Summer is the season of babies. Loon chicks ride on Mom’s and Dad’s backs, fox pups play outside their den and caterpillars munch on milkweed leaves.
These critters don’t look or act anything alike, but they do have one thing in common: they are Northwoods babies. And when you stop and think about it, there are many different ways to be born, be young and grow up in the Northwoods!
Some babies, like the loon chicks and fox pups, benefit from two devoted parents who share the duties of feeding and protecting their young. Butterflies and moths provide no parental care. They simply lay their eggs on the food plant of their caterpillars — and then fly off! They’ve protected their caterpillars with adaptations like camouflage, bad-tasting chemicals and the instinct of how best to hide. With many mammals — like deer, bats, porcupines, bobcats and otters — females care for their young alone.
Lately I’ve been paying even closer attention to the wild babies in my woods, because they are the subject of the Cable Natural History Museum’s 2022 exhibit. Since every living thing is young once (it’s hard to imagine a baby house fly or beetle, but they exist), there’s a lot to pay attention to, and I’m asking for your help.
This summer, the museum is hosting the Northwoods Babies Photo Contest. It’s pretty simple: kids and adults of any age are invited to submit their digital photos of baby or young animals and their hard-working parents. All animals must be Northwoods natives, and may include mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects. The photos don’t even have to be from 2021. If you got a great photo last summer, you could enter that, too!
The submission portal isn’t quite set up yet, but you can start taking photos now, and then visit our website, www.cablemuseum.org, for the details later. The deadline for entering the contest will be Sept. 1, 2021. After that, we’ll award prizes for first, second and third place winners in both the under age 18 and the over age 18 categories. We will also let the public vote in a People’s Choice award! Plus, every photographer will be entered into a drawing for more fun prizes. Big thanks to James Netz Photography in Hayward for sponsoring the contest!
Now, I said before that the photo contest is pretty simple, but taking good photos of wildlife is anything but simple. For advice, I reached out to Keith Crowley. Keith has been making photos for more than 35 years, and a few years ago he nabbed some amazing shots of baby gray foxes at the Cable Community Farm.
“Your primary asset is patience,” he told me, “Patience to the extreme.”
For 26 days, Keith parked his vehicle a respectful distance from the fox den — which was located by the back steps of the farmhouse — and sat for countless hours waiting for the foxes to do something interesting. He captured shots of the three cubs playing together, of the parents bringing ground squirrels for dinner, and, finally, of the cubs climbing a nearby crabapple tree. Gray foxes are pretty unique in their tree-climbing habits, so photographing that behavior was his ultimate goal.
All the while, he made sure to be respectful and ethical.
“The critical thing is that you don’t disrupt the family interaction,” he told me. And that’s something for all photographers to remember. “I would prefer that the animal doesn’t even know I’m there,” said Keith. “But the main goal is not to affect their behavior. When they start noticing you, you’ve crossed the line. Then it’s best to back off, or even leave the area.”
This is especially important to remember with birds, who are almost all protected by the International Migratory Bird Treaty. It’s illegal to disturb a nest, or even possess a broken egg or lost feather unless you have the right permits. It’s also essential that you don’t get too close to a nest in the days before the chicks fledge. If you scare them out before they’re ready, their chance of survival goes way down. If you think a baby animal needs help, there are plenty of resources online to help you figure out what to do (or not do).
Recently, Keith spotted a young fawn nursing outside his kitchen window. The photos would have been super cute, but he had no way to get his camera into position without disturbing the pair, and then the fawn would have missed a meal. That’s not OK, so Keith just watched quietly.
One way to get close to animals without disturbing them is to camouflage yourself. That could take the form of a blind, a vehicle, or camouflaged clothing like a ghillie suit.
“Growing up hunting,” Keith told me, “you learn that the best camouflage is being still.”
Of course, some animals are more comfortable around humans than others, and if there’s a family in your yard, you can often sit quietly and let the critters get used to you. One of Keith’s favorite interactions was finding a baby porcupine who sat calmly at eye level in a tree at the top of the driveway for a whole week! Insect babies, like caterpillars and dragonfly nymphs, will often be cooperative models.
One of the best parts about going in search of a great photo is that it challenges you to observe nature more closely. You never know what you’ll find! So, take your camera outside, and (respectfully) enjoy the season of babies!
Emily’s award-winning second book, "Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer," is now available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting "Mysteries of the Night" exhibit. Connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.