The Beauty of the Auto Tour

A close-up of a coyote in the rain on the auto tour at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on December 25, 2011. Original: _MG_6249.cr2

While on a visit to Ridgefield on a rainy Christmas in 2011, I accidentally took a short nap while in a pullout beside Rest Lake (I mean, given the name of the lake, hardly my fault) which meant I was lucky enough to be in the right position when driving past the meadow that I got to spend quite a while watching a coyote hunting voles in the rain. It’s what I loved about the auto tour, getting to watch animals behave naturally at relatively close distances without disturbing them.

A coyote pauses in a meadow in the rain on the auto tour at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on December 25, 2011. Original: _MG_6194.cr2

These pictures are a bit bittersweet as while I got to watch the family at length multiple times that winter, my pictures from a couple of months later would be my last photos of coyotes at the refuge as they were shot to create a safer haven for the threatened Columbian white-tailed deer that were about to be transplanted. Thankfully the deer seemed to be establishing themselves by the time I had to say goodbye to the refuge so hopefully coyotes have been allowed back since.

A coyote hunts for Townsend's voles in a meadow on the auto tour at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on December 25, 2011. Original: _MG_6021.cr2

I’m not sure the many Townsend’s voles in the meadows around the refuge missed the coyotes, although perhaps they didn’t notice given the wide variety of predators that ate them. It was always a little hard to watch through the big lens as one little life was snuffed out, even knowing it allowed another life to continue. I always hoped to photograph a vole on its own but I only ever managed to catch them when something else caught them first.

A coyote eats a Townsend's vole in a meadow on the auto tour at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on December 25, 2011. Original: _MG_6067.cr2

In the Shadows

A coyote pauses in front of a blackberry thicket at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington

A coyote pauses in the shadow of a dense thicket of blackberries, invasives that are widespread across parts of the Pacific Northwest including Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington. The coyote was next to the parking lot at the trailhead for the Kiwa Trail, I got to see and hear it howl in the sunlight before it sauntered up to the blackberries and started down the trail (which was closed to humans, I watched the coyote from my car).

A Christmas Coyote

A head-and-shoulders view of a coyote in the big meadow at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on December 25, 2011. Original: _MG_6275.cr2

Thanks to the auto tour at Ridgefield NWR, I’ve had the chance to watch coyotes up close on many occasions without disturbing them, such as this one hunting for voles on Christmas afternoon in 2011. But if it survived into the spring of this year it’s likely dead now, as the coyotes on the refuge were killed in an attempt to improve the likelihood of Columbian white-tailed fawns surviving into adulthood. The deer are a threatened species while coyotes most certainly are not.

Killing coyotes may be necessary to help the whitetails recover, but I’ll miss them, they were one of my favorites.


A close-up view of the head and shoulders of a coyote

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 see 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 length of the dike.

A peaceful morning for me, if not for the voles.


A coyote howls at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

I first met this coyote when we surprised each other on the short trail to the observation blind at Ridgefield. When I got back to the car I moved on to the Kiwa Trail parking lot and discovered the coyote had as well. I drove to the far side of the lot to get a better angle on the sunlight then gently swung the car into place. The coyote didn’t pay me much heed and hunted in the meadow for a while, then surprised me once more by howling a few times (unanswered). It then slipped through the gate and disappeared up the trail.

I’ve heard coyotes howl many times but it was fun to finally get to see it.

Rest Lake

A coyote stands in a marsh

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 …

A coyote with wet fur walks along the edge of Rest Lake

A Good Year

One of a Pair

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.