FREEZING FOXES IN ICELAND
In April 2018 I joined a group of 6 other photographers to travel to Iceland, with the plan to photograph Arctic Foxes.
The location for this was within the North Western Fjords, the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve.
To get here, we first flew to Reykyavik International Airport, (Keflavik) before transferring to the domestic airport, inside the capital city.
Our onward flight to Isafjordur was a short 45 minute journey in a small aircraft, with spectacular views along the way.
The landing into Isafjordur is quite dramatic, hugging the rock face of the entrance to the fjord and landing onto the reclaimed land making the landing strip. Before the construction of this runway, seaplanes were the only way of flying to Isafjordur.
At Isafjordur harbour we met with the crew of our boat. From here we loaded our gear and set off on the hour or so journey further north to Hornstrandir.
Our home for the next 5 nights was the Kviar farmhouse. This is a remote old farmhouse that was built in 1921, for farming sheep, before being deserted in 1948. Given the remote location, the construction of this building is an amazing achievement. Recently, Borea Adventures have taken on the project of making this dwelling liveable, albeit very basic. It is now used as a base for hiking, photography and extreme back country skiing.
Our small boat anchored a few hundred metres from the shoreline and we transferred into a Zodiac to access the rocky landing. Our home for the next 5 nights is set some 70 metres from the shore, up a steep snow covered path. 30 minutes later we had our luggage safely into the farmhouse and room-mates were agreed.
Heading outside with our cameras ready, it wasn’t long before we sighted our first “Blue Phase” Fox. As it casually made its way up from the shore and on past the farmhouse, it seemed unconcerned to be met by the rapid artillery of several camera motor-drives. As we were to discover, there was a huge range in the approachability of these animals. Some being totally unconcerned about our presence and others very timid.
There are two winter colour morphs for the Arctic Fox, (Vulpes lagopus) pure white and blue. (Most blues are still brownish) It is possible for both morphs to be born within the same litter. In summer the white foxes also take on a brown pelage.
In our location, most of the foxes were of the “Blue” form as this is more common in coastal areas. These animals spend a good deal of time scavenging along the shoreline. As we were to see, on every tide there was a good influx of potential food, Cod heads being very common. The pure white foxes are more common further inland, although regularly reported from our locality.
We were basically “Trapped” at our farmhouse, mainly because we did not want to disturb the snow too much, spoiling the background of potential pictures. However, a meltwater stream ran into the fjord adjacent to the farmhouse, allowing for walks inland along this watercourse.
Small amounts of dried fish were randomly placed, in the snow, around the farmhouse. A hide had been recently built close by and although this was useful shelter when the weather was at its worst, we did not use it much for photography.
On our first afternoon we were visited by a breeding pair of blue foxes. This pair would turn out to be regular visitors, over the next few days. Although they would regularly feed, they were often preoccupied with other activities of the season. This often led to mildly aggressive fighting, as the female was clearly not quite ready.
The second day gave us our first sighting of one of the white foxes. Although these animals would cover the same routes as the blue animals, they were far more timid.
Although we were in a very static location, bird life was pretty good. Below us on the shoreline was the constant passage of Eiders and in the air above Glaucous Gulls and Ravens were common. Greater black-backed Gulls less so.
Around the farmhouse Snow Buntings were common, being the only small passerine. On the sea Red breasted Mergansers were regular with occasional Long-tailed Ducks and Harlequin Ducks. Reasonable sized flocks of Purple Sandpipers rushed past, stopping to feed as the tide went out, allowing very close viewing. Overhead there was usually a daily fly past of a handful of Hooper Swans, cormorants and the occasional Shag. Raptors were only seen on two occasion, with a nice female Merlin and a pair of White-tailed sea eagles at altitude.
By our second and third days, the weather was relatively mild and as it had not snowed since we arrived, we were hoping for a little more to freshen up the surroundings. However the forecast was fine for the next 36 hours, with heavy snow forecast for the last couple of days.
Our second night provided a clearing sky and after our evening meal we were poised outside, hoping for the "Northern Lights" to show. We were not disappointed and although there was always a few clouds we managed some very satisfactory shots.
By now we had encountered several foxes and established we were right on the edge of the territory of the breeding pair of blues. At least 3 other blue foxes were seen as singles, with one individual regularly coming into the territory of the breeding pair. This was possibly one of last years offspring that had now been pushed out. There was certainly two, possibly three white foxes but these were all very skittish and hard to get close to.
For our last two days the weather did change, with colder temperatures & heavy snow prevailing. This gave a whole new aspect to everything from a photographic point of view.
The foxes would often not be seen for several hours but would then appear to patrol their territory. This was very regular with the breeding pair, who would scent mark every 50m or so.
It was interesting how the foxes appeared to be less active when the tide was fully in. This is probably not too surprising as it is their primary feeding location.
One tactic to photograph the breeding pair was to hunker down in the snow, out of the wind, along their regular route. With the correct clothing, it is amazing how comfortable this can be. On one occasion, it was snowing heavily and I decided to position myself below a ridge that was often the first place the foxes appeared. The only problem with this was that a close watch had to be made on the crest of the blind ridge. Patience paid off and eventually the foxes came over the ridge, to a position I knew there was a few pieces of dried fish. The conditions looked perfect, with heavy snow covering the foxes. The only problem was, with the very heavy snow and the efficiency of modern SLR cameras, it was virtually impossible to get a shot without an ugly large blob of out of focus snow, in the front of the shot. Eventually, by using a very shallow depth of field a few reasonable shots were had.
Breaks in the snow allowed for much improved conditions. When the foxes now appeared, they would be travelling through much deeper snow and needing to dig for their food. Amazingly, they seemed more interested in the few pieces of dried fish, buried below a foot of snow, than when they lay on the surface.
All in all, it had been a fascinating experience studying these animals in a remote location.
Returning to the Hornstrandir reserve would be very tempting in the summer. The northern coast having some spectacular seabird colonies.