Wildlife Habitats: Photographers Follow the Cycles of Change

Photo of Red Fox by Andy Long
Copyright © Andy Long

Out for a stroll……

Some say, “All good things must come to an end.” Whether by natural causes or by the hand of man, wildlife habitats will forever keep changing.

A few years ago, a

fter I had moved back to the Denver area following an absence of a couple years, I headed out to my favorite haunts for a nice day of photography. This location is well known for great Red Fox photography–change that to, was well known for great fox photography. Prospect Lake Park in Wheat Ridge, on the west side of the Denver metro area, was “the place” to go for fox shots almost any day of the year. In fact, many fox images from here have found their way into print in a variety of publications, competitions, and even on the tails of some Frontier Airlines planes. The reality started changing several years ago when coyotes began entering the area, killing the foxes for being their competition for food, such as mice, waterfowl eggs, and other small critters. The “survival of the fittest” has increased during the last several years.

The second blow to the area was bad weather that downed many of the trees–a natural event that led to the city sending crews in to cut down more trees and to remove those which had already fallen. The noise and interruption that came with their intervention caused the few remaining foxes to move out of the park and into the surrounding neighborhoods. Several still come down to seek out food in the wooded park, but they’re more wary than previously. Most of the changes in the numbers have occurred over the last six months according to many regulars who walk the paths every day for a morning stroll. 

One day in the future, the foxes will probably return to Prospect Lake Park–after the coyotes have moved on to another area. However, five years or more could pass before the numbers start creeping back up or we may find that they never increase again. It will be worth keeping an eye out to see if the area becomes a hot spot for fox photography once again.

Photo of Red Fox pups by Andy Long
Copyright © Andy Long

It’s always comforting to cozy up with your den mates.

However, as the numbers of animals decline in one area, another usually takes its place. Right after my disappointing visit to Prospect Lake Park, I heard about an area where there were a couple of dens with baby foxes. By the time I arrived, one of the den sites had already been abandoned, but just a couple of blocks away another spot was productive with four youngsters playing. My timing was off by several weeks for me to catch great shots of them while they were still very small, but the activity was still enjoyable. I made a note to myself to visit this same spot three or fours weeks earlier next year.

Cycles in populations happen throughout nature. The best example occurs in parts of the country hosting a healthy lynx population. Their numbers go up and down based on cycles in the numbers of snowshoe hares, which typically take a dive every ten years–when the hare population drops so do the number of lynx in the area, but both rebound within a couple of years.

Other abrupt changes in wildlife populations have occurred due to an animal’s internal instincts. They will actually be able to anticipate what an upcoming winter season is going to be like and they won’t mate during their normal fall rutting season. I observed this adjustment with Mule Deer in southwestern Colorado when the does didn’t group with a buck during mating season, so come summer there were no babies to be found. Animals have an intrinsic sense of the nature of the weather in approaching seasons–weather that will determine the upcoming availability of food sources. They’ll change their habits accordingly. As it turned out, that winter in southwestern Colorado was close to a record setter in the amount of snow that fell, which would have made it very difficult for the does to feed enough to give birth to a healthy fawn in late spring.

Photo of Mountain Goat kids by Andy Long
Copyright © Andy Long

A little rough and tumble play is good practice for when these mountain goat kids grow into adulthood.

An animal’s weather predictions can result in happy circumstances, as well. For example, the current mountain goat lamb population on Mount Evans in Colorado is a very healthy group, including at least ten small ones. I spotted one nanny goat with two babies, showing it had been a good winter for foraging.

By the hand of man….

Belmar Park in Lakewood, Colorado is a location that has shown a dramatic decline in the bird population. It was well known for having a variety of waterfowl that would produce lots of babies. Canada Geese arrived in the largest numbers, but the waters also boasted numbers of Coots, Avocet, Wood Ducks, Redheaded Ducks, Blackbirds, Mallards, and numerous other species. Others birds who dropped by but didn’t stay to raise their young included Shovelers, Black-crowned Night Herons, Great Blue Herons, and more. The decline started when the city started decreasing the number of Canada Geese eggs by either taking them away or spraying them so they wouldn’t hatch—the population had risen too high for the area. The other nesting birds decided the changes in the neighborhood were no longer to their liking and they found other places to call home. By trying to control the numbers of one species, city workers ended up changing the populations of almost all the species that once were plentiful in the area.

Photo of Night Heron by Andy Long

Copyright © Andy Long

Photo of Canada Goose gosling by Andy Long

Copyright © Andy Long

Photo of Blackbird baby by Andy Long

Copyright © Andy Long

When there were lots of other birds and waterfowl at Belmar Park, Night Herons were a common sight as they came through the area.

Canada Goose Gosling

Blackbirds are still nesting in the Belmar Park area.

Should humans interfere with nature by trying to control the numbers of animals in a specific area? This is a long and hotly debated topic with strong opinions on both sides. One intervention example involves the elk population in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. The local elk have reproduced so much that the area can no longer sustain the herds. Their seemingly insatiable appetites have driven wildlife managers to erect fences in certain areas to protect the trees and grasses. Most of the beaver in the park have moved on because they don’t have enough resources to build lodges and store food for the winter. They have tried to intervene in a variety of ways over the years, including netting numerous cows as a means of birth control. This procedure was very costly, but at least it didn’t draw a lot of criticism. The managers have now launched a project during which they had planned to take up to 700 elk per year from the herd in the area, but they settled on taking only 100 to 200 per year. With upwards of 3,000 elk in the park, the plan is to lower the population to between 1,600 and 2,000 over the span of the 20-year project.

Photo of Reddish Egret by Andy Long
Copyright © Andy Long

The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster will have an impact on birds like this Reddish Egret along miles and miles of habitat.

Some changes in wildlife habitats are fully human caused environmental disasters and can take years from which to recover. The best example of this is oil spills. The Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska in 1989 was the United States first big disaster of its kind. As a result of the estimated 250,000-600,000 barrels of crude oil spilling into the sound, thousands of animals perished in the following months. More recently, the Deepwater Horizon/BP gush of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico has already far surpassed the Exxon Valdez spill. And because of the gulf currents and the potential of more storms, the area of impact could be greater than the five state coastlines that have already been affected. It has caused death, destruction and disruption of the wildlife habitats of many species and will continue to do so for many years to come. For the birds–they will have to find new places for feeding, which will probably create more stress on areas that already have a current resident/migratory population to sustain. 

During a conversation with a person in the fisheries division at the Department of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, I was told they have plans on having personnel in the Gulf on a rotating basis for at least the next two years. If you would like to be kept apprized of the numbers of wildlife affected, you can visit their Daily Wildlife Collection Report.

Photo of heron at sunrise by Andy Long
Copyright © Andy Long

How many great sunrise shots of birds and beautiful water are there going to be in the Gulf area in the foreseeable future? Time will only tell.

Anyone who has been around long enough can look around and say, “I remember when it used to be….” As our environment changes, we photographers have to adapt and move on, just like many animals have been forced to do because of alterations in their habitat.

by Anby Andy Long
First Light Photo Workshops
All text & photos – 2010 Update: © 2015 Andy Long. All rights reserved.dy Long

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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