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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Photographers Value Fox vs. Sandhill Crane Encounters

Tony Peterson and Eric Christensen are veteran outdoors photographers who know the risks of leaving home without their cameras.

Odds are, they’ll run their errands and return home with no regrets.

But on some occasions they’ll go out “unarmed,” only to witness a weather event or wildlife encounter so rare they’ll regret forsaking their 35mm camera and zoom lens.

It’s often a balancing act, of course. Not everyone will understand if your kids were tardy because you ran back inside for your camera before driving them to school. “Oh, of course. Your dog hid your camera, Mr. Christensen.” Or, “No problem stranding your kids. It could happen to anyone, Mr. Peterson.”

Peterson and Christensen don’t know each other. Peterson lives in the Twin Cities’ suburbs and Christensen lives nearly 300 miles to the southeast in Stoughton, Wisconsin. But both are devoted fathers who faced tough decisions on separate April mornings to capitalize on rare red fox vs. sandhill crane confrontations while sending their kids off to school.

All was not lost, however. Christensen already had one such encounter in the bank. He photographed a fox-crane standoff on March 18, 2019. You might recall I wrote about it two years ago.

But a month later on April 19, 2019, Christensen saw a sandhill crane pair walking the edge of his daughter’s schoolyard while dropping her off to start the day. Not far away, he saw a red fox slinking toward the cranes. He wanted to stop and watch the pending face-off, but another car was riding his bumper, and he knew not to delay another parent’s drop-off.

Christensen also knew his opportunity was lost. “A fox never hangs around long,” he said. “If you’re not set up and ready to shoot when they appear, they’re gone. They always leave you wondering what else you missed.”

Still, Christensen hurried home, retrieved his camera and 150-600mm zoom lens, and drove back to the school. The cranes were gone, but the fox was 100 yards away, “monkeying around with a goose.” Christensen said the goose was “screaming in the fox’s face,” making sure it regretted their meeting. Christensen got some pictures, but has no idea how the fox fared with the cranes.

Peterson, meanwhile, was herding his daughters toward the bus stop when one of them spotted a red fox in their yard last week. He said it’s not unusual to see foxes in the Twin Cities’ northern suburbs, but not at 8:45 a.m. while awaiting the school bus.

Soon after, the fox went paw to toe with a sandhill crane in a field by Peterson’s yard. “As soon as the crane saw the fox, it put out its wings to corral it and keep it away,” he said. “They really went at it, but I don’t think they ever made real contact.

“I wanted to run back into the house to get my camera and swap out to a bigger lens, but I had to get my girls onto the bus. The fox was feinting one way, and going another, but the crane matched every move. It was like those videos where a mongoose keeps moving around, looking for a chance to get the cobra. But the crane wasn’t having it.”

When Peterson finally got his camera and lens, he looked out and saw the combatants were still there. The fox eventually got past the crane, but not for long.

“The crane just flew up and came down on it, but the fox just spun around and dodged it like a speedboat outrunning an aircraft carrier,” Peterson said. “The crane was super aggressive. It was not backing down.”

After the fox and crane separated, the fox dug into a pile of leaves nearby and pulled out something unidentifiable.

“I don’t know if it had something cached there or smelled something, but it dug it out,” Peterson said.

Peterson assumes the crane was protecting a nearby nest. He also assumes the fox was willing to risk a stabbing from the crane’s beak or a clawing from its sharp toes for the “caloric reward” of a crane egg. The crane finally persuaded the fox to find a different meal, maybe one that was there all along, albeit not fresh.

Professor Stanley Temple, a retired ornithologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agrees the crane was likely protecting a nest. Sandhill cranes in the upper Midwest typically lay two, sometimes three, eggs in early April. The crane couple then takes turns incubating the eggs for 30 days.

Temple said cranes make formidable deterrents to a fox. Though each weighs roughly 10 pounds, a big fox stands only 16 inches at the shoulder, while a sandhill crane towers nearly 5 feet tall. In boxing terms, cranes have a much longer reach. Their wingspan also stretches about 5 feet, and they can hammer at foes with their beaks, and rake them by leaping high and coming down hard with their toenails.

“Encounters with (nest predators) undoubtedly happen often for cranes,” Temple said. “Cranes nest on the ground, and their young are flightless for months. Predators would have an easy meal if crane parents weren’t so aggressive. Having been poked by cranes on several occasions, I can attest to the pain a well-placed jab inflicts. It’s a serious weapon, and cranes can use it with sometimes deadly intent.”

No matter how vigilant and protective crane parents might be, it’s unusual for more than one colt to survive the three months until it can fly. Besides foxes, other predators that hunt crane eggs and nestlings include owls, crows, ravens, eagles, hawks, coyotes, bobcats and raccoons.

Christensen said he isn’t bothered that foxes rob nests or hawks nab nestlings. He enjoys watching predators hunting prey, and admires any raptor or four-legged hunter that doesn’t rely on humans for food.

“I’m anthropomorphizing, but when I see bald eagles taking turns circling and hovering above a feeding merganser, I think they’re making an honest living,” Christensen said. “If a merganser gives an eagle the right opportunity, it strikes. I also like seagulls hunting over water more than those eating French fries off a parking lot.

“I’ll joke about that stuff. Like, ‘I once got a photo of a raccoon out in the woods,’” he continued. “Usually, you get your best raccoon photos while they raid your garbage cans. Maybe that’s why I like a true confrontation between a fox and crane. It has nothing to do with us.”

A sandhill crane leaps above a red fox to drive it away during an encounter north of the Twin Cities. — Tony Peterson photos

A red fox dodges and feints while trying to get past an aggressive sandhill crane.

A Canada goose honks and hisses at a red fox near Stoughton, Wisconsin.

— Eric Christensen photo

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