Rare Sighting Of Common Wildlife Is Memorable
January 1, 2016
It’s the most common forest feline that we never get a chance to see -- the bobcat (Lynx rufus).
My chance came on a drizzly morning in late October on a hike near Skykomish. We drove up the long, gravel road to an empty trailhead, complaining about the rain and missing the spectacular view. But a hike in the rain meant solitude in the Wild Sky Wilderness, so we donned raincoats and loaded backpacks with camp stoves, trail mix and packets of tea.
We went up the steep trail, chatting while our dogs stayed close by. Clearing another switchback, the path leveled out as we approached a south-facing ridge covered in young alder.
Suddenly my friend’s dog jumped off the trail into the thick brush, sniffing the base of an old spruce tree. Stopped in our tracks, I heard her whisper “It’s a bobcat!”
Just 20 feet away, balanced on the end of an alder branch, he sat, eyes wide open, staring at us, his mouth opening wide to hiss us away. Four paws tightly gripped the thin, bending branch, but his body was perfectly balanced in the air, like a walker on a tightrope. His body arched, thick fur standing on end, posed for escape.
I could barely see his eyes through the drizzly haze, but he did not blink. For a long minute I stared at him through the mist, holding my breath as I watched a wild cat in a tree, the first wild cat I had ever seen.
While bobcats are considered common enough in Washington to be classified as a small game and furbearer species that can be hunted and trapped, few people see them. As stalking predators they make it their job not to be seen. And if they are spotted, they disappear as quickly as they came, leaving you wondering if you ever saw it at all….
Bobcats, a close cousin of the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis), are widely distributed over North America, ranging from southern Canada through the continental U.S. to southern Mexico. They are found in all habitats, from boreal forests to coniferous mixed forests, hardwood forests, coastal swamps, deserts and scrublands.
In Washington, bobcats are generally found below 4,000 feet elevation, mostly in wooded areas with escape cover, including suburban areas. In western Washington adult males have a home range of two to six square miles, half that for females. Eastern Washington bobcats have larger home ranges.
A male will mate with each of the several females who overlap his territory, and females will mate with several males. Each female may raise between two and four kittens a year depending on prey availability. The kittens are born in the spring and stay with mom for nine to 12 months, learning to hunt for themselves until they naturally disperse in late fall or early spring.
Bobcats are most active at dusk and dawn, hunting by sight and sound, watching and listening while perched on a stump or behind a tree, their spotted coats blending neatly with forest.
That spotted coat varies widely in color from tan to grey to reddish, as is more common on the west side of the state. They are named for the short bob tail, only up to six inches long, painted with black stripes at the top and bottom. Their back legs are longer than the front, which enable long leaps up to ten feet, and thick paws cushion the landing when they hit the ground. Males are larger, weighing up to 30 pounds and measuring over two feet long. Bobcats tend to be larger in the north and typically live 12-15 years in the wild.
The bobcat is an adaptable hunter, preying on anything from voles to rabbits to mountain beaver; it will even take prey twice its size. Once prey is sighted, bobcats stalk for a short distance, moving stealthily through the forest by placing their back paws in line with the front, followed by a quick leap and pounce on to the prey. If the prey is large, like a sick or weak deer, they stash it, covering it with brush and revisiting it until the prey is consumed. In suburban areas, bobcats may occasionally take a weak or sick, feral or domestic animal, but that is not typical.
Bobcats even share a prey species with their rare Canada lynx cousins – both cats hunt snowshoe hares. Bobcats aren’t as well suited for deep snow conditions as lynx, which have longer legs and bigger, snowshoe-like feet. But over time, the smaller bobcat has adjusted to varying food and habitat conditions, surviving as more of a generalist in areas where the lynx cannot. As the climate changes and snow levels recede, the survivalist bobcat may take on territory and ranges once inhabited by the lynx.
The bobcat’s curious nature often leads it into traps, says Brian Kertson, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) carnivore specialist and researcher. In a cage trap set to catch a cougar for radio-collaring, he often finds a bobcat feeding on a free meal. Using a stick, he coaxes the bobcat out of the trap and resets it for the cougar. “The bobcat is full of piss and vinegar,” he says, “and not easily discouraged from traps.”
Bobcats spend the day sleeping in secluded hollow logs, stumps or brush piles, avoiding contact with other mammals, being solitary and unsociable. As I saw, they climb trees with ease when inadvertently disturbed.
Continuing up the trail, we quietly left the bobcat to return to its daytime sleeping spot, huddled inside the roots of that old spruce tree, awaiting dusk to search for a nighttime meal.
Finding a bobcat to experience an encounter like this is a long shot. But this winter, no matter the weather, take a long walk on a forgotten trail along the forest fringe, and don’t be surprised if a bobcat finds you first.
To learn more about bobcats in Washington, see http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/bobcats.html