Wildlife Photographer Spends Three Years Photographing Swift Foxes

Known for their playfulness and crafty intelligence, foxes have long been personified as the pranksters of the animal kingdom. But what many of us don’t know—and what wildlife photographer Michael Forsberg has learned during his lengthy quest to photograph swift foxes—is that foxes are actually some of the most elusive mammals out there.

For the past three years, Forsberg has been traveling to and from South Dakota’s grasslands with one goal: to create one heck of a portfolio of swift fox photos. By summoning up all of his patience, and some trickery of his own, Forsberg designed photo blinds and unique remote camera traps that allowed him to capture some truly amazing and totally unique images of the foxes:

When Forsberg received an assignment to photograph swift foxes in South Dakota’s Buffalo Gap National Grassland, he expected that it might take some time for the timid little canids to emerge from their dens after they detected his presence. What he didn’t anticipate was just how cautious the little critters were. Before sunrise, Forsberg would arrive at his camouflaged bivy tent blind, which he set up roughly 70-100 meters away from the swift fox dens. There, he would lay and wait until nightfall— often without spotting a single fox.

“It was difficult because they are mostly nocturnal, they live in holes in the ground, and their location changes all the time,” Forsberg told National Geographic. “It’s like playing ‘Whac-A-Mole’ at the county fair. It’s failure most of the time. But you spend enough time and… you start to figure it out.”

To boost his chances of photographing the foxes, Forsberg also set up three remote camera rigs around the dens—a wirelessly triggered GoPro and point-and-shoot camera, a “camera trap” with a passive infared remote trigger, and a full frame DSLR in soundproof housing that could be triggered via walkie-talkie.

wildlife photography fox foxes south dakota grassland telephoto

Foxes are playful creatures, so naturally, Forsberg’s remote cameras became mini jungle gyms.

michael forsberg national geographic

Swift foxes are about the size of house cats.

Despite facing many difficulties—all of the planning and waiting and money spent and hours logged—Forsberg says that photographing the swift foxes truly changed his life. It forced him to slow down and appreciate the rhythms and power of nature and of life in the prairie, beyond our fast-paced society.

“As photographers, a lot of us don’t get to spend deep time like that. We are always racing around to get shots,” said Forsberg. “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. Everything you do is dictated by the wind and the weather and the creatures that you are out there photographing.”

And on his very last day of shooting, the foxes rewarded him for his efforts. Big time.

Forsberg was walking around the prairie and collecting all of his various rigs, when out of nowhere, the foxes began yipping loudly as one of their own attacked a prairie dog. Instinctively, Forsberg dropped to the ground, ready to shoot. He expected to have only one chance to get the shot he wanted, but instead, the victorious hunter leisurely carried his catch within 15 feet of Forsberg.

“The fox looked at me,” said Forsberg. “It was the only thing I needed. I remember sending that picture to [my editor] 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.”

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