Welcome In, 2022!

This new year I’ll be into the 16th year of my coyote documentation work! I take photos in order to record what is going on — my camera is a tool, my notebook: as the saying goes, a photo is worth a thousand words. Location, time of day, which coyote is involved and their all-important behaviors and interactions with each other and their environment are all captured by the camera without having to pull out a pen and take notes. But I don’t necessarily consider myself a *photographer* per se in that I’m not out to get pretty pictures: I’m hoping my documentation work goes much deeper than that, where content supersedes quality: much of my recording takes place at dawn or dusk when the lighting is not good so the images are often not of super quality: they are often distant, blurry or grainy.

That being said, the sheer number of photos I take guarantees that many are bound to be good ones in a photographic sense, and here is such a photo which I entered into a wildlife photo contest and received recognition! I’m hoping my images and the observational stories I attach to them will raise awareness, instruct, and change perspectives. But sometimes there’s more fun involved than anything else, and this photo attests to that!

By the way, photo contests are a fun and exciting way to donate to wildlife: You pay a small fee for each entry which serves as a donation to the sponsoring organization. And if you win, you can recycle your prize money as a donation, which is what I do at my favorite wildlife rehabilitation center: WildCare in San Raphael. To see the the rest of the winners of the WildCare Photo Contest for 2021 visit: https://discoverwildcare.org/living-with-wildlife-photography-contest/. Or see WildCare’s Winter Magazine here. Enjoy! Also, think of donating to this organization which does fantastic work!

Squeals and Grooming

We heard the sirens — not so loud and long as usual — but we  thought there might be the possibility for a concert, so we waited. We were right! The sirens part was very short — I don’t think I caught any of it on the tape, but the coyotes continued their serenade well after the sirens had passed. And, the show didn’t end there. When they were finished with their yips, squeals and barks, one of them approached the other and began grooming — in this case, taking off ticks one be one — the same as I have shown before.

This particular video is different from my others. The entire first half of it was blurry — the camera mechanism for automatic focus just couldn’t seem to find itself — it kept zooming in and out without ever focusing, so all I had was one big blur for that section of the video. I was so disappointed that I might not be able to use the video clip. A friend of mine offered to help, and look what he came up with!! I think it’s fabulous, really superb!! And you get to hear the vocalizations throughout.

Rainy Dawn — in Sepia

It was wet, wet, wet outside, so, of course, when I came across coyotes making their rounds, they, too, were wet, wet, wet. These semi-silhouette photos were taken under very bad early and gloomy light conditions. My ISO must have been about 6400. Nevertheless, the individual fur strands stood out sharply against the background sky and I thought their forms on the rocks were absolutely beautiful. Under those lighting conditions, there really was no “color” in the photos, so I played with some “enhancement” possibilities and decided that sepia showed these forms off to advantage.

Rock formations and outcroppings exist in a great many of our Bay Area parks: these are mostly chert, but there are also a few serpentine formations.

Dad Relaxed, Sort of – by Charles Wood

Dad Where

Here in LA county Dad relaxed in late Tuesday’s sun. I took a few pictures of the road and of Dad. My sense of how things along the road should look, allowed me, with the naked eye, to spot him from 1100 feet away. I was about half way to him on the river bank.

I couldn’t tell which coyote it was. Its only with a photograph that I can identify a coyote by magnifying it in my camera’s display. Even from that distance, the pictures were of a Dad looking right at the camera.

Dad Relaxed

I wasn’t able to spot Dad until I was within 1100 feet. Dad would have spotted me a lot farther away than that. There’s nothing to obstruct his view of me, my dog, and my tripod coming over the bridge and down the river bank. Still, Tuesday, he wasn’t particularly concerned with us. Other days, he just gets mad.

Posting written by Charles Wood. Visit Charles Wood’s website for more coyote photos: Charles Wood. His work is copyrighted and may only be used with his explicit permission.

Charles Wood Coyote Photos

Charles Wood discovered that “his” coyote family has seven pups, when less than a week ago he thought there were only four!! Here is his wonderful photo of what he found.  Visit his website for this and more coyote photos: Charles Wood. His work is copyrighted and may only be used with his explicit permission.

About myself, with animals, observing

I thought I should let people know where I am coming from, and why I am interested in coyotes.

This particular activity opened for me two years ago when I met my first coyote on a walk here in San Francisco. At the time, my habit was to get up before dawn and take an hour-and-a-half hike up to the center of our city — always with my dog. Dawn is a great time of day. The world is quiet, it is peaceful. The world belongs to you and to the wildlife which is beginning to stir again after a night’s rest. There is a magic about it, especially as you climb the hills, with all the bright lights below looking something like Christmas, Diwali or Hanukkah, or looking like the approach to a city from an airplane.

Two years ago, during my morning walk, as I was rounding the bend of a path, what should I see on the trail in front of me but a coyote, a young coyote. Right in the middle of a city. In a large, hilly park-like area. Coyotes were just returning to the city after many years of absence  -– we had heard of only a couple of them in the newspapers, so the surprise was overwhelming. This coyote was so excited to see us, me and my dog. It did not run off. It did keep its distance. It bounced up and down, up and down, like a ball. It ran down the path and back, and down again where it lay, sphinx-like, watching us until its excitement made it get up and repeat the bouncing. I sat on a rock, mesmerized, with my dog next to me. For 20 minutes we watched the coyote, and the coyote watched us. I didn’t have my camera that day, but that would never happen again. Exactly a month later, we ran into the same coyote. This is when I started taking photos. The photos were less of the coyote, at least in my eyes, than of the coyote’s behavior. I actually started photography as a record-keeping device: I was interested in character, personality, behavior, motives, etc. The first coyote I met had offered a little of itself to us — I needed to find out more.

So, this is what I do now for a few hours each day, most days: during my walks, I observe and photograph urban wildlife, mostly coyotes. But I have always been around animals, both my own pets and wild animals that were injured which I took care of and released as soon as possible so as not to rob them of their wildness. The exciting thing about animals for me has been not only their wildness: their ability to do everything necessary to survive on their own, but also their rich emotional lives: they feel with all the intensity we humans feel. All species, I have found, have a culture in common, and a culture apart from us humans. We share a lot with them, and we are different. If we observe them, and if we are interested enough, we can understand them — the same way cultural anthropologists do, the same way Jane Goodall did: understanding individual animals through empathy.

My special interest has always been coyotes, though I watch all animals. After lots of observing, nuances take shape and you begin to be able to read a few things that you could not read before.

I have probably spent hundreds of hours in the parks, watching them — using my camera to focus my attention, and then reviewing at home. My camera is like a notebook for me. What I have learned regarding the coyotes is that these are individuals, that generalizations might not necessarily hold. Watching coyotes is like watching the same dogs in a park for a while: you get to know certain things about them — they each have their personality quirks. Does one dog have more in common with the other dogs or less? For each individual animal it is different.

For the most part I know what a coyote is doing, if it is busy or not, that they are communicating. I was aware when one tested me. I know they can “read” most dogs and can assess each individual dog from a distance. They keep a safe distance from people who they also assess — either cautiously trusting them at a distance, or avoiding them.  I know how important the coyote family unit is — I’ve seen them greet one another, I’ve seen them work as a team,  I know that a mother will protect her young, I’ve seen a yearling act as a sentry and warn a mother if an intruder is coming her way. I know food is marked as foul by urinating on it. I know what dog activity upsets certain coyotes, which coyotes are shy, which ones are more curious or daring. I can tell them apart by their facial features — mostly — at least at certain times. I have seen a barking coyote look out of the corner of its eye, to see how it is affecting an onlooker — I could see that part of this is bluff.  I have been allowed to be on the same side as a coyote when a it was chased by a dog. And there is so much more to become aware of — I’m just beginning to scratch the surface. I am getting to know the behavior of individual coyotes, and I am making sense of it all.

Other things about myself: I grew up in South America. My husband and I live with our 15 year-old dog in the center of San Francisco where we have been for over 30 years. We have a front yard garden where we grow corn (200 ears a season) and have an apple tree which gives us over 300 apples a season. We have grown wheat which we made into sprouted wheatberry bread — nine full loaves, we succeeded with one cotton plant — it produced one boll — we were able to make one Q-tip!, we have tomatoes sometimes. We have two grown sons who live in the Bay Area. We both love the urban environment and our walks. I took up the harp when my kids went off to college.

Please see article in The New York Times which appeared on March 14, 2010: Taking Walks on the Wild Side.

Photography aids observation: some thoughts

I get requests from people and groups asking me to take them with me while I photograph. I am truly honored at these requests — highly honored that they like the photos I have taken well enough to want to come along. However, I have to tell them that this “led safari” type of situation is not what I do. I take walks by myself or with my husband, and I have a camera. What I have come across I find by being outside and exploring. You have to love to be out in nature and be part of it, and you have to spend many hours in the settings where animals live. Ultimately, it is the wildlife that is so thrilling — the camera is a tool which enhances my participation in nature. Photography enhances my ability to see wildlife. It focuses my concentration and awareness. I bring it home where I study the details. It serves as my notebook. When I’m done, I post some of my “stuff” so others might enjoy what I have been able to observe. Right now I’m engaged in a study of coyote behavior, less for its usefulness than for my own curiosity and understanding. Practically, though, I might find something that could ease the coexistence issue. There are aspects of this issue, including dog and human issues, that have not been looked at thoroughly enough to reveal much understanding.

I do my photographing alone, because I try to become part of the space I am working with, actually studying situations and behavior, and I can’t do so with others next to me. Also, with fewer people around you become less intrusive for the animal. It is very important not to intrude on an animal you decide to photograph — you have intruded if you have caused it to change its behavior, flinch or flee. Also, to protect the animals, I never give the locations of any of the animals I photograph.  My ultimate goal is to try to photograph beyond what could become a “pretty picture” and grab the behavior, personality or character of what I find — it takes plenty of time and lots of awareness. I try to capture what the animals reveal to me about themselves, and I’m not always successful. This is not something one can teach someone else. One learns by being interested.

My suggestion to everyone who wants to photograph wildlife is to simply take walks and find your own mode that works for you. This way you will be growing into something that is exclusively yours. Start with any wild animal you see — even common starlings. Work with one animal, never interfering with its behavior, and try to learn its ways and capture this on film. I never took any photography courses — I just plunged into doing what I wanted to do and saved what I liked. Except for a good zoom lens, you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment, you just need to love what you do.

I like to crop my photos considerably — because I like framing them as “portraits”. The photos have to be really sharply focused if you want to crop. However, sharp focus can only be achieved when you have plenty of light. The left-hand images are versions of the same photo taken in fairly low light — notice that there is not a lot of detail. The photo on the right was taken in very good light, and the cropped version shows lots of detail and is sharp. Photography is about light. A lot of animal activity occurs during twilight hours, when the light is not good. When there is a distance involved, a flash does not work, and anyway it would be intrusive to the animals. Anything that interferes with the light, such as fog and haze and twilight, makes it harder to achieve a sharp photo.

Field Notes on Photography

I was just thinking about how different it is to take photos of coyotes and, say, woodpeckers. One is not harder or easier than the other. They are just so very different.

Finding these animals in the first place could prove to be difficult in the Bay Area — these are rare animals to encounter in this area.  I’ve come across coyotes in some parks. Those that are less shy become the focus for my camera. I’ve seen a woodpecker only a few times in the last two years –  twice in the apple tree right in my front yard!

Both coyotes and woodpeckers involve a focus problem because of the long closeup lens which I use. Although the lens appears to bring the animal closer, the lens in itself cuts down on the amount of available light. Photography is about light — the more light, the better.

Coyotes are up at dawn when the light isn’t so good and they normally are on the move. Woodpeckers are hidden behind leaves and branches. These same leaves and branches obscure a lot of the light and create shade and shadows.

The secret to capturing these animals on film is to get in close enough without disrupting the animal’s activity: not so far away so as to loose all the detail, and never so close so as to interrupt their activity level. If the animal ignores you, you are at a safe distance. If you cause them to flinch, or flee, you have entered their “critical distance” — obviously at this point your presence has interrupted their life: you have interfered with wildlife which cannot be your aim if you are a wildlife photographer.

Once the photos are taken, how do you choose what to keep? For a coyote, I tolerate more blur, in favor of retaining photos with as many poses showing movement and expressiveness. A coyote is probably one of the most expressive critters you will ever find, with more choreography to its movements than any other animal. A coyote is so many things: nimble, delicate, rough, lithe, quick.  Facial expressions can be read: boredom, tension, alertness, inquisitiveness, anger, fear, compliance, curiosity, annoyance, etc. The features to capture are long: ears, snout, legs, neck.

Which photos do you keep of the woodpecker? A woodpecker can be found in all sorts of positions and orientations on a tree. Its extensions, unless you can get it landing or taking off, are of less interest than that of a coyote. However, first and foremost come  focus and clarity in the details — its eyes, feathers, and markings. The setting in which you find the bird counts for a lot when photographing them.

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