How (Not) to Photograph Prairie Dogs – Part 1

I had it all planned out.  I’d scoped out the site, found the prairie dogs, and located an active burrow close to a road ditch with enough cover to conceal me and my camera.  I’d even built a kind of half-blind – a small piece of garden fencing with tall grasses woven into it – with a space for my lens to poke through.  All I had to do was show up at the dog town in the early morning, crawl into position, set the little photo blind in front of me, and wait for the prairie dog to come out into the beautiful early morning sunshine to pose for a portrait.

…Which is how I came to be lying on my belly in a road ditch yesterday, waiting for the sun to come up.  It was a really beautiful day – light winds, a pleasant temperature, and just enough haze on the horizon to soften the light when the sun finally emerged.  As I lay in the ditch, I was even pleasantly surprised to hear prairie chickens booming near the wetland just to the west of me.  In short, everything was wonderful, and just as the sun started to poke through the haze, the first prairie dog emerged from its burrow in the center of the small town and started barking.  “Won’t be long now,” I thought to myself.

Looking back, I now recognize the barking as more of a kind of mocking laughter.   “Hee Hee Hee Hee!,” it laughed mockingly.  “Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee…”

At the time, not being familiar with the local customs of this particular dog town, I mistakenly assumed that once the first prairie dog started barking, the others would soon emerge and begin doing interesting and photogenic activities.  Instead, the lone prairie dog – from a distance of several hundred yards from my little blind – just continued his lone sardonic monologue for about 20 minutes.

“Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee…!”

Eventually, a few other prairie dogs did pop out of their holes and join in the fun – though none of them were anywhere close enough for good photo opportunities.  All the while, the burrow right in front of me, the one I’d carefully scouted several days earlier, remained sneeringly silent. As the sun continued to climb, inching closer and closer to the point at which the light would be too bright for good photography, the only prairie dogs in sight were the jokesters out in the middle of the town.

A spiteful gang of prairie dogs, maintaining a needlessly long distance from the photographer lying at the edge of the town. (This photo is cropped significantly to allow you to see that these actually ARE prairie dogs, and not just little brown specks.)

A small group of 8 to 10 western meadowlarks was milling around in the town as well, each pausing occasionally from feeding to sing the characteristic meadowlark song.  I consoled myself with the thought that if nothing else, I’d at least get myself a decent photo of a meadowlark as soon as one ventured close enough.  It’s funny… I’ve been listening to western meadowlark songs my whole life, but never fully realized the true spiteful tone of those songs.  Especially from a distance of several hundred yards…

A fuzzy long-distance photo of a contemptuous meadowlark with a jeering prairie dog right behind it.

Just as I was about to give up on the whole adventure, I heard a prairie dog start chipping away at close range.  Unfortunately, it was about 30 yards to my left, and the vegetation along the road ditch/fenceline was blocking my line of sight.  Knowing full well how the little escapade would end, I nevertheless backed slowly out of my position and started army-crawling quietly down the road ditch toward the sound.  When I was close enough to the sound, I started moving very slowly – inch by inch – through the tall grass toward the prairie dog.  I could barely see the prairie dog’s head, a mere 20 feet in front of me, through the vegetation.  About two feet closer, and I’d have a clear view.

At about one and half feet, I heard the following sound – “Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee…YOINK!”

And down it went.

A prairie dog burrow, from which - only moments before - a prairie dog was in plain site, laughing mockingly.

Out of nothing but pure stubbornness, I laid there with my camera trained on the hole for a full 10 minutes.  Nothing.  Finally, I grabbed my camera, stomped back to the truck, and headed back to town to catch my first conference call of the day.

But I’m not giving up.  Oh no – I’ve got a plan.  Now that I’ve fully studied the behavioral pattern of the dog town’s inhabitants, I know JUST what I’m going to do next time.  I’m going to get me some FANTASTIC photos of prairie dogs.  Photos that will KNOCK YOUR SOCKS OFF.  Just you wait.

(“Hee Hee Hee Hee Hee!”)

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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20 Responses to How (Not) to Photograph Prairie Dogs – Part 1

  1. George W. Shurr says:

    This post made me add my He He He to the dogs.

  2. Tom Prunier says:

    Just as long as you don’t crawl into the blind accompanied by the buzz of a rattlesnake the day ends well :)

  3. Kathi Smith says:

    Hilarious account of a typical day of photography.

    I’ve tried to shoot prairie dogs for years and they’re skittish (and mean-spirited) little critters. So far, the best method I’ve found is to look for a prairie dog town which is actually in the middle of a people town. They’re accustomed to people and more likely to carry on with their normal activiities while being stalked. They’ll still dive for cover when approached but if you remain still for about half an hour or so, they’ll adapt to your presence. If you can find a town where you can park right next to the prairie dog meadow you can use your vehicle as a blind, although the prairie dogs seem to know this trick and love to pop up in the exact spot where objects on your car will interfere with the shot. Then they laugh . . . er . . . bark. But at least I’ve gotten a few decent shots of them this way.

    Good luck!

  4. Katy says:

    I loved this post! It seems that I’m often been the butt of the joke when I go out to get photographs of these crafty creatures out on our reserve.

  5. Pam says:

    Hilarious post – made me laugh out loud! Thank goodness you are a man of great patience and are willing to share both your experiences and your wonderful photos.

  6. j.hammonds says:

    Hilarious post! This is the gritty reality of a “day in the life of a wildlife photographer.” It’s not all high adrenalin and “you shoulda been there” adventure. Sometimes, it’s just this: Patience, and a sense the animals have a better bead on you than you’ll ever get on them.

  7. Eric Fowler says:

    Hummm? Where have I heard that story before? Hope the dogs don’t treat you as bad as the river otters treated me!

  8. James McGee says:

    Chris, I always look forward to your posts. Thank you for sharing your adventures with everyone.

    If you want some good prairie dog photos, I would suggest Custer State Park or Devil’s Tower. They have become accustomed to people and are relatively easy to photograph. Custer State Park does have the problem of people feeding them. This has caused the grasslands around areas frequented by visitors to be completely denuded.

    When I was at Denali National Park, the areas frequented by visitors attracted foxes. They were after the arctic ground squirrels that had become fat and stupid from being feed. I was taking a photo of a ground squirrel when a fox ran over the ridge. This ground squirrel escaped. All I ended up with was a blurry photo of the fox. The foxes were as unconcerned about people as a domestic cat. The foxes would wander through groups of people with any out concern. A ranger told me that some foolish lady actually tried to give one of the foxes a hug. This ranger then told me she had been posted outside to make sure no one tried to hug a fox again. The foxes may have lost a fear of people, but they were not pets.

    James

  9. Patrick Swanson says:

    Related yet unrelated question, Chris. What impact will the new law in Nebraska forcing landowners with prairie dogs to control them to prevent them going onto neighboring lands have on management of this keystone species in the state?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Patrick – I think it’s too early to tell. I think much will depend upon the level of enforcement. County weed superintendents have plenty of other things to worry about besides enforcing prairie dog control, so unless a particular landowner or particular group of county commissioners is really pushy, I don’t think the sup’s will be looking for more work. If I ever get a decent batch of prairie dog photos, I’ll try to do a post that gets into the issue of prairie dogs on private lands in more detail.

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  11. john says:

    The meadowlark is in league with the prairie dogs then?

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  14. I love nature, pass a lot of time reading about it and love jogging in the woods….but when i see some people like you so dedicated and with such patience…well…
    Excellent job, very funny :)

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