FIELD NOTES — A Bobcat Journal – May 2012

Jack ThumbnailBy Jack McShane

Considering the expansion of the bobcat population in the state, along with DEC’s intention to expand the hunting and trapping of these secretive and elusive creatures and the fact that they are our only wild cat in our New York forests, I thought I would relive and journal my few encounters with these wild felines.

When Nancy and I were in the process of purchasing our Bussey Hollow property in October 1986, I was invited by the owners to bowhunt as it was the season.  We closed in November. I was perched up in a tree over a well-used deer trail and before long there came a bobcat inching its way down, my very first ever encounter, and mesmerized, I watched as it crept down the trail in full hunting mode. At about twenty yards away it spotted me and was gone in a flash. This incident confirmed to me that this old farm and forest was a hunter/naturalist’s paradise and I was soon to be the lucky owner of it.

A couple of years later, not having another sighting, Nancy and I were taking a morning stroll up on our hill when I spotted a bobcat walking directly away from us on the same trail we were on. It was about one hundred yards away. It swung up and off the trail to a rocky ledge where it crept along a narrow path and eventually went up and over the ledge and out of sight. Amazingly, that cat never knew it was under keen observation. Of course I was jubilant and excited and Nancy thought I was nuts. Another time I was on my own, trekking slowly along on a very quiet and damp morning, again high on the hill, and as I was scrutinizing the rocky ledge area above me which I had become accustomed to doing, I spotted a bobcat stretched out on the ledge looking down at me and following my every step with great intent. I did not stop, but maintained eye contact until I was out of sight. The reason I didn’t stop was because I wanted to see how long it would spy on me and maybe get it used to human non-aggressive intervention in its domain.

A really incredible encounter occurred in either the second or third year of our Bussey Hollow ownership, after a lot of snow had fallen, two to three feet. I had trekked up to the top of the hill sans snowshoes. Hikers call this “post holing.” Coming up a shallow valley, I saw, a hundred yards in front of me, a bobcat slowly working its way to the crest. I froze and watched and, as it neared the top, something caught my peripheral vision. Lo and behold, it was a coyote tracking the cat! He would advance quickly ten yards or so, stop and view his target, then move up again, gaining slowly on the totally unaware cat. I had to purposefully slow my breathing as I realized what the potential was that I was about to see. When the gap between the two was closed to about twenty yards, the coyote charged and incredibly, the cat was able to reach a nearby tree and make its escape. The coyote circled the tree looking up at its near miss for the next fifteen minutes until it finally gave up and retreated back down the valley. Now, again really breathing hard, I decided to race to the tree  to get a close up of the cat. It turned out to be impossible in the deep snow, and half way there it was down and disappeared over the other side of the hill. The first thing I thought of was, “Wow!”  I slowly caught my breath realizing what I had just witnessed and how lucky I was. As I slowly made my way down home in the failing light I thought also of how lucky the coyote was. Considering the four clawed paws that could reach around and take out eyes, the biting mouth of a ferocious wildcat, all my money would have been on the cat, not the coyote.Picture6

returning down the hill on a sunny spring morning, I spotted a doe below me in an obviously agitated state, pacing back and forth. I inched further down the trail under cover of a large boulder, when suddenly from below a bobcat raced up and over my path with the doe in hot pursuit. The agitated doe was bellowing like a besieged lion and disappeared over the hill in what sounded like a very long chase. Although I did not search it out, I strongly believe that there was a fawn in the vicinity and that the doe had scented the cat, fomenting the protective search and chase. Bobcats are opportunistic predators that are known to take fawns and, under the right circumstances, mature deer.

When a hay field has been freshly mowed there is chaos in the resident rodent population, giving ample opportunity for predators to take advantage of the many injured and dislocated creatures. It is much like a sudden appearance of a buffet for hawks, turkey vultures, foxes, coyotes and, yes, bobcats. On such a day when the farmer and tractor had left for further fields, I happened to be looking out the kitchen window when I saw a bobcat in full stealth mode stalking and harvesting along a brushy edge. I scrambled out and down to the field edge. On all fours and under cover of a slight ridge and the brushy edge, I made my way to a point where if he continued on the same trajectory he would emerge fifteen feet in front of me. He did. When he appeared and spotted me, I was very shaken by our sudden proximity and his reaction: rising on all four legs, every hair on the back bristled. I felt no fear at the time, but was transfixed as the world stood still, as I stared for what seemed infinity, but actually only a few seconds, into the fiery, yellow-green eyes that conveyed a combination of surprise, benign hostility, and mutual respect. Flee or attack? Luckily it was the former, as there was a sudden rush and like magic my fellow top-predator and inhabitant of the earth was gone.

Out the same kitchen window, a year later when the mowed hay of the year had been tedded and rolled and bound into many large round bales distributed randomly about, I spotted a cat with her three lively cubs making their way across the field. Momma was intent on getting to the other side, paying little attention to the cubs trailing behind. The best part was when one of them scrambled up to the top of a bale and as one of the others tried to follow, swatted it down as if to say, “My bale! You are off!”. Mom paid no heed to the jostling and continued. The cubs, including the king of the bale, eventually followed in line. It was great to see our only wild cat in family and playful mode. I wonder if Momma was the one in my previous year’s close encounter.

If you have been reading my bobcat journal and counting, you will know that I have been honored with seven very lucky sightings. Recalling of my interactions and sightings of this fascinating wild cat convinces me that it should be protected. The value of this ecological linchpin far outweighs its value on the back of a well-off human. Having been a hunter and fisherman all my mature life and a trapper in my youth, I ask that our DEC not only not expand the open seasons, but also put an end to all hunting and trapping of this fascinating and elusive native cat.

P.S.  On Tuesday, March 20th, on a return trip from Margaretville, a bobcat ran across the Tremperskill Road to the reservoir side. Sighting #8.  ~