Volume 13, Issue 24 ~ June 16 - 22, 2005

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Burton on The Bay
By Bill Burton

Sly Foxes Make Bittersweet Neighbors
Brer Fox, he lay low.
— Uncle Remus and His Friends, 1892:
John Chandler Harris
We’ve got a newcomer up here on the shores of Stoney Creek in North County. He’s been lying low enough that many in the neighborhood are not yet aware of his presence. However, he has left a few clues.

Early one morning last winter, while making my rounds of the bird feeders, I noticed a fresh, shallow scraping under the east side of the chain link fence at the edge of the steep drop to the creek.

I remember thinking it looked like the work of a fox digging into a chicken pen but never gave it a second thought. I’ve lived here for more than 30 years and had never seen, nor heard tell of a fox in the neighborhood. Like most property on the Bay and its tributaries, Riviera Beach is becoming quite busy. There’s a house on just about every available lot, and that’s certainly not what’s considered fox country.

We have opossums aplenty and occasionally a raccoon or two. Ten years ago I spied a pair of coyotes on the Lake Shore Peninsula, but other than that our wildlife is pretty much confined to stray dogs and feral cats — though several miles away reports are surfacing about whitetail deer moving in.

Foxes. I never gave them much thought. We’re not in the gentle rolling countryside. Agriculture is long gone from here, and so are hen houses. Besides, people are always walking their dogs, and their pets are not always tethered.

The other day, neighbor Ernie stopped by to suggest I make doubly sure to keep my cat, Karla, indoors. He said his wife had not only seen a fox but watched helplessly from afar as it took a robin on a lawn. Red foxes are as slick and sly as they come.
Digging Up Clues
I thought back to the burrow under the fence. It wasn’t far from a pair of bird feeders, maybe 15 feet, but I hadn’t seen any feathers scattered or other signs of predators about. The menacing hawk that had perched high, overlooking the songbirds that came to my feeders for several months, flew away in mid-May (for good I hope). The songbird routine has pretty much returned to normal for this time of year.

Then a few other things dawned on me. The mallards, four in all, which visited the lawn daily for corn, stopped coming abruptly in mid-April, a few weeks earlier than usual. A coincidence? Possibly. But I also recalled on two occasions this spring I had seen holes larger than those dug by stray cats on the soft swollen soil above mole tunnels. But, I hadn’t thought much about that either. Foxes dine on moles.

Then I realized this has been a spring without the usual profusion of small cottontails. Matter of fact, I’ve not seen an adult bunny on the lawn since midwinter, never mind a juvenile.

My south and east lawns are covered with clover, which I’ve encouraged since I moved here. There’s no better cottontail attractant. But this year I’ve got more clover, and fewer, if any, rabbits. In past years, the rabbits made big dents in the clover. Sometimes by the headlights of passing autos, a dozen at a time could be seen feasting.
Hot on the Trail
The other evening just before dark, I ventured down the steep slope to Stoney Creek to check on the wild blackberries that for the past several years have been few, dried and sour. This year, they’re plentiful. Most are in the early stages of ripening, and the few that had ripened were bright black, large and sweet.

After several days of hot weather, I figured many more would be set for plucking, so shortly after sunrise I was back at the slope, bucket in hand to get fresh berries to top my breakfast cereal. It didn’t take long to gather a bit more than a pint. When I was about to leave, I thought I saw the flash of a Baltimore oriole going the other way.

It has been more than a few years since I’ve had a good look at an oriole at Stoney Creek, so I froze and waited, hoping it, too, was checking out a breakfast of black fruit. Orioles prefer insects this time of year, but back in New England I occasionally came across one when picking wild strawberries and blackberries.

The oriole (if it was one) was not to return, but after perhaps 20 minutes, I heard rustling in the thick underbrush. In a few moments I was looking into the eyes of a red fox that had stopped about 25 feet down the slope in a partial opening. It was picturesque fox orange-red, standing frozen as it tried to figure things out.

Suddenly it darted back into the opening and was headed for the creek. This aroused my curiosity; had it come across me as it was looking for fruit? Foxes like berries. Or had it been leaving or returning from a den nearby?
Briar and Bramble
I had to find out, and it wasn’t easy. The blackberry patch is a tangle of briars, scrub brush, trees small and large, and on a slope of 45 degrees. I stumbled and crawled, edging myself closer to the slight opening where I had seen the fox, when I took a tumble.

I lost all my berries, but while trying to retrieve the small bucket and my pipe, I found what I was looking for. There, beside the exposed roots and earth of an uprooted tree in the midst of the thicket, was an opening of about nine inches across. Red foxes, I know, like to den on dry, steep slopes, usually in burrows abandoned by other animals.

The rains of this spring and the warmer weather since have created a maze of vegetation so robust that it’s virtually inaccessible by humans unless attacked with a chain saw or machete, neither of which I consider appropriate.

The only reason I get to enjoy blackberries in the good years is because the patches are so thickly intertwined with other vegetation that no one is willing to challenge the jungle, the slope, the jiggers, the mosquitoes, the ticks and, of course, the briars.

So, to get a closeup look, I’m not about to clear a single bramble, which could make things easier for someone who might enjoy blackberries as much as I. Also, I’m hesitant to expose an occupied den. With the range expansion of the eastern coyote, the red fox is in trouble. When coyotes move in, red foxes virtually disappear. They can’t handle the competition.

The balance of nature can at times be difficult to understand and appreciate. This Brer Fox thing is going to require some thinking.

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