The Fox of Carolina is gray…When hunted, they make a sorry Chace, because they run up Trees, when pursued.
~John Lawson, 1709
On almost every visit to Mattamuskeet NWR these past few months, I have seen one or more Gray Foxes. I am guessing they had a den somewhere along Wildlife Drive and the adults, and their young, have stayed in that general vicinity all Summer and Fall. A few weeks ago, I was driving down the dirt road along the lake and my friend hollered, “fox”, as we drove right by one sleeping in the grass along the road. When I started to back up, it quickly got up and slipped into the thick brush (seems as though most wildlife does not like it when you back up your vehicle). As John Lawson pointed out oh-so-long-ago, Gray Foxes are the only canid in North America that can climb trees. I have seen that twice, once on the coast, where a fox was after some persimmons (a favorite Fall meal), and once on a teacher workshop at the Belize Zoo. It seems that Gray Foxes really are much more cat-like than other members of their dog clan, having semi-retractable claws, and short legs relative to their body size (ideal for climbing trees). Gray Foxes are often mistaken for Red Foxes, due to the reddish coloration that is so noticeable on portions of their body. An easy way to distinguish the two is that Gray Foxes have a dark stripe and dark tip on their tail, whereas Red Foxes have a white tail tip.
On a more recent trip, I was telling my companion about the sleeping fox incident when I spotted a gray lump over in the grass on the opposite side of the road from where I had seen the fox a week before. This time, I stopped the vehicle ahead of the lump and checked it out. Sure enough, a Gray Fox napping…really napping, it turned out. We got out, hoping not to spook it. But, not to worry, it continued napping. I was surprised the fox was still hanging around this area since the annual duck hunt at Mattamuskeet had started earlier in the week and takes place at a series of blinds adjacent to this dirt road. I really thought the shotgun blasts would have spooked it from this area.
We took a series of images, all with the fox laying there, eyes closed. It finally raised its head and gave us a look.
For the next several minutes, we stood there, watching the fox nap, raise its head, yawn, and then lay back down to nap again.
After several minutes of standing there and waiting, the fox finally stood up, looked at us sleepily, and slowly walked away.
I hated that we might have awakened the little guy, but was happy that we didn’t seem to upset it much by our presence. The fox stopped a few times, sniffing the ground, and perhaps grabbing something to snack on, as I had seen them do several times on previous visits to the refuge. Gray Foxes have an incredibly varied diet – everything from rabbits and mice to amphibians and insects, and lots of different types of fruits. Finally, the fox slipped into the thick underbrush, leaving us appreciative of our time spent with it. It is such a rare treat to be able to observe an animal going about its daily life, seemingly unconcerned by our presence. This is one more reason we should all be thankful for places like our wildlife refuges and parks, where there is adequate habitat and regulations that protect wildlife, so we can all have moments like this.