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Jan 8, 2018 3:18 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Trailing The Red Fox

Jan 8, 2018 3:30 PM

Two full nights had passed since Thursday’s foot or so snowfall, providing ample time for our native nocturnal creatures to leave a record of their nightly activities in the snow. On Saturday I decided to check a couple of East Hampton sites to see if any otters had passed through since the storm.Aided by wind and an interesting process called sublimation, the snowpack had settled enough that snowshoes were not a necessity. Sublimation refers to the transformation of a solid, in this case snow, directly into the gaseous state, for example water vapor, without forming a liquid. Many of you are probably most familiar with the sublimation of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, the end result being an eerie-looking, dramatic smoke.

I slipped my old wooden snowshoes on anyway as a more comfortable and efficient way of traveling, particularly since I intended to traverse Scoy Pond and several adjacent marshy areas where I might encounter thin ice. Many years ago, bayman and Grace Estate steward Tom Lester had warned me about ice skating on Scoy. “Ice could be quite a few inches thick over most of the pond,” he related in his deep, gruff voice, “but no matter how cold it gets there are some springs that will have just a thin sliver of ice and you’ll crash right through!”

With the day’s wind chill pinned at -6°F, it was definitely not a good day to get wet.

Following an old woods road that is part of the Northwest Path, I soon picked up some wildlife tracks that also coursed along the roadbed. Foot impressions made in deep snow, while simple to follow, are sometimes difficult to interpret in terms of, “Who am I?”

The gait was a bounding pattern, too small for a deer. Whoever it was, it was certainly expending a lot of energy leaping along. The tracks led to a large pitch pine log that lay adjacent and parallel to the trail; the animal I was trailing took advantage of the light dusting of snow atop and hopped on for 30 feet, switching to a walking gait and revealing its identity: red fox.

The classic hunting gait of the red fox is a trot in which each hind foot lands directly on top of the spot where the corresponding front foot had been moments before. The result is a series of evenly spaced, oval dots forming a line in the snow, not perfectly straight if one connects them all but surprisingly neatly lined up. I often describe the result as looking like marks made by someone on a pogo stick.

It appeared that the fox’s normally energy efficient trot just didn’t work well in the deep, soft snow. It was also apparent that we shared the same destination: the outlet of Scoy Pond. There the fox stopped for a drink where the outlet dropped a short distance over the remains of an old beaver dam, and the trickle of water was just enough to prevent it from freezing.

Perched high in a nearby tree, a red-tailed hawk let cry a loud, hoarse “Ke-e-e-r-r” before taking flight and circling overhead, clearly annoyed at my intrusion. Both fox and hawk were likely interested in securing a warm meal from the large, low, shrubby swamp that borders the pond at its outlet. There, the snow’s surface was riddled with the tracks of one of their favorite foods: white-footed mouse.

As with the fox, the mice were bounding along in the snow, but their weight-to-foot surface area enabled them to stay afloat, moving quite effortlessly across the surface of the snow. That made me realize what tracks I had not seen since leaving the car: wild turkey, deer, gray squirrel, rabbit. All were common residents here, but not willing to spend the energy required to move around in the deep snow.

On level ground within 20 feet of the outlet is a typical latrine site for the river otter, where it will leave its “calling card” in the form of scent, scat and leaf scrapes before exiting the pond and heading down Alewife Brook. It clearly hadn’t passed through since the snowstorm, so I decided to continue along following the fox.

After its rest stop for a drink, it stuck to the relatively snow-free ice of the pond, where it reverted to a trot gait and was soon joined by another fox. January is the start of their breeding season, when foxes pair up, seek and refurbish old den sites or construct new ones, and mark their territory with scent-laden urine.

Red foxes always have several “back-up” den sites for use if their main den is disturbed or gets too heavily infested with parasites. Dens function primarily as safe sites for giving birth to and raising young. Adults prefer to sleep in the open where their nose and ears, which never rest, can best detect smells and sounds. But they will occasionally retreat to a den in inclement weather. Bob Wick of Amagansett came across fox tracks entering and exiting a den just after this past snowstorm, whose howling winds may have negated even the fox’s keen senses of smell and sound.

The pair of tracks led down the center of the pond where no mouse or other edible creature would venture, reminding me of a story found in wildlife ecologist J. David Henry’s book, “Red Fox: the Catlike Canine,” where he describes a young-of-the-year fox encountering ice for the first time. Once it worked out that it was safe to stand on, it began a series of sprints and slides across the ice, as Henry relates, “it had, just like a young child, discovered the magic of ice.”

Back in my car, heading down Northwest Road, I caught a glimpse of one of the pair crossing the road.

I hope you all managed to have some fun this weekend and rediscovered the magic of snow!

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