The fast and the furious
04/10/15Now I’m in gainful employment, I’ve only been able to visit my fox family at weekends for the past month. I was a bit concerned that my absence during the week would result in the cubs being wary of me – and therefore more difficult to photograph. But thankfully so far this hasn’t proved to be the case.
After my outings to Richmond Park last weekend, I manged to spend a few hours on Sunday with my foxes. Both the remaining cubs - Red and Black Legs - seemed to be healthy and relaxed around me. Black Legs was sitting under a van when I arrived, and immediately came up to me when I parked the car and got out. Even Stumpy, the adult with half its tail missing that I see quite often (not sure whether it’s mum or dad), was more tolerant of my presence than usual.
As I settled down near the main entrance to the den to see what was going on I heard some unearthly sounds coming from the bushes. I wasn’t even sure what was making them – possibly foxes, but it could also have been magpies or crows. But whatever it was, it sounded like someone was having a disagreement in there!
After a few minutes Red came bowling out and immediately ran off. Then a strange fox poked it’s nose out, caught sight of me and retreated rapidly (it did this a few times). I concluded that the yelping sounds may have had something to do with this newcomer.
Some time later a young fox trotted towards where I was sitting, coming from the opposite direction. When it saw me it stopped. Initially I thought it was Black Legs, as I’d seen her heading in the direction the cub had come from. But something about this cub’s face and body language indicated it wasn’t her, even though they looked very similar. Black Legs is now so relaxed around me that this cub's caution told me it couldn't be her.
The youngster checked me out for a few seconds but then seemed to decide I wasn’t a threat, and continued about its business. I took a couple of shots, and when I zoomed in on the cub’s face it looked vaguely familiar.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time examining the faces of all the foxes I’ve photographed this year, so I can recognise them more easily. This young fox looked very much like one of the cubs that disappeared three months ago, that I’d nicknamed Yellow. I’d assumed that neither Yellow or Tubby had survived, as it seemed unlikely that they’d have left the family den to strike out on their own at such a young age. So if this cub was Yellow then it was an unexpected, but very welcome turn of events.
The youngster wandered off , and some time later Black Legs reappeared and climbed up the reservoir bank. This usually signals that she’s going on the hunt for voles. So I followed her up, but kept my distance so I didn’t scupper her chances of catching a snack.
Black Legs began stalking along the water line, where the long grass provides cover for small animals. I’d been following her for a few minutes, when suddenly I noticed in the distance the cub that might be Yellow heading towards us. Neither Black Legs nor the other cub had seen each other until they were almost parallel. When they did finally notice each other, both foxes stopped in their tracks. For a few seconds the tension was palpable as they arched their backs, flattened their ears and hissed at each other in a display of hostility. Then suddenly all hell broke loose as they went for each other. Both cubs stood up on their hind legs grappling for supremacy, gaping their mouths open and making a hell of a racket, before jumping on each other and rolling around in a cartoon ball of fur and teeth.
I pointed the camera in their general direction and kept my finger on the shutter release as the young foxes tore after each other at lightning speed – it was extremely tricky to keep up with them! The spat was all over after about 15 seconds, but for the next 5 minutes they moved very cautiously around each other, before descending the slope and disappearing together through a fence, where unfortunately I couldn’t follow.
This incident was photographic gold as far as I was concerned - most wildlife photographers are constantly seeking images that show interesting behaviour or action, as these are usually more compelling than straight portraits. Unfortunately I knew that the angle of the light was less than ideal, but I’d decided against trying to maneouvre myself into a better position in case I scared off the other cub. All the action had taken place in the shade, but with the background in bright sunlight, so again I knew this would have a negative impact on my shots. However all these factors become less important if the subject matter is sufficiently interesting.
Looking at the photos I’d taken at home later on, I had mixed emotions. I was pleased with some of them, as I’d managed to capture the action. But I was also quite annoyed that I hadn’t had the foresight to adjust my camera settings, which meant many of the shots were taken at a shutter speed of only 1/800 – 1/1000 of a second, and so weren’t quite sharp. Fox fights are a blur of motion, and therefore I normally try to ensure a minimum shutter speed of 1/1600 second to keep my shots pin sharp – assuming the autofocus has kept up!
I also noticed two things: the other cub was male; and Black Legs started the fight – which didn’t surprise me at all, as she has become something of a bully over the last couple of months! It used to be Red who started the fights, but increasingly Black Legs is the antagonist now.
Despite my slight disappointment with my shots, it was fascinating to observe the behaviour of the young foxes. I wonder if Yellow (if it was indeed him) and Black Legs hadn’t seen each other for some time, hence the hostility? If so, where has he been living and how has he been fending for himself? I don’t expect I’ll ever know, but it’s great that at least a few of this year’s cubs seem to be thriving.
Hopefully when I return this weekend, all will be peace and harmony once more in fox world!