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Sunburns & Swifties

My career so far as a wildlife biologist has taught me a lot of patience. Whether I’m trapping bears in southern Utah or setting up camera traps in the Arctic, things hardly ever go perfectly according to plan, and there’s almost always a lot of waiting involved. So when I was tasked with finding and photographing some of the resident swift foxes at Chico Basin Ranch, I suspected that I would be spending a lot of time doing my best to be patient, and my suspicions were confirmed.

My first few days on the ranch involved a lot of driving around, talking to different ranch personnel, taking pictures of some of the more dependable Chico wildlife, like pronghorns, prairie dogs, and burrowing owls, and hoping to be lucky enough to spot a swift fox. But the foxes were nowhere to be seen. Then, early one morning right after leaving camp, I saw my first swift fox as it scampered across the dirt road. Pulling over, I watched as the fox ran out into the middle of the sagebrush and cholla, and then disappeared underground. I’d found a den and I knew my patience was about to be tested.

Hurriedly, I grabbed my camera, hat and sunglasses, and in my rush I forgot both sunscreen and a water bottle as I headed out to find a spot to wait. The morning was still cool seeing as it was barely 6:00 AM, and I found a spot about 30 feet from the den near a larger cholla and began my wait. It didn’t take long for one of the adult swift fox to come out and see what I was doing. Peeking out over the rim of the den, the fox gradually grew braver and braver and came all the way out to inspect me. I thought I had glanced fox pups when I first pulled up, so I did my best not to move at all while the adult looked me over, with the hope that maybe over time the adult foxes would feel comfortable enough with my presence to let their pups come back out while I was around. The fox kept about a 25 yard distance from me as it nervously ran back and forth from the den, and, after about 30 min of this, it ran out about 100 yards, did a large half-circle walk until it was behind me, and then walked to within five feet of me. I was shocked that the fox had already decided it could approach me so closely, and when I didn’t react it seemed to make up its mind that I was not a threat and bounded off into the prairie, no longer looking in my direction.

The sun was beginning to get strong and I had been sitting by the den for over an hour when the adult fox left. I assumed that it was probably heading out to hunt so I decided to stay put. For over two hours I sat completely still on a cloudless morning in early June. With no shade or sun protection. I couldn’t help but look at my nearby car and think about both the water and sunscreen sitting only 200 yards away. Finally, when the heat and sun became almost too much to bear, I decided I would give the fox ten more minutes to return and then I would get up and go to my car, knowing very well that moving might ruin my chances of seeing any pups. Just as I was having this thought, the adult fox ran right next to me, almost close enough to touch, with a large cottontail rabbit in its jaws!

Slowly and methodically I raised my camera up to my eyes and began taking pictures as the entire fox family poured out of the den in anticipation of a meal. The other adult immediately noticed me and ran in my direction to inspect me, but quickly relaxed and returned to the writhing pile of pups. For about ten minutes I got the incredible opportunity to be a fly on the wall (or a fly on the cholla in this case) as I watched a scene that has played countless times on Chico Basin Ranch, although almost always far from any human eyes. As quickly as they had emerged from the den, they returned to it, taking their rabbit remains into the cool, dark underground sanctuary. I walked to my car and took a very large drink of water and cursed my already apparent sunburn.

Having worked with bears for the majority of my career, I have grown used to a mating system where the female does all of the work. Male bears simply mate and then excuse themselves from any future cub-rearing. So seeing a male-female team of foxes as they fed and protected their pups was a really incredible experience for me, and one to which it was hard not to draw human comparisons (even though we wildlife biologists tend to avoid that kind of anthropomorphism). I think as humans we often subconsciously see wild animals as biological “machines” that eat, seek out shelter, mate, and that’s about it. But my morning with the foxes helped me see real care in these animals. I was a potential predator and they still risked their safety to find food for their pups. While this behavior no doubt has a biological basis, I still left the den feeling as though I had been given a brief window into a family, and one where the survival of the upcoming generation was given priority. It was worth a sunburn.

By wildlife biologist Wesley Larson. Wes, also known as Griz Kid for his frequent work with bears, spent some time at the Chico tracking down and photographing a few of the ranch’s most iconic wildlife species.

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