Text and photos by Mark Dietz
I’ve scouted the hills and plains for many years looking for opportunities to photograph the elusive red fox. I’ve even set up photo blinds near deer
Eventually I came to realize that my best fox photos had come from setting up on the few den sites I had come across during my travels through the woods, so now I spend a lot of my time scouting the woods for dens that might offer good photo opportunities. I start my search in late winter, usually in mid-February. I like going out after a fresh snow because it helps me locate newly excavated sites, and the tracks and other sign easily visible in the snow can indicate whether or not a fox has been doing the work. Occasionally, however, I am “outfoxed” – some of the dens I have worked turned out to be woodchuck (a.k.a. groundhog) dens. I have a lot of nice woodchuck photos, but that’s another story.
I generally try to set up my blind three to four weeks before I plan on using it. This works particularly well when photographing adult foxes, and may provide opportunities to photograph white-tailed deer as well.
Last year started out like many others. After a new snow, I spotted freshly excavated earth on a hillside that would be ideal for setting up a blind – it was a south-facing bank with no obstructions and there was some level ground in a good spot for a portable blind. Everything looked perfect. Then the owner of the new den revealed himself – a robust woodchuck. Having found no other locations for a blind, I decided it was going to be another woodchuck year. For several weeks I monitored the den from a distance with binoculars to see if there was any activity, occasionally watching the woodchuck sunning in the den’s entrance.
After hunting morel mushrooms one day in early April, I stopped by to check on the den. In the last light of day, I noticed a flurry of activity around the den and discovered there had been a change in tenants – a fox family had apparently evicted the woodchuck and taken possession of the den, because I could see several young fox pups at the den entrance. With my blind already in place, all I needed was some nice weather and a little time to spend in the blind. I just hoped the woodchuck didn’t decide to reclaim his den.
My first opportunity to sit in the blind was a mid-April afternoon. An hour or so passed before I saw the first fox pup (also called a kit) crawl out the den opening. A few moments later a second appeared. Both looked like they just finished a long nap, and neither paid any attention to my blind. It wasn’t long before they started exploring their surroundings.
While I was busily trying to follow their activities with my camera, I noticed more movement at the entrance of the den. Two more pups were lying there. Before long I was trying to keep track of six pups. It was as if the recess bell had rung and all the students were releasing their pent-up energy on the playground.
Everything within 20 feet of the den entrance was fair game. It could be chewing on sticks, digging holes, exploring, climbing or simply wrestling. Lots and lots of wrestling. At times it resembled a pro wrestling tag-team match – all it took was for one pup to find something that nobody else had, such as a stick, leaf or bone. Then they all wanted it.
The wrestling matches usually went on for several minutes, with no decisive winner. One of the smaller pups often joined in to take a cheap shot at one of the other pups being assailed by several others, but no serious harm was ever done.
All the action going on at once was difficult to follow with my camera. I might have two pups stalking a squirrel to the far right, two or three pups wrestling in front and one playing with a stick up the hill. All this activity would go on for about an hour, then each pup would slowly return to the den entrance to take a break. A few pups might try to rest, but usually one or two others would try to keep them from getting any shut-eye.
As the light of day started to fade, some of the pups retreated to the safety of the den. Just as I started thinking about packing up my gear for the day, I heard a commotion on the hillside above the den. It was Mom!
Mom was greeted by a mob of hungry pups. With some trying to nurse and others begging for handouts, the reunion lasted for a short time and ended when the adult made a high-pitched bark that sent the pups to the den as she scampered off up the hillside. As I packed up my gear, I realized that I had taken nearly 400 images within a couple hours. Thank goodness I switched to digital – buying and processing that much film would have put me in the poorhouse.
It was more than a week before I could return to the blind – the dreary spring weather wasn’t very suitable for photography, and I found the pups didn’t care for the wet weather either. Still, I was anxious to get back to the blind to see what the pups were up to and I eventually had more opportunities to visit and photograph my new friends. The recent rains had revitalized the forest floor with color, and the pups were changing color, too, from brown to a light red.
The pups were up to their usual activities – exploring, wrestling, sleeping and more wrestling. Mom would occasionally stop by for a visit and the pups would stop what they were doing to greet her, hoping for a handout. These visits were short and often occurred away from the den site. It seemed the pups could sense her presence – they always knew she was in the area long before I realized it.
By the middle of May, activity around the den became less frequent. The pups were getting bigger and spent much of their time a short distance away from the den. On occasion I would watch a couple of them stalking squirrels or songbirds without success.
One morning I witnessed a different side of the pups’ behavior when Mom showed up with a couple of voles. What used to be play turned into an all-out fight, with only two winners. I suspect the hierarchy of the den had thus been set. On several occasions, I saw Mom or Dad out hunting during the middle of the day, accompanied by a single pup.
As May came to a close, I would see just two or three pups at the den, usually after they ran past the blind from somewhere behind me. I wondered what had happened to the other three pups. Because past experience had shown me that pups are often moved to an alternative den site, I did a little investigation and found the missing pups at another den about 70 yards away. They must have outgrown the original den and the parents decided to split them up.
My last few trips to the blind were for the most part uneventful, with the occasional appearance of a single pup. Mom, apparently a successful hunter, would leave gifts for her hungry offspring, including rabbits, squirrels, a woodchuck and even a whitetail fawn.
Eventually the fox family abandoned their dens completely and I removed my blind. Although the pups were out in the world now, they were not out of my thoughts.
Over the summer I would occasionally catch a glimpse of the foxes darting in and out of a nearby cornfield and my thoughts would drift back to the times I had spent watching them. When I go back now and look at the many photographs I took over my spring with the foxes, it’s hard not to smile. Next time I’m going to pack a video camera, too.
Mark Dietz is the property manager of Camp Maha, a Girl Scout camp located along the Platte River in Sarpy County. His photos and stories have been used numerous times in both NEBRASKAland and Trail Tales, the quarterly magazine published by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission that is geared toward elementary-age children.