AS Mary-Anne Addington snapped photos of water birds foraging in the Hunter Wetlands Centre, a killing shattered the peace.
Ms Addington, from Sydney, was touring the wetlands last week when a mangy fox ambushed an egret in the scrub.
It mauled its prey and snatched another bird from the air.
As the fox feasted in a flurry of feathers, Ms Addington’s camera clicked.
“I was rooted to the spot,” she said.
“It dropped that bird, another white egret flew along and it just grabbed it. It was surprising to see a fox in broad daylight, just killing birds.”
Ms Addington’s pictures confirm the fears of the wetlands centre’s chief executive Stuart Blanch, who wages a daily war on the foxes on behalf of the birds and smaller animals they kill.
Mr Blanch has successfully applied to Hunter Local Land Services for permission to use 1080 poison bait, shoot and trap the foxes that stalk the 43 hectares of the conservation land.
The centre’s most recent baiting permit expired at the end of March, and a fox cub died from eating a poison pellet last Tuesday.
Mr Blanch said he hoped to start another baiting campaign in July.
As many as three fox dens are hidden in the wetlands, he said, and the mangy adult fox has so far evaded every trap.
“What’s almost worse [than the egret killings] is that this fox was so relaxed,” Mr Blanch said.
“It’s like a larder out there at the moment, with the egrets being bred.”
The wetlands’ egrets enjoyed a successful last breeding season, but only number about 260.
A combination of predators, nesting competition from other species and a loss of habitat has whittled the egrets down, Mr Blanch said, from “a couple of thousand”.
One response is to kill the foxes, a campaign that began with centre staff trapping and shooting a cub in January.
Another is to build a perimeter fence that will, if and when complete, make the wetlands the largest fox-proof sanctuary on the east coast.
A team funded by the federal government’s Green Army scheme will soon start fixing and extending the fence that cordons off 83 per cent of the wetlands.
But conservation efforts are thwarted by the foxes’ ability to dig under the perimeter and push their lithe bodies through the links.
Staff find tufts of fur in the fence and some foxes, Mr Blanch believes, swim across Ironbark Creek.
Red foxes were introduced to Australia as hunting quarry, and now number an estimated six million.