Ants In My Pants
It was nearly dark when I arrived on a lonely dirt road within the Carrizo Plain National Monument. I pulled off behind a cluster of salt bush, grabbed my binoculars and scanned the immediate region in fading light.
About 100 yards to the east, I saw two rambunctious San Joaquin kit fox pups garnering attention from their doting dad near the base of the barren Panorama Hills.
A week earlier I discovered this den site while looking for antelope ground squirrels, aplenty on the last of California’s sweeping, semi-arid grasslands. Keen to come back, I made the drive fresh off the Island Packers ferry following five days of guiding kayak trips at the Channel Islands National Park, the Golden State’s biodiversity ever-present from islands to coastal chaparral and forest to the last of California’s grassland habitat.
Methodically, quietly I laid out my sleeping bag in the back of my truck and had arranged all my camera gear, so it was ready to go at 4:30 am, a crescent moon allowing just enough light to ditch my headlamp so not to blow my cover with the foxes. Near the dens there was little or no vegetation to conceal myself. I needed to get out there before the family of kit foxes warmed themselves during the rising sun.
At 4 am, I was up scanning, and the fox pups were already playing, but just briefly. As soon as they dove back into their den I grabbed my gear, and quietly as I could, ran out onto the alkali loam. I picked a spot behind some low-growing shrubs and huddled in the mid 30-degree temps.
As first light dashed the Caliente Mountains in pink and orange hues to the west, I scanned repeatedly across my immediate horizon. Nothing stirred. As I lowered my binoculars, and the morning sun warmed my back and shoulders, I found a kit fox staring back at me. It was the female, and she was only 15 feet away from me. Other than doing a 360-degree spin, she remained calm. After I fired off a few frames, she gradually returned to her subterranean lair.
Four more hours drifted by and as it grew hotter, nary a kit fox revealed itself. I packed up and moved on, enjoying the antics of antelope ground squirrels into the early afternoon.
By late afternoon I returned, the heat of the day on the wane. The father and one pup were out, moving between dens maybe 150 feet from each other. Once they dove into a den, I ran out with my camera gear and set up between each den. A couple hours drifted by with only the ears of the pups rising above the openings of the two prominent den sites.
When I was sure the foxes were down below, I decided to move to the den with the father and one pup. After repositioning myself with both dens in my immediate view, I settled in and waited. An hour later the father emerged first. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had parked myself next to a red ant hill. Suddenly, while holding the shutter down while photographing the kit fox, I endured multiple, simultaneous bites on both my legs, while having to do so without flinching, and holding my camera and lens as steady as I could.
Then the dad ran off to its other den 75 yards to the north. Once he greeted his other pup, I quickly stood and stripped down, ridding myself of an army of angry ants. Tiny welts dotted my exposed legs while I ridded myself of the fire ants. Afterwards. I scooped up my gear and picked a better spot, the other pup still down below.
Maybe it heard me while I furiously swiped at those menacing ants on my thighs, its curiosity getting the better of it. Its ears were a dead giveaway though as they crested the steep mound of dirt surrounding the den, the largest of any fox species in North America. However, the pup was onto me, revealing nothing more than those large ears that can hear a giant kangaroo rat drumming its feet deep inside its burrow. Just as the discomfort from those welts on my legs subsided, like a periscope those kit fox ears slowly descended back down into its den, not to be seen again until after the sun went down and shadows had swept across the Carrizo Plain.