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Northland Nature: An encounter with a gray fox

Gray foxes have smaller footprints than red foxes and have a straight-line gait. Photo by Larry Weber

November was colder than normal and this translated into an early freeze-up. It was interesting to watch the changes as the chill moved in.

While searching in my region Nov. 7, I saw that none of the ponds, swamps and lakes I visited had any ice covering, though some did earlier. The next day, ponds and swamps held the cold coating and by Nov. 12, lakes had surrendered to their winter mode as well.

We exited the month as expected with ice-covered bodies of water and several periods of snow. The interlude between the leaf drop in October and freeze-up in November, what I call "AutWin," was short — only about two and a half weeks. The snow cover took away many of the views of mosses, club mosses, ferns and fungi on the forest floor.

But in observing nature, we learn that when one situation ends, another begins.

The light snow cover early in the season is delightful for viewing animal tracks. Conditions are just right. Snows are not too deep and temperatures not too cold, allowing wildlife to move about.

Finding these tracks tell us who is here, when they moved by and often we can determine what they were doing, but we usually do not see the track makers. But I had an exception to this recently.

I was walking along the edge of a lake and looking at tracks of several local residents: mice, weasel, deer, squirrel and fox. Just then, I noticed movement out over the ice.

I glanced up to watch as a fox crossed the snow-covered lake ice and went into the shelter of a bay. I had seen a track maker. I have frequently seen red foxes, but this one was its lesser-seen cousin: a gray fox.

More common south and east of here, gray foxes are now seen in the region more often. I lived here about 15 years before I saw one. While the red fox is mostly of reddish fur, that of the gray fox is gray above and orange and white below, with a black streak on the length of the bushy tail.

The two kinds are nearly the same size, but footprints of the gray fox are smaller. Grays also have the characteristic straight-line gait. They are very agile and are the only canine that readily climbs trees.

Gray foxes also have a more varied diet, eating fruits, seeds and insects along with preying on mammals and birds.

Usually active at night and living in forested areas, they are not seen too often and I may not see another for months.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including "Butterflies of the North Woods," "Spiders of the North Woods," "Webwood" and "In a Patch of Goldenrods." Contact him c/o

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o Katie Rohman at