Red Foxes

Spring Wildlife

I love the Rocky Mountains in spring!  We are blessed with so much wildlife, all busy and visible with their young.  From prairies to peak tops, the earth is springing forth with new life and opportunities to photograph and observe their behaviors and antics.

Early morning find...a young deer nestled in tall grass and wildflowers.

Early morning find…a young deer nestled in tall grass and wildflowers.

The biggest challenge with wildlife is getting close enough to photograph them adequately.  That involves the largest focal-length lens a person can afford.  The best lenses are the primes (single focal length) with a fast aperture (the largest aperture possible for adequate shutter speed for moving targets).  There are some high end telephoto zooms that also do a nice job.  Since I use Nikon equipment, my lens of choice is the 200-400mm f/4 VR zoom.  I also have a heavier 500mm f/4, but find it heavy for quick, serendipitous use.  The 200-400mm lens is pricey, but there are possibilities out there, like refurbished, or used lenses the lower the price tag a bit.

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The other downside for some is the time of activity and visibility of most wildlife.  As with the best landscape photography, the magic hours are right around dawn and twilight.  The thing is, more of us are up and active at twilight than dawn.  I’m sure you can then figure out which time animals prefer…….those early morning hours can be tough, especially in late spring and summer.  The rewards are great, however, and opportunities to get animals in lovely light (though I feel like animals prefer to retreat as soon as sunlight hits the earth…..another need for a good, fast lens!)  Ends of the day photography makes it a solitary activity for the early riser in most families.  It is not generally a group activity at any rate, with the noise of children and uninterested, bored and impatient companions.  Better to go with a group of like-minded, or to treat it as your “me” time with your camera.

However you go about it, photographing wildlife is a learning experience that requires researching the animals you photograph, understanding their tolerance and body language, and respecting their space and privacy.  Don’t force your presence in an attempt to get “the” shot.  You can always go back and try again…..that is what keeps wildlife photography fun, educational, and rewarding.

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Autumn in the Gunnison Basin

I love the Gunnison Basin and surrounding country.  The wildflowers in summer are supreme, but autumn color here is also superlative.  I have the opportunity to visit often since a good friend and fellow photographer welcomes me there often.  This past autumn was subtle.  While I was there, the color was good, actually very good, but just a bit past prime.  There was snow, but only a dusting.  Nothing could compare with the incredible snows and color of 2011, but it all areas and elevations seemed to burst with color at once, instead of in stages by altitude. The feeling was nostalgic and evoked those emotions of fall we remember from childhood and good times.

We first drove up Ohio Pass…..one of my favorite areas in the Gunnison, and found some lovely photographic subjects:

One of the many rustic barns found along Ohio Creek, this one framed by golden cottonwoods.

 

Panoramic view of the Ohio Creek Basin with the Castles above it all.  I did not saturate….this early light is the real thing on Ohio Pass.

 

Antelope along Tomchi Creek,  a small band gathers in cultivated fields annually for their autumn rut

Our photographic trip of the weekend was up into the Cimarron Valley towards Silverjack Reservoir and Owl Creek Pass.  This is bold, rugged country of the Uncompahgre National Forest in the San Juan Mountains.  We were so lucky to see fall color all the way up the valley.  It was a wonderful day of photography.

Spires above the aspen near Silverjack Reservoir

 

Our final photographic trip was to Kebler Pass…..the place most Coloradoans know for the aspen color found there.  We were a week late for peak color at the Pass summit……but on down the road was wonderful.  Such beauty to keep in pictures and memories!

The Rubies near Kebler Pass

 

East Beckwith Mountain along the Kebler Pass Road

Interior of aspen forest, backlit and enhanced by fill flash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Trail Lessons, Abyss Lake Trail

The trail goes all the way to Abyss Lake; that lake deep in the gorge between Mts. Bierstadt & Evans seen from the Mt. Evans Road.  What a compelling place that is!  The trail is really long……over 8 miles one way.  Most people do it as a backpack.  We decided to go as far as the Rosalie Trail Junction.  My 14 month old Samoyed puppy, Spirit,went along and got quite a few new wilderness lessons.  This time it was stream crossings over pretty big water, on some “interesting excuses” for bridges.  It was a lovely day:  fairly cool, sunny, with intermittent clouds that were refreshing while panting up the path.   The trail was similar to the Three Mile Creek trail, just one valley south of Scott Gomer Creek (named for an early logger in the area).  Scott Gomer and Three Mile Creek have similar geology, similar stream (though, luckily, not as many crossings as the Three Mile Creek, for Spirit’s sake!)  The valley was broader, and there were large areas of willow growth…….and, piles of dried MOOSE poop, probably from the past fall & winter seasons.  We didn’t see any moose, but they sure could have been there, remaining hidden in the willows.  John and Spirit, on one of their many side trips off the trail,  found a “kill” of some kind…..small……maybe a squirrel killed by a pine marten?  Hard to say, but the country at that point was very cougar-looking, open brush on a rocky, cliffy hillside.  A perfect place for mountain lions to stalk mule-eared deer.  While a squirrel would be just a snack for a cougar, we became a bit nervous in that area.  I accidentally left my poles at one point, and had to hike back down a-ways to retrieve them.  John, McLorrie & Spirit waited for me at a stream crossing.  When I got back, all were safely across, but with a tale to tell…….apparently, while attempting to cross the stream on a jumble of logs placed across it, Spirit slipped off slippery log into the deep part of the creek & went all the way under….twice!  Head and all!  It took some fishing to retrieve him out, but he finally got across fine…….no need for artificial respiration ; )    However, Spirit was pretty cautious at subsequent crossings.  Though he was a bit hesitant at first, he really did well after success at the next crossing, and then he was all confidence again!  I took pictures of him on the way down at the “bad” crossing.  The only slight problem was with trying to get around Lorrie as they both crossed together (why do dogs always do this??)  But, he did it successfully, and Lorrie remained upright.  I’ve got it in a sequence shot.  Here’s some photos from the hike:  Oh, and btw, this one would be a WONDERFUL fall hike……hillsides and hillsides of aspen!!  Most of the trail is quite gentle. I would LOVE to go the entire distance someday when the weather is perfect, and I’m in better shape!

“Moose Observation Area” was John’s name for this part of the Scott Gomer Creek Valley. Moose love wetlands defined by the protection of willow growth, the low-growing green plant in the foreground of this photo.

This is a hike to tuck into one’s mind for Autumn. The lush green aspen forests below Geneva Peak should turn into golden magnificence sometime in September.

After his headlong into the stream, Spirit is cautious on this double trunk crossing. John, his new Best Buddy, urges him on.

Whew! Okay, now all is better!

Scott Gomer Creek, taken from the middle of that double trunk crossing (hand held).

Yet another crossing. NOW we are getting the hang of it!

Spirit at our “destination” of the Abyss and Rosalie Trails, some 4 miles up the valley. From here the trail to Abyss Lake gets more serious. We’ll leave it for later.

Our lunch spot just back down the trail from the trail jct. Here, beneath the slopes of Kataka Mtn, we enjoyed the views of the Scott Gomer valley & active beaver workings.

Spirit’s backtrack across the “scary logs” he had so much trouble with on the trip up the trail. This time, other than almost losing it while passing Lorrie, he walked the Balance Beam just fine!

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The Kits Grow Up

Fox kit time is so much fun, but this year there were all sorts of interruptions and differences.  The first difference was the number of unleashed dogs in my neighborhood.  As a result, the kits were kept away, rotated in small groups, and now only one, or maybe a couple, reside under my deck.  The second difference was my own unavailability due to losing my job and needing to network and apply for jobs rather than spending my time photographing wildlife after school.

On the bright side, I had a recent amazing weekend with all six kits in residence.  Even better, it was over the Memorial Day holiday, and I had photographer friends visiting who got to share in the fun of observing and photographing the fox family.

That weekend was so much fun that we spent very little time enjoying the out-of-doors on my backyard deck.  Instead, we were holed up at the windows in a sort of blind situation, watching the coming and going of babysitter yearlings, Mama, Papa, and lots of puppy personalities.

I hope you enjoy the photos of our “Kit Enkounters”!

Image

The kits are nearly as big as their babysitter, yearling sister, “Sadie”.

Image  “Kit Antics”

Image  Yearling sister, “Goldie,” babysitting from a distance.

Image Our favorite kit quickly became the small, but brave littlest girl.  She was very tame, like her mother, “Foxie,” and she could tell off those kits much bigger than she.

Image Playing “tug-o-war” with a magpie that was brought for food, and as a play-toy.  Kind of gross to our eyes, but well within the realm of “being a fox”.

Image  The little girl, and one of the much bigger kits sitting side-by-side on the rock wall.Image  This is the “kit left behind”, and I thank Foxie and Papa every day for allowing me to see and enjoy this one kit at my window!

Image  The kit who seems to have stayed behind , perhaps alone, or perhaps with another of the shyer of the group. The rest of the litter was taken to other hideouts around the neighborhood.  This boy/girl is sweet, and I am so glad he’s still here……but I hope the entire brood has one time together under my deck before the summer is over.

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With Spring Comes Fox Kits

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Mama & Kit Watch As Another Zooms By

This year Spring came early, and then stalled, and then ran ahead.  My foxes denned under my deck exactly one week early. Unfortunately, loose-running neighborhood dogs caused them to take the entire brood down the road to a set of culverts under two close-set driveways in my mountain neighborhood.  The entire gang, Mama Foxie, Papa, and babysitters, Sadie and Goldie (yearlings who were members of last year’s litter) are at my window every morning.  They check out my bird feeders, drink from the hummingbird feeders I put too low, and generally hang around on my back deck, which is pretty safe for them.  The babies….frankly, I don’t like Mama’s newest decision:  the culverts she decided upon are right on a bend in the road, and the babies sometimes are seen hanging around on the road itself.  I don’t like the setting, or the danger.  Could the dogs be as bad as that?  I suppose they are to a fox.  The first day I saw three kits at the culverts, I figured they’d left my deck.  But as I got home, I found Sadie had babysitting duties to another three of the kits, who remained.  By morning they all were gone, however.  I am confused about just how many kits there may be in this current litter.  With two babysitters, I suppose there could be as many as three denning sites, with Mama and Papa as the corporate executives of feeding, babysitting, and general overseeing.  These animals are truly amazing!  I just haven’t had the time during May to ever totally figure out the comings and goings of the fox family.

I’ll admit I will soon have more time to pursue other things (as in hunting for a new job after losing my teaching contract, along with many teachers in Colorado, for next year, or watching wildlife around my mountain.)  I wonder if this extra time will help me figure out the impulses of a wild canine’s mind?  Unlikely. None-the-less, I am wonderfully enriched by the time I had with the fox family, and I’m glad the adults are still coming around.  Now, what to do about those neighborhood dogs?

On photographing wild animals:  I am lucky to be able to use one of my best lenses, the Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8, VR, ED to photograph the fox babies.  My blind is made up of various vantage-point windows in my house.  I do tend to run up steps, and back and forth as the kits frolic.  It’s not as convenient as it sounds……also, some of the best behaviors are taken ONLY from behind the fixed picture window.  Shooting through a window never produces the best results.  I’ve tried to be inconspicuous by hiding around the corner of my garage, sitting quietly on a stool, but I’ve never fooled the adult foxes.  Mama, being the tamest of the bunch, doesn’t mind my presence, but Sadie and Goldie are much more skittish, and often “tell” the kits to “skidaddle” when I am noticed.  I use a tripod with a Wimberley gimbal head on my tripod for good panning control.  I do wish I could afford one of the new Nikon cameras with better ISO low light capabilities.  My D300 is not as good with low light as I would like, but overall it is a wonderful camera.  Sometimes I add a 1.4X or 2X teleconverter to my lens, depending on the light available, since I lose shutter speed with the addition of the teleconverters.  Shutter speed is of utmost importance with all the cavorting young animals do.  Which is worse?  A “grainy” picture with too much digital noise, or a blurry photo due to subject motion?  Neither are great, but I’ll go with the noise.

To learn more about my fox family, check out my book, available at wwwBLURB.com or look here for more information about it:

<div style=”text-align:left; width:450px”>http://www.blurb.com/assets/embed.swf?book_id=2330662&locale=en_US<div style=”display:block;”><a href=”http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/2330662?ce=blurb_ew&utm_source=widget&#8221; target=”_blank” style=”margin:12px 3px;”>Foxes At My Window by Donna Dannen</a> | <a href=”http://www.blurb.com/landing_pages/bookshow?ce=blurb_ew&utm_source=widget&#8221; target=”_blank” style=”margin:12px 3px;”>Make Your Own Book</a></div></div>

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Preview My New Book!!

 

This is a totally new addition of my book about red foxes:  Foxes At My Window

Take a look, make a comment, buy through blurb.com

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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