Friday, December 23, 2016

Fox Pup in the Garage

I know gray foxes live at the Dipper Ranch because they show up on the wildlife cameras and leave me presents on the kitchen stoop. When I return home at night, I slow for the curve in the Dipper driveway where the view opens up to the deep canyon of Peters Creek, and if the moon is up, forested ridges shimmer all the way to Monterey Bay. Sometimes a smudge of motion catches my attention against the glare of the gravel driveway. It's the bushy tail of a gray fox on nightly patrol. Or even a pair of foxes, the smaller one loping behind the first, until they are just at the edge of the headlight illumination where they turn sharp faces to challenge the car to follow their floating tails under the barbwire fence and down a steep hillside.

A fox couple enjoying the nighttime view at Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve.
Winter is the time for pair bonding and breeding of foxes.   
You would think we'd see common gray foxes more often.  They're widely distributed throughout wild and rural areas of California. Every day, many people hike through Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve where the edges of trails that cross through thick brush are peppered with neat piles of seed-laden scat. That is fox sign. Yet rarely does anyone mention seeing a fox there. A short-legged dog of the night, gray foxes escape our notice.

Gray foxes are omnivores and particularly fond of fruit.
Their brown scats on the top have seeds, fruit skin and hair in them.
I'm not sure what the curly dark scats on the bottom left are.   
Brief nighttime glimpses were all I saw of gray foxes until this summer when the fox family moved into the barn. Before their barn invasion, however, there were hints that foxes were claiming the farmyard as their territory. Hints that involved the aromas of skunks and pizza.

Fox Poop on the Stoop   
I started the year by walking out the kitchen door on January 1st to a pile of poop on the top step of the stoop. Not from the pets which had been inside all night. I kicked the scat aside and there was a fresh one the next morning. This, of course, required the setting of a wildlife camera which revealed that a gray fox was inspecting the kitchen door most nights. If we waited a few days before kicking the scat out of the way, the fox didn't redeposit.

A gray fox checking to make sure its scat from the night before is still in its designated place.   
Returning home in the dark in late May, I popped out of the car to open the gate near the house and was struck by skunk fumes. I didn't see a raised tail in warning, so I figured there must have been an animal showdown in the yard earlier. I continued to catch wafts of skunk near the house for the next few days. On May 29, I was busy most of the day mowing the farmyard. While running the loud deck mower in the orchard, I discovered a dead striped skunk. The carcass was thrashed and bitten but not consumed and had fox poop piled next to it. Just another predator interaction, I thought, and felt lucky I saw the carcass before hitting it with the mower.

Carcass of a striped skunk marked with a pile of fox scat in the center.   
Later in the day as I started the brush cutter in the front yard, I noticed a fox walking past the holding pen a few hundred feet away with a long, dark tail hanging from its mouth.  At first I thought the fox was persecuting another skunk, but the tail didn't look fluffy enough and I didn't smell any skunkiness. In the afternoon as I moved my mowing operation to the backyard, I noticed that something had recently dug a 6-inch high by 18-inch wide hole under the porch. The digging looked fresh especially since we hadn't seen it before and that time of year we are always looking sharp for rattlesnakes on the ground near the house.

One thing about mowing all day, you sure see stuff. I was getting ready for an impromptu potluck for Memorial Day. I'd offered to serve pizza, which in my case after a day of mowing meant driving to the closest city to pick up frozen pizzas. No housecleaning or fancy cooking for me, just a day outside making a comfortable space to share with friends. I left the garage door open while running the pizza errand. As I returned about 10 pm, my car lights outlined the shadow of a small, sharp-eared animal on the garage wall. "How did the cats get out?" I wondered. Braking, I saw a puppy run into the open garage. I immediately grabbed a flashlight, abandoned the car in the driveway, and followed it. A pointy face peeked out from behind storage shelves then pushed through spider webs to hide behind some bins. A very small and fuzzy fox pup.

"Well," I thought, "that's something new." The pup wasn't coming out from its hiding spot, so I set up a wildlife camera in the garage, left the garage door open, and went inside to put the frozen pizza away. The next morning, I wandered out to the garage first thing. No signs of animals but the camera had files on its memory card which meant a warm-blooded creature had passed in front of it. Unfortunately, I'd set the older Bushnell camera on video mode, and I couldn't figure out how to open the odd file format. I left the garage door open and went about mowing the farmyard. After spending most of the day outside, I saw no sign of foxes so I figured the pup had been reclaimed by its parents. Just another quick and dark meeting between girl and fox, except this time, they didn't leave me a scat message.

Gray fox showing off a woodrat trophy at Cedar Junction   
The next day, as part of our Memorial Day party, we hiked down to Cedar Junction about 1 mile away from the farmyard. In the last few years, there has been a parade of foxes in front the camera at that location, often pausing to show off their trophy - a rabbit or woodrat dangling from their mouth. In the first winds of winter, the fox couple zigzagged in front of the camera with noses to the ground, gobbling up fallen berries from the huge madrone tree above. With all the foraging trips back and forth, I assumed they had a den of hungry pups nearby.

Gray fox carrying a brush rabbit past Cedar Junction   
Our Memorial Day hike was temporarily thwarted by a tree which had fallen across the trail just short of Cedar Junction. It was a large oak strewn with poison oak vines which I had crawled through a few weeks earlier to check the wildlife camera on the other side.  This time, however, there was a deer carcass in front of the downed tree.  The carcass had been cleaned of flesh revealing snapped-off ribs. While most of the hikers stayed behind, sharp-eyed and talking loudly, a few of us climbed over the carcass and under the dead branches to check the camera that was 50 feet away. Hiking back up to the house and hot pizza without incident, we downloaded the camera's memory card to discover an adult and two juvenile mountain lions had passed by the Cedar Junction camera 21 days earlier with bulging bellies. That certainly explained the deer carcass. But no foxes had passed that way in 3 months. A shift of predators had occurred.

Juvenile mountain lion with fat belly at Cedar Junction.
Fifteen minutes earlier, an adult and juvenile mountain lion passed the same way.   
A few days later, Random Truth taught me how to download Bushnell videos on a Mac computer. My cam-trap buddies always come through, and of course, they were the first to see the videos which showed two fox pups tottering around the garage in short intervals throughout the night. At 5 am, two adult foxes arrived. A family reunion ensued with pups, which had been silent all night, mewing and racing in circles behind the adults, tails up and then they left.

I thought that would be the end of our fox pup adventures until 2 weeks later when we were watching a late movie with all the windows open and realized the squabbling noises were not part of the soundtrack. By flashlight, we found 3 fox pups in battle in front of the barn. They didn't seem to notice us at first, but in a few minutes, chased each other under the middle bay door. That was the night we set up wildlife cameras in the farmyard to spy on our new sharp-eared neighbors.

And it was the start of more adventures with the gray fox family (described here) including occasional encounters face-to-face after years of only getting brief dark glimpses of them. But why were they here? Why had the foxes chosen to den in the barn close to people, domestic animals, and trucks and tractors coming and going?

Perhaps there was something in the farmyard that attracted the foxes. Water in the birdbaths and cattle troughs. Rodents and snakes in the barn, lizards in the yard, and fruit in the orchard as food for six hungry mouths.

Could they have been denning under the old farm equipment in the orchard and disturbed by the noisy mowing decided to relocate the pups to the barn? Perhaps the long-tailed creature I saw the fox carrying away from the orchard was a fox pup being relocated by its parent. A fox parent that previously killed the skunk in the orchard because it would not tolerate another predator, no matter how small, so close to its young.

Or maybe something pushed the foxes into our human space. Was this the same fox couple that used to busily forage past Cedar Junction in prior years? The occupation of the Cedar Junction territory by the mountain lion family this year could have pushed the foxes up to the farmyard where human presence offered them protective cover from the more reclusive mountain lions.

Was it push or pull that brought them to the farmyard and how long would they stay? We tried to avoid the foxes in the farmyard while simultaneously spying on their intimate family affairs. Over dinner we often speculated, "What will the fox family do next?"

This is the second in a three-part series about the gray fox family in the Dipper Ranch farmyard this summer. The first post, Fox Pups in the Barn, is here.
Common gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus
Striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis
Mountain lion, Puma concolor

1 comment:

  1. Keep up the great videos and writing. I live on upper Ranch Road in Pescadero and have only seen foxes once in 35+ years. It was a gorgeous red fox that I saw twice in the same day.


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