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

Go to LeeRentz.com to view the range of work by Lee Rentz. Work is available as metal or archival paper prints, and most are available for licensing for websites, magazines, and books.

MOUNT RAINIER IN WINTER: Foxes, Gables, and Clarity

The gable-fronted dormers peek out of the snow on the Paradise Inn

My favorite photographs often emerge unexpectedly, and that was the case during a February Sunday trip to Mount Rainier National Park, which is a little over two hours from my Western Washington home.

Karen and I drove to The Mountain (as it is called here), arriving just before noon.  We chose to go snowshoeing above the Paradise Jackson Visitor Center toward Panorama Point, where we could get a magnificent view of the snowy peak on this clear day.  Alas, the snow lived up to its local name, “Cascade concrete,” and we didn’t even need snowshoes most of the way.  In addition, the snow had been heavily tramped, snowshoed, boarded, and skied, so there were human tracks everywhere.  That was OK; I was able to photograph the mountain in some pristine places.

But my favorite pictures came at the end of the day.  When we returned to Paradise, the Paradise Inn was catching some nice late light, with just the gabled dormers emerging from the heavy snow on the roof.  This beautiful structure, designed in the classic “national park style” early in the 20th Century, is closed for the winter months.  Too bad:  it would be a beautiful place to stay with the snow swirling outside.

The other great moment came after I finished photographing some beautiful icicles catching the last light of day.  We had just started the car and were leaving the parking lot, when Karen saw a dark animal running across the parking lot.  It was a Red Fox, but not one of the normal Red Foxes we typically see.  This was a Silver Phase Red Fox, which is very dark on much of the body, but with silver-tipped hairs on the face and toward the back of the animal.  It was beautiful, with lively orange eyes that have that vertical slit-like pupils–making it look quite alien to we of the round pupil clan.  The fox was bright enough to know when visitors leave on a weekend day, and it showed up to act as the cleanup crew, lapping up the last of the hot chocolate that a skier had tossed onto the snowbank, and the spilled cereal left on the asphalt.  Plus, it spent a few moments on the snow so that I could get some more natural pictures.

Once again, the unexpected made my day!

Silver Phase Red Fox atop a snowbank at Mount Rainier

The Mountain with meltwater channels on the lower slopes

Silver Phase Red Fox (I digitally subtracted the landscape color to emphasize the fox’s color)

Catching the last rays of the setting sun

Pausing, with the Tatoosh Range in sunset glow

A more prosaic view of the scavenger fox

Above Paradise there are spectacular views of Mt. Rainier

Icicles in beautiful warm and cold light

Windows of the Jackson Visitor Center reflecting The Mountain

Paradise Inn with heavy snows

Tatoosh Range in foreground, with Mt. Adams–another major volcano–distant

The new Jackson Visitor Center is designed to shed snow

Graceful shadows and scattered conifers on the lower slopes of Mount Rainier

The Mountain towers over 14,000′; Paradise is just over a mile high

I have two other stories about Mount Rainier that you might enjoy; go to A Night on Mt. Rainier, A Day in Paradise and An Afternoon in Paradise.  I also have a story, photographed in Michigan, of another unusual color phase of the Red Fox known as the “Cross Fox;” go to Cross Fox & Family.

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June 18, 2008 Cross Fox & Family

While traveling through Lake Superior State Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I am photographically prepared for wildlife.  In the summer of 2007, I saw a Moose and a Black Bear in this forest, and want to be prepared for whatever I see.  So I travel with the camera ready with a 500mm lens with a 1.4x extender.  This is a good combination for wildlife, but I find that I still have to get close to a creature to get a good picture.  Anyway, I was an Eagle Scout, so my motto has to be “Be Prepared.”  And today it worked out well.

Late this afternoon, as I approached a sandy road cut in my vehicle, I saw movement ahead and quickly counted four kits and one adult fox playing much too close to the road.  I pulled over when I could, and meanwhile the foxes had scrambled for safety up and over the embankment and into the forest; several looking down at me from their higher perch.  Then I drove to a nearby side road and saw the family again, this time gathered in a meadow.  I stopped and got a few pictures before the family went back into the forest.  When I first parked the vehicle to try and get a picture, the adult was relaxed enough to be laying down, eyes half-closed in a squint that looks so restful.  My sequence of pictures shows the adult laying down along, then one kit coming up and nuzzling, then the adult looked directly at me.  Then the adult rose when it saw I was staying and stared with eyes wide open and intent on me and my intentions.  Eventually it decided to leave and took the kits with her.

I later went back to the main road and discovered the fox den on the other side of the road from where I first saw them, near the top of the sandy road cut.  This is the second den I have located in Lake Superior State Forest, and each one has been near the top of a steep (but not very high), sandy road cut.  In each case the den entrance was in the open, without any obstructing vegetation.  The fox knows to dig the den just below the root line of the trees and other plants; this allows easy digging but provides a stable roof of soil held in place by the roots.  This fox didn’t pick such a good den location, however, being right at the edge of an asphalt highway–upon which I later saw two of the young foxes playing.

These Red Foxes interested me because the adult was not red; two of the kits were not red; and the two remaining kits were the typical Red Fox warm golden-red hue I’ve seen before (except in Alaska’s Denali National Park, where I saw a jet-black Red Fox).  The coloration here was varied in shades of dark gray and black and reddish ochre that is known as the “Cross Fox.”  There is a black line down the back and another black line that goes over the shoulders and down the legs; I suspect that when trappers skinned out a fox of this coloration and laid it out flat, the cross looked distinctive.

As I’m sitting here at the picnic table in the campground, I’m less than 100 yards from the fox den.  In fact, twice since I’ve been in camp an adult fox trotted by.  The second time, the fox was briefly curious enough to walk up hesitatingly and check me out from about 25 feet away.

I should mention the habitat.  In this sandy soil the tree cover consists mostly of Jack Pine, Paper Birch, and Bigtooth Aspens, with a lot of bracken and reindeer lichen as ground cover.

I’ll see what tomorrow morning brings.  [Note:  the next morning I saw a single young Cross Fox outside the den in a drizzle, with the others probably warm and dry inside.]

Also today I saw a pair of fresh Sandhill Crane tracks crossing a road.  I also saw a wet path roughly a foot wide crossing a road from wetland to wetland; I’m sure it was made by either a River Otter or a Beaver.

As I’m typing this at deep dusk, a whippoorwill is calling across the lake and mosquitoes are hovering around me with their incessant whine.  It is a chilly June evening, and I’m wearing a layer of down.

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography. I am primarily a nature photographer and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.