By Lynda Fox, D.V.M.
On Seabrook Island we watch the wildlife and the wildlife watches us! Our gray foxes, bobcats, and coyotes enjoy the same things we do: eating, playing, hanging out with friends, running around, caring for and protecting family members, observing things, and relaxing in favorite places.
In 2011 there were 87 reported gray fox sightings, of which 13 were kits. This is down a bit from 2010 (145 sightings of which 25 were kits) but definitely up from 2009 (31 sightings), which was the year after canine distemper killed almost all of the Seabrook gray foxes.
Gray foxes are probably the only foxes on Seabrook now. The tenure of red foxes on Seabrook was short-lived. The reds arrived in mid 2009 when the population of grays was low. The reds were gone by mid 2010 when a scabies (sarcoptic mange) outbreak killed all the red foxes but spared the gray foxes.
Gray foxes are often mistakenly identified as red foxes because gray foxes also have a lot of red on them. The best distinguishing feature is that red foxes have a distinct white tip on their tails whereas gray foxes have a black tip.
In 2011 a gray fox family opted to raise their 4 kits on lakeside property. They had 3 different den sites on the linked lakes. In June they lived on Heron Lake, moving to Mallard Lake in July, and on to Bass Lake in September. Bass Lake was also home to a fox family in 2008.
In late April or early May, fox kits are born. Their parents are very protective of the babies. In these months there were several reports of foxes putting on a display of boldness, but definitely not being aggressive. Some foxes walked toward people, stood their ground, or barked at people. Their bark is very raspy sounding. By June the babies were frequently seen playing like puppies near the den. By July the moms were seen taking the kits off from time to time, possibly to teach them to hunt. In September the kits were becoming more adventuresome. They were reported to be less wary and less stealthy than their parents.
Gray foxes are very adaptable to civilization. They were reported hanging out under docks, living under steps, resting in planter boxes, investigating birdbaths and feeders, relaxing under foundation shrubs, napping on decks, and even in one case lapping spilled root beer off the ground. But they also need uncultivated natural areas to feel protected.
There were many reports of foxes and people watching each other. In 2011 gray foxes watched people work in their yards or garages (sometimes as close as 10 feet), posed for pictures, traded glances with people, drank from birdbaths and backyard ponds as owners looked on, and had regular routines of visiting certain properties at the same time several days in a row.
The foxes looked good in 2011. They were mostly described as being healthy, large, and beautiful with nice bushy tails.
Gray foxes are omnivorous, eating small mammals, snakes, insects, birds, and a wide variety of plants. Being able to climb trees helps them catch food and avoid being caught as food themselves!
Bobcat sightings were up in 2011. There were 76 reported sightings (of which 5 were kits). In 2010 there were only 36 sightings (of which 8 were kits). June 2011, the month kits are born, had the highest number of sightings (17). Most of the cats were described as healthy looking and several were described as large or tall.
As in previous years, bobcats were seemingly more curious than afraid of people. There are several reports of a bobcat walking up on a porch and casually looking at people inside the house. In one instance a bobcat looked calmly into a sliding glass door as a dog barked at it from inside. One bobcat approached within 4 feet of an open garage, watched the homeowner working inside, then continued on its way. One Seabrooker came out to walk her dog and saw a bobcat in the yard. The cat got up, crossed to the other side of the street, then sat and looked back to watch. Bobcats have also been seen beside the roads, watching as cars drive by.
Bobcats need wild areas for shelter but have been observed using manmade structures as temporary shelter. They have been sighted lying under docks (once for more than an hour), curled up on porches, and sitting under decks. For longer periods they prefer areas of thick cover, especially the “scrub shrub” in secondary dunes and at marsh edges.
Bobcats are carnivores. Unless prey is very scarce, they do not eat carrion (dead animal carcasses). Squirrels are frequent prey. There are several reports of squirrels escaping by running erratically (bobcats can’t change direction very fast) or by climbing a tree ( although sometimes bobcats were seen climbing the tree in pursuit). One bobcat chased a squirrel off a porch where the squirrel had been eating tomatoes off a potted plant. One bobcat crouched totally focused then leaped about 10 feet behind a bush in an attempt to grab a squirrel. Another bobcat lunged at a squirrel, which was eating seeds under a birdfeeder. Although bobcats usually eat small prey immediately, one was seen carrying a squirrel in its mouth 10 minutes after catching it.
Foxes, birds, and deer can also be prey for bobcats. One fox, which had been grabbed by a bobcat, screamed for its life and was saved, at least temporarily, when the homeowners came out and startled the bobcat. The cat momentarily loosened its grip and the fox ran off with the cat in pursuit. In May a bobcat chased a young deer, both moving at high speed. Another bobcat scared off a hawk which was eating a large bird. The bobcat then finished eating the hawk’s meal and leisurely walked off. Several times crows have been observed heckling a hunting bobcat, driving it off and taking away the element of surprise.
In 2011 bobcats were reported doing other interesting things. One was seen climbing down from a large oak tree shortly after dawn. Another was seen swimming across the Kiawah River at high tide, leaving the Kiawah spit and coming ashore in the Seabrook salt marsh. One hunkered down in heavy brush during nasty weather and one stopped several times to wag its tail as it sauntered along.
In 2011 there was only one report that mentioned a collared bobcat. Kiawah’s biologist, Jim Jordan, has a tracking collar program to help him understand and preserve bobcat habitat. Apparently most of the collared Kiawah bobcats decided not to come over to Seabrook in 2011.
Coyotes are currently found in every county in South Carolina. Although they have been on Johns Island for some time, they only occasionally visited Seabrook prior to 2011. But by early 2011 there were several coyote reports each month. In July, coyotes were officially added to the fox and bobcat reporting e-forms. The numbers increased through October, a month with 22 sightings, then dropped off in November (2 sightings) and December (11 sightings). In all there were 54 reported sightings in 2011 of which 3 were pups.
Most coyotes were seen singly, although there were a few reports of 2 or 3 together. Many people heard the prolonged melancholy howling of coyotes across the marsh at night. The howling was either a lone coyote, 2 calling back and forth, or several. The sightings (and “hearings”) were primarily in Privateer Creek marsh, especially adjacent to the St. Christopher woods.
Most reports indicate that the coyote neither approached nor retreated from a person, a vehicle, or a person with a dog. If the person or vehicle stayed put, the coyote eventually walked off. Coyote pups are born in late April or early May. In October 2011 there was a report of 3 nearly grown pups playing together in the marsh.
One coyote was observed stalking a deer and another was observed rolling around on something dead on the beach. One seriously injured coyote was removed by security in October.
Although coyotes can run fast and can swim, they can’t climb trees like our gray foxes and bobcats can.
Many people used the e-forms to report other interesting animals or animal situations. In February 2011 the sighting of a sick raccoon brought up fears that there might be another distemper outbreak like we saw in 2008.
Fortunately that did not occur. Several times an albino raccoon was seen near Seabrook Island Road between the Haulover and The Lookout. Turkeys were also reported several times, including a tom and hen strolling together through the marsh.
In June, a cougar was reported although many people, including most wildlife officials, believe it’s unlikely that there is a cougar in this area. In October, an eight-point buck guarded a small doe while four other bucks tried to approach. In November, two otters swam circles around each other in a marsh area flooded by a super high tide.
This annual summary in based on information provided by residents, workers, and visitors on Seabrook Island. Please continue to make reports of foxes, bobcats, coyotes, and any wildlife issue of interest at www.sipoa.org. Anyone can make a report; there is no need to log in. Under Resources, click Wildlife Resources, then Bobcat and Fox Sighting Form. Also, lots of wonderful photos were taken in 2011 thanks to smart phones and digital cameras, so keep snapping shots!