Leafs crunch beneath his boots as Brian Balik takes a sharp turn off the trail and into a stand of trees in Claude Moore Park in Sterling, Va. It’s a cool, overcast day in early April, and Balik is making his daily rounds.
There’s not a lot to attract the attention of the untrained eye in this quiet stretch of trees. A lone vulture circles overhead, riding the thermal currents of a nearby road. In the branches above, small nondescript song birds flit from tree to tree. On the ground, there doesn’t appear to be much, if any, wildlife.
But Balik, a facility supervisor for the park, knows where to look.
He moves up gingerly, stopping several yards from a small hole, partially covered by leaves and branches and next to a small mound of fresh earth.
“What we’re looking at right now is a fox den,” Balik says, tracing its shape in the air as he points. “It’s been active for about a year or two and is fairly big; it has this main hole right here and an exit hole about 10 to 15 yards farther. I’ve got to be careful not to go up to it too much. If I walk on it, or move around stuff too much, they won’t come back.”
Balik is not, as it may appear in that moment, a fox whisperer. He is a camera trapper, using relatively cheap motion-triggered cameras to keep track of the animal population in the park.
Pulling a trap from his backpack, he threads a thin piece of greenish string through the back and ties it securely to a small tree facing towards the den a couple feet off the ground. When the foxes come or go, the camera will detect their movement and snap a picture, which Balik will later collect and upload to his computer.
“There are seven red foxes in here that I know of and this is a 357 acre park,” Balik says. “But that number could change right now — one could get hit by a car, one could go in and out of the park, and of course, new ones are being born.”
Camera trapping has helped raise awareness about endangered animals around the globe, and as the technology gets cheaper and naturalists like Balik figure out how to use it, camera traps promise to fill a great many gaps in our knowledge about wildlife in Northern Virginia.