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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Species Spotlight #5: Gray Fox

Remember back when I first the Species Spotlights with that friendly Nutria, I mentioned it was only the second best mammal lifer I got that day at Lake Mattamuskeet? Well that’s because this was the first best.

Originally our Christmas Bird Count group was supposed to drive the muddy road out to the lake and scope what we could see from there. However, just as we noticed a nice Cooper’s Hawk and a couple of overwintering Common Gallinules (as they’re now called), a National Wildlife Refuge employee descended upon us like we’d done something wrong. And apparently we had. The idea was that we got permission from Lake Mattamuskeet to count the birds in the afternoon, but it seems the only people actually allowed permission to drive the road were the hunters that were killing (not watching) the birds earlier in the morning. While I realize that yes, waterfowl hunters do provide the bulk of the funding that keep the NWRs afloat in North Carolina, does that really mean that individuals meaning no harm to the wildlife in question should be denied access to them? In any case, we were back at square one.

We drove back along the wildlife road until we reached the entrance, at which point we were graciously granted access to a small trail leading to a photography blind along the lake. Not that it was fruitless or anything – the trail led us to a couple of female Baltimore Orioles, a nice Winter Wren, and close-up looks at a Blue-headed Vireo, a species I see all too infrequently. As we walked along the nearby boardwalk, the snow crunching underfoot made noises that sounded like gunshots – you’d think that’d deter the wildlife around here, but perhaps they’re used to it. In any case, as we left the boardwalk and headed once again towards the lake, we found this guy. And boy was he worth it.

He has no idea that at this moment, he's the coolest animal in the world to me.

A Gray Fox. I spotted him first from the path as he sat in the open wildlife drive, with thick bushes along the canal between us. As he returned to eating some long-dead or recently killed prey, I noticed he seemed bigger than I thought he would. Perhaps he’d found Lake Mattamuskeet to have good eatin’ in the wake of the hunters, or perhaps his winter coat just made him seem fuller. As a kid, animals like this seemed off-limits to me, something I should never see because Gray Foxes don’t really show up in suburban neighborhoods, do they?

That's the great thing about birding, perhaps the part I like most about it. Yes, you get to see amazing birds, but just being in the field around all this nature means you get to experience it in ways not many other people can, find mammals and reptiles and amphibians that ordinarily you wouldn't even notice. Sometimes, it's all about the birds, but other times... well, it's all about Gray Foxes.

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