As an avid birder, nature lover, and amateur photographer, Island Beach State Park is my destination of choice.
Its beaches, wildlife, and unique fauna offer limitless subjects. Hiking trails with quaint names like Johnny Allen's Cove, Reed's Maritime Forest Trail, and Spizzle Creek Bird Blind wind through the unique landscape, allowing access deep within the park.
Living among the beautiful terrain and more noticeable wildlife is the red fox, one of the more humble and elusive denizens of the park.
Officially know as "Vulpes vulpes," the park has a secluded and fascinating red fox population. They are beautiful creatures, with slender faces, intense eyes, and a reddish, rusty coat.
Most of the time, the fox stays hidden in what's called "the thicket" - an impenetrable array of trees, thorny shrubbery, and bramble, which provides protection from both predators and the elements.
They feast upon almost anything - small crabs, rabbits, rodents, leaves, berries, even beach plums. Though mostly nocturnal, you can sometimes catch a glimpse of one roaming the long main road or sitting atop a dune.
Like furry panhandlers, some have become so tame they will patiently wait for a well-intentioned person to toss a bit of food their way. And though sharing a chunk of your granola bar may seem harmless enough, feeding them is one of the worst things you can do. It not only lowers the fox's natural fear of humans, but it tends to make us feel more comfortable being close to them. Most importantly, it exposes them to the dangers of the road.
Occasionally, red foxes can carry disease, infrequently including rabies. By far, the most common and harmful ailment is mange.
About ten years ago, a terrible mange epidemic hit the Island Beach fox population. Their health and population stability was severely effected.
Mange occurs as a result of mange mites, which burrow into the fox's skin to lay their eggs. This produces intense, severe itching. As the fox scratches the affected areas, it pulls out its protective fur, becoming susceptible to harmful bacteria. This loss of fur can become so extreme that the fox loses its natural ability to retain warmth in the winter, and they eventually end up freezing to death. It's a painful, unpleasant way to go.
Thankfully, in recent years, the red fox population has rebounded nicely, and is believed to have once again stabilized.
As many times as I've been to the park, I have only been lucky enough to have witnessed them twice.
My first sighting was about two years while there to take some pictures of the ospreys. As I approached the gatehouse exit, I spotted a fox darting in and out of the brush. Anxiously, camera at the ready, I pulled over and parked, hoping he wouldn't get spooked by my presence. To my amazement, he just stopped and stared at me. It was as if he were posing for me, wanting to make sure I got his best side. It was a brief, yet thrilling moment. As he disappeared into the thicket, I said a soft "thank you," and made my way home, eager to download the pictures to my computer.
Due to a nasty back injury, I haven't been back at the park in some time. However, I was able to venture out recently for a short visit.
Aside from a few bicyclers, I was the only person around. It felt wonderful to finally get back to the place I have come to enjoy so much. A stiff bay breeze, sparkling water, and the peaceful solitude of the surroundings were just what I needed.
There weren't many birds on the bayside that day. Most probably still on their journey up from warmer climes. So I decided to check out the ocean side, making sure the Atlantic was still there.
Relieved that it hadn't disappeared, I started back to the beach entrance. That's when I caught a glimpse of something moving in the silhouette of the dunes.
To my joy, it was a red fox, who seemed to have been shadowing my every step. Trotting down off the dunes, she jaunted along, stopping and starting with me as we made our way down the beach. We made a great pair, sharing in the beauty of the day. Taking advantage of her graciousness, I rattled off a few photos of her. Much as I would have liked to have petted my new sidekick, I knew I shouldn't, so I grudgingly shoo'ed her away, in hopes that she would be a bit more wary of approaching people.
Satisfied, I began the scenic drive down the long main road. Just before leaving, I decided to detour for one last walk on Reed's Trail, an easy little path winding through the thicket that brings you to a secluded clearing on the shore of the sunset-soaked bay.
As I gathered my gear and closed up my car, I was stunned to find two foxes frolicking with each other, no further then ten feet away from me.
I frantically started to snap away, getting as many pictures as I could before they decided to move on.
It was perfect timing. A rare moment, indeed. Three different fox sightings in one short visit. I was lucky enough to have witnessed something completely unexpected. And that's the beauty of Island Beach State Park. In some way, you will always be rewarded for the time spent.