Tales From The Sit Spot: Mystery Mammal and the Big Buck

It’s 6:30 AM. The morning is cool and clear, not misty like yesterday. The dawn is blue and purple—a prelude to pink and orange.

I’m nearly to the old black oak tree where I sit quietly each day and listen to the sounds of the creek, the brush, the meadow, and the canopy. In the dim light, my forward gaze catches movement, about 100 yards in front of me. The mammal’s body is golden, tawny even, and low to the ground. The tail is long.

What is it? My brain has no reference, no frame, no pattern to conceptualize what I am looking at. Whatever it is, I watch the golden shape lunge to the right then turn back sharply and haul off up the road and to the left. It is FAST.

My heart is pounding and my brain is grasping for something to latch onto? A small cougar? I can’t believe that. A red fox? I thought I noticed some furriness to the tail. A domestic animal? Seems unlikely given how far away it was from me when it spooked.

I step forward with excitement, hoping to follow the unknown mammal and get a better look. Within one step, the big three-by-two buck I’m getting to know leaps up out of his bed and pronks up the road, 20 feet in front of me. Immediately, a scrub jay starts shrieking: “AYYYY! AYYYY! AYYYY!” Then a ruby-crowned kinglet gets busy: “Jiddit, jiddit, jiddit, jiddit!”


Photo of scrub jay (Aphelocoma californica) by Minette Layne. Photo of ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) by Dan Pancamo.

The big buck turns back towards me, watching to see what I do next. There’s no way I can get up the road to follow the unknown mammal without alarming this buck (and those birds) further, so I slowly turn my body towards the creek and fox walk down the hill towards the black oak.

Ten minutes later, my partner, Melodie, joins me. We watch the smaller buck (a two-by-two) drift across the meadow in front of us. Yesterday, we saw this buck rub the top of his head on a tree while a nearby doe was busily massaging her hind leg with her mouth. The buck then followed this doe and her yearling all around the creek zone, blowing hot breath through his nostrils whenever they stopped.

This morning, the deer activity is more subdued. So are the birds, actually. The entire morning has a suppressed feel to it. Pockets of bird alarm, very little singing, and long periods of silence.

After another 20 minutes, Rusty (a core organizer of the Buckeye Gathering and a participant in the Beyond Boundaries track of the Weaving Earth Immersion) shows up. The suppression continues for another half hour, at which point Melodie and I get up to head home.

On the way back, just a few minutes from the driveway, Melodie exclaims: “Look!” I hear the scraping of nails on asphalt and glance up just in time to see a beautiful red fox bounding into the open lot at the corner of Hessel and Volkerts.

We’re both stunned. The sound and sight of a crow dive-bombing the field shakes me out of my stupor and I run towards one of the eucalyptus stumps that line the lot. I hop up and scan the field for signs of movement.

Nothing.

How did that fox disappear so quickly? Was the crow dive-bombing the fox? Was this fox what I saw earlier in the morning? Where does he or she den, and are there more?

Exhilarated, we walk the rest of the way home towards coffee and breakfast. When Rusty arrives home, he’s got a broad smile on his face. After we left, he saw what he thought was a mature Cooper’s hawk fly low over the fence line and into the creek corridor—which would explain all the suppression we felt.

I tell him about the red fox and his jaw drops, incredulous. The only native California red fox is the Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator). People seeded the populations of non-native red foxes in farmlands, lowlands and other areas of California outside of the Sierra. We wonder about the local gray fox population. From time to time, we hear their barks at night. How does the presence of this red fox impact the native gray fox?

Confrontation between a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The morning brings excitement and many questions. I’m thrilled to have seen that fox but I continue to wonder about the role it plays in this ecosystem. What pressures is it exerting on other species? What is the larger picture?

One thing is for certain: I’ll be waking up early the next chance I get and heading to my sit spot in the hopes of learning more about our red fox neighbor.