A Thousand Words – The Wild Urban San Joaquin Kit Fox

When I lived in southern Utah in the late 1980’s I spent a lot of very early mornings driving out across the Beaver Dam Slope to photograph at the Lytle Ranch Nature Preserve. On nearly every drive I would encounter Kit Fox wandering through my headlights. After moving back to California I read about the endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox living in the valley, from Bakersfield north to Merced, or thereabouts. Finally, a photo safari client and friend, Allen – a retired (to Bakersfield) Wyoming Game Warden, spotted a den near his home on one of his early morning walks – and called me. This is my key image to this article.
What I found out about these beautiful little foxes is that while other animals have failed to adapt to the encroaching human environment, they have developed a unique urban aspect to their lives that has allowed them to, while maybe not flourish, continue to survive and successfully raise their young.  The last article I read, published by CF&G, said their was about 7000 of these foxes living in the San Joaquin Valley. While their natural habitat has shrunk due to the valley being an agricultural oasis, they have adapted their behavior to fit into their evolving environment.

While their predators, mainly coyotes, but historically bobcats, mountain lions, golden eagles, and bears have had their habitats reduced and their populations more isolated to the rugged parts of California – the San Joaquin Kit Fox has remained in much of its historic territory, right amid the orange groves, grape vineyards, and dairy cattle of the San Joaquin Valley.

So after Allen called me I immediately set up a date to meet the following morning, well before sunrise, at his home east of Bakersfield. We walked to a spot not far from his home where, even in the dim 5am light, I could see young fox kits strolling around, waiting for their parents to arrive with their next meal.

I find photographing predators, especially ones I hadn’t previously photographed, to be an exhilarating experience – and I felt that way each of the dozen or so mornings over the next couple of years I had opportunities to photograph them. Each time Allen spotted a den or area where they were visible, usually in June, I was their the next morning – and then each morning until they vanished to a new densite. The parents seemed to move them often, but the amazing thing was how the parents chose their den sites. Time and again the foxes were living in water pipes, some housing and some irrigation, as well as light pole standards, unused concrete sewer lines, etc.  There behavior was unique.  After all, it’s not like a hawk building a nest in a tree and it just happens to be in a park or along a road – the hawk is still using a tree. These foxes were using man-made holes to den in where their natural holes would have been covered by orchards, vineyards, or other crops. There they would have run afoul of farmers, and I’m sure many did – thus their ability to adapt and remain in their historic ranges is remarkable.
Arriving early in the morning and being quiet, moving little, it seemed that the foxes became quickly used to our presence.  It was clear from the area of the den that some of the local gardeners might have been feeding them when they arrived early for work – and while I don’t condone feeding wildlife, clearly these foxes were a mix of wild and urban – well adapted to humans as a possible source of food, and to the manicured lawns and gardens of housing developments that seemed overrun with squirrels and cottontails. It must have seemed an equitable trade-off to the wild foxes to use the humans, who had encroached on their historic grounds, as a source of food and shelter, which enabled their continued survival.

As we photographed the foxes, usually before sunrise, I was grateful to being shooting a camera that excelled at low light photography, the fx sensored Nikon D3s.  The main image (top) appears to be taken after sunrise, but it wasn’t. The bright light in the fox’s eye is actually the brightening sky to the east, prior to sunrise. Many of my images were shot in the iso 1600 to iso 6000 range before the sun came up, and usually iso 400 to 800 as the sun rose in the sky. I went back and checked my images and I never had the foxes in the sun (if at all) for more than 30-40 minutes – then they would disappear into their holes for a daytime of sleep after a long night of activity.

This image, above, shows an adult fox watching us from the safety of an unused sewer pipe. Sometimes left above ground for years between construction projects, concrete pipes like this, as well as irrigation pipes and steel light standards, shown below, provide protection from predators, temporary homes, and cover from the extreme heat that blankets the San Joaquin Valley in the summer.
Over the years I’ve seen kit foxes along Interstate 5, Highway 99 and 178 – and 223 along the north side of the Tehachapi Mountains, Highway 58, and inside of Bakersfield and Delano. I’ve never seen a fox, other than these in the early morning, during the day.  They are nocturnal but still active for a few minutes after sunrise. These foxes are opportunistic and relatively fearless of people, this probably accounts for the den on the UC Bakersfield campus, and other dens I’ve heard of in heavily traveled urban areas.

Over the years I’ve shot thousands of kit fox images, and been able to do very limited photo safaris (1 or 2 people at a time) when dens are discovered by Allen. They always seem to be on the periphery of developments, at least giving me a chance at wild looking images, not shot on lawns or with building backgrounds.  But I have to say, I admire these foxes for their ability to adapt and survive.  BRP

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About brentrpaull

Professional Photographer
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