By Cindy Carpenter
What a wonderful feeling it is when we discover something new and exciting, especially in a familiar place. Recently that happened to me in my own backyard, thanks to a trail camera. My husband Wade and I live on a wooded lot in lovely Transylvania County, North Carolina. A few birthdays ago I gave Wade a trail camera, which he moves around from time to time. The camera has captured many a crow, deer, squirrel, occasional opossum, coyote, raccoon, even a bear’s butt. But never has this discovery tool done its job better than this spring, photographing activity around our property’s most popular critter hole.
This particular burrow is along a narrow trail on a steep slope, one side dropping to a rhododendron thicket and spring, the upper side shaded by mountain laurel. A buried rock supports the entrance’s ceiling. Often the hole is covered with leaves, but when we notice it open we wonder what is in there. The first year’s camera photos revealed an opossum as occupant. Every animal that passed- a deer, raccoon, coyote, a cat- all stopped to sniff. So did I, and the smell coming out was horrible then.
A rather horrible cry came out of Wade a couple weeks ago while he was working on his laptop. I wondered for an instant what bad news had been sent, when he excitedly exclaimed “Baby foxes!! We have baby foxes in the critter hole!!” He was downloading nearly a week of photos from the trail camera. Over 3,000 of the motion-activated, mostly out- of- focus images revealed the activities of four baby gray foxes and their mother.
Most of the photos were of the kits playing, rolling around each other in front of the hole (no wonder the trail was hardened there and leaf free), nipping each other’s ears, playing with twigs. Now and then the mother brought food- large eggs held gently in her mouth (turkey?), unidentified shapes, one that appeared to show a white squirrel’s tail hanging out of her mouth. A male fox stopped by occasionally, too. Stamped dates and times showed the family outside the burrow when I’d be drinking my morning tea at 6:00 a.m., getting ready for bed around 10:00 p.m. and almost any hour, day or night.
Now that I know the fox family is there, I listen for unfamiliar sounds. Last week, about 6:00 p.m., I was outside at the right time to hear an odd “yip yip” and rustling in the woods. I grabbed binoculars and walked down the yard toward the woods in time to pick up motion. Two kits walked across a log and nestled under a rhododendron. I watched them chew twigs and play with each other for several minutes. Soon a sharp “chi-chi” sound got their attention, and off they trotted, presumably to their mother.
A few mornings later while getting ready for work while the light was still dusky I happened to peer out a window at the perfect time to see the adult walking down the driveway. I moved my arm and she saw me. We locked stares; she seemed confused about what to do, then disappeared into the woods. What an exciting way to start a day!
Saturday evening while closing our vegetable garden gate, I heard a loud sound I had never heard before, sharper and louder than a deer snort, was it a bear? Startled, I answered loudly with my best imitation and turned to the direction of the sound. In the last bit of light I could make out the shape of an adult fox walking up the driveway, looking back toward me. As I headed inside the house gently vocalizing my assurances to her, she barked several more times, now out of sight. I was so glad to once again be at the right place at the right time to see her.
Focused on plants, birds and insects in my nature explorations, I haven’t paid much attention to mammals. Our trail camera, this little window to the world of a growing fox family and the devoted, hard working mother who risks her life to feed it, is transforming my perspective of my own backyard. It reveals the unseen and provokes new ponderings. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our interpretive efforts were as effective as a critter cam?