Last year, early on a cold, snowy Christmas morning, before the rest of the family was even considering getting out of their beds, I snuck out of my warm house and went to my favorite area for photographing red foxes. Like many other folks, I really wasn't feeling the Christmas Spirit, and going to visit some of my favorite photography subjects was a welcome relief.
The park where I photograph foxes is only a few miles from my house, and I'm blessed to live in Colorado, so close to so much beauty. My little park has been described as being second only to Yellowstone National Park in terms of foxes to photograph and I spend at least one day every weekend, Fall through Spring, photographing foxes.
Last Christmas morning, I had a very special experience. I found the alpha male fox napping in the snow outside his den. When I first spotted him, he ducked back into his den, but after a few minutes, he hopped back out and resumed his napping, with me 20 feet away, happily taking some gorgeous images.
In the years that I've visited the park, there have been some drastic changes. The longtime locals tell me that not too long ago, there were more than three dozen foxes in the park. Because it's a popular park in the middle of an urban area, the foxes are habituated to people (being fed by some people also helps with that, too). Unfortunately, the fox population has been on the decline, for a number of reasons. Coyotes have moved into the park, and they've killed or forced out many of the foxes; foxes are competition for food.
I've been fortunate to know several generations of foxes. During my first year in the park, I got to know the then-alpha male fox, Pock, very well. He was easy to identify due to his light colored coat and squinty left eye. He was also the most active fox in the park, and I'd run into him frequently in different areas of the park. He was also a bold little guy. I witnessed him standing up to a coyote three times his size. He didn't mind passing me on the back trails as long as I gave him a little room. One morning I caught him going through my camera pack when my back was turned. He was no longer a youngster, but was very much the top fox in the park. He was shot in a senseless act of violence about 2 years ago, a huge loss to the park and many other photographers.
My favorite fox in the park was the alpha female. While Pock was always busy and on the move, she was very calm and deliberate. She never seemed too concerned about things and went about her business as I followed from a short distance. She'd hunt for voles and squirrels, groom, and nap, and almost seemed to enjoy posing for photographers. She was hit by a car and killed about a year and a half ago. As difficult as Pock's death was, hers was much more difficult for me.
More recently, I became very fond of the new alpha male, known to the locals as Grumpy. He was the beta male when I first noticed him, but it became quickly obvious that he had his sights on the alpha male position. I'd see him increasingly challenge Pock (never aggressively), and in a bold political move, apparently became the father to the batch of kits with the alpha female who had been Pock's mate. I never saw the kits that year but frequently saw him taking food to the den (the only time foxes ever share food).
Another new favorite was a vixen the locals called Scarface, for obvious reasons. She had a significant scar across her muzzle, attributed to surviving a coyote attack. As long as I'd known her, she'd been very shy, and would rarely stay in the open for very long. After the deaths of the previous alpha pair, she became the mate to Grumpy, the new alpha male. She gradually became more relaxed and would spend more time in the open. Her nickname of Scarface evolved into just Scarf.
In the Spring of 2010, according to long-time locals who were very familiar with the foxes, the population had gone from literally dozens to now only four remaining in the park. Many photographers and locals hoped that Grumpy and Scarf would produce a new litter of kits to help repopulate the park, but to the best of my knowledge, no kits were ever seen.
I've returned to the park half a dozen times starting in the Fall, but have yet to see a fox. The locals I've spoken to report they haven't seen foxes in some time. One person reported he found a dead fox (he was not familiar enough with individual foxes to confirm the identity of the fox, but given the location, it was likely either Grumpy or Scarf). To make matters worse, mange has apparently been making the rounds, further decimating the fox population.
This park and its resident foxes used to be a huge part of my life, Fall through Spring, and it was rare to not see a fox - in fact, I frequently would see three or four every visit, and at times be blessed to spend 10 to 20 minutes with a fox at fairly short range as they went about their business - as long as I didn't get too close or make too much noise, I was allowed to become part of their world.
My last trip to find foxes was Christmas morning; what was a very special experience a year ago is now a very sad one. It could be that since we haven't had any snow so far, the grass is just too tall to see any foxes, or that my timing has just been off, but I fear the worst; all my foxes are dead, either from coyotes, or mange, or senseless acts of violence. At best, some may have relocated to other areas.
I'll probably never again have such easy access to such cooperative little wildlife models. The reason I do wildlife photography (over macro or landscape) is the connection with my subjects, and I felt a strong connection with these subjects.
In a season when I should be thankful for what I have, I find myself being thankful for what I used to have.
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