EBONY AND IRONY: Cascade Foxes at Mount Rainier

Bright, intelligent eyes are characteristic of foxes; this individual’s distinct grizzled black and gray color combination marks it as a Silver Fox

The nearly black Silver Fox sat atop the fresh snow, peering down intently with its ears and eyes focused on a nearby spot under the snow. We watched for several minutes, and I told Karen I would like to continue watching, because something was going to happen. Suddenly the fox leaped high into the air, kicked its legs up and dove face first down into the snow. It apparently pinned the mouse it was after, using its paws, then ate it. The fox came up licking its chops, then sauntered into the forest.

The sequence of a fox naturally hunting a mouse under the snow, described above

This fox, a high mountain subspecies known to scientists as the Cascade Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes cascadensis), lives in the high country of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. It has always been considered secretive and has been seldom seen by hikers and park visitors. That is, until recently.

Our Silver Fox was mousing among the cabins at Longmire, a settlement of National Park Service staff and lodge visitors on the road to Paradise. Nearby, a second Red Fox with the reddish-orange coloration more typical of the species, sat lazily in the sun. I watched it from about 20 feet away, as it woke up from its sleepiness, yawned, and stretched, before trotting off to work.

A second Red Fox, this one with more typical coloration, luxuriates in the weak winter sun

Yawning and stretching before getting back to work

And work turned out to be scavenging in the parking lots of Longmire for cracker crumbs, spilled drinks, and whatever other human food was offered. Begging and scavenging was certainly easier than hunting for rodents.

Recent visitors to Mount Rainier now see Red Foxes routinely at Longmire, Paradise, and even as high as the climbers’ shelter at Camp Muir, high on the snowy mountain. The foxes appear to have quickly adapted to human visitors; I didn’t see foxes routinely on visits to Mount Rainier National Park until two years ago. Now I see one or more on nearly every trip.

This fox’s “work” consists of trotting around the parking lot at Longmire, looking for spilled food

And if it gets really lucky, a foolish visitor may feed it from outstretched fingers

I love seeing the foxes. Other visitors love seeing the foxes. The irony I see is that the thrill of seeing these foxes is a direct result of activity–people feeding them–that is unwise, against park policy, and will result in a fox nipping a visitor, followed by the Park Service having to kill the fox and test it for rabies. So, despite the fun of seeing the foxes, it would be better if most of us did not routinely see them, because all the scavenging and begging will be the death of foxes. Sad but true. Though the bad behavior by others did allow me to get these pictures, which ends up being a guilty pleasure. So be it.

The park’s dilemma is how to keep people from feeding the foxes, much as they have had to keep people from feeding the bears and raccoons in many parks. I saw no signs warning visitors about feeding the foxes, but there has been a recent press release from the National Park Service warning that it is illegal to feed the foxes. I expect stronger enforcement from now on.

The Cascade Fox itself is fascinating. It seems that about half the individuals I’ve seen are the very dark Silver Fox, and about half are the more typical red color. These color variants occur in the same litter, and they are not different types of foxes.

These are truly magnificent animals

The Cascade Fox is a native of these high mountains, and does not occur in the lowlands. There are Red Foxes in the lowlands, and these were not native to the region and are genetically different. These foxes were introduced to the Puget Sound lowlands, some intentionally and some as escapees from fur farms. Now they are widespread, and I have seen them near my home. These two subspecies do not normally interbreed, as their habitats are so different and the vast forested foothills act as a barrier between them.

The photographs in this set represent two foxes who engaged in their natural behavior and in their unfortunate interaction with humans. I felt privileged to spend some time with them (and, no, I did not feed them!).

Snowy Mount Rainier suddenly revealed by parting clouds

Snowy conifer forest along the Wonderland Trail near Longmire

The Nisqually River descending The Mountain from the Nisqually Glacier

Snow falling off trees went straight down my back!

Silver Fox on the alert

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Awakening at 4:00 a.m. on a frosty December morning, hours before dawn, we needed to leave early to see the December 10 lunar eclipse. The eclipse would begin around 5:00 a.m. and would be total at shortly after 6:00 a.m. in the Puget Sound Region. The TV weatherman warned that marine clouds would be arriving at about the same time, so seeing the eclipse was iffy.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the Sun, directly behind the Earth, casts the Earth’s shadow upon the full Moon. It begins by taking a nibble out of the Moon, then progressively devours more and more.  Eventually, the Moon turns an intense red, appearing as if Mars came calling for a sociable visit. Then, to the intense relief of thousands of generations of human observers, the Sun gradually returns the Moon to us in its normal form.

We left home at 4:30 a.m., and drove to a nearby clearcut in the forest, where we would get a clear view of the night sky. The problem was, clouds obscured the Moon. So we went to Plan B, and drove south to the Mud Bay shore of Puget Sound near Olympia. We found the Moon there, and saw an early nibble that had removed the upper left edge of the cookie. As we watched for about half an hour, the bite gradually increased in size.

Our cold reverie, while clad in long underwear, down coats, woolen hats, mittens, Sorrel boots, and our Antarctica parkas (we visited the frigid continent ten years ago today!), was relieved by the thrilling sight of the vanishing moon–and by the croaking guttural sound of a Harbor Seal a few feet offshore. We had seen a Harbor Seal lying on the mudflats here the day before; this was the first time we had heard one making the strange call–in which it may have been grudgingly acknowledging our presence.  Alas, the clouds came in and stole the eclipse from us, so we went to Plan C.

We high-tailed north of Olympia, to the entrance to Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, which was closed at this early hour. As we approached this spot, a Great Horned Owl flew by the car. Here we again had a great view of the eclipse, using a spotting scope and long lens. One car stopped briefly, the occupants asking if what they were seeing was an eclipse. Then the clouds caught up to us again, just as the Moon was starting to turn red.

Driving north quickly, in what became Plan D, we pulled off at another exit, where we took a long and loving view of the Moon as it turned deep red. This is where I was able to get the best photographs of the red globe. The advancing clouds caught up to us once again, and we drove further north.

Plan E took us to near one of the entrances to Joint Base Lewis McChord, where we watched the Moon sink into the clouds near the horizon, as a bit of the edge started to lighten with the retreat of the eclipse. A Great Blue Heron flew over, greeting the lightening sky to the east. We were at a place where we hoped not to be arrested for pointing our astronomical surveillance equipment at sensitive military installations, but no special ops forces swarmed us.

All in all, it was a thrilling prelude to dawn. We were lucky: the typical Puget Sound winter clouds had parted long enough for us to record the eclipse; as I write this several hours later, the clouds are thick, the day is dark, and drizzle has started. Our predawn eclipse chasing provided wondrous memories of still another amazing natural event.

For scientific information about this astronomical event, go to Total Lunar Eclipse

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Sasquatch Moss at Staircase

Usnea lichen drips from a Bigleaf Maple like the Spanish Moss of the American South, though it is completely unrelated (and Spanish Moss itself is a flowering plant related to pineapple, and has nothing to do with moss). Perhaps I should call this lichen “Sasquatch Moss!” The golden color in the background comes from autumn maple leaves, thrown out of focus by focusing on the nearby lichen. 

Autumn in the Pacific Northwest has never seemed as glorious as those Upper Peninsula or Vermont or Adirondack or Colorado autumns that I knew and loved earlier in my life. The trees don’t glow as brightly and the days don’t feel as sprightly and brisk. On the other hand–and there are always other hands with me–autumn in the northwest has its own magic of spawning salmon and dripping moss and golden Bigleaf Maples and scarlet huckleberries.

In search of the special qualities of a northwest autumn, I went hiking on four October days at Staircase, in Olympic National Park. Staircase is located on the southwestern part of the national park and, at about an hour away, is the closest access to where I live. Staircase is known for its Elk herd and for its rocky trail along the steep course of the North Fork Skokomish River, which tumbles joyfully from the Olympic Mountains. At Staircase there is a ranger station and a campground, and other routes along the river to explore.

Footbridge across Elk Creek, along the Shady Lane Trail; everything on the Olympic Peninsula eventually gets covered with moss

Alas, I don’t recall any staircases: it turns out that the area was named for the extremely steep trail that an early explorer built, and is now applied to the Staircase Rapids along the steeply pitched river.

These photographs represent those four lovely October days–a time when I desired to be nowhere else on earth.

Elk Creek winds through a forest of Bigleaf Maples near the point where it flows into the North Fork Skokomish River

A split view of the Skokomish, with the photographer in waders on a cold and colorful autumn day

Huge Bull Trout (close to 30″ long), a threatened species that migrates up the Skokomish from Lake Cushman every October to breed–much like a salmon swimming upstream

Bull Trout with fiery reflections of autumn leaves

I walked out over the Skokomish on these 3′ diameter fallen trunks, and could see skittish Bull Trout in the shadows cast by the logs

Reflections of Douglas Fir trunks and autumn Bigleaf Maples on the North Fork Skokomish River

The most vivid mushroom I’ve ever seen: a coral mushroom that goes by its scientific name of Ramaria araiospora var. rubella

I have a photograph of my mother and I standing in front of this giant cedar 20 years ago, when it was still standing; it fell a few years ago

The Usnea lichens I photographed are on this tree, with limbs hanging out over the river. For the impressionistic photos I got, with the golden background, I estimated that there were approximately four hours per year when the light would do what I wanted it to do.  I figured it out by my third day, and on my fourth day of photography, I got exactly what I wanted (represented by the first picture of this blog post and by the photos immediately below).

I have come to love a style of impressionistic photography that I have returned to often over the last few years, in which a few objects are in sharp focus against a wash of beautiful color created by distant plants (or shadows, or whatever) that are out of focus.  It lends a dreamlike feeling that works really well with an exotic subject like these strange lichens.

And here is a photograph that puts the lichens into their context, where they drip off maple branches. Usnea grows in northern regions around the world, and is noted for its sensitivity to air pollution–it dies even where pollution levels are relatively low (Olympic National Park has some of the cleanest air in America, so the lichen can grow long and prosper). For more information about Usnea, go to Usnea Lichen.

Sun catches ripples on the North Fork Skokomish, with scattered Bigleaf Maple leaves on the river bottom

A springboard notch, where loggers once inserted a board into the tree trunk so they could saw the tree at an appropriate height using an old-fashioned hand-powered, two-man “misery whip”

Moss forms over Bigleaf Maple roots exposed by the scouring action of Elk Creek

And a final look at the lovely river and its autumn maples

For further information about visiting Staircase, go to Staircase in Olympic National Park. This is important, as the road is closed to vehicle traffic during the winter.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website