My obsession with urban wildlife has led me on a quest to photograph every mammal in Toronto
Andrew Budziak, a wildlife photographer, is trying to capture all 42 mammals in the city.
I knew there were deer in the city, I just didn't know where. I had seen photos online and heard a story from a friend who had come across an eight-point buck while jogging. But when I would head out with my camera, the deer always decided to lay low.
All of my nature photography and videography up to this point had been done away from cities. Capturing a city deer would be my next challenge.
At the end of 2020, I moved to Toronto's northeast, an area that is new to me and incredibly green. And green means wildlife. After exploring for a few weeks, I had come across some great scenes: cardinals enjoying the snow, a muskrat eating at the side of a pond and some high-strung chipmunks. Each time I photographed something new, I was inspired to head out even earlier the next day.
What began as a way to explore my new neighbourhood was increasingly occupying all of my time. But the deer remained my white-tailed whale. After pouring over Google Maps, I came across a section of forest I hadn't explored. When I arrived there, the thick bush revealed a small path that was covered in deer tracks. And not five minutes later I had my photo. A beautiful doe made her way out from a thicket of trees, and with that shutter click, it was settled: urban wildlife was now my full-blown obsession.
I pulled together a list of Toronto's 42 mammals and the goal became to photograph them all. To get checked off the list, it needs to be a good photo. Something blurry obscured by a bush won't cut it. And although the focus is mammals, I never pass up the opportunity to photograph a stoic barred owl or a grumpy toad.
Occasionally, luck is all it takes to get a good photo. But mostly it's research and preparation. I combed Facebook posts of reported coyote sightings hoping to discover patterns that would increase my chances of a great photo. That research paid off. I am thrilled with my picture of a beautiful healthy coyote crossing a frozen pond on a chilly afternoon.
But this research also started turning up some stories I hadn't expected. Right across this country, urban green spaces are in trouble. Development, overuse, erosion, invasive species and poor planning are putting tremendous pressure on these habitats.
My photo project began to get attention online, so I decided to use this opportunity to shed some light on the issues facing our urban green space. I created a small digital series called Edge of Frame that highlights some of these pressures and tells the backstory of some of my photos.
Perhaps there is no better way to support our green space than by showing the people in charge that we love it, want it to grow and will work to protect it.
That protection starts at an individual level. As much as I like to talk about and share photos of my animal encounters, I have created a pretty strict set of rules for these interactions.
First, I make sure that I never let the animal I'm photographing get between me and a road. I'm often shooting close to major and busy thoroughfares and the last thing I want is to spook an animal and have it run into traffic.
Secondly, I never disclose specific locations. A quick look back to what happened to a fox kit at Toronto's Beach boardwalk last year is a good reminder why. This lockdown celebrity kit was likely killed by an off-leash dog — a common source of destruction for urban wildlife.
Finally, when I've gotten a few good pictures, I leave. There's no need to stick around until the animal gets frustrated or scared and takes off. You never want to be the last one to leave the party.
The day before I wrote this article, I crossed a new animal off my list: a fat, curious groundhog. In the photo, it looks deep in thought and that pose was a good reminder to do the same. Walking out of the forest, I took a moment to think about and appreciate how delightful it is to share a city with such a wonderful variety of incredible animals.