The McCues have been spying on their neighbors, peering out the windows, whispering and taking pictures. Not to worry, though-the object of their interest is a family of foxes.
The ridge where the McCues’ home is located, on the shores of Lake George, has housed several fox dens for many years, but this spring the McCues noticed activity in a sandy hillside just outside their front window. Then, 6-year-old Payton saw the pups, describing them as little fuzz balls, running around in the snow.
Shortly thereafter, they saw an adult fox carrying something in its mouth.
“We thought that it was the mother fox taking food home to her pups,” says Payton’s mother, Melissa. “But after awhile, we realized that the pups were gone; she had carried them away. That’s what she was carrying.”
The McCues followed the fox tracks into the nearby woods-difficult to see on the crusty spring snow-toward where they knew an old bear den was located. “We sat there all afternoon watching and didn’t see a thing,” says Melissa.
She surmised that the presence of five humans, including herself, her husband Fred, sons Clint and Payton, and daughter Mariah, scared away any wildlife in the area. “The very next day, we went out and bought a trail camera.”
Game cams or trail cams, once used mostly by hunters and trappers to monitor prey animals, are becoming more popular among animal lovers who just want a glimpse into the secret lives of their Northwoods neighbors.
Melissa says that she had borrowed one the year before, and didn’t have any luck, but was determined to try again. With the help of 14-year-old Clint, who did extensive Internet research on the different cameras available, they selected a mid-priced one that they thought would work for them.
It has been a learning process, according to Melissa. “The camera has a motion sensor, and takes a picture at even the slightest movement,” she says while demonstrating how the camera very simply straps on to a tree. “We learned to adjust the camera to avoid waving branches. We have lots of pictures of birds and squirrels and raccoons and rain.”
But among the hundreds of photos are gems that show a colorful, healthy family of foxes, the little ones at first dark-gray and fuzzy, but slowly taking on bright coloring and sharp features.
The foxes have moved several times in the past couple of months, and the McCues’ camera has captured images of two adults and different numbers of young at different spots.
“At first, we thought there might be two different mother foxes, or maybe a father fox was there, too,” says Melissa. “Mariah suggested the adults may have gone out on a date and had a ‘babysitter’ watch the pups.”
Each of the McCues has been researching fox behavior and found out many interesting things about their neighbors. Mariah may not have been far off with her suggestion, as foxes sometimes band together to raise young, according to Melissa.
“It’s been great for the kids,” Melissa says. “We’re very happy with the camera and are talking about putting it down by the lake this summer to see if we can get photos of the otters.”
Across town, near Lake Mildred, John Quarderer has also been enjoying his trail cam. “It was a going-away present from my colleagues in Iowa when my wife and I decided to move back up north a couple years ago,” he explains.
He found a great area to capture wildlife, but it requires pulling on tall rubber boots and traipsing through some boggy ground. “This is a perfect spot,” he says, indicating an old beaver damn perched on a meandering stream among tussocks of grass. “The fact that it’s not really navigable water means there aren’t many people around.”
He soon realized the importance of camera placement. “It needs to be about knee-high,” he says. “At first, I set it at shoulder height, but I got lots of photos of deer backs.”
During the winter, he got some great shots of otters. “I have it set to take a series of photos, and one sequence shows three otters playing in the snow with a turtle.”
With the coming of spring, things have really picked up, according to John. “Lots of ducks showed up-blue-winged teal, mallards and wood ducks-Canada geese and even a sandhill crane,” he says. “I’ve got photos of foxes and coyotes and raccoons.”
But a big surprise came one day this spring. He retrieved the chip from the camera, placed it in his computer and discovered a photo of a large bear taken just 20 minutes after he had set up the camera early the previous morning. “That bear may have been over in the woods watching me,” he says with a smile.
He has since gotten several photos of bear, including a series of shots of the animal playing in the water. The camera will even take pictures at night, resulting in black-and-white images that often show the gleaming eyes of wildlife caught by the flash.
John also reports many “phantom” photos that seem to include nothing much of interest, usually triggered by the wind, he suspects, although sometimes it pays to look carefully.
In one sequence, he spotted “movement” and saw several images of a coyote moving through the underbrush. “The flash may frighten wary animals like coyotes and foxes, but the deer seem to get used to it,” he says.
Another sequence of a bear visit shows that the camera is not entirely invulnerable. “He walks by, then turns and seems to look at the camera, then swivels around and rubs his butt on it,” says John. “In the following photos, you can see that he knocked the camera crooked.”
One of the things that John most enjoys about the process is actually walking down the hill from his house to set up the camera, usually early in the morning. “It’s not a strenuous walk,” he says. “In the winter, it’s harder, but it gives you a sense of the beauty of the seasons.
“I’m still working during the day, so I can’t spare the time to travel to see wildlife,” he explains. “Seeing animals in the wild isn’t easy-they always know that you’re there. I’ll keep using the camera, watching for new things and finding new places to set it up.”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods Commerce and Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond magazines.