When Jill and I set out each summer to document the wild for GhostBearPhotography.com, our primary mission is to find grizzly bears, but we are always on the look out for unique sights and prolonged viewings of creatures we think would be interesting to observe.
Red foxes are far from rare, but they’re nocturnal, shy and quick – making them a challenging photographic subject. Truthfully, the best opportunity for great fox shots is almost always at or near a den site. Not only can you sit and wait in one location with decent odds of success, but also you have the opportunity to capture interesting behaviour that really can elevate an image – and the story it tells – from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
By the time 2014 rolled around, we had several good fox sightings under our belt, including a good shoot at a den in Ennis, Montana earlier in the summer, and when we arrived in Waterton National Park – sandwiched into the southwest corner of Alberta – our plan was to spend a few days hiking, documenting the landscape and hopefully snapping many shots of the park’s black bears. Our plan quickly changed.
Days became weeks. Landscape photography became a lesser priority. Bears became an afterthought.
Bears. An afterthought. This happened.
Shortly after crossing back into Canada from Montana, we were driving the Chief Mountain Highway – a lightly used, two-lane road that, mainly, connects Glacier National Park with Waterton – and slowed to check an area known for its foxes.
During a four-day mountain adventure I took Jill on in 2010 to test her willingness to spend time in the wild, we happened across a fox family with at least two kits and were even able to ascertain the location of their den. As we were on a tight schedule and weren’t fully equipped with the right camera gear, we passed up the chance for a proper stakeout.
The regret ate at us year after year and because of my phobic behaviour of checking and rechecking areas that have been good to us in the past (you know, just in case lightening strikes twice, as has been known to happen for us), we always would drive slowly through this area in the hope of finding fox once more.
But as we searched, we saw no sign of fox. We were just beginning to pick up speed and focus on finding a bear when I happened to notice what appeared to be freshly tossed dirt near the hole I had previously identified as the den site from four years earlier. Could it be?
The sandy, sun-facing slope was the textbook definition of where a fox would choose a den, but it’s proximity to the road made me have doubts. Moreover, even if it had once been a den, foxes will change their homes a few times a year in order to ward off disease like mange or escape the wrath of fleas and flies.
While I was scoping for tracks, scat and the bones of dead rodents, Jill glanced up the highway and noticed a large, portable sign flashing bright lights to warn cars of foxes frequenting the road. How I missed it, I’ll never know, but the take home message was obvious: We had found an accessible, active fox den.
After setting up camp and speaking with the park’s knowledgeable and friendly rangers, we made a b-line back to the den site and positioned our car to have a good view of the various holes that were undoubtedly used as entrances to their simple underground lair.
Over the years we’ve learned that our car is as good as any true blind – when safely parked off the road, animals are, for the most part, unaffected by our presence inside of the vehicle and will get quite close and display normal behaviour. It’s only when people leave the vehicle that animals become distressed and stop with their normal activities.
Jill, who was as excited by the prospect of the den site as me, was happy to spend as long as it would take to spot the foxes. We both knew what an exceptional opportunity this was and that time was of the essence, as any day the animals could switch dens – if they hadn’t already.
We parked with the windows down and cameras at the ready, including 15 pounds of dried rice loaded into a molar-shaped bag resting on my windowsill to act as a quasi-tripod for my big lens. The bugs weren’t great, but we were willing to endure – even Jill.
After an hour, we both began to read, stopping to glance over at the den every few minutes so not to miss a moment of potential action.
After three hours, I looked up and noticed a young red fox kit staring back at me.
Where it came from, I have no clue, but I began to get extremely excited.
“FOX, FOX, FOX, FOX!!!!” I yelled. It was like I was a newbie in the wild with no comprehension of how to act.
Jill and I scrambled to get our cameras focused, but the kit was so startled by my scream-shout, it retreated into the trees above the hole.
I felt awful. I did everything wrong. I messed up the shot. I scared my subject. And I probably ruined the den site for the family.
I could still make out the kit resting just inside the tree line and I spent the next several hours whispering apologies (totally rational) to the animal, urging it to return. Jill, of course, tried to teach me the basics of animals watching while we waited, only dropping a hint of sarcasm into her voice during her lecture.
But just as the sun began to set, the kit stood up and walked back to the den. All of a sudden, another kit jumped out from the tree line. And then another.
Jill and I started taking photos like it was our last day on Earth. Image after image was captured as the kits jumped onto each other’s back, chased each other’s tail and pawed at each other’s face.
The light wasn’t great, but the experience was second to none.
Several thousand images later, it was dark and we knew we had to say goodnight and return to our camp, vowing to be back in place at first light.
We slightly misjudged sunrise (not so smart now, are you phone?), but found one kit sleeping by the den’s entrance just as we’d left it the previous evening. We couldn’t believe our good fortune.
We began snapping away and, as our confidence of finding these foxes on demand set in, we elected to leave the fox to find Jill her morning dose of caffeine.
By the time we returned a few hours later, the den site was quiet. An entire day went by without a peep from the foxes. Concern started to set in. Yet when the clock struck 7:30, the foxes appeared, just like the previous night.
Over the next several days, a pattern began to emerge. The kits would be active from dawn until 7am and from 7:30pm until dark. At 10am, the vixen would be in the meadow to the east of the den, hunting mice and voles and collecting them by the dozen. By 11am, she would drop her collection of dead rodents off at the den site for the kits to quickly devour before they disappeared into the den to sleep for most of the afternoon – and the vixen would disappear, once more, into the forest to find more treats to eat. You could set your watch by it.
The vixen was exceptionally skinny and was sporting numerous cuts and scars. Even though it was the height of summer and her winter coat was completely off, she still looked smaller than she should have. But the fox seemed to have no trouble finding food for her kits and, indeed, each kit was strong and healthy.
When we looked closely, the vixen resembled an older version of the same fox we had seen on that first trip five years prior. Foxes average a life expectancy of five years in the wild, but this female had to be at least seven and, despite her injuries, had all the confidence and skills to thrive in this peculiar little ecosystem that is Waterton.
The shoot was shaping up to be the experience of a lifetime.
Founder of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, Simon Jackson is a storyteller, connector and movement builder committed to improving our pubic discourse and shaping a better balance between the needs of people and nature. His GhostBearPhotography.com column appears on the first Saturday of every month.