Every area we have visited seems to contain a location gem that somehow manages to escape our research. Washington State was no exception. San Juan Island is the second largest and most populous of the San Juan archipelago lying between the mainland and Vancouver Island. Here we discovered a little-known area on the southern tip that turned out to be an intimate and exciting experience photographing red fox and their offspring.
The dens are on an open prairie grassland adjacent to what can only be described as the largest rabbit warren we have ever encountered. For several decades in the middle of the twentieth century, San Juan Island was virtually overrun with rabbits. A population of several thousand domestic European rabbits released in 1934 from a failed breeding operation grew by 1971 to an estimated 1 million. This is on an island that has an area of only 55-square-miles!
The exact history of how the red fox reached San Juan Island is rather foggy. They are a non-native lowland species that were likely introduced to control the rabbit population. Red foxes produce large litters of up to ten kits. This obviously creates a large demand for a reliable food source. For decades, island residents and visitors have fed the foxes which has made them less fearful and more tolerant of human traffic. As a result, den areas are now posted with a recommended minimum 75-foot buffer from humans to keep the foxes wild.
Although disease and hunting has reduced the rabbit population considerably, the foxes we encountered were well fed and supplement their diet with voles that coexist in the same area. We visited in the middle of May when the kits were roughly six weeks old. Eagles had reduced the spring litter to four at each of the two sites we frequented. Both were being fed by two females. Photographing them required long waits and family activities don’t last long. The patient viewer can see kits play, nurse, or fight for a rabbit kill brought by an adult fox. It’s an insane viewing experience as the rabbits live either alongside or, incredibly, within the fox den area. It’s a great location and one that produces an experience that would otherwise be virtually impossible to photograph in the wild.