Monthly Archives: June 2011

Back from Minnesota

Raccoon Nursery

I’d planned to write every day I was in Minnesota, but I am too A.D.D., I guess, to settle down and write about my day….probably why I’m not much of a journal writer.   I was also a little bit conflicted about what I was doing……going to Minnesota on a Wildlife Photography seminar…..at a captive wildlife facility.  I haven’t photographed captives before, unless you count photographing the animals that appeared in a feature film my sled dog team was in.  This was a new experience for me.  I needed to ruminate on the experience before blogging about it.

As it happens, though, I am gathering shots for a photographic art showing, and I wanted well-lit photos that were art quality.  I’ve been able to accomplish that with some of the wildlife I photograph, but I wanted more variety.  I also sell image rights to a wildlife artist who uses my shots as research for his oil paintings, and I needed quality images.  Then, there is the fox book I’ve been working on…..and the opportunity to photograph both gray fox and arctic fox as examples of these species.

I was a bit unsure of what I’d find at this facility, but I can report that it was wonderful.  Having trained numerous sled dogs, and having run a fairly large kennel, I knew something about what I was seeing.  It was encouraging.  The photography type is controversial, and certainly not my first choice, but it was still a great experience.

That said, I think the animal/human bond exhibited by the head trainer and his animals was of awesome quality.  This is a family business, and the animals are well cared for.  I loved watching the owner’s daughter handling many of the animals.  She really has a knack with them, and she truly communicates with them.  Since the wildlife in my neighborhood are around people a lot, I know they can live side-by-side with us, if only we understand, appreciate, and allow them to do so.  Yes, wild animals do belong in the wild to come and go as they need.  However, I have never felt zoos to be unethical. I feel similarly about facilities like this one, when well run.  There are all kinds of animal rights-type articles on the internet decrying wildlife farms, but an article I found, written by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III (whom I had the honor of meeting many years ago) guru of wildlife photography, was the one that struck a chord with me and my “see-all- sides-of-an-issue” mentality.  If interested, find it at:  http://www.vividlight.com/articles/1805.htm

The raccoon babies were really fun.  The first day we were there, the heavens poured (we saw very little sun these four days), but this day was the worst.  We spent our time getting to know the animals, and we got to feed some of the babies by bottle.  I really enjoyed feeding the ‘coons.  They were noisy when hungry, ate with vigor, and then settled right down to be snuggled.  Except for the one I had that decided to let go all over me!  Pee and poop, both!  We all laughed, but I got a free laundering service right there in the beautiful log house that is headquarters and family home.  The Midnight Marauders owed me a good photo, and I believe I might have been only one of two of our group to get all three little faces looking at the camera.

The animals we photographed all live in the North Woods of Minnesota, as well as in the Rocky Mountain West.  The bright green deciduous vegetation & different geology  were the only things that differed much from the habitats I am used to.  (By the way, I have families of raccoons who visit my deck every night in summer, looking for bird feeders I may have forgotten to bring in).  I rarely see them in the day time, though, so having light to work with was another bonus.

A word about photographing the wildlife:  at least at this facility, the animals are brought in and  encouraged with treats to stay in a photographic area.  The areas are huge, though, and while the animals “sort of” came in when called, a lot of the photographic opportunities were up to us, though we stayed together and didn’t roam around on our own.  Many of the animals were very quick, and the light low, so photography was fairly challenging, though definitely more successful than many chance encounter sessions I’ve had in the wild.

I’d planned a trip to the Vince Shute Black Bear Sanctuary and to the International Wolf Center, both near Ely, MN, while on this trip, but a series of circumstances prevented my getting that far north.  Getting a chance to photograph both species at the facility helped me get over the disappointment of missing the Centers……that will be for my next trip north.

It’s not easy work, this Wildlife Farming.  The trainers set their clocks for every three hours for feedings of the young ones, 24/7.  The roads department calls all hours of the day or night when there is road-killed deer, and the trainers drop what they are doing to bring in fresh meat for their predators.  Government regulations must be met.  It’s not a snap living, but this family is dedicated and have run the wildlife farm for going on three generations.

I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences and some of my photos in the coming days!

Categories: Wildlife Photography | 1 Comment

Quick Learners

The fox babies are growing up.  They seem (some of them, anyway) to still come back to the den to sleep.  Fox research says that kits will begin to hunt in groups, or perhaps accompany an adult on hunts at about 3.5 months of age.  This group of kits is at that point in their growth.  I had noticed, even before play sessions, that one or two of the kits would “come from elsewhere”  (who knows where) to join in.  I’ve not seen a play session since the weekend.  On Monday night, though, a fox was hit by a car on the road below me.  That night I actually heard fox “scream” calls at about 11 p.m.  I have no way of knowing if that had anything to do with the road kill.  My adults are all intact (a neighbor thought it might have been one of this fox family).  The neighbor boy who found it and buried it told me it was an adult fox…but he may have been mistaken, since the kits are getting so big now.  It may have been a fox from another territory.  All I know is the order of things has suddenly changed.  I’d not seen “Bashful” until Thursday morning, and at first wondered if she may have been hit.  At that point I’d seen maybe one kit out of the den, but no mor group play sessions.  That night seemed to create a difference in the order of fox behavior.  Since that time I’ve seen all four adults from my fox family curled up under my bird feeders in the morning (they had done that when the kits were under the deck).  I’ve not seen any kits, however.  It is very possible the fox killed was one of the kits on a night hunting trip.  Kits are so vulnerable at this stage in their lives.  Of course, animals have litters for just that reason:  to ensure that SOME genes are successful for future generations.  Considering the risks, only one pup from a litter making it to maturity is a reasonable reality.  That all three from the litter last year made it (the boy at least made it until he was forced from the territory by “Papa” fox), is rather unusual and amazing.  I had worried about what might happen when these current kits were going out into the world, however.  The home territory is obviously rather full, with four adult foxes living on it.  Would one of the adult females search out another territory?  Would they drive the female kits away?  That all remains to be seen, and I may never know.  Still, foxes are extremely intelligent, and they learn quickly.  An example is my birdbath sitting in a scraggly raspberry patch.  “Bashful” and “Sweetie” would drink from it by jumping right up onto the structure.  The kits were fascinated, but couldn’t reach.  “Big Red,” however, the biggest of the litter, made it eventually, and on his first attempt session!  (See photos below).  As with all three litters in three consecutive seasons of denning under my deck, I have increased my knowledge of fox behavior, and I’ve been blessed with some interesting photography as well.

3). Success! "Big Red" finally gets a drink! And he learned in one session.

2). "Big Red" tries over and over to do as Bashful had done.

1). No Fair! We want up there, too! Bashful takes a drink in the seemingly inaccessible birdbath.

Categories: Red Foxes | 1 Comment

Fox Interactions

Fox watching involves either discovery or confusion.  Having a background in canine behavior (or experience with more than one canine) really allows the watcher to have a better idea of just what is going on.  As the fox kits grow, their interactions become more adult-like.  They don’t tend to greet one another……after all, they are all living together and know each other well.  But there does seem to be a pecking order which establishes quite young, according to the fox research I have read (the best is a book entitled:  Red Fox, The Catlike Canine by J. David Henry, ISBN 1-56098-635-2, Smithsonian Press).  He said, “…..at about 25 days of age, the kits begin to fight viciously; they clash with each other in short, serious….contests….[to]….establish a strict dominance hierarchy during the following ten days.  The alpha (or dominant) member of the litter establishes itself, and the hierarchical process continues all the way down to the omega animal.  Evidence suggests that these dominance relationships among the cubs are stable and have a great bearing on their survival….The largest member of the litter, whether male or female, usually becomes the alpha pup.  By early May the fox kits …..begin to come above ground for longer periods of time.  At this point the hierarchy is solidly established, and the aggressiveness of  the cubs actually diminishes.  Gradually they become more social, playful, and puppylike.”

I’m glad I’m watching the less aggressive behavior!   Other interactions are interesting.  Pup to adult greeting is often like pups get food as younger kits.  They approach crouched, ears back, tail out, in a submissive behavior.  Open mouths seem to go with the greeting.  Between adults it is the same.  Below, Papa, who has been babysitting, is replaced by Sweetie, who greets Papa, and they then begin to “mouth” in friendship, or, at least toleration.  After-all, Sweetie is a pup from last year’s litter with Papa again as sire.

Papa & Sweetie interacting (two adults)

“Big Red” approaches Papa

Less aggressive puppylike play behavior

Categories: Red Foxes | 1 Comment

Saturday Afternoon with the Fox Family– Funny Fox Fotos

Bashful Chews Out Rambunctious Kit (actually she's yawning)

Wake Up, Sleepyhead!    

After waking them up, Bashful soon retreats to the birdbath to get away from the onslaught!

Saturday’s observations were entertaining.  The kits, now likely two months old, are wild and wiley.  Photographing them is not easy.  For one, I have two safe places to photograph from, using my house as a blind.  My family room is on one end of the front “deck” (or porch), and my garage windows are on the other side.   The kits are not afraid of me (if I make no sudden moves or sounds and am standing at the window).  The problem often is their outsmarting me.  Just as in the Greek fables about the wiley fox, these intelligent creatures will run over the deck, or under it (through their den) to the opposite side of where I am!  They can drive me crazy trying to keep up with them.  From either window I encounter lots of bush branches in my way.  From one window I have deck furniture, hummingbird feeders, and the deck itself, always present.  It is a challenge to be at the right place at the right time.  In my last post I introduced the four adults in my fox family.  When Foxie Mama is around I can photograph the kits from outside……but only from a sitting position, and after I scare them once when I first approach. They then come back out with curiosity getting the better of them.  “Bashful”, however, is the common babysitter, and, as her name suggests, she will not allow me outside around the kits.    This morning, for the first time, Sweetie was babysitting.  Normally I can get near Sweetie, but she must be fairly new to babysitting, because she didn’t know what to do while I was there.  The kits took up on that confusion, and retreated.  As a result, I now have lovely light, and no kits out playing. I
hope I’ll have an evening of fun like yesterday:  Pictured, Bashful wakes everyone up, then they mob her, and she retreats to the birdbath.  The kits run everywhere!  Bashful seems to tell them off (featured photo) and then is bewildered by trying to keep track of everyone.

Actually, I say the above to anthropomorphize the fun of watching fox litters.  However, there really is a fascinating set of communications foxes use to direct their young.  I’ve heard the sharp scream they make when a dog comes sniffing around.  The kits go under with the speed of prairie dogs when a hawk flies above them.  There is a soft chortle when Mama or Bashful wants the little guys to come out to play, or take food offered.  I’ve heard an interesting clicking sound made to get the kits’ attention as well.  Then there is the hoarse three note barking the kits use to talk to each other……very fun stuff.

Bashful soon was tired of kit antics, and, below, is yawning, and staying off just in enough distance to keep watch as the pups fly around, chasing, pouncing, stalking and running, running, running.  The day ends as the pups finally settle down to relax…….

The Kits Evening Activity Finally Ends in Relaxation

Bashful yawning at the hard work of babysitting.

Categories: Red Foxes | 3 Comments

Welcome to Dannenattundrawinds

Bashful is just like her name. She easily frightened, but has become a good babysitter to this year's litter.

At present, I am a teacher of young children.  My other school duties involve photography for our website and for marketing since our school is a private one and enrollment relies on advertising.  But I have another life.  Ever since I was a Ranger-Naturalist in Rocky Mountain Park, I have sought a sort of intimacy with the non-human world.  I have raised sled dogs that I showed under the kennel name:  Tundra Winds, and I raced in sledding events for 20 years in the Rocky Mountain West.  This close association with canines has perhaps allowed me to understand wildlife, and to approach them for photography.  I love nothing more than to spend a day on the alpine tundra following a herd of mountain goats or bighorn sheep, observing their life, and recording it digitally.

An incredible break for me involved the purchase of my house in a foothills community that abounds with wildlife.  I had no idea when I purchased my acre of mixed evergreen forest, that I would live smack in the center of a fox family’s territory.  Amazingly, not only did foxes pass through my property, they also denned under the front deck of my house.  Since I have lived here, I have observed 3 litters within this single family, and each year I learn more about these wild canines; enough to write two books about their antics and their life cycle.

At first I had no idea what I was observing, except that it seemed very familiar to my work with Samoyed dogs, their breeding, raising and training.  By keeping several dogs at a time, I also had a clue about their communications and their ability (or inability) to get along, their hierarchies, etc.  I saw many of the same things within the fox family!   That made me curious enough to do some research and to observe in similar ways red fox researchers have observed.

"Papa" is sire of the three litters I have observed.

Currently there are four adult foxes within this territory, and I’ve named them:  Papa, who has sired every litter raised here.  Foxie Mama, who may have raised each litter, though I’ve not been able to confirm her as the dam of the first litter.  Two daughters from last year’s litter reside here:  Sweetie (who lost an eye in rough puppy play), and Bashful, who is incredibly shy.  Having last year’s girls around has been especially interesting.  Last year Mama and Papa did all the caregiving to their litter of three.  Since there are four this year, Bashful has taken on many of the babysitting duties.  Sweetie comes around, but I’ve not seen her spend any time with the litter.  Bashful and Foxie Mama do the main watch-guarding, with some help from Papa. (First photo)

Foxie Mama is an incredible vixen.  She is amazingly bold and friendly, often following me around the yard.  She often hangs around on my back deck, checking out my bird feeders.  She often eats bird seed that has fallen out of the feeders, but I know it’s a live meal she’d like to have, though I’ve never seen her successfully catch a feathered meal.  I have seen her try, however.  Foxie is also an amazing mother fox.  She has been the dam of at least the last two litters I’ve observed.

The two girls, Sweetie and Bashful, are very different.  Sweetie is brash, bold, and pushy.  She and her brother, Audie (who Papa drove out of the territory when he was about six months of age) were playing, and Audie either bit or scratched her in the eye.  I happened to hear this happening, though it was dark that early autumn morning.  I worried terribly about Sweetie, and wondered if she could survive this way in the wild.  She seems to have done quite well.  Bashful is shy and afraid of about everything.  Wind in the trees makes her nervous.  She tolerates me hanging out the window to take her picture, but not to walk near her.  I watched her fearful of the car when I drove up my driveway.  She did not warn the kits, but took off with them bewildered at my iron machine.  Later she did a better job of guarding the kits, but her first inclination is to flee at danger.

Now that you have met my fox family, I will leave further adventures to other posts.  My posts will be about my involvement with the animals and places that I photograph.  I hope you will stop by often to see what wonders I’ve encountered!

"Foxie Mama" the SuperMom of the fox world!

Sweetie is the daughter with an injured eye.

Categories: Red Foxes | 5 Comments

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