It isn't very often that you dial in your ideal settings for a particular scene before having the slightest notion that the scene is about to take place. But that's what happened early one morning, when I found myself suddenly in the middle of a hunt.
I had decided to take my dog out on a favorite hiking trail just before sunrise to test out a lens for review. It was a Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 (I'll have a complete review for you shortly!) and while I had tested it on wildlife for the last several weeks, I wasn't completely sold on it yet. I had just gotten a hold of a second copy of the lens because the first copy wasn't focusing correctly at all. The second copy was sharp, but I wanted to thoroughly test it out on quickly moving targets in low light.
The sun was just barely up when I started trying it out, and I was kneeling on the trail tossing pebbles for my dog. Focus tracking wasn't keeping up with him so I bumped up the tracking speed on my camera to its fastest speed. Tossed a few more pebbles and that seemed to help quite a bit. Then, to be as fair as possible for the lens even though the light was still pretty low, I bumped up the shutter speed to 1/500 so it I couldn't blame a soft image on a slow shutter speed. Before I could toss a few more pebbles for my dog to chase, there was suddenly a huge boulder of brown fur rolling onto the trail about 10-12 yards in front of us. Three thoughts passed through my head in about as many seconds.
Thought #1: What the… That's a deer… And a coyote! And the coyote has a hold of it!
Thought #2: Get my dog (“Niner, leave it. Here, now. Lie down.”)
Thought #3: Dog is down.. start shooting!
I raised my lens just as the coyote and deer crossed the narrow trail and headed into knee-high shrubs, and I started firing. I wasn't even thinking about my settings, I was just hoping. Miraculously, they were already dialed in to action, using the fastest shutter speed possible in the low light and tracking the action beautifully from the word go.
Normally I just bring a 50mm for sunrise hikes, and not only did I happen to have a telephoto with me, but I'd just set up the perfect settings to track fast action in low light in order to test out the capabilities of the lens. It was an amazing stroke of luck to be able to capture the action from the first moment. Wonderful luck!
Anyway, back to the story. The coyote still had hold of the deer's leg, but quickly lost grip.
After jumping over a shrub, the deer stumbled and the coyote was on top of her in the brush. I walked a little farther up the trail and saw a second doe was still in the brush on the side of the trail from where the commotion began, but as soon as I turned to look at her, she took off.
All I could see of the pair was the coyote's ears sticking up above the brush. I stood still, aiming and firing a few more shots.
The coyote heard me, looked up and jumped off the deer. I don't think she even knew I had been on the hiking trail during the chase. As soon as she realized I was there, she began to trot away back uphill.
Immediately I turned my back on her, hunched down and started to walk away, just glancing over my shoulder. I wanted to give every indication that I wasn't interested in her at all, hoping she would ignore me again.
It was enough. She turned back and watched the deer. As soon as the deer was up (I couldn't see the doe as I kept my back turned and eyes on the coyote, but I could hear her) she was focused again and I turned to shoot.
The coyote headed straight back to the deer and they began sparring, oblivious to me.
The deer had a severely broken hind leg but she was feisty, and the coyote wasn't taking any chances. Every time the coyote started to come in, the deer kicked out with her front legs. At one point the coyote moved down hill and the deer took advantage, chasing the coyote off for a short distance.
Undeterred, the coyote kept watch and as the deer moved down hill, the coyote followed.
The sparring went on again for several more minutes. This time near a steep cliff edge, a nearly sheer drop down to the ocean. They kept at it but both were tired.
Eventually, the deer moved down out of sight, and was taking advantage of the precarious terrain to keep the coyote away. The coyote, clearly as careful and cunning as she was committed to this effort, stayed up above and watched.
She went back and smelled a few places where they had sparred and laid down, seemingly resolved to wait until the deer decided what to do. The doe had no choice but to either stay on this ledge between the coyote and the ocean, or come back up. And the coyote was going to be patient.
By the way, during all this my dog was silently holding his down-stay at quite a distance, and staying out of sight from the deer and the coyote. This was my view of him zoomed in at 300mm.
Without him sticking to his training, I never would have had a chance to photograph this encounter. I would have had to leash him and walk him back to the car. I'm so proud and thankful that he was on top-notch behavior.
If there's one thing I can't emphasize enough, it's to make sure you have full control of your dog if you are on off-leash trails. If you don't have reliable training, keep your dog on leash. It's a life-saver, literally, because you never know what you're going to run into.
I don't know how the hunt ended. The coyote kept glancing up at me, even though I tried to stay low. I felt like I was now a distraction and while I really, really wanted to see how this played out, I didn't want to be the reason that either a coyote went hungry, or a deer's suffering was prolonged. I had already distracted the coyote once just by clicking my camera from the trail. It seemed that when the deer was active, she didn't pay any attention to me, but I didn't want to test that out.
So, with the coyote waiting to see how her advantage played out, I walked back to my very patient dog, gave him a huge handful of treats, and we walked back down the trail to head home.
Later that afternoon I went back and searched the entire area to see if the coyote won. I couldn't find any evidence at all of a kill — no fur anywhere, no blood, nothing. I don't think it would have been possible for a coyote to kill the deer and drag her back up the very steep hill, and there wasn't any cover large enough hide a deer that big. Based on how tough that doe was, my guess is she sparred her way back up the hill and perhaps the fight continued into some other area. All I know is the fight didn't end in the spot where I left it.
Meanwhile, never would I have believed I'd watch a single coyote (and not a very big one!) running down a grown deer. And I'm someone who actively watches coyotes as one of my photography projects. I know that they will go for fawns, and with wolves gone from most of North America, coyotes have started to fill the empty niche for controlling wild deer populations in addition to acting as excellent rodent control. Still, this is surprising.
I had spotted a coyote on the side of the road that morning, lit by my headlights as I drove in the dark toward the trail head. It was probably this very female. But never would I have guessed that 20 minutes later, she would be chasing down a deer in front of me.
Well, little coyote, you certainly gave me a memory I won't forget.
Originally published October 2015