Sunrise light on a grove of tufa towers emerging from the water of Mono Lake with soft green and dusty-red wild grasses in the foreground, Canada geese in the shallow water with reflections of the rocky towers, and desert hills in the distance.

A glimpse into Lee Vining’s nightlife: Foxes, raccoons, and more!

Last week, diners at Epic Cafe at the south end of town observed a red fox running through the cafe’s lawn at night, sniffing for scraps dropped by messy eaters.

Here’s the red fox seen at Epic Cafe. Notice its black ears, black feet, and white tip of the tail. It is larger than a gray fox, with longer legs and a bushier tail.

Not only is this stunning creature beautiful for visitors to observe, it is also quite rare in the area and the sighting sparked the interest of local agencies, including Yosemite National Park and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife. It has the potential to be an extremely rare Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator), a subspecies of the more widespread red fox (Vulpes vulpes)It could also be a non-native subspecies with Great Basin or fur farm ancestry. The only way to tell for sure is to gather genetic data—either fur or scat.

The Mono Lake Committee jumped into action to help the other agencies gather more information about the fox. With the help of Yosemite National Park Biologist Sarah Stock, we set up motion-triggered wildlife cameras and baited hair snares to see if we could gather fur for genetic testing. These hair snares are simply a line of brushes with copper wire screwed to a tree trunk with a sock filled with bait (chicken) dangling above it. This entices the animal to reach up and brush against the wires while they sniff the bait. The cameras capture it so we know which animal approached the bait.

I’ve been checking the cameras daily and have seen some exciting critters pass through our little town! It is amazing to think about what goes on in town when we are all warm in our beds.

This is a gray fox. See how it has a black tip to its tail? They have shorter legs than a red fox, so they appear much smaller and, dare I say, slightly less majestic?
This raccoon is exhibiting how to use a hair snare. It is snagging the bait from the sock and rubbing against the copper wire brushes.
This raccoon is missing its telltale stripy tail!
The most exciting sighting was this bobcat, which was seen two nights in a row, prowling past the hair snare but showing little interest. How cool!
I’ll keep checking the cameras and hope to see more of what wanders Lee Vining while we are all asleep.