Surprise is a common occurrence for wildlife photographers, maybe the most common occurrence. While you can make educated guesses based on past experiences, about timing, or locations, or weather – still, the shock of a great encounter always amazes me, and this gray fox encounter was no different.
After living in St. George, Utah from 1985 – 1990, and making a hundred photo trips to Zion National Park – spending hundreds of days shooting landscapes, slot canyons, mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, songbirds, butterflies, cactus, and wildflowers over the course of 35 years (today) – it wasn’t until November 3, 2011 that I finally ran across an elusive gray fox. My anchor image for this post is the image below.
Most folks know that gray foxes are almost, almost entirely nocturnal. Hunting, mating, raising young, or just schmoozing with other foxes is all done in the dark. While populations exist throughout north and south America, the western United States have really become a dominant area for this fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus – the widest ranging member of the canid family and the only member of the dog family that can climb trees.
Given that I have spent thousands of days in the field I would have thought this moment would have come earlier, however, gray fox weren’t on my radar that day in Zion, so I was surprised when the encounter happened. I had just arrived in southern Utah that afternoon, the day before my photo safari was set to begin – and after dropping off my luggage at the hotel in Springdale I headed into Zion for a quick look. My intended subjects were mule deer bucks and desert bighorn rams – both of which were entering their respective rutting seasons. As usual I headed up to the roof first to check on the bighorn sheep. Zion’s “roof” is the area that runs along the highway east of the long tunnel, through the short tunnel, and out to the East Gate of Zion. The road passes the entrance to Zion Canyon, then switchbacks as it climbs past the East Temple, through the tunnels, along the White Cliffs, and past Checkerboard Mesa to the entrance gate.
There were sheep about, though I didn’t see any large rams and I didn’t take any photos before heading back down the mountain to turn into Zion Canyon. The shuttle service into the canyon either hadn’t become mandatory yet, or had ceased operations for the winter season because I drove in. The road curves along the Virgin River for a ways, passing the massive rock monoliths of the Court of the Patriarchs and entering Zion Canyon proper. Meadows filled with cottonwood trees are to the left and right, and after a short distance you pass the Zion Lodge on the right, and the old horse tie-ups on the left, leading to the bridge over the Virgin that begins the Angel’s Landing trail head.
In early November Zion Canyon shadows out early in the afternoon, the sun retreating west over the ridge formed by the West Temple, Towers of the Virgin, and the Court of the Patriarchs – by mid-afternoon the light becomes dim. I headed into the canyon about 4:15pm, there wasn’t much traffic, and I was completely absorbed in my search for mule deer. Sometimes the bucks will be laying down, resting, alone or near their does – so my attention was both to the meadow grasses and into the cottonwoods, oaks, and maples that line the canyon.
At about 4:24pm I had just passed the Lodge and was nearing the Grotto when I saw unrecognizable ears off in the grass. The ears screamed “bobcat” at first, but within a minute I had parked, tripoded-up, and closed the distance on those ears. At 4:25 I took my first shot (below) of a gray fox, turned away from me laying in the grass, but with his ears rotated backwards to listen to me coming towards him.
The color and shape of those ears were wrong for a bobcat (though I can spot bobcats at pretty good distances when only their ears are visible) and I began shooting this gorgeous gray fox. When I realized what it was I got that nervous, heart beating faster, energy coursing through me.
At about 30 yards the fox got up and meandered through the cottonwoods away from me, did some log walking, and crossed the empty road, moving into heavier cover. Given this was my first gray fox there was no way a little movement was going to slow me down. I kept a respectful distance but didn’t allow the fox to loose me in the gathering darkness. I think the fox had been asleep when I found it, and now it was casually looking for a new place to bed down to await full darkness with fewer people.
We crossed about 50 yards of meadows before reaching the cliffs, cliffs that go straight up 2000 feet or more. At the base of the cliffs, before climbing up a ledge, the fox paused to watch me continue my approach – it was my first really clear shots. It was so dark by now that I was up to iso 3200 on my Nikon D3s body, and shutter-speeds were continuing to drop.
After a few minutes of posing and contemplation, the gray fox expertly climbed the sandstone cliff above the valley out-of-sight. Thinking my encounter had ended I waited a minute and was about to leave – when to my utter astonishment the fox reappeared, curled up right on the edge of the ledge, and with his face wrapped up in his tail closed his eyes and went back to sleep. He was 18 feet above me.
My camera wouldn’t focus in the increasing dark so I quickly went to manual focus and ripped off another sequence of images. When I stepped on a stick the noise got the fox’s attention and up popped his head, eyes open for a brief second, giving me my anchor image. I left him as I had found him, asleep. It was 5:10pm, encounter over. BRP