Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is a roadless, 220-square-mile expanse of glacially carved valleys, towering sea cliffs, wildflower meadows, legions of seabirds—and Iceland’s only native terrestrial mammal, the arctic fox. With its rounded ears, thick fur and shortened legs and snout, the arctic fox is supremely adapted to an unforgiving climate. Iceland’s fox population is split between white and blue color morphs. The white morph is completely white through the winter and mixed brown and white in the summer, while the blue morph remains a bluish brown throughout the year.
Since the island’s settlement over a thousand years ago, Icelanders have hunted this small (less than 10 pounds) carnivore, at first for its fur and later to protect lambs and other livestock. Hornstrandir is one of the few regions in the country where the fox is fully protected from hunting, so they have little fear of humans. Their innate curiosity often leads to close encounters with hikers and campers.
On a recent trip to Hornstrandir, I was photographing a vibrant carpet of pink wood cranesbill and yellow meadow buttercup flowers when I noticed an adult fox running through the meadow with some carrion in its mouth. I tracked its progress as it made its way over to a rock-pile den at the base of a cliff and proceeded to feed its family of young kits. Careful not to disturb the feeding, I hunkered down in the flowers and waited, hoping the kits would get curious.
Anticipating the shot I wanted to make, I set my Nikon D850 autofocus to back-button continuous mode and the AF area to the smallest box, so I could lock focus on the fox’s eye in the complicated background of wildflowers. I fired off a couple of test shots to check my exposure and then settled back into the flowers to wait.
As luck would have it, as soon as the parent sprinted back off to forage, one bold kit decided to follow and bounded through the wildflowers with all of the enthusiasm of youth. The kit, so small that it could barely see above the flowers, took a wrong turn in the chase and instead found me. I only had a split second to lock the focus and fire off a handful of frames before the fox kit disappeared. Moments later, it reappeared at the den, greeted its brothers and sisters, and together they all scurried into their burrows.
The encounter, measured only in seconds, was one of the highlights of the five days I spent camping and photographing in the idyllic Hornstrandir Reserve. It reminded me that the best wildlife encounters are ones where the animal dictates the terms of the interaction. It also doesn’t hurt to have a beautiful field of wildflowers to lie in and practice a wildlife photographer’s most important attribute: patience. OP
See more of Chris Linder’s work at chrislinder.com.
Nikon D850, AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR. Exposure: 1/800 sec., ƒ/7.1, ISO 140.