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Winter Watering Hole

As ACES naturalists, we often get to see--and share with our guests--signs of winter animals while on the trail.  However, due to the nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) habits of many of these animals, we rarely get the chance to see them in action.  Last night I was given a rare opportunity to see one of these elusive animals on the prowl in my own backyard. 

Several miles up Castle Creek Road, SW of Aspen, my cabin is remote and mostly undisturbed by human activity.  Running alongside the cabin, buried under several feet of snow, is a meandering creek that opens into a small pond. Due to the current, the pond seldom freezes completely at the inflow, providing a vital watering hole for many overwintering animals.  Throughout the winter, the morning has often revealed a flurry of tracks--snapshots of their nighttime ice capades.  Last night, with the aid of an infrared, motion-activated camera, I caught a glimpse of this activity.  Much to my surprise however, the cavalcade of winter animals that I had envisioned, turned out to be the mere work of a solitary red fox.

Although omnivores, in the winter, red foxes depend largely on the small rodents living beneath the snow pack in the subnivean zone for food.  Locating a mobile food source, often buried under a meter or more of snow, foxes have to cover a lot of ground.  Once a prey animal such as a vole or mouse is found, the fox utilizes its acute hearing to pinpoint its depth and location. The fox leaps high into the air and using its tail to direct its flight, dives into the snow, trapping the animal.

To see a video of this in action, click here.

From the images I’ve collected, I suspect that the fox behind my cabin has worked out a sort of nightly routine.  It seems to make its first appearance around 9 pm, around the same time that I often begin to settle in and turn off my lights inside. Throughout the night it returns, but only for a few minutes and a quick drink, before heading off in a new direction. By 5 am the visits have ended.








~Kevin Toeneboehn