Bundled up in a sleeping bag in a rundown Chrysler SUV, Chris Labbe of Topsham was waiting until sunrise, and she couldn’t sleep a wink. She was too excited for what morning might bring.
Through a friend of a friend, Chris Labbe — a wildlife photographer by hobby — had been handed the opportunity of a lifetime. From her outpost, a fox den was located just a few yards away. A family of two adult foxes and their six babies lived here. And the old, abandoned vehicle offered her the perfect cover from which she could watch and photograph them.
“It’s sort of an adrenaline rush because you have to be really careful,” Chris Labbe explained during a recent phone interview. “I feel really, really lucky.”
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That morning in late April, Chris Labbe carefully moved to the driver’s seat of the dashboard-less vehicle and cranked down the window just enough to sneak her camera lens through. She’d already draped a blanket over the glass to conceal herself from anything that might be wandering around outside.
“The foxes not being able to see me has enabled me to get really nice pictures of them and not disturb them at the same time,” she said. “I also try to take pictures of the birds, woodchucks, anything that moves.”
Over the past couple of weeks, Chris Labbe has visited the den several times. She has special permission to photograph on the private property, which is located in Sagadahoc County. To get to the den — and the rusted red vehicle that she uses as a wildlife blind — she walks through several gates and up a hill. If the foxes are outside the den when she arrives, she waits so she won’t scare them away. Her goal is to slip into the vehicle when they’re inside the den or out hunting.
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Staying overnight was a one-time thing, she said. She wanted to see if the foxes emerged at sunrise, and if so, how they behaved. Usually, she arrives on site in the morning and sneaks into the car while the parents are out hunting. During that time, the kits will remain safely inside the den.
“It’s amazing. I’ll sit there for hours and they won’t even poke their heads out [of the den],” she said. “But they’re certainly rambunctious when they do come out.”
That morning, the foxes emerged just before sunrise, and it was too dark to capture any photos or video. In other words, things didn’t work out as planned for the waiting photographer, but such frustrations and let-downs are expected by wildlife photographers. The practice requires plenty of patience.
So Chris Labbe waited, and around 10:30 a.m., the mother fox returned from hunting, and her six kits ran out to greet her.
“They remind me of puppies welcoming their owner home,” she said. “They always seem so excited to see her.”
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By remaining incredibly still and quiet, Chris Labbe has been able to watch the foxes behaving naturally, and she’s learned a lot in the process. Gazing through her long lens, she has observed the kits as they tumble and play in the grass.
“They really roughhouse a lot, but they say that’s a normal thing for them to just be exploring the world and roughhousing,” she said.
She’s also noticed that the mother and father fox often patrol the perimeter of their home, and she’s watched them bring food back to the den. Once the mother brought back three dead voles, all stuffed into her mouth. She offered the meal to her kits, which started to play with the food, tossing it into the air.
“I’m not sure that they’re old enough to actually eat it,” Chris Labbe said. “Maybe it’s a part of the learning process.”
She’s witnessed the parents grooming the kits’ fuzzy, gray coats — which will turn red as they grow older. And on one rare occasion, she had the opportunity to photograph the mother nursing all six kits at once.
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“I could sit all day and watch them interact,” she said.
Working full-time in education, Chris Labbe’s time for photography is somewhat restricted to weekends and early mornings, but she plans to continue visiting the den a few times a week throughout the spring to watch the kits grow.
“My family thinks I’m crazy,” she said.
“I think you’re very dedicated,” chimed in her husband, Mike Labbe.
Online, her dedication has been praised by people who enjoy living vicariously through her work. On Facebook groups such as MAINE Wildlife and her own personal Facebook page, she posts her fox family photos and videos regularly, gaining thousands of views and comments.
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“I have friends from all over who say, ‘I really like seeing your pictures. Can you keep the videos and pictures coming?’ And that makes me smile,” Chris Labbe said. “When there are people who are looking forward to seeing another photo of what [the foxes] are doing, that motivates me to get another good photo or video.”
Aislinn Sarnacki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook: facebook.com/1minhikegirl, Twitter: @1minhikegirl, and Instagram: @actoutdoors. Her guidebooks “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine,” “Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path” and “Dog-Friendly Hikes in Maine” are available at local bookstores and wherever books are sold.