For the last three weeks, I have gone on full alert for fox dens. Typically we begin to see the kits lounging around on the front porches of their dens come mid to late May. This year however, it seemed like nothing was going to produce until a week ago. At last I finally began seeing the dunes around the den sites chocked full of fox tracks big and small. Every couple of days I would make my rounds to 3 dens that I had located over the winter to watch for activity. A couple of days ago I finally caught site of my first kits for the year.
The following morning I was sitting on a sand dune at sunrise with a spotting scope, binoculars, and my 200-400 vr lens (just in case). Though I had done my initial scouting months before hand to find the dunes, it was now time to spend a little quality time with this family to try and get a feel for the layout of their chosen home and to figure out exactly how I wanted to work this site. Once the temperature began to climb, the kits dove into the cool protection of their preferred den. Foxes will typically dig several den sites for protection, and to alternate between as flees build up in one. Once the kits begin to get a little bigger and start becoming more independent, the different sites will take on the function of separate apartments for the kits – each with their preferred hole that they can be seen lounging around in front at dusk and dawn.
There at two primary issues that you have to overcome when photographing fox dens like this. 1. foxes are usually very shy and will not tolerate anyone approaching their den (they run, not attack) unless they are extremely habituated – and even then, there is a limit as to how close you can get before panic mode sets in. 2. The den sites are not created for aesthetic purposes and foxes completely disregard the needs of wildlife photographers when choosing their locations. When photographing in the dunes, the sand dunes themselves can be quite cluttered with scraggly dune grasses like sea oats or American beach grass growing in haggard clumps with roots trailing down the the sides of the dune as well. This is part of the reason that I was sitting around watching the foxes from a distance for a few hours. I was trying to locate where I would get the most pleasing background and light.
The other issue, that of shyness, is overcame by the use of blinds. Thus, at noon, when the kits were curled up inside of their dens fast asleep, I moved in to put up a blind to work from. A dune field has ridges and swales. Everyone knows what a ridge is. Swales are the low lying areas between dunes that water filters through the sand to and collects. Its like a desert. Sparse vegetation all along the dunes, then a tiny oasis of life where water congregates. At this site in particular, like most swales along the Outer Banks, wax myrtle, cotton bush, and a variety of sedges were growing in a tight thicket. These swales are the perfect location for constructing blinds since they offer natural cover. Remember, blinds only conceal movement. You usually have to also conceal your blind as well if you are using a man made one. In this instance, I am using a 2 man Ameristep Chair Blind. Preferably I would have a Doghouse blind in place but mine is out of commission. The difference is that the Doghouse Blind can be set up, brushed up, has lots of room, and you enter from the rear without disturbing anything between your subjects and the blind. The Chair Blind on the other hand is designed to be folded back behind the chair in order for you to enter. This means that you have to make a whole lot of movement getting in and out of the blind, and you are very limited in what you can do to conceal the blind from the front since you will have to fold it all back.
The reason that I came in at noon should be obvious but essentially it was done to cause the least amount of disturbance to the site. After the blind was up and brush in place, I quickly vacated the vicinity. When working from a blind, the longer that the blind can be in place before you use it, the better. Changing the environment 30 feet from the entrance to the den is obviously be noticed. If you want to record natural behavior, you need to give the animals time to adjust or habituate to the change.
Before sunrise this morning, I was back at the site, nestled into the blind, and already pulling ticks off of me. I swear I must of killed at least 40 ticks in that spot. I have never seen so many in one location in my life!
As the sun came up and things settled back down around the den, the fox kits did not disappoint. This was the first morning with the blind in place and already they had come to accept it.
Here are a couple from the first morning in the blind.