AUSTIN (KXAN) — A baby fox, just 11 days old, clumsily crawls onto its mother’s back and collapses into sleep in a moment captured on a camera hidden inside their den.
“They could be gone tonight,” explains homeowner Dan Ballard. “We’ve been really lucky that for 10 days they’ve stayed, because honestly that’s almost a record.”
It’s a special moment, but it’s just another day for Ballard and Jane Hunter in their backyard in southwest Austin.
Several years ago, the couple realized their five-acre wooded lot was a paradise for Central Texas wildlife, including raccoons, owls and deer.
Since then, they have set up about 50 cameras and use them to document precious moments on their website, “Texas Backyard Wildlife.”
Their most popular video, which shows a reckless titmouse pecking a sleepy fox, hit 1 million views on YouTube, and their work has even captured the attention of the BBC, who will be coming to their property to film for a documentary later this year.
Why they do it
The inspiration for “Texas Backyard Wildlife” came in the form of a wild fox roaming in their backyard, Ballard said. Starting with a sole trail camera, the couple realized the magnitude of wildlife living just outside their back door.
“It was an evening when the sun was really soft and coming down on this orange-chested fox, and it was like, ‘Wow, that is really cool!’” Ballard said.
“From there, we bought a trail camera, and we were seeing a lot of stuff that we had no idea was here,” he said. “One camera led to an addiction.”
“What started as curiosity became fascination,” Hunter added. “And became, our friends would say, obsession.”
After years of fine-tuning their hobby, about 50 cameras are set up, and Ballard has laid miles of cable. In the house, they have multiple monitors and can easily flick between different feeds.
“We just always felt that wildlife is threatened everywhere in the world, humans encroach on the critters’ territory everywhere in the world, and we wanted to put down a marker, make a record of all the local animals that are living with us because we just think it’s important,” Hunter said.
“Truly we think that by showing the unique and interesting stuff that maybe people haven’t seen before, it generates interest in wildlife,” Ballard added. “Therefore, we take an interest in protecting it.”
Finding an audience
What started as fox den and great horn owl livestreams with the occasional view or two grew into more than 8,500 YouTube subscribers.
In late March, the channel picked up significant traction, with videos regularly getting tens of thousands of views – with the sleepy fox video crossing the 1 million-view threshold.
While highlighting Texas wildlife, the channel expanded its reach across international waters, with comment sessions sprinkled with words of encouragement in Russian and Arabic.
Hunter regularly makes a habit of responding to subscribers’ comments, with the occasional help from an online translator.
“People are so positive and appreciative,” she said. “It feels very important to respond to them.”
The BBC takes notice
The footage generated from the couple’s southwest Austin home has not gone unnoticed.
Later this year, they will open their home to camera crews from the BBC, who will use their land to shoot video for an upcoming documentary about foxes.
Hunter described her reaction to the BBC’s interest as “disbelief and wild excitement.”
“It was such an endorsement,” she added.
“It was a real vote of confidence that we have something special here,” Ballard said. “We are thrilled that they are interested.”