an intricate setup of remote cameras and camera traps in order to get his wide-angle lenses close enough to the foxes. And the funny thing about all that planning and waiting? Forsberg said it was the most remarkable experience of his life.

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A diagram shows the approximate setup of Michael Forsberg’s remote cameras and photo blinds. Courtesy of Michael Forsberg

“We go so fast in our lives today, and having to be in a place like these wide-open spaces of the prairie forces you to slow down. You are on nature’s time. You are not on your time,” he says. “Everything you do is dictated by the wind and the weather and the creatures that you are out there photographing. The rhythm of how you live your life becomes in sync with the nature around you.

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“[The grasslands are] a place that’s in triage mode. But it’s a very resilient place, and the creatures that live here are very resilient. And I hope the work that I’ve done helps people appreciate that and the environment.” Photograph by Michael Forsberg

“As photographers, a lot of us don’t get to spend deep time like that. We are always racing around to get shots,” he continued. “This project was open-ended and to get anything at all you had to commit to giving the time. To have a project that enables you to feel the power of that place was remarkable.”

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“Out here, everything runs fast and lives in holes in the ground and is hunted—it’s a very different kind of experience [from the Grand Canyon or the Rockies], but it’s every bit as remarkable.” Photograph by Michael Forsberg

On his last trip to the grasslands—when he had finally run out of time and money to keep shooting—Forsberg walked around the prairie collecting his camera traps and gear. Suddenly, he heard a loud chorus of yipping from one of the prairie dog towns. There was a swift fox in the process of killing a prairie dog.

Forsberg dropped to his belly, and there, without his remote cameras, without his photo blind, he was able to photograph a swift fox from only a few feet away.

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A swift fox carries the front half of a recently killed prairie dog directly past photographer Michael Forsberg. The image was made on the last day of a three-year assignment. Photograph by Michael Forsberg

“The fox looked at me, and I saw that he had torn the carcass in two because it was too big to carry. He took half of the prairie dog, and instead of running away with it, he brought it within 15 feet of me, as if showing it off.

“To me it was the only thing I needed. I remember sending that picture to [my editor] Kathy Moran, and I had tears in my eyes because I never thought I would get it. It was a real gift on the last day of a couple-year journey.”

Michael Forsberg is a senior fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers and a fellow with the University of Nebraska’s Center for Great Plains Studies and the Water for Food Institute. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife and their two daughters. Visit him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.