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June 13, 2010  •  Leave a Comment

The Fox Kit Quest
©Jay Ryser

I like projects; they help keep me focused (pun always intended).  One of the reasons I like projects is that I like to keep working a subject, get to know a species of animal and even develop (again, pun always intended) a photographic relationship with specific animals that I visit again and again.  I've used this approach with pikas, marmots, coyotes, mountain goats, and red foxes (and if you've been to my site, you know I have way too many red fox images).
A project, though, is something you can putz around with.  I realized what I was ultimately engaged in was a Quest.  Not to make my humble efforts sound too noble (I'm trying to make images of fox kits, not finding the Holy Grail, after all), but my simple project turned into a seemingly mythic undertaking, involving long hours of searching, many miles of travel, investigating every lead I could glean from other photographers, and much frustration.  I even had ants crawling on me from time to time; I don't let ants crawl on me unless it's for something serious.  I'll try to downplay the mythic elements from this point on.

I'm fortunate to live a few miles away from one of the prime red fox locations in North America (second only to Yellowstone), which gives me plenty of opportunity Fall through Spring to catch up with foxes and get plenty of images at the same time.  Foxes in this park are fairly habituated to humans, and overall tend to be much less avoidant than foxes in remote areas.  I've  been able to develop an ongoing relationship with multiple generations of foxes in the area, witnessed drastic changes in politics of this little fox world, watched the results of a huge windstorm and it's devastating results on the park the foxes call home, and even indirectly experienced the deaths of the longstanding alpha male and female foxes in that area.  Coyotes have moved into the park and either killed or driven off many foxes. The population of foxes has gone from dozens to now only four.
During this time, each Spring I've devoted significant time to photographing fox kits, and each Spring, I've been frustrated by my inability to even find fox kits, much less photograph them.   It was time to get serious about photographing fox kits

During the three years I've been photographing these foxes, I've been desperately seeking fox kits.  In my area (Colorado), mating occurs in January or February, with a gestation period of around 52 days.  Most litters average 5 kits who weigh about 150 grams (about 5.5 ounces) at birth, and tripling their weight by day ten.    The young (or kits) first open their eyes at about two weeks, take their first peek out of the den at five weeks, and are usually fully weaned at ten weeks.
The male fox will bring food to the female as she cares for the kits in the den (and this is the only time foxes are known to share food), and he may or may not have other kit rearing responsibilities.  The parents usually keep the kits in the birth den for the first few weeks unless they have significant reason to move them (larger predators, too many people, etc.), and can move den sites every 2-3 weeks if needed.
Although fully weaned at ten weeks, the kits are not ready to fully separate from their parents.  They may wander short distances away from the den but rarely go too far.  At 12 weeks, they begin to explore their parents territories during daylight hours, venturing out further and further.  By September or October, the young males will begin to disperse and find their own territories.  Young females will disperse later, with some staying with the mother for the next year, helping with raising a new litter of kits the next year.

My first year seeking fox kits, I hung out with other photographers more knowledgeable than I regarding kits.  Many weekend mornings were spent in a semi-circle of photographers, most of us in camping chairs, tripod mounted lenses aimed at one of the den entrances, remote releases in hand.  Sometimes we chatted, sometimes we listened to our iPods, sometimes we napped.  Despite the weekends and weekdays taken off work, never did I see a fox kit that year.  Fortunately, my fellow photographers kept me "updated" on kit sightings: "Five minutes after you left the kits came out," "Oh, you missed it, they were out for an hour, playing around," "The kits found a tricycle and were riding it around for half an hour," "The kits took down a bull moose right after you left."  Photographers and comedians.
The next year, no one had seen fox kits.  I wandered the park, from end to end, checking out known den sites from previous years and investigating possible new den sites.  Any new hole in the ground was investigated.  There were reports of kit sightings at what was thought to be the birth den, then no sightings at all; locals believed they had moved the den.  I again devoted most of my free time to finding fox kits (or, according to my wife, I spent the Spring staring at a hole in the ground).  After spending way too much time in a fruitless search for fox kits, I decided to take a day off to chase coyotes (one of my other  photography projects).  It was the day after a Spring snow storm, and I had a very productive day, including a particularly cooperative (for a coyote) subject.  I was pleased with the images I made.  It was later in the day that I discovered that others had found fox kits at the park - the one day I took off was the day they appeared, playing in the fresh snow.  I returned to the park with renewed enthusiasm; there were kits there, and I was going to get images.  Except I didn't; I never saw fox kits.
After missing out on fox kits 2 years in a row, I was determined to get fox kits this year.  My new motto was "I'm getting fox kits this year, dammit!" (My old motto was "Hey, you got any more of those Crunchy Peanut Butter Clif bars?", so this was a step in the right direction).

I returned in earnest to my favorite fox location for Spring fox kits.  I knew well the male and female foxes that were in the area.  The new alpha male is another bold little guy; the new alpha female is quite a bit more reserved and shy.  They were using an old concrete drainage system as a den, with a central hub and several buried pipes leading to exits in different directions.  This concrete drainage system has the advantage of being immune to coyote interference; the coyotes are too big to fit any of the openings and they're unable to dig out the den (as they've apparently done before with other den sites).
Despite frequent trips to the park and devoting weekends and vacation days to locating kits, I saw nothing.  I made sure to stay in contact with many of the long time locals in the park, sharing information and observations and trying to find some indication of fox kits.  This year, no one had seen any fox kits.  There were several different theories: the couple hadn't birthed any kits this year; the den site had been moved; they're just cautious parents and haven't brought them out yet; they were born late in the season due to the cold winter.  Everyone had an opinion, just no facts.
I met some other professional photographers in my quest.  I'd been in contact with Lori Huff on Facebook, and she and Weldon Lee joined me and some friends one morning looking for kits.  We got nice images of adult foxes, but no kits.  I ran into Rob Palmer on several occasions, and Michael Mauro once.
It became obvious that if I wanted fox kits this year (and I was getting fox kits this year, dammit!), that I needed other options.  Photographers can sometimes be a little tight-lipped about their locations, and locations of active fox dens seemed to be a well guarded secret.  I investigated any rumors of active dens I could discover, taking me to Roxborough State Park, Evergreen, and a field behind a cat rescue in Lakewood, among other locations in Colorado.  I searched my own neighborhood for the pair of resident foxes without success.  I used any contacts on Facebook that I could find, seeking hints about fox dens with kits.

Fortunately, another photographer friend, Kurt Bowman, caught my Fox Kit Fever, and joined me in my QUEST FOR KITS (it's a mythic thing, so of course I had to put in bold caps . . . yeah, I know I was going to downplay the mythic element, but I'm on a roll here).  He pursued any lead he could find over at NPN until he got our first break.  Bob Karcz knew of 2 dens in Summit County and offered to show us around.  While there, we got to see osprey building a nest and a pair of bald eagles and 2 eaglets in the nest, but no fox kits.  One den was assumed empty now, and another we only had vague clues to investigate.
The one den we did see had lots of signs of habitation, just no kits.  We had to take the vague clues we had for the other den, do a little scouting around until we found the most likely location candidate.  We got an early start to get the best light and the best chance of seeing kits.  The secret location for this fox den?  Next to a hardware store in the middle of town.
We turned the corner just before sunrise, and what did we see?  Seven (count 'em, 7) fox kits out playing.  One of them was black!  I was afraid they'd see us and bolt, never to be seen again.  Instead, they seemed to take little notice of us and continued to play.  The first part of the QUEST FOR FOX (yeah, I slipped again) kits was complete - I found fox kits.  Now it was time for the final part of the QUEST; making images.

Being in town, the den left some things to be desired, aesthetically.  One side was a grassy knoll sprinkled with aspens - not bad.  The den itself was nothing more than piled up dirt with a couple of holes.  On the back and to the right, chain link fence.  To top it off, the kits apparently made of hobby of dragging over every little piece of trash they could find as chew toys; the den was covered with plastic shopping bags, fast food cups, and bottles.  These were urban foxes.
I admit it - when I first set up the tripod and camera, I went a little nuts.  The shutter was firing like a machine gun.  Kurt, my co-quest conspirator, quipped, "Relax, dude, they aren't going anywhere."  I'm surprised I heard him - I was giggling like a maniac.  I filled up 24 gigabytes with images and went through a battery in 10 minutes.  Few of those first images turned out well.  Fortunately, I was able to relax a little after that and focus (again . . .) on getting some more mindful images.
It took some work to isolate the kits from their not-so-photogenic surroundings.  The grassy aspen knoll caught the morning sun beautifully, but the kits rarely played there.  They were quite content in the dirt, against the chain link fence.  Every once in a while they'd venture to the grass, and quickly back to the dirt.
Man of the kits would crawl under the fence on their way to an abandoned house across the lot; there was a den dug underneath the house, but the kits would also venture inside through cinder blocks and up the stairs to holes in the roof.    The open field separating the dens seemed like an ideal location to catch kits playing, but they rarely used the field for anything other than an expressway between the dens.

Being urban foxes, they were obviously habituated to people.  I'm usually very sensitive to any signs of stress in animals.  The kits showed very little concern with our presence, sometimes even approaching us very closely in their play.  I figured if any of the foxes would have a problem with us hanging around, it would be Momma Fox.  The first day, she didn't really mind us there.  Early the second morning, Momma Fox showed up early, barked out a warning, and the kits scattered - for about 2 minutes.  After that, they emerged from the den ready to play.  That same day, Momma Fox was sitting about six feet away from me as we both watched the kits playing.  From that point on, Momma Fox didn't take much notice of us.
Apparently, some of the locals did notice us around the den and called the police.  An officer showed up voicing their concerns.  Again, the photographers I associate with are all very sensitive to signs of stress in wildlife, and quickly back off if there's any indication we're causing problems, particularly if we're dealing with any of their young.  The fact that Momma Fox was bringing live voles to the kits for them to practice their hunting skills right in front of us convinced her that we weren't causing any undue stress to the parents, and before leaving us to our photography, informed us of a few additional den sites in the area.
Lesson: always talk to the locals if you want the best information.

As mentioned, one of the kits was pure black, except for the white tip of her tail.  We found out from a local that one of the parents was pure black as well.  Black foxes are a melanistic variation of red foxes known as Silver Foxes.  Some are a silver gray, some a grayish black, and some are just pure black.  We finally saw Daddy Fox in the evenings, when he'd make brief appearances - he was pure black with a white tipped tail, just like the one kit.
Like any youngsters, the kits tired easily.  About 60% of the time, they'd nap, with their backs to us, on the dirt of the den mound (not the most aesthetically pleasing images I've ever made).  30% of the time, they'd retire inside the den during the warmest hours, and 10% of the time, they'd play. 
Momma fox and a yearling female would take kits off in pairs to practice hunting, and would disappear behind buildings and under fences, sometimes for hours, leaving the remaining kits untended.

We used a variety of equipment.  All photographers used tripods the majority of the time.  The most often used lenses were 300mm f/2.8 and 500mm f/4s, with a 70-200 f/2.8 and a 70-400 thrown in for good measure.  The most important piece of gear used?  A good chair.  Because foxes are such tiny little guys, and fox kits are even smaller, a good chair lets you get close to the action and helps you make images from near eye level.  Shoot from too high an angle, and you're taking snap shots.  Shoot from eye level with these little guys and you're viewing them and their world from their perspective.  Don't bother extending the legs on the tripod.  And because the kits napped so much, having a chair keeps you comfortable on the scene until the next round of action.
Great effort was needed to cope with the busy back grounds and harsh light we usually experienced.  The fence to the East also tended to cast some ugly shadows across the den.  With effort, we could usually isolate kits alone and with their siblings on the grassy knoll.  Some minor cloning was required to remove bits of trash.
Mornings has plenty of light, but we also decided to return in the evenings to not only get some warm late light but also to get some images against the abandoned building for a little color and texture.  Not the most natural backgrounds, but much nicer than chain link fencing.

This was an undertaking that took three years to complete.  I had to finally cross the Continental Divide to find fox kits.  In the process I drove hundreds of miles, spent hundreds of hours in the field, and gathered any rumors of fox den locations from anyone willing to talk to me.  Did I mention I had ants crawling on me?  I had ants crawling on me.  Was it worth it?  Rarely in my life have I had this feeling of satisfaction, of having hard work pay off.  It's been said before, but it's true - if you want to learn patience and perseverance, become a wildlife photographer.


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