• September 26, 2014

Moving Slowly to Capture the Swift Fox

Photographer Michael Forsberg is a patient man. A very … patient … man.

This trait came in extremely handy during an assignment to photograph swift foxes in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland in western South Dakota. Forsberg visited the prairie lands multiple times over a three-year period to capture images of the tiny canids, which are about the size of a house cat.

This involved an extreme amount of lying and waiting in photo blinds—small, camouflaged tents that he could barely sit up in. He would enter the tent before sunrise and stay there until the sun went down, sometimes even spending the night. And he very rarely shot photos.

Picture of swift fox
“They don’t like human presence, so you have to let them come to you on their terms, not the other way around.” Photograph by Michael Forsberg

An excerpt from his field notes:

Conata Basin, Buffalo Gap National Grassland, South Dakota.
Agate west and Agate hillside den sites

  • 5:00 am. Summer solstice. Rain and no sunrise. Winds out of the north 20 mph and gusty. No foxes up and no movement on the prairie dog town minus a few horned larks shuffling in grass. Their calls sound like the tinkling of little bells. A lone pronghorn doe that bedded down overnight on the p-dog town is facing south chewing her cud.
  • 8:30 am. Rain stopped but winds continue. No foxes.
  • 11:00 am. No foxes.
  • 1:30 pm. Still no foxes …
  • 4:00 pm. Finally. A fox pup pokes its head out of the den and looks my way.

And so it went for more than a hundred days in the field over the course of three years, Forsberg slowly building a collection of images showing the playful pups and their predator parents in their natural environment. (Check out the video at the top of the page.)

Picture of a swift fox and her pups
A swift fox mother is seen with her pups in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland in western South Dakota. Photograph by Michael Forsberg

“It was difficult because they are mostly nocturnal, they live in holes in the ground, and their location changes all the time,” said Forsberg in a recent phone interview. “It’s like playing wack-a-mole at the county fair. It’s failure most of the time. But you spend enough time and you get to understand where their territories are, where their families are. You spend enough time and you start to figure it out.”

In addition to the photo blinds, Forsberg used an intricate setup of remote cameras and camera traps in order to get his wide-angle lenses close enough to the foxes. And the funny thing about all that planning and waiting? Forsberg said it was the most remarkable experience of his life.

A diagram showing the approximate set-up of Michael Forsberg's remote cameras and photo blinds.
A diagram shows the approximate setup of Michael Forsberg’s remote cameras and photo blinds. Courtesy of Michael Forsberg

“We go so fast in our lives today, and 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,” he says. “Everything you do is dictated by the wind and the weather and the creatures that you are out there photographing. The rhythm of how you live your life becomes in sync with the nature around you.

Picture of a swift fox
“[The grasslands are] a place that’s in triage mode. But it’s a very resilient place, and the creatures that live here are very resilient. And I hope the work that I’ve done helps people appreciate that and the environment.” Photograph by Michael Forsberg

“As photographers, a lot of us don’t get to spend deep time like that. We are always racing around to get shots,” he continued. “This project was open-ended and to get anything at all you had to commit to giving the time. To have a project that enables you to feel the power of that place was remarkable.”

Picture of a swift fox
“Out here, everything runs fast and lives in holes in the ground and is hunted—it’s a very different kind of experience [from the Grand Canyon or the Rockies], but it’s every bit as remarkable.” Photograph by Michael Forsberg

On his last trip to the grasslands—when he had finally run out of time and money to keep shooting—Forsberg walked around the prairie collecting his camera traps and gear. Suddenly, he heard a loud chorus of yipping from one of the prairie dog towns. There was a swift fox in the process of killing a prairie dog.

Forsberg dropped to his belly, and there, without his remote cameras, without his photo blind, he was able to photograph a swift fox from only a few feet away.

Picture of a swift fox carrying a prairie dog.
A swift fox carries the front half of a recently killed prairie dog directly past photographer Michael Forsberg. The image was made on the last day of a three-year assignment. Photograph by Michael Forsberg

“The fox looked at me, and I saw that he had torn the carcass in two because it was too big to carry. He took half of the prairie dog, and instead of running away with it, he brought it within 15 feet of me, as if showing it off.

“To me it was the only thing I needed. I remember sending that picture to [my editor] Kathy Moran, 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.”

Michael Forsberg is a senior fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers and a fellow with the University of Nebraska’s Center for Great Plains Studies and the Water for Food Institute. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife and their two daughters. Visit him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

There are 61 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Julie Thomas
    April 27, 2015

    These photos and stories are inspiring. I appreciate too the insightful look into the work of a wildlife photographer.

  2. paulina roybal
    March 11, 2015

    Awesome, the story, the photography and the photographer. All awesome.

  3. Fluffy
    January 15, 2015

    Thanks TF. 303k and still rolling down the road. Barely…

  4. Ron Jensen
    January 14, 2015

    Michael is a treasure. We are so fortunate to have both him and Joel Sartore here in our Lincoln community.

  5. Larry & Nancy Forsberg
    October 30, 2014

    We are very proud of Mike and his accomplishments. He helps make the Great Plains “great”. His love of nature and dedication is remarkable.

  6. Carol McMurtry
    October 30, 2014

    Mike – how much this tiny fox with cat whiskers reminds me of my Shiba Inu! Thanks for all your patience and dedication!

  7. toothfairy
    October 25, 2014

    nice work fluffy. long live the great plains and old suburbans..

  8. Rosemary Schiano
    October 21, 2014

    I am a wildlife field biologist and tracker. I appreciate Mike Forsberg’s work for wildlife conservation very much.

  9. Mary Lynn Tindall
    October 20, 2014

    Thank you so much for sharing this amazing video and beautiful pics. Learned for the first time about Swift foxes and aren’t they precious. Thank you again.

  10. MikeHavliczek
    October 17, 2014

    He is exactly that type of photographers i admire and i respect. Spent months on one place to take one perfect shot, that is great. Not lika many of today “photographers”, who take thousands of photo, take one, add stupid filter and post on twitter. As a photographer myself, i look up to these guys and want to be as good as them one day 🙂 So, as my father says: Good light and lucky trigger 🙂

  11. Abi
    October 13, 2014

    What an amazing journey! Thank you sir for sharing your remarkable story. You must have been very patient and I really admire you for that. As the scripture says in Galatians 6:9 “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”

  12. Mihai Mamulea
    October 7, 2014

    Amazing story and photos. Thank you for sharing! Keep up the good work! 😉

  13. Jon
    October 6, 2014

    Big thumbs up! The Central Plains is the most awesome area in the entire country.

  14. Marsha Diane Arnold
    October 6, 2014

    Thank you, Mike Forsberg, for your splendid work and photographs. My dear friend Larry Haverfield, who recently passed away, introduced me to the swift fox some years ago when I visited his ranch in Western Kansas to discuss his efforts to save black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs. A beautiful creature that deserves our respect.

  15. Paul Scutts
    October 6, 2014

    The quick brown fox …

  16. Bill Rodriguez
    October 6, 2014

    Thank you Michael for letting us in your world and thank you NG for making it possible for us to enjoy.

  17. Julia
    October 6, 2014

    Thank you for sharing this experience; learned there is such things as a Swift Fox.

  18. Mai
    October 6, 2014

    Amazing story, scenes and photos. The time when fox looked at you as you belonged to the wild was mystical and fantastic.

  19. Lynn Hanson
    October 5, 2014

    Thank you for the good work you do. For caring about the land and the animals and their future.
    What a marvelous story and film.
    You make the world a better place!

  20. Jack Marler
    October 4, 2014

    How wonderful, Thanks

  21. erbPIX™
    October 2, 2014

    Great testament to the extreme patience some wildlife photography requires. Well done! I especially like how it ended with the gift received on the last day. And at the risk of sounding extremely unscientific, I am gratified to hear more credit generally being given lately to wild animals’ native intelligence.

  22. Greg Wingfield
    October 1, 2014

    Mike, What can one say. Simply, thanks again for the life you breath into conservation of the Great Plains. Incredible! Your dedication and that of your “team” that supports your art … Patty, the girls, Barb, and many others … is a gift to us all.

  23. Heidi LaClair
    September 30, 2014

    My friend, as always, you amaze me.

  24. Mel Yoshioka
    September 30, 2014

    What fantastic shots! Thanks for sharing

  25. Keith Bacon
    September 30, 2014

    Thank you. Your piece made me slow down for just a little while and remove the clutter from my mind.

  26. Paul
    September 29, 2014


  27. Anastasia M
    September 29, 2014

    Your talent & the fox are both brilliant.
    Thank you for this stunning work.

  28. Kris Cannon
    September 29, 2014

    Thanks for the exquisite photography, story and experience. You have given a lovely gift.

  29. Dan
    September 29, 2014

    How difficult is it to capture a rapidly moving wild animal in perfect focus? How did you do it? Share your secrets with us…. please.

  30. Kim Fordyce
    September 29, 2014

    Beautiful, love those foxes…may we all, at some point in life, have a most remarkable experience like yours…

  31. Maire
    September 29, 2014

    Beautiful photos and fascinating blog post – I’m really enjoying the Nat Geo emails and these posts! Something really interesting every day. Kudos to Mike Forsberg — all the patience and hard work has paid off in remarkable coverage of an animal that I was not even aware existed — the swift fox. I love foxes and I didn’t even know about this one! When you can both surprise and educate your readers, you have succeeded very well!

  32. Mary Hercher
    September 29, 2014

    Dear Mike,
    You were “gifted”! I have lived in the Badlands and love this place divine. I am an amateur photographer and am “gifted” each time I visit this amazing place. Last year the gifts were a close encounter with a coyote and spending time with the big horns during their rut. This year it was bison bulls in Sage Creek and butterflies on rabbit bush. Oh, we are lucky people, that get to visit this special place! I believe that I spotted a swift fox in a prairie dog town one day. Thanks for sharing your images of this beautiful little creature that lives in this vast and beautiful landscape! Mary Hercher

  33. Meg
    September 29, 2014

    Incredible pictures! Thank you for sharing.

  34. Buck Sanford
    September 29, 2014

    Thank you and good timing. I’ll share this with 50+ senior level and grad students in Conservation Biology class tomorrow @ Northern Arizona Univ. Expect that these craft images will stimulate better predator prey discussions.

  35. Mindy Epstein
    September 29, 2014

    This is truly remarkable! Thank you for your inspiring, great work! I am a science teacher and will show it to my kids (students)

  36. Bruce Gidlow
    September 29, 2014

    Great shots! Having grown up in Rapid City I didn’t even know these existed there as I have been to that area many times. Thank you!

  37. Jugene
    September 29, 2014

    amazing photos. The eyes, ears and demeanor that you have captured reminds me of our domesticated sheperds dogs. Keep up the good work.

  38. David Runtag
    September 29, 2014

    I have to say, you truelly inspired me to by the way you live your life.
    Thank you

  39. Swapnil More
    September 29, 2014

    Thanks for introducing to Fox, never have seen Such pics before.

  40. Bruno D’Amicis
    September 29, 2014

    Dear Michael, this is really awesome… Hat off! And reminds us photographers on the real way of working. Bravo!

  41. Mark
    September 29, 2014

    I appreciate these revealing photos of such an elusive creature. Foxes have always been a favorite. Thank you.

  42. herbert
    September 29, 2014

    amazing photos. most fave is the close-up one. certainly, it resulted great appreciation to such kind of environment. hands down to you Mr Forsberg.

  43. john
    September 28, 2014

    Thank you Michael. People like you bring in such wonder to the lives of people like me

  44. Ismael Roman
    September 28, 2014

    Amazing images!!! What kind of camera did you use?

  45. Cynthia
    September 28, 2014

    Beautiful photos. Thank you for your patience and talent in capturing these elusive animals.

  46. Nick MAnes
    September 28, 2014

    Wonderful work Mike, your work continues to resonate within the world of conservation photographers

  47. Rachel Mason
    September 28, 2014

    This is just stunning. I was part of a Swift Fox study right out of college (wildlife biology at CSU) in Southeastern Colorado on the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site. We would sit on dens with expectant mothers every morning all through the spring. It was very rare that we would see an adult, let alone a kit. This story hits home and makes me feel fortunate to have been able to see this secretive animals in their natural habitat. Incredible work!

  48. Precious
    September 28, 2014

    so cute soo deadly!

  49. lemon
    September 28, 2014

    without deep time that you spent on the thing you do ,things can not go as you think

    September 28, 2014


  51. Martin Felipe Wohlgemuth Pinzón
    September 28, 2014

    This a remarkable document. Thank you very much for the patience and perseverance. It is a truth that many do not like human presence.

  52. Mohamed Eshmawey
    September 28, 2014

    I used to watch national geographic in the train going back home from work. The Life and also the train go very fast, but yr photos make me slow down. Even for some minutes, it was à pleasure. Thank you for this moment.

  53. Wasif Mehmood
    September 28, 2014


  54. moisés dominguez
    September 27, 2014

    Este mamífero es particularmente, (refiriéndome al zorro) dañino cuando tiene su madriguera con hembras recién paridas cercanas a granjas donde se crían gallinas, ya que ellas procuran el alimento para sus crías cazando las gallinas increible voracidad causando perdidas cuantiosas a los granjeros, ellos (los zorros) se convierten en un verdadero azote para las granjas avicolas en régimen acierto, la hembra recién parida es una cazadora compulsiva que no descansa en su afán de alimentar a sus crías para lo cual no tienen un horario sino que siempre y a cualquier

  55. Carl Wolfe
    September 27, 2014

    Each one of us has received a special gift by Michael Forsberg – a caring and talented photographer who brings more to an image than just a subject. Thanks , Mike, for your hard work and passion to help us appreciate the natural world.

  56. Carina
    September 27, 2014

    Mr. Forsberg,
    This was an awesome story. How cool that you got to experience that with the Fox. My name is Carina Garcia and I am the 21 year old daughter of Alexandra Garcia who works for iLCP. I am also an amateur photographer, mostly sports and landscapes. This really was a fun story to read. Good luck. Thanks

  57. Bruce Hargens
    September 27, 2014

    Fantastic work Michael! I felt the world slow a little bit as I watched.

  58. Mike Laughlin
    September 27, 2014

    Everyone with a digital point’n shoot camera thinks they are great photographer … should read this article and get a hint of what a real photographer does ….

  59. Ron
    September 27, 2014

    Great photos. I know how much patience it took to get them. Please show more.

    September 27, 2014


  61. Lisa Lytton
    September 26, 2014

    Mike Forsberg is the real deal–a true conservation photographer rooted in the Great Plains. Watch his documentary Great Plains, America’s Lingering Wild: http://www.pbs.org/program/great-plains/

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