The Three Fox Moon

It started with a plan to photograph a rare and little-known native animal on a western prairie…it ended as a month full of foxes and fox pups of three different species.

 

Red fox/Swift fox/Gray fox

The original plan, hatched several years ago while camping on an open grassland, focused on the enigmatic and amazing Swift fox.

Swift foxes (Vulpes velox) were the most common canid on the prairie before the settlement of the West began. Meriwether Lewis encountered them on multiple occasions in 1805 and called them “The most beautiful fox that I ever beheld” in his famous journal.

By the turn of the 20th Century, as their prey base and habitat were systematically lost due to human development, Swift foxes were extirpated from most of their former range. They were once critically endangered, but there are now pockets of Swifts scattered across the west.

In the Spring of 2010, I had seen what I thought was a Swift running across the prairie, but I just couldn’t be certain. I regularly ran into their close cousins, the Red fox, during my trips into the grasslands, and from a distance it’s not easy to tell them apart. If they are standing still the differences are more apparent, but “Swift” foxes do live up to their name. They can run 40mph if they want to. They often want to.

While I couldn’t be certain that it was a Swift fox I saw darting through the grass, that potential 2010 sighting inspired me.

Swifts were just returning to these western grasslands, and they were experiencing the ups and downs that many reintroduced native species go through. The uncertainty of their continuing presence on the prairies had me making plans to devote some extended time looking for them.

But other things intervened, and June, 2015 was my first opportunity to give proper attention this long-anticipated personal project.

Swift fox and pup on a South Dakota grassland.

What I didn’t know back when I made my Swift plans, was that the month of June would coincidentally begin with a precious chance to photograph a Red fox den. Never one to pass on opportunities like this, I dropped everything (which at the time was photographing loon chicks) and devoted every waking hour to the foxes.


The Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) were living under an outbuilding in a small town in northern Wisconsin. No one had seen the male since the pups were born, but the vixen, with distinctive white splotches on her rear legs and feet, was a regular sight around town. And she was obviously having no trouble raising the three rambunctious pups.

Red fox vixen and pup.

Fox pups (or kits, if you prefer,) regardless of the species, are balls of perpetual motion when they’re awake. When they sleep, nothing short of a nuclear explosion can stir them.

For more than a week I watched the pups grow and become increasingly more self-confident. By my last day with them, one of the pups, bolder than the others, approached within a few feet of me. I’m sure it was wondering what that incessant clicking sound was coming from my cameras.

Red fox pups playing.

But I had a long-planned date with Swift foxes and so I had to abandon the little Red fox family.


My arrival back on the high plains was no disappointment. Courtesy of a very knowledgeable local expert, I knew of a few places where I was likely to see Swifts, and with enough patience and some experimentation in blinds and camouflage, I might just get a good look at an animal few people know.

The plan worked. By the third day I had seen fascinating behavior at three different dens and taken some wonderful Swift fox images.

Swift fox vixen with three of six pups.

All of the dens I visited had adults and pups, with one den having six busy little pups tearing around the prairie. Watching them mob their mother whenever she would return to the den was a joy to behold.

A week later I returned to Wisconsin with hundreds of photos of the oddly cat-like Swift foxes, along with some satisfying images of many other grassland species.

Burrowing owl chicks

Then, perhaps most amazingly, when I returned to northern Wisconsin I stumbled on an unprecedented opportunity to photograph a Gray fox den.

Of the three species, the Grays were the most unexpected, and maybe the most rewarding.

Gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) are very shy, nervous critters, and although I’ve seen many, I’ve had nothing but bad luck trying to get even one good photo.

Grays have been displaced in much of their range by Red foxes, which are more tolerant of human activity.

A Gray fox brings a chipmunk back to her den in northern Wisconsin, U.S.

Grays prefer big woods, and they are the only species of canine in North America that can climb trees. They are so good at climbing that they sometimes den in trees.

In twenty-five years of searching, I had never found a Gray fox den before. Now I had one within easy striking distance of home.

As with the Red foxes early in the month, and Swifts too, I spent many, many hours waiting on these Grays, and also like the Reds and Swifts, these lovely animals rewarded me with an embarrassment of photographic riches.

For me, June, 2015 will always be The Three Fox Moon.


Swift fox pups
Gray fox pup
Red fox pup

The species-specific galleries are linked below:

Red fox: http://www.lodgetrail.com/red_fox_pups

Swift fox: http://www.lodgetrail.com/swift_fox_pups

Gray fox: http://www.lodgetrail.com/gray_fox_pups

Keith R. Crowley is an author and photographer specializing in stories and images from the world of nature. You can see more of his work and purchase prints and image licenses at Lodgetrail.com

©2015 Copyright Keith R. Crowley. All rights reserved. No reproduction or distribution in any form without prior written authorization.

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