The Foxes of Salisbury Beach
Salisbury Beach is best known for its arcades, easily accessible beaches, camping and great seafood. Most beachgoers aren’t aware, however, of the wildlife that goes about its business just a short distance away. Seabirds, hawks, seals, mice, rabbits and foxes — yes, foxes — are living and thriving at Salisbury Beach State Reservation.
Salisbury Beach is a complex barrier beach system comprised of coastal beaches, dunes and salt marshes, according to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). Salisbury Beach State Reservation, which is managed by the DCR, is concentrated at the southern end of Salisbury Beach adjacent to the Merrimack River, and extends north along the Atlantic Ocean to the New Hampshire border. The combination of natural resources, public facilities and amenities at Salisbury Beach makes it one of the most attractive and popular recreational areas in Massachusetts.
In February 2011, local photographers Gary and Judi Hoyt, members of the Merrimack Valley Camera Club, noticed five small fox kits sunning themselves atop a dune, which the Hoyts realized housed the family’s den. They took some beautiful images (which later won regional awards) and word spread throughout the local photographic community.
Photographers from the Greater Lynn Photographic Association and the Merrimack Valley Camera Club began to travel to Salisbury for the chance to see these beautiful animals at close range. This particular den was adjacent to public access to the beach, so although the dune habitats in the reservation are protected against human intrusion in order to preserve the fragile ecosystem, the foxes were close enough to be observed and photographed without compromising the dunes or alarming the animals.
I’ve been a professional photographer since 1982, trained in commercial photography, but my passion is studying and photographing wildlife. When I heard of the foxes’ presence through my friend, Ron Wybranowski, who had photographed them alongside the Hoyts, I knew I had to be there. Ron managed to get beautiful images of three kits together in the grass, and I was hoping for a similar sighting. However, the first couple of days I went looking for the foxes — nothing. The wary family was hard to catch on camera.
As you can learn from Mass Audubon, adult red foxes are wary of humans and typically hunt in the early mornings and evenings. Due to the repairing of Salisbury Beach dunes by the DCR, small mammals have proliferated there, drawing predators such as hawks, foxes, coyotes and even snowy owls to the reservation.
My first extended contact with the fox family came as night descended on a May day in 2011. There was no sign of them during the day, though I had found tracks along some of their trails. Salisbury photographer Susan Murphy and I waited on the boardwalk overlooking the meadow.
It was almost full dark when I became aware of a young fox standing at the edge of the bushes. The first fox was followed closely by another. They moved silently into the meadow, listening, tilting their heads and poking their noses into the grass. Suddenly a third fox was there, slightly larger and stockier — probably their mom. The three of them hunted, pouncing on things we couldn’t see. We watched them until it was too dark to make out any forms. On subsequent evenings, people saw as many as seven foxes in the meadow — obviously two or more families.
From May until August, two of the young foxes, females, were observed playing on top of the den during the day. I never saw more than the two young ones and their mother there, and it’s possible some other predator — a coyote or a hawk — took the other kits when they were small.
There came a time during the summer of 2011 when something across the dunes caught the attention of the two young foxes. The sisters now had distinct personalities. One was definitely bolder and aggressive, always picking on her sister, while the second was shier. The bolder fox found the carcass of a seabird in the dunes and feasted on it, but her little sister returned to the den and wouldn’t join her.
By late August, the two sisters were hunting separately and roaming more widely across the reservation. The last photograph I took of the foxes was in March 2012. The afternoon sun was setting in a red ball of fire, lighting up the dune. I was positioned with my tripod in front of the den. I saw the grass shiver and clicked off two shots. I got one image only: of a pregnant mother, soon to give birth. Perhaps we will be lucky enough to see new families in the coming year.