I found them curled up tightly together, fending off a combination of chilly northwest wind and wispy fog—island fox pups keeping each other warm on windswept Santa Cruz Island.
I was hoping for a mere glimpse of some island fox pups this past spring with all the rain over the last winter injecting life into critters big and small. Being that the island fox is the largest land mammal on the Channel Islands National Park at three- to five- pounds and their population brimming, chances were good some youngsters would show themselves in Scorpion Canyon, the main hub for visitation to the national park.
The only question was where the sighting might take place. I wasn’t imagining it to be a den underneath a park service work shed, but wildlife isn’t always predictable. I got four good opportunities to photograph them––twice at the ranger station, where for long stretches their parents rarely showed themselves.
In the meantime, the stubby pups with round little bellies kept themselves busy napping, rough-housing and grooming, and sometimes cleaning each other. They stayed close to home never venturing further than just a few feet from their den.
On those first two occasions it was the dad that showed up to attend to the pups. Lots of happy whimpers from the pups as the dad approached, then much nuzzling and rough-housing with a very tolerant father. He didn’t stay long, then vanished in the brush. The pups then returned to wrestling each other, batting at swaying grasses and eating helpless insects. A black stink bug was of particular interest to them.
Several days passed before I returned. When I did, the pups were nowhere to be found. I waited for two hours hoping they’d return, but they never did. I didn’t give up hope though, so another few days passed before I gave the region a good hard look.
The hillside above the original den site was covered in huge swaths of native lemonade berry, ideal vegetation for a potential den site. It was foggy when I scoured the periphery of every lemonade berry. The pups blend in so well to the island landscape, that my search had to be methodical. I eventually noticed some tunneling through a patch of dry grass leading into a massive lemonade berry. Between the patch of grass and the edge of the lemonade berry I spotted the two pups curled up tightly in front of their new den site.
It was a perfect spot for a den. Overlooking Scorpion Canyon on the leeward side of the lemonade berry, which meant it was out of the wind. I took some shots and let them be for the rest of the late afternoon, vowing to myself that the next day would be the day.
Sure enough, the next day was an active one at the den site. The pups were really playful and approached several times while I laid in the grass at ground level for photos. One pup was more adventurous than the other and crept within a couple feet on several occasions.
Their dad showed up again with the pups clambering all over him. Then the mother rushed in and it was utter pandemonium. As she stood at the entry of the den, the pups scooched underneath her to nurse, but when she was finished and took off, she dragged the pups along for several feet as they clung to her nipples.
After both parents left there was more wrestling before the pups settled in for the night. As shadows crept across the canyon the pups wrapped up and snuggled close, looking like one animal, their eyes appearing heavy after another long, adventurous day on the island.
I sat near the entrance the next afternoon, and watched them tumble and roll in the grass, then lick and groom, repeating their routine until mom arrived. This time, she brought them a deer mouse. She dove quickly into the lemonade berry and the pups immediately followed her. She left them after just a few minutes and descended back into Scorpion Canyon, the pups obviously enjoying one of their first of many island meals.