Arctic Fox Photography in Winter, Iceland

February, 2017

We were very excited to come back to Iceland to photograph the Arctic Fox – one of our favourite animals. In 2014 we had a great experience and adventure to photograph arctic fox cubs in summer. Full story is here. This year, with a great help from David Gibbon, Arctic Fox Centre and Borea Adventures, we had a superb opportunity to photograph arctic foxes in winter. Hornstrandir, as it hosts the highest density of the Arctic Fox in Iceland, was our destination and home for 6 days. 

A day before we headed to Hornstrandir, we visited Arctic fox centre in Sudavik near Isafjordur.  It is a research centre with an enclosed exhibition and cafe. Manager and guide Midge gave lots of info about arctic foxes, their distribution, diet, details about their behaviour and the difference between “white” and “blue” morph Arctic foxes.

Outside there were two arctic foxes in a caged enclosure playing a game “We want to break free”. 

Westfjords peninsula is a home to Hornstrandir nature reserve. It took us about an hour by boat to get to this isolated and unspoiled place; luckily the sea was calm, with no strong wind. We stayed in an old farm house. The last inhabitants left the farm in 1948. In 2012 it was in a really bad shape, but with lots of hard work it is now renovated. In February, most of the previous years there would already be plenty of snow, but there was no snow here yet; just few patches here and there. We kept fingers crossed for snow. According to the forecast we could expect winter weather in couple of days. On the other hand, clear skies with no heavy clouds and dropping temperature was a good sign for us to see Northern Lights. We did not have high expectations but just before we wanted to head to beds, Midge and Runar informed us that Northern Lights are visible. We got ready in no time and rushed outside. At the beginning there were couple greenish streaks in the sky. We watched them and scan the skies with excitement as the intensity of the Northern Lights changed and faint streaks became more prominent.

We stayed outside till 3 a.m. as it could be the only chance for us in this trip to witness this amazing phenomenon.
The next morning we woke up with no sign of snow. It was a good opportunity to explore the area. In the afternoon, on the way back we spotted an arctic fox.  It was quite far and it seems that it was resting. Later in the afternoon the fox came down from the mountains; it was the first closer encounter with the arctic fox. From that evening we remember a beautiful sunset.
That evening we decided to leave a camera trap.

Arctic Fox has two naturally occurring color morphs: blue, which is chocolate brown in summer and light brown with a blue tingle in winter; and white, which is grey to brownish grey in summer and white in winter. In continental North America only 1% of arctic foxes are blue, whereas in Greenland about half of the foxes are blue, and in Iceland most are blue.

Even the percentage of white arctic foxes is very low in Iceland, we were very lucky to have a short encounter with this beautiful animal.

It was a nice ending for the day. 

The next morning we hopped off the beds and poked heads out the window. The mountains were covered in snow. The conditions were promising.  We had a great breakfast and head off to look for arctic foxes. It turned out to be one of the best days in terms of weather. At the beginning a gentle snow started falling as we waiting for the fox sightings.
Before our trip to Iceland we both did quite a lot of research about Hornstrandir, arctic foxes and their behaviour, analysed other people's pictures, their photographic techniques and etc. We had ideas in mind how we want  to photograph and the falling snow was a huge help to deliver more appealing images.

Later heavier snow arrived giving another pattern to the already beautiful winter scene.

The Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) is also known as the white fox, polar fox, or snow fox. Later that day we spotted a fox which could definitely be called as a snow fox as it just woke up after the blizzard and was covered in a layer of snow.

When the winter storms are at their worst, the Arctic fox lies down in a sheltered place and let itself be covered by snow, or it digs itself into a snowdrift. A healthy Arctic fox can cope without food for several weeks and can cope with temperatures below -40°C without increasing its metabolism to stay warm. Those that live in extreme Arctic environments can sometimes have to withstand temperatures as low as -70°C. They are well adapted to extreme weather condition: thick waterproof fur, dark skin, small ears and legs, padded paws, thick, long tail and etc. Even the eyes are golden/orange colour and pigmented much more than the average eye which helps to decrease the reflection of light off the snow.
When arctic foxes rest in the freezing conditions, they curl their long, bushy tails around their bodies to conserve heat and at that moment they look like a ball of fluff.

The more time we spent watching and observing the behaviour of the Arctic Fox, the more similarities we found with the Red Fox. We've spent lots of hours observing the behaviour of our Red foxes in the garden so sometimes we were able to see a mini version of our foxes especially the one we call "Paw" (more about cute red foxes you can read in this blog). Knowing the behaviour of the animal beforehand helped us a lot in these circumstances. 

To reveal personalities and characters of foxes most of the time we used long lenses and of course waited for the right moment. This female fox look really sweet and cute...

While the male almost resembled a wolf... 

For a better idea of where the image was taken or where the foxes live, we tried to use wider lenses. 

The following day we awoke to a bit more snow. The conditions were similar to the day before but with lighter winds and light falling snow.

During the breeding season Arctic fox pairs are strongly territorial. They mark territory boundaries with urine, use their vocal abilities and demonstrating postures. Mating foxes communicate with a barking yowl that may be heard over a great distance. Most of the time Arctic foxes form mating pairs in March. Luckily, we've managed to spot couple of playful courtship moments which involved tail erection and wagging, ear drooping, chasing and play-fighting.

After a day spent photographing foxes, in the evening we took a short relaxing walk along the shore enjoying fresh air, nature and views. 
The following day we stayed more on the shore waiting for foxes to scour the shore as it was a low tide. On a daily bases foxes used to cross a stream of water coming from the mountains and search for shellfish, sea urchins and other shore animals or seabirds. Foxes in coastal habitats typically have access to an ice-free shoreline throughout the year with a seasonally stable availability of food resources. In coastal areas, where food supplies are stable, the Arctic fox defends a small territory that may overlap bordering home ranges. In alpine areas, the Arctic fox has a much larger territory and home ranges do not overlap to the same extent. 

In fact, Arctic foxes are proficient swimmers able to swim more than 45 min and for distances more than 2 km. The fur is oily and easily repels moisture from the fox's body. In addition, in the limbs the arteries and veins are very close. As blood flows down the artery, heat energy passes from it to the cooler blood which is returning in the opposite direction in the vein. It means that the arterial blood has already been cold by the time it reaches the end of the limb, so relatively little heat energy lost from it. In addition, it warms the venous blood before it gets back to the main part of the body.

On our final day we quickly packed our bags and the rest of the day stayed with arctic foxes before we headed back to civilization. 

We are really thankful for the opportunity to visit such an isolated and unspoiled place, experience unique moments and share them with others. We do appreciate nature that surrounds us.

Heart-warming sight of an Arctic fox on the shore looking at the boat while we were leaving Hornstrandir is one of the most memorable encounters which we brought back home with us.