Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Digging on the Dogs

Just your average fox. A ho-hum. Not what I saw in the field!

Yesterday was a good day in the field.

For one thing, I did not get up in the dark and rush down the highway to a freezing dawn. Daylight savings has started, which means it was just starting to get light when I swung my legs out of bed and, to tell the truth, I did not break any land speed records getting up and out. It was 10 am when I got to the farms, and it felt like I had been lounging around for hours.

The weather was perfect -- cool and sunny, with the ground springy under my feet from just the right amount of moisture. Perfect.

Spring is just about here. The buds are not yet on the trees, but the grass seemed a little greener, and so did the honeysuckle in the hedge.

The dogs pinged on a lot of holes, but the groundhog dens are still plugged up with loose dirt and leaves, and with the ground this soft, I was pretty sure that if the dogs could not get in right away, the groundhogs would probably dig away. Why break my back this early in the season on a futile dirt-chase, when there was still so much hole scouting to do?

The dogs marked a half a dozen holes, but could not get in past the backfill and leaves, and so I whistled them on, and we all had a grand time walking through field and forest.

I came down the edge of one long field, and realized I was near a large den Mountain had pulled a large possum out of several years ago. I had always thought this was an old fox den, but it had never held anything except that one time. In addition, while it was a very "foxy" looking sette up near the field, it was very much a groundhog pipe father inside the wood line, complete with smooth mounded entrance. No doubt it was an old sette, used by many creature over time. Still, it had held for me only that once.

As I approached the den, I remembered that the last time I had swung by I had noticed that a large tree had crashed down over the den. The downed tree was still there, of course, and as I got closer I could hear Mountain opening up to a short bay, underground, and back inside the broken limbs that lay shattered on the ground. Excellent!

Pearl was ahead of me, and she slid into the hole nearest the field just as I got there. Two dogs underground at once is not a good idea, but there was nothing to be done about it now, and it was a large sette. My dogs know each very other very well, and they will not push each other into quarry. Besides, I was not even sure these two holes linked up -- Mountain had pulled her possum from this sette without any digging at all, and it was a pretty long way from one hole to the other.

I stopped next to the hole where Pearl had slid in, and waited. An odd coughing sound came out of the pipe. Hmmm. Well, it wasn't an empty sette. And it didn't quite sound like a groundhog, did it?

I pulled out the Deben locator box and marked Pearl at five feet, and then she stopped baying and began moving. Just then Mountain began baying at the other end of the sette, and I climbed over a small bit of the downed tree and noticed an odd slash in the earth right between the two dogs. Apparently a new opening had popped into this sette. Had that occurred with the tree falling? Hard to say, but the hole did not look like it has been dug but ripped.

I was boxing the dogs for location right next to that hole, when a red fox sprang out of the gash in the earth and bounced off the fallen tree trunk right above me, before launching itself another three feet in the air to bounce off another fallen branch.

Yow! Wow! That was quite an explosion -- and right at my feet too.

It was not a big fox, but very dark red, the color of Georgia clay, and it was coiled up as tight as a watch spring as it ran. That was one booking animal!

It was probably a vixen, I thought.

And then, before another idea could flicker across my racing mind, this fox gave out a very loud sound halfway between a bark and a yelp.

Sound! You do not get that too often from a fleeing fox! How odd.

I squatted next to the hole, waiting to see what would happened next. Would another fox flush? But no, it was Mountain, coming out of the same ragged slit in the ground from which the fox had bounded. I grabbed her up, slipped a lead over her head, and staked her back from the hole.

Now what? I had just settled back next to the hole, waiting, when an enormous red dog fox bounded into the scene from stage right, at the edge of where the forest met the field.

This fox clearly had no idea I was there, and he was coming in pretty fast. He bounded on top of a log about 15 feet away from me, and at eye-level with my head. His neck ruffle was fully flared, and he was loaded for bear and facing me. At first, because I did not move and the wind was not to his favor, he did not see or smell me.

I slowly slid my hand back to see if I could pry the camera loose from the case at my waist. That was all the movement the fox needed, and now he saw me and was visibly surprised and confused that I was there. He was a magnificent fox, and though he probably froze on that log for only a second or two before bounding away, it was as picture-perfect a view of wildlife as I have ever seen. A real National Geographic moment. This was a very large dog fox with a deep red coat, and at the top of his game. A magnificent animal. I have seen a lot of fox over the years, but this one was very large - the largest I have seen in person -- and with a much richer color than any of the others. It was double the size of the little vixen that I had bolted, that was for sure.

And then, quicker than I can say it, the fox was gone.

I was still pumped up and in glory from the sight of this fox when Pearl came out of the same gash in the earth that the little vixen had bolted from. I grabbed her up, slipped a leash over head head, and moved both dogs farther away from the sette.

What had gone on back there?

The second fox was not the first fox, I was certain of that. The size differential was very real, and so too was the fact that this dog fox had clearly been clueless as to what was at the hole. He had only come in fast because the cavalry has been called for. That's what that Vixen's call had been all about.

I was not sure if fox pups were inside this den or not. There was not a scrap of feather, hide or bone at the entrance, but perhaps the vixen had just given birth or was about to. If the kits were still on milk, there would be no fox-toys about.

Or perhaps this was not a natal den at all. No matter -- my dogs will not harm very small fox kits (most terriers will ignore them) and no harm was done here, other than a small fright to the Vixen. If the fox did have kits in there, there would be no shortage of dens for them to move on to if they really wante to move. But the den had not been dug on at all. I suspected they would simple calm down and stay; the den was very far back on the farm, and it was unlikely there would be another disturbance of any kind. Not from me, that's for certain!

But wow, what a fox that was! It really was a magnificent animal.

I kept the dogs on leash for half a field, but they both knew the game was over, and when they got off lead, they hunted forward, checking more settes and pinging on a few more that were partially filled in with dirt. The good news was that this farm did not appear to be blank! When the weather warmed up, in about a month, there would still be very good groundhog hunting here.

We were almost to the truck when Mountain slid into another sette, and opened up to a nice bay. Excellent! Perhaps we would get in a dig after all. I downed tools and leashed up Pearl, clipping her to a piece of old hog wire fencing, well back from the hole.

Mountain was quite a bit farther up inside this den pipe than I would have imagined, but I located her perfectly and she was not deep at all. A very quick pop in, and I found the source of her blockage -- a thick root which I sawed away. Mountain moved forward another 15 feet and stopped cold. I popped in another quick hole, but there was nothing at the end of this pipe but the dog. Where had the groundhog gone?

I poked around with a Yoho trowel, and so did Mountain, but neither of us could find where the groundhog had gotten to. The ground was quite solid.

I pulled Mountain after 15 minutes of probing and looking, and unclipped Pearl, but she too was stymied. I barred around the stop end, but could not find the pipe. Oh well. Some get away, especially in this kind of soft soil.

I pulled Pearl, unclipped both dogs from their leads, and let them noodle around on top while I broke up branches and repaired the two den pop holes that I had dug.

I was just about finished repairing the den and re-landscaping the top, when Mountain began attacking the base of a nearby tree, pulling off a big slab of bark.

Eh? I was pretty sure she was after a chipmunk which I had seen scampering off in the wood pile, so I did not pay her too much attention.

Then Mountain really began digging away at the base of the tree, and in only a few minutes she had made quite a decent hole in the dirt.

Now I was interested. Let's see what happened here.

Pearl laid down next to the hole, her entire body on its side. She was clearly listening for something. Mountain, for her part, kept digging, and I pulled her just once to clear the loose dirt from the hole, and then let her go back to digging. Was she after a mouse?

Then Pearl was on her feet. She walked two feet forward, and began digging furiously at another spot in the dirt on top of the ground. Bang -- she was on it! Pearl had found the groundhog!

Mountain dug the big hole in front in only a few minutes.

Both dogs now latched on at the spot where Pearl had found, and I brushed away the dirt to reveal only a nose and a pair of groundhog teeth poking out. The good news was that it was enough for the dogs to work with, and with a little work and some serious pulling from Mountain, a small groundhog was slipped free from the earth and quickly dispatched.

After a little victory ragging of the carcass by the dogs, this groundhog was placed on the edge of the hedgerow on a path next to the corn field which, from the look of the fox scat, was clearly part of the local fox patrol.

This was going to be Mr. and Mrs. Fox's dinner for the next day or two, courtesy of the Mountain and Pearl. A small peace offering for accidentally disturbing them earlier in the day. Mea culpa, apologia, Mr. and Mrs. Reynard, and bon appetite!

Pearl and Mountain have a tug-of-war with the dead.


retrieverman said...

I know you're hunting groundhogs/woodchucks here, but are you killing foxes at this time of year or are you just bolting them?

PBurns said...

I never kill foxes at ANY time of year. I have had one fox mortality in all the digging I have done -- an accidental death for reasons unknown about five years ago. The fox probably suffocated from a cave-in while digging (my belief) or it could have had a heart attack (the theory of one of my friends who was with me at the time).

Fox are very good animals to have on a farm, and they are very easy to bolt most of the time. The challenge with a fox is not killing it -- it's simply finding it! There is no skill in killing. If it must be done because a farmer has a real pest, then get on with it, but fox almost never qualify. In fact, fox are a major consumer of white-footed deer mice which are a vector for Lyme disease. The more fox, the fewer mice, and the less Lyme.


Doug said...


sounds like a great day. I need to get up there and spend a weekend with your dogs in the field. Thanks for the story.


Heather Houlahan said...

It is these rare moments in the woods and fields, these unlooked-for encounters, that can never be appreciated by the cable-TV "animal lovers" -- or the horn-porn pseudo-hunters who are compensating for something they lack. You have to be out there, and you have to be open to experience.

We have poultry, and we have foxes. Legions of foxes. I've found two dens so far, and the winter snows revealed their movements.

So far, so good. The dogs patrol in the morning before the poultry comes out. The foxes don't come anywhere near the curtilage. The poultry range further when the dogs are outside, generally keeping near Moe. We have no ticks, despite a healthy deer population. (I credit the wild turkeys with a lot of the tick control, too.)

When I culled guineas, the dogs got the giblets and necks, and I took the heads, feet, and innards to a stump near the fox dens, as offering or neighborly gesture.


Our dogs were trained to sleep with the chickens and rabbits at night, a double advantage: no foxes and mice in the hen house. Other advantage, and that the foxes find food by themselves, without help of man, even if sometimes the help, I do so willingly!

" Or perhaps this was not a natal den at all. No matter -- my dogs will not harm very small fox kits (most terriers will ignore them) and no harm was done here,"

True! also my dogs.

The system predator(dog) prey is proving one of the best! Until the restoration of 'natural balance and as a means of control wild!

Sometimes it is good to give food.

An error and socialize with us!

huge mistake!