Stalking the Red Fox
© Jay Ryser 2009 Nature Photography Online Magazine
I’ll come right out and say it: Foxes are magical little animals. I’m fascinated by them. It has been suggested by other photographers that I have a fox addiction; they could be right. It’s probably no surprise that my first article for Nature Photography Online Magazine is devoted to the red fox!
And they are little animals: it’s hard to truly realize how tiny they are unless you’re close to one. Pictures do not put their size in context. Most of the adults in my little area probably weigh close to 10 pounds (keep in mind, that’s an estimate – I’ve never had poor enough impulse control or judgment to actually try to pick one up and weigh it).
In the wild, their diet ranges from invertebrates (insects, worms, crayfish) to small animals (rabbits, squirrels, voles, birds, snakes and reptiles, and fish) to plant material (fruits like berries and apples). When in more urbanized area, they can supplement their diet with scavenged food and sometimes small pets. In my neighborhood, the number of feral cats seemed to diminish rapidly when the foxes moved in to the water treatment facility nearby.
It’s not unusual for people to feed foxes when they live close by in urban areas. I see this happening on a regular basis. On one hand, foxes are just as cute as they can be, so it’s not surprising that people feed them, particularly when they have the impression that it makes the foxes friendlier. On the other hand, it’s a bad practice for the foxes and all wild animals. It’s illegal in most places to feed wildlife, and I have known of people getting tickets for this. It’s also bad for the wild animal. I’m a firm believer in the adage, ”A fed bear (or fox or whatever wild animal) is a dead bear.” You not only risk the animal’s health by feeding them items not part of their natural diet, you also acclimate them to people. When people mix with wild animals, the outcome is usually not in favor of the wild animal.
I have several areas that I frequent in my search for foxes, including my local city and state parks, the water treatment facility a couple of blocks from my house, sometimes even in my front yard and alley. They’re highly adaptive little animals, at home in the suburbs and the woods. Considering the rate that we’re consuming their natural habitat, it’s a good thing they’re so adaptable. Foxes have the reputation for having the widest range of any terrestrial carnivore.
In Colorado, the breeding periods is generally late January to early February, and usually give birth in early to mid April. Foxes usually prefer an underground birthing den, one with several entrances/exits. In my favorite fox area, they use a series of abandoned drainage pipes and culverts. Foxes generally do not share food, with the exception of birthing and raising their kits. Males will bring food to the vixen before and after the birth of the litter, and the vixen will bring food to the kits.
The kits are blind at birth, and open their eyes around 2 weeks old, cautiously explore outside the den at 5 weeks old, and are fully weaned at 10 weeks. In the fall, the kits will leave in search of their own territories.
The kit season is a popular one for photographers. There are not many things cuter than baby foxes. In my favorite fox area, kit season turns into a circus, with hordes of photographers swarming the area. Last year, I spent most of my weekends for 2 months with half a dozen other photographers staking out a den site (or spending 2 months of my life staring at a hole in the ground according to my wife). It got to the point that we were clustered a distance away from the den, all of us sitting in camping chairs, gear on tripods, remote releases connected, ice chests nearby, most with iPods. I regret not getting a picture of that. It was not unusual for us to doze off, awakening with a start, and accidentally firing off half a dozen shots accidentally with the remote release in hand. We did get some lovely pictures of a hole in the ground.
For my part, I never saw or got a photo of a fox kit last year. I’d either arrive ten minutes too late, or leave 5 minutes too early. ”Right after you left, three of the kits came out and played for twenty minutes – you just missed it!” My timing quickly became a joke among the other photographers. ”You missed it – right after you left, all five of the kits brought down a bull moose.” ”Just before you got here, the kits found a tricycle and were riding it up and down the trail.” Thanks guys, I appreciate it.
Red foxes are wide ranging in Colorado. There’s a family living in a water treatment facility a few blocks from my house that I see regularly. I spot foxes at Roxborough State Park often. My favorite place must remain shrouded in mystery (it’s a city park, and shouldn’t be too hard to figure out for those motivated to find it, or drop me a Bubblemail and I’ll take you for a tour). It’s an area with a creek running through the middle, light to dense woods on both sides, and open fields. The foxes seem to prefer the wooded area to the open field most of the time.
This terrain can contribute to some photographic challenges. The woods and brush can block much of the sunlight in early morning and late afternoon, requiring a wide aperture and a high ISO to keep shutter speeds up. In the open fields, strong sunlight can cause some exposure problems, with white patches of fur causing blown out highlights. I usually rely on matrix metering, dropping exposure by 1/3 to a full stop, and keep a close eye on the histogram. For shots with strong backlight, I usually use spot or center weighted metering, again watching the histogram closely. I always shoot in RAW.
I most commonly use a 300mm f/2.8 lens. The extra stops from the f/2.8 is very helpful in low-light shooting, and since the best times to photograph foxes seems to be in the early morning and late evening hours, that’s most of my shooting time. 300mm seems to be a good focal length most of the time – a shorter or longer focal length can be helpful at times, but the 300 works well for the majority of shots I take. I can always add a 1.4TC for a little more reach and lose only 1 stop.
I recently got the Sigma 150-500 – it’s a nice lens but it’s a slow lens. The widest aperture is f/5 at the short end which rapidly turns into f/6.3 past about 200mm. In low-light, it’s a bit too slow. I’m still getting acquainted with the lens, so I may change my mind once I’ve used it more. I suspect I’ll use it much more for my alpine critters, where I have lots of light and clean backgrounds.
I use a tripod as much as possible. I’ve used a monopod before, and liked it, but the tripod has several advantages. Most important, my images are much sharper using the tripod than not. It also forces me to be more mindful of the shots I take – I get a second to think about composition. I use a gimbal on the ballhead – a Wimberley Sidekick. Instead of having a heavy lens perched delicately on top of a ballhead, waiting for the slightest lag in attention to let gravity yank it to the ground, the gimbal lets the lens float effortlessly. I can pan and tilt with a heavy lens with one finger, and as soon as I let go, the lens stays exactly where I left it. Once you use a gimbal, you’ll never again use a long lens without one. I usually keep the tripod collar on the lens loose to allow me to quickly rotate from landscape to portrait mode very easily.
I usually go to my favorite fox locale in Fall, Winter, and Spring. In the Summer, the area is just overgrown with tall grass and other plants – about all I manage to see is the tip of a tail moving in the tall grass. In the Fall, the foxes blend in well with the leaves. Winter is my favorite time – the cold weather contributes to the foxes having thick, full coats, and they’re very photogenic with bright coats contrasting with white snow. Overcast days with lots of snow act as a giant diffuser, so no worries about blown highlights. In the Spring, trees and plants are flowering, and grass is bright green, and also set off bright coats well. Spring is also kit season.
I’ve been going to this little area long enough that I’m usually able to recognize individual foxes and have a little understanding of some of the fox politics.
If you’ve been following my reports of my little fox world, you’re already familiar with the alpha male, Pock. I have no idea why the locals call him that, but that is his name. He’s easy to identify – he has a fairly light colored coat and a squinty, rheumy left eye. Local rumor has it that he was playing with one of his kits and it accidentally scratched his eye, and it never fully recovered. Another local says he was bitten by a coyote. It does seem to give him more trouble in really cold weather. In this shot, you don’t really see the squinty eye.
Despite this, for a long period he’s been the alpha male of his little area. Other foxes would defer to him and even jump and run out of his way when challenged. He’s a bold little guy as well: I’ve seen him hold his own in a confrontation with a coyote at least 3 times his size. He trots down the same trail as me and passes within a few feet of me, and even uses me for shade on bright mornings. I’ve also caught him rooting through my camera bag when my back was turned.
There seems to be a shift in the political structure in the fox world, though. The beta male, who has never been as bold, stole food from Pock the other weekend. It was only a few months ago he was running away if Pock gave him a sour look. Pock’s not a youngster anymore, but he’s still very active, and my most commonly spotted fox. We’ll see what happens in the following weeks and months in this little soap opera.
The beta male has never been as bold. He sticks to the brush and keeps a distance away from me. He doesn’t seem to mind me hanging around as long as I don’t get too close. The longer I’ve known him, the more comfortable he seems to be with me, and gradually has a decreasing radius of comfort around me. I was shocked when I witnessed him stealing food from Pock – it’s a gutsy move for this cautious little guy.
The alpha female is my favorite. She’s a gorgeous little vixen, with a beautiful coat. She’s also the calmest fox in this area. While the males are running around, she confidently goes about her business, and doesn’t seem to mind me hanging around. She stalks and hunts with me nearby, and even curled up and took a short nap 10 feet away from me as I sat on the ground sorting through my camera bag.
There are other foxes in the area too, most of them are less known and I only see them at a distance or in heavy brush.