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A Raccoon Afternoon

Sometimes there's no place like home.

July 19, 2014 Wildlife

Spring is the time for birth and new life in nature. And summer is the time for rearing those new lives and introducing them to the big world around them. Adult birds and animals were busy nesting and feeding their offspring as spring days lengthened toward solstice. Now as summer slows down, the parenting picks up as growing youngsters learn the basics of fending for themselves under the watchful eyes of the adults. Recently, we were treated to a few hours of that new independence for young raccoons (Procyon lotor).

A few of these growing babies known as kits were left in the high branches of our backyard maple for the afternoon by their mother while she foraged or looked for a new residence for her young family. Mary spied them as we came home from a walk along the river. Three little ones scrambled down the trunk when they saw us. Two of them stopped in their tracks and returned to the branches, but the third scurried under the potting bench where it fell asleep.

Raccoon kits in tree.

After the two kits in the tree got used to us quietly watching them, they snuggled together for a nap in the crotch of two big limbs. I photographed them before they settled down. They snoozed there for a while before climbing to a higher perch for more napping.

Eventually, clouds blew in and it grew too dark for good photographs. That's when the young raccoon on the ground woke and climbed the tree to join its siblings. They rubbed noses and greeted each other with raspy purring. Then a fourth kit we hadn't seen, climbed down from a higher branch to join the trio and they all clambered up into the foliage and out of sight.

It was getting dusky when Mary spotted the returning mother climbing the maple to where she'd left her youngsters. She called to them and down they came. There was lots of purring and nuzzling and several kits started to nurse. Soon the mother led them back into the upper limbs where they all disappeared.

After sunset, the reunited family came down into the yard and spent an hour dining on fallen sunflowers seeds under the bird feeders and drank from the bird baths. What a treat. This wasn't the day we'd planned -- we were going to stain the Adirondack chairs and tables. Watching young raccoons all afternoon instead was a gift from nature we couldn't resist.


MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Wildlife)

SUBJECT: Raccoon kits (Procyon lotor) in Norway maple (Acer platanoides) tree.

CONDITIONS: Sunny, warm, clear and calm.

EQUIPMENT: Nikon D3, 300mm f/4, tripod, ball head.

EXPOSURE and SETTINGS: 1/60 sec at f/8, ISO 800; Aperture Priority mode, Matrix meter, Manual focus.

TECHNIQUE: Let me start by saying this was the easiest location I could imagine for photographing wildlife. It was right outside our backdoor. Mary kept an eye on the kits while I gathered my gear and set it up. I adjusted the tripod, slipped the 500mm lens into the ball head's quick release and roughly aimed up at the young raccoons. It give me too much focal length for the composition I imagined, so I switched to a 300mm f/4.

Then I moved the whole rig around until I found a good perspective on the kits. They weren't yet in the position seen in the photo above, so I got the camera's settings ready just in case they moved. Even though it was a sunny day, the dense foliage of the maple cut the light to the interior branches. So I chose ISO 800 to get as much shutter speed as possible without too much digital noise.

I focused on a branch, selected Aperture Priority and chose f/8 as a starting point. That gave me a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second, so I clicked a frame and checked the histogram. The scene was a medium tone (or average) overall -- no wildly bright or deep dark elements of consequence -- so the histogram reading looked good. And f/8 was enough depth of field for sharpness on the branches as I could see with the depth-of-field preview function and on the camera-back monitor.

A moment later, the young raccoons came down the branch and got comfortable next to the trunk. I clicked away, wishing I had more shutter speed. But they calmed down and watched us, so 1/60 sec was adequate to get sharp-enough photos. This cute pose and several others lasted a few minutes -- about 45 frame's worth. After that, the young raccoons climbed up a little higher to a less photogenic spot and napped. We watched them from our deck chairs and sipped cold beverages. Like I said, it was an easy location.

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