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| 04/07/2020 | Whale & Wildlife Tour Operators |   

Photographing The Red Foxes Of San Juan Island

By Mio Monasch

I’ve had the incredible fortune of growing up with much of my summer time spent on San Juan Island. Over the years I’ve come back many times to see the foxes at American Camp. Here are my recommendations for visiting and photographing these wonderful little creatures.

First, remember they are wild, show them respect and adhere to a strict code of conduct. Have plans in place for how to view the foxes, prior to heading out. Sightings are incredibly exciting and rewarding, and, to make sure you have the perfect plan in place, it's important to begin by reviewing some guidelines as well as having realistic expectations.

GUIDELINES 

  • Do not approach any wildlife within 75 feet.
  • Do not feed wildlife.
  • Discourage close encounters with animals. It is your responsibility to get out of the animal’s space.
  • Use park restrooms.
  • Don't bring dogs into the field.

EXPECTATIONS 

You’ve probably seen many photographs across social media and heard tales of how easy it is to find these foxes. A quick reminder: most of the photographs you have seen are taken by individuals using professional photography equipment. High quality cameras with ultra-zoom lenses allow photographers to zoom in, well beyond 75 feet and then crop the final image even further. It is unrealistic to expect to get close enough to a fox to take a photograph with a cellphone unless you blatantly encroach upon their space.

There are rangers, visitors, volunteers, and often photographers who are out to police the guidelines, so, please, take them seriously! To me, it is imperative to start with guidelines, because in today’s world of social media we often see the perfect, “home run” images, without being offered much of an understanding of what goes into the planning and creation stages. While a visit is still entirely worth it, if just looking to see the foxes I would encourage bringing a pair of binoculars and some patience. They will be there! 

I’ll never forget the day I first had the good fortune to see the foxes at American Camp. Driving out to the lighthouse just past South Beach, my family decided to pull over at the top of the hill to take in the view. As we looked down, we were startled to see foxes in the field below, hunting the rabbits who live in a massive network of holes throughout the expansive fields of the park. This is one of the only memories I have of the foxes as a child. In part, because they just didn’t seem to be easy to find. Sure, we’d have the occasional sighting of a little cottontail darting through the long grass or a small face quickly withdrawing into the bushes as we approached, but, these little reminders of their presence certainly taught us that these animals were wild and timid.

About 4 years ago, on one of my many return visits to the park, we drove along the long road down to South Beach and noticed an animal running toward our vehicle. It was a fox! Something was different. After years of watching them disappear, this fox was actually looking for us. Speaking with islanders after this encounter, I learned the park was dealing with serious issues of people feeding the foxes straight out of their vehicles. This caused the creatures to slow their need to hunt and making them dependent on humans. Not good! 

So before my most recent visit, I called the park and visitors center to learn how I could respectfully visit and photograph the animals. I learned about the guidelines and decided to take my highest megapixel camera, my longest range lens, and a tripod to the island in hopes of finding them again!

MY EXPERIENCE

As I arrived at the park, I had some immediate concerns. There was a massive line of photographers out in the field taking photographs of the foxes, but as I joined them, I quickly realized there was a strong sense of stewardship within the group. Everyone was helping  answer questions and keeping each other accountable to the distance guidelines. 

There were signs in the field, re-stating these guidelines, volunteers near the main viewing area, and even a ranger who would drive by occasionally. The park also placed two orange cones separated by 75 feet to show the required wildlife distance.

MY PROCESS 

I set myself up with my Fujifilm X-H1 and the X-T3 as well. I paired these with the 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6 and the 200mm F/2 with a 1/4 Teleconverter. With the teleconverter and then factoring the crop factors of my cameras, this meant I was shooting a focal lengths of 427mm and 152-609mm on the zoom. I made sure to pack high capacity and fast memory cards so I could shoot at high frame rates to capture their quick motion. Last, because of the extreme zoom, it certainly helped having this all on a tripod for stability and the heavy lifting as these lenses get heavy after crouching down for hours. In post process, my best practice was cropping in. Because of the high quality sensors on the cameras, I was able to crop in to allow the foxes to fill much more of my frame than found in the original image.

All in all, it was an incredible experience. The humor and excitement of these little animals is inspiring. They tumble and pounce on each other, occasionally catching a small animal to eat, chasing butterflies, or bugging their mothers to join in on the wrestling party.

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