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The Foxes of American Camp

Wildlife photographer Monika Wieland shares her experiences with the foxes that live in the grassy prairies of the San Juan Island National Historical Park

While the San Juan Islands are well known for our marine wildlife, there are also many terrestrial animals to observe including deer, hundreds of bird species, and a visitor favorite: foxes. And although the local foxes come in a variety of colors including brown, black, silver, and orange, they are all actually part of the same species called the red fox, Vulpes vulpes. Regardless of the color of their fur, all morphs have a distinct white tip to their bushy tail.

 

Visiting the fox's home

Foxes were introduced to the San Juan Islands to help control European rabbits, which are another introduced species. They do eat their fair share of rabbits, but can also be seen hunting other rodents, snakes, and even large insects. While foxes can be seen a wide variety of habitats including forests and  beaches, the most likely place to encounter them is in the prairies of the south end of San Juan Island, where there are also extensive rabbit warrens. They are a common sight while hiking the trails at American Camp, San Juan Island National Historical Park, but the best place to observe them is from Pickett's Lane, the road that leads to South Beach.

 

What the fox said

Red foxes are active year round, but the most exciting time to observe them is in April and May when the newly born kits emerge from the dens. There are usually several active dens between American Camp and South Beach, each with anywhere from 2 to 5 kits. While the parents go off to hunt, the young can be seen exploring, napping, or play fighting with each other. There's always a flurry of activity when the parents return with a meal, too.

 

Give them their space

The foxes of the San Juan Islands are very habituated to people because they live in such close proximity to humans. It can tempting to approach them, especially the adorable kits, but signs near American Camp remind visitors not to approach them closer than 75 feet. We get the unique opportunity to observe amazing behaviors like hunting and nursing at fairly close range, but we don't want to disturb their natural behaviors. The best views often come with patience. If you park along the side of Pickett's Lane, the daily activity of the foxes will eventually bring them close to you as they roam the prairies, and you have the option of using your car as viewing blind. One of my most memorable fox encounters occurred while sitting in my car, watching two kits wrestle with each other and chase each other back and forth over the split-rail fence at the side of the road. Similarly, sitting alongside established trails works well, too. The kits are generally curious, and will often head towards you to check you out.

 

Help keep the foxes healthy

Additionally, it's very important to refrain from feeding the foxes. They have an abundance of prey here, and creating a dependence on human hand-outs is dangerous both for people and the foxes. During the winter the foxes look very fat and furry, while in the summer they shed their thicker coat and can look quite skinny. This leads some observers to think they are starving, but it's normal for them to have a more slender look in the summer months.

Since foxes aren't nocturnal, they can be observed at any time of day. From the photographer's perspective, sunrise and sunset lighting can make for the most stunning photographs, and there often less visitors around during the early and late day hours as well. Whenever you happen to see them, I hope you enjoy the unique opportunity to observe the many varied and often entertaining behaviors of one of our most photogenic local mammals!

 

Churchill Suites, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island

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