Christmas of last year was a difficult time for me. My beautiful mother passed away suddenly on November 1st which set the tone for the holiday season. As a professional portrait photographer, I am usually busy and excited shooting Christmas photo sessions, plus bustling with holiday preparations. That season, my heart couldn’t muster the usual thrill of Christmas, but I had a teensy premonition something special was about to happen.
My daughter’s boyfriend Jacob’s last name is Fox. I don’t know why, but I have been fascinated with his last name since I met him and even bought him two fox ornaments for Christmas. My daughter rolled her eyes, “Mom, don’t start buying him lots of fox junk!”
But, another idea popped into my mind and I emphatically announced, “Jacob, I am going to photograph a fox for you!”
The minute those words tumbled out of my mouth I wondered, how in the freak was I going to find a fox to photograph? I had only seen one fox in my entire life and it was a teeny flash of orange running through a field far away. Yet, I had a strong knowing that I would photograph a fox for Jacob! Heck, maybe I could hook up with one at a zoo.
My usual adoration for photographing in winter and snow here in Michigan dulled as January was warm and gloomy. While I am usually out and about with my camera in the winter, and excitedly track snowstorms, January and February dragged on with very little snow and no photo ops! I was entering what Michigan photographers call the slump months…March and April when there is virtually nothing to shoot! Drab grass, no foliage on the trees, gray rainy days, when really, the entire winter had been one big slump.
March dawned with news of a frightening new virus coming from China. Within a week, people were warned to stay home, and soon after, schools were closed…we were on lock down! I was stunned and confused about this new way of life, stuck in my house. Suddenly, the usual crummy weather in March and April seemed welcoming compared to this worldwide pandemic that created panic buying, empty shelves at grocery stores and changed life for everyone. I’m usually an upbeat person, but I felt a depressed feeling of malaise as we lived the same boring routine day after day after day. Slouched on the couch, I went numb watching old decorating shows and munching popcorn. I was so afraid there would be a popcorn shortage!
Near the end of March, draped on the couch, I wearily reached for my ringing cellphone. It was my friend Carol who shared that she saw a fox in her backyard! I jolted straight up as adrenaline coursed through my body! Did I hear the word FOX? It felt like magic, the Universe was bringing me a fox to photograph!
I rushed over to Carol’s house with my camera and from her back deck, I saw the fox swish through the tall grasses near the shed in her backyard. CLICK! Kind of blurry and messy, but I had photographed a fox!!! If this is the only photo I get, I just knew Jacob would proudly hang it on his wall! As I edited the photo I could not believe I had actually seen a fox pretty close up.
Carol and her husband Mike figured out a fox couple had dug a den underneath their shed and noticed the male was out and about in the evening. I twisted on my cheapy telephoto lens hastily purchased in case I saw a moose on a trip to Yellowstone, and went to find the fox. I was shaking with delight when I captured him peeking through the bare tree limbs beside the shed. Now Jacob would get a choice of two photos!
Carol and I started reading about foxes and learned they birth a litter in March. Oh, my GOD! We are going to be grandmothers! Carol named the dad Foxie and I named the mom Roxie. One evening, we saw Roxie with what looked like a dead dinner in her mouth. We knew they had to eat, but it was sad to see the circle of life played out before us. I doubted Jacob would want to frame a photo of Roxie with roadkill!
Looking closer, we realized Roxie was carrying babies out of the den!
Meanwhile, I was pretty much living at Carol’s mornings and evenings. I thought of setting up in a pup tent in the yard to live there fulltime with visions of baby foxes toying with my camera as I shot photos. I was getting some pretty cool fox photos.
As we moved into April, Mike was wondering how to get his lawnmower out of the shed without a fierce father fox pouncing onto his neck. My hubby stood by with a broom to guard Mike. “I can sweep the fox off you!” With broom man at attention, Mike stealthily removed the mower. “Get everything we need out of there, “ Carol shouted from the deck!
After that feat, we didn’t see the foxes for days! Carol and I were so sad. “I guess we don’t need to knit those fox booties,” I lamented.
On my April 14th birthday, I got the greatest gift.
Foxie and Roxie were back!
Carol and I watched in grandmotherly gratitude as the fox parents stood guard while the five babies pranced from the den! Click! Click! Click!
I was in awe of the adorable foxes, but they looked more like wild boars with their black fur and humped backs. As much as I loved photographing the foxes and I couldn’t believe I was getting such up close and regular photo ops, I realized my photos were not the quality I needed for an enlargement for Jacob. My lens was a Canon 70-300mm which produced extremely grainy photos from that distance. I laid in bed the night of my birthday and decided I needed to rent a quality lens and fast! I couldn’t let this unique opportunity to photograph foxes go by without top quality equipment.
The next day, I rented a Canon 500mm lens…yep, the whopper you see the sport photographers hauling along the edge of the football field. The prime lens is so extraordinary it costs $13-thousand! The rental was $100 a day and my sweet husband paid for four days as a birthday present. While waiting for the lens to arrive, I watched a zillion tutorials to learn how to focus and hold the eight-pound lens steady. Supposedly, the hardest part is getting good focus because camera shake is an issue with that huge lens.
I was freaked out on day one when the lens arrived. I was afraid to lift it out of its case. I am a seasoned, professional photographer, but this was SCARY! I propped the big lens on a beanbag swagged over my husband’s bicycle rack and shot through the sliding door in Carol’s dining room.
I had read to steady the lens with your hand over the top like this:
PLEASE let me get ONE focused fox photo! I just need one and it will be worth the $400 rental. I had read about a photographer who came back from a shoot with nothing in focus with this lens!
Right on schedule, Roxie and her babies emerged from the den. The babies were bigger now and looked more like foxes. I started shooting all the action, paying close attention to holding that lens steady and nailing focus! I had no idea if anything I was capturing was in focus. I just kept shooting the show in front of me.
I watched the babies nurse, up close and personal. I was so close I could see the hairs on Roxie’s chinny-chin-chin!
It was magical to see the interaction between Roxie and her kits!
The babies were so precious at play!
As I continued to shoot, tears streamed down my face, and since I couldn’t stop to wipe them away, they dripped onto my lap. I was blissfully grateful for the gift of these foxes and the enchantment of photographing them with a beautiful lens. I am crying as I write this because it was special beyond belief!
From this photo, we learned there are six kits!
When I got home that first day with the lens, I clicked through my photos in awe. Most of them were in clear focus! I had finally photographed a fox worthy of hanging on the wall. Heck, I was pretty sure National Geographic would be pounding on my door at any moment!
The next two days it rained heavily pouring $200 worth of lens rental down the drain. But, I knew I had already gotten my money’s worth out of the whopper lens. On the fourth day, I carefully packed it up and shipped it back to the rental company.
So, that’s how I got through the Covid Pandemic.
I pretty much lived with nature discovering the magic of the Universe and all the splendor in our world. ♥♥♥
About the Author / Photographer: Jill Wellington
Jill Wellington is a portrait photographer in Michigan, but loves exploring all aspects of photography. Her photos have been used all over the world on book covers, magazine covers, album covers, product labels and merchandise, advertising, website design and on the walls as set design in Hallmark and Lifetime movies.
With this fox miracle, she just might want to do more wildlife photography!