Posted by: James Wapotich | December 23, 2013

2012: Year of the Fox

This past year was actually the first time I’d ever seen a gray fox in the wild. I’d heard that foxes are mostly nocturnal and so I didn’t think much about not having seen any.

But on a hike back from Cachuma Mountain along the McKinley Fire Road my friend and I were treated to a great fox encounter. It was towards the end of the day, and as we rounded one of the bends in the road we spotted this little fox along the side of the road. We both assumed that it would just dart back down into the brush, but instead it wandered into the middle of the road, sat down gave a big yawn, scratched itself, stared us and then got up and continued across the road and trotted off into the brush. [My apologies for the image quality, although my camera has a decent zoom, in low light it becomes confused about how far things are]

Gray Fox McKinley Fire Road Los Padres National Forest

Gray Fox along McKinley Fire Road

Gray Fox McKinley Fire Road Los Padres National Forest


Then just a couple weeks later while hiking up to the Root Cellar above Tangerine Falls I got to see two more foxes. This time I was pushing up the creek past the Root Cellar, looking for more evidence of the homestead when I heard this crashing through the brush headed right towards me. At first it sounded like it might be a bear chasing a mountain lion, or maybe a mountain lion chasing a bobcat, but at any rate something big, and headed right towards me. I debated for a split second what I ought to do, but couldn’t think of anything and decided to just wait and see what would happen next. Then, out of the bushes burst these two foxes chasing each other. One was fast on the heels of the other barely a few inches behind it, and they were making so much noise and moving so fast that I don’t even think they bothered to notice me, and just raced down the creek.

The next sighting for me was at Middle Santa Ynez Campground. The road back there had been closed for some time and it just happen to open when I was wanting to go and scout out the Mono-Alamar Trail. As per my usual car camping habit, I didn’t arrive there until 9PM Friday night. And when I arrived the campground was completely empty. While I was setting up camp and eating a late dinner, I thought I head something rustling in the grass, and so I turned and scanned the campground, and my headlamp caught a pair of eyes low to the ground. At first I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, but as I watched the eyes slowly make an arc past the camp, I realized that it was a fox. After it passed I returned my attention to setting up camp. But soon it was back making another arc, before scampering off. Then it got all sneaky and came up behind the camp along the trail from creek, to have another peak at what was going on, before scampering off into the dark. It later made one more arc around the camp before calling it a night. I was never really sure if was just curious what all the activity was about or if it was drawn to the smell of my dinner.

In 2012 I also made four trips to the Channel Islands. Although related to Gray Fox, the foxes on the different Channel Islands represent their own unique species,

Santa Cruz Island Fox Del Norte Trail Channel hike

Santa Cruz Island Fox along the Del Norte Trail

In the spring of 2012 I backpacked across Eastern Santa Cruz Island and must’ve seen about a dozen foxes over the course of 3 days. Admittedly one would have to work hard to not see a fox on Santa Cruz Island, but I was surprised by how many I saw, even saw one group of three.

On the other islands it can be a little more rare to see a fox. I’ve yet to see a fox on Santa Rosa Island, and on San Miguel Island I only saw one on the last day. Although, while hiking to Point Bennett, I did see one that had been caught in a trap as part of the annual fox census. You could tell it was a feeling a little anxious about its predicament. According to the ranger on the island, each year the mice, foxes, and lizards are all counted. He also shared that some of the older foxes have learned to “game” the system. That is, the fox traps are baited with cat food and some of the older foxes don’t mind being caught twice to get a free cat food dinner.

San Miguel Island Fox Channel

San Miguel Island Fox

This year, 2013, so far, the only foxes I saw where the two that visited me at dusk while I was camping solo at Ant Camp on the Agua Blanca. I watched the pair wander up from the creek, one, the more bold of the two, came within a 50 feet of camp before deciding to move on. I was amazed at how curious and unafraid it was.

A close second for 2012 would have to be great horned owls. In 2012, I had my first two great horned owl sightings, both of them in the vicinity of Figueroa Mountain.

The first was while trying to find the lost section of La Jolla Trail. The trail at one time connected from Zaca Ridge Road to Birabent Canyon, but has become closed up in the middle section with regrowth from the Marre Fire. My plan was to hike it from the top and see how far I could get and then if necessary try again from the bottom. The trail is in pretty good shape down to a large meadow, but then disappears. While exploring several different possibilities around the meadow, I opted to follow a deer path down into a wash on the east side of the meadow which seemed promising. Once there, while I was enjoying the shade, this great horned owl flew from one tree to the next with something in its grip. I was fortunate that it didn’t seem in big rush to clear out of the area and so I was able to get a number of pretty good shots.

La Jolla Trail Los Padres National Forest Great Horned Owl Santa Barbara hike Birabent Canyon

Great Horned Owl near the La Jolla Trail

Then later that year, while working on an article about the Little Four, i.e. Zaca Peak, Figueroa Mountain, Ranger Peak and Cachuma Mountain, I was reminded of the Pino Alto Trail near Figueroa Mountain and decided to take a quick hike on the half mile loop. Just as I was getting started this owl dropped out of a tree and cut across low to the ground to another tree. At first I couldn’t figure out where it’d gone to, but there were two scrub jays making a racket and so I headed over to where they were, and sure enough the owl had landed in their tree and they weren’t too happy about it. As I approached, the owl took off for another tree further downhill where I was able to catch up with it. It seemed almost half awake and must’ve decided that I was harmless enough.

This year, 2013, I did see one great horned owl, briefly. I was exploring a side canyon off of Kerry Canyon Trail and had flushed it out with my noise. It was moving too fast for a photo, but it was still cool to see.

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