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Bobcats

Bobcats Foraging

Bobcats are active all winter, particularly at dawn and dusk, when their primary prey (hares and cottontails) are active.  Mice and voles are also a significant part of their diet, and occasionally larger-bodied male Bobcats successfully prey on White-tailed Deer.  The pictured tracks reveal that while foraging for food, a Bobcat discovered the remains of a Porcupine that had been killed and skinned by a Fisher.

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Photo Op Alerts

Over the years I have discovered and photographed most of my blog post subjects, but every once in a while someone lets me know about something out of the ordinary that they think I might be interested in photographing.  (Scattered flying squirrel tails, black bear dens, red fox litters and nesting birds come to mind.)  I am immediately on the road if it is something that I think might make a great post (and might possibly still be there by the time I arrive).  Distance and subject matter are heavily weighed before causing my car to contribute even more to greenhouse gas emissions…however, anyone who would drive 2 ½ hours to photograph a Monkey Slug has obviously contributed to climate change.

When I have had the opportunity to photograph something because of someone’s generosity in sharing the subject and location with me, you will see “Thanks to ___ for photo op (opportunity)” at the end of the post.  I am eternally grateful to anyone who thinks of me and takes the time to let me know about something noteworthy.  It doesn’t have to be something as earth-shattering as mt. lion tracks, for instance – kill sites, animal beds and caches, otter slides – anything that isn’t too commonplace and tells a story will have me at your doorstep.  To contact me please call 802-279-2330 and leave a message if I don’t answer. I am located in Hartland, VT (just south of White River Junction) and unless it actually is a mt. lion track sighting or something equally rare or that I’ve never seen, I probably won’t be tempted to drive more than a couple of hours. Thank you so much! (Photo: White-tailed Deer cached by and then dug up and eaten by a Bobcat.  Thanks to Otto Wurzburg for photo op.)

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Red Squirrels Caching Food For Winter

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Both carnivores and herbivores cache, or store, food for later consumption. Black-capped Chickadees tuck seeds into bark crevices. Bobcats may cover their kills with leaves, grass, snow and even hair from their prey’s carcass. Grey Squirrels bury their nuts individually, while Red Squirrels often hide green cones in a pile of cone scales (middens) that accumulate at the site where the squirrels have previously eaten seeds, keeping the young cones moist so that they will retain the seeds within them.

Red Squirrels sometimes go one step further than most animals that cache food — they frequently preserve their food by drying it before storing it.  You’ll recognize this when you see it – an apple or mushroom stuck in the crotch of two branches. Sometimes the dried food is collected and cached near their winter quarters, but often it remains lodged in tree branches until eaten.  The pictured mushroom, which was hung out to dry, was reduced almost to mush by the torrential rains we’ve had lately. Eventually it will dry out and remain edible into the winter.

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Tracking Bobcats

3-27-17 bobcat tracks IMG_1846Stella, our recent Nor’easter, extended the window snow provides into the lives of our four-footed neighbors, so we are privy to their comings and goings for a few more days, at least. February and March are prime breeding season for many creatures, among them the Bobcat. Males are polygynous – they mate with as many receptive females as they can find – and so they are on the move, leaving tracks in the snow. Prior to mating, a pair of Bobcats spends a considerable amount of time running, playing, and hunting together, so finding tracks of two Bobcats is not that unusual this time of year.

Usually four of a Bobcat’s five toes make an impression. They are asymmetrically arranged and oval or tear-drop in shape. The leading edge of the heel impression is two-lobed, while the bottom edge is three-lobed. In deep snow, or when stalking or walking on a muddy surface, a Bobcat’s tracks will show a “direct register,” with the hind feet placed directly in the impressions made by the front feet, leaving a relatively straight trail of single tracks (see photo).

Many tracking books state that dog tracks have nail marks and that cat tracks lack them. While this is true a majority of the time, this is not always the case for either group. If a cat’s nails do happen to register, they will make a narrow slit mark in snow or mud, whereas dog nails are wider and more blunt.

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Bobcats Courting & Mating

2-23-17-roger-irwins-bobcatBobcats are active at dawn and dusk, when their primary prey, rabbits and hares, are active.  However, they are very secretive and you are more likely to come across their signs than  bobcats themselves, especially at this time of year. January and February are the peak of Bobcat mating season, and females are busy rubbing their cheeks and bodies on scent posts, as well as marking their territory with urine. They also partake in yowling quite frequently, all of which enable male bobcats to readily locate females.

As a male approaches a female, he is either warmly welcomed or aggressively fought off, depending on her state of receptivity. Once she’s receptive, she becomes quite vocal, arches her back and circles around the male. Play-like behavior follows, with the pair throwing themselves at and chasing each other. Eventually mating takes place, lasting only about five minutes.  Bobcats compensate for the brevity of their mating with the frequency with which they engage in it (up to 16 times a day for several days). When copulation ceases, males disappear and play no part in raising their young. (Source: Behavior of North American Mammals, by Elbroch and Rinehart) (Thanks to Roger Irwin, wildlife photographer, for the use of his photo. You may visit his gallery at www.rogerirwinphotos.com)

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Great Horned Owls & Striped Skunks

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Striped Skunks do have predators other than Great Horned Owls (bobcats, foxes and coyotes-fishers have been known to prey on skunks, but very infrequently), but these predators have to be pretty desperate before they will prey on a skunk.  Automobiles and disease kill more skunks than all of their predators put together, but Great Horned Owls have the distinction of being the primary predator of Striped Skunks.

Being a nocturnal hunter, a Great Horned Owl necessarily consumes prey which are nocturnal. Striped Skunks are active at night and are consumed by Great Horned Owls with regularity, even though a skunk can weigh up to three times as much as a Great Horned Owl (average GHO weighs a little over 3 pounds) and has a potent way of defending itself.

For many years scientists assumed that birds had a poor sense of smell because the area of a bird’s brain involved in smell is relatively small compared with the area found in mammals.  However, recent research reveals that birds have a high number of active genes that are associated with smell, and many species may have an excellent sense of smell.  It’s fairly safe to assume, however, from its consumption of skunks, that the Great Horned Owl’s sense of smell is not very well developed. In addition, if a skunk sprays, much of the odor is absorbed by the Great Horned Owl’s leg feathers, which extend down to its talons.

A favorite memory of mine is walking through a field at dusk and suddenly noticing a strong skunk-like smell coming from above, not below, me. A Great Horned Owl silently flew overhead, with only the tell-tale smell of a recently-captured skunk announcing its presence.

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Check Cat Tracks Twice

1-27-17-bobcat-tracks2-024These feline tracks were found in central Vermont. The position of the four toes (front two not aligned side by side like canids), lack of nail marks, three lobes on hind edge of heel pad, and the overall shape of the tracks (more round than oval) confirm that they were made by a member of the cat family. The size of the tracks (2 ½” long, 2 1/4″ wide) falls right in between those of a Bobcat (1 ½” long, 1 3/8″ wide) and a Mt. Lion (3 ½” long, 4″ wide). The observer of the animal that left these tracks was confident that its overall shape, size, color and long tail were those of a young Mt. Lion.

There have been confirmed (DNA from scat, tracks) signs of these large cats in recent years in New England, as well as the body of a road-killed male Mt. Lion (Connecticut, 2011). DNA testing found that the animal was from South Dakota. Males seem to be moving into the Northeast, but a breeding population has yet to be established according to most biologists.

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Using All Your Senses

1-26-17-deer-urine-049a2725Many wild animals are nocturnal or crepuscular, limiting our chances of firsthand observation of them. Those of us curious to learn more about their lives take advantage of whatever signs these elusive animals leave. In winter, evidence of their presence in the form of tracks and scat can tell us not only their identity, but their diet, direction of travel, size, etc. Beds, kill sites and signs of feeding also provide crucial information. There is one more sign that is often overlooked and under-utilized for identification purposes, and that is the scent of an animal’s urine.

Not everyone will necessarily wish to add this identification tool to their arsenal of naturally curious skills, but for those willing, scent-detection can be extremely useful, especially if conditions for tracking are poor, or if scat is not found. Not only is the scent of a species’ urine distinctive, it can often be detected at a distance. At this time of year (breeding season) red fox urine can easily be mistaken for striped skunk spray. Porcupine urine is strong and distinctive, but hard to describe. Once you’re familiar with it, it can guide you to the location of a den. Coyote urine is very dog-like; bobcat very cat-like. Surprisingly agreeable is the pine-like scent of White-tailed Deer urine (pictured).

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Porcupine Preyed Upon By Coyotes

2-15-16 dead porcupine  086Coyote tracks from several directions coalesced in a spot where the frozen skin of a porcupine lay. There was not one morsel of flesh, and next to no bone, left inside the skin, which had partially been turned inside out.  Inspection of the porcupine’s head confirmed the likelihood that coyotes were responsible, as fishers, notable porcupine predators, kill their prey by repeatedly attacking a porcupine’s head, and the head of this porcupine was unscathed (see insert). The only other possible predators would be a bobcat or a great horned owl, and there were no signs of either present. While it is possible that the porcupine died a natural death and opportunistic coyotes took advantage of an easy meal, it appeared to be in good condition, and thus it is equally or more likely that coyotes succeeded in gaining access to the porcupine’s vulnerable, quill-less belly, and successfully attacked and ate it.

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Further Cat Track Identification Tool

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Cat Track Clarification

e-tape and tracks 105I knew this post might stir up some controversy, but it far exceeded my expectations! I did take photos of the tracks with a tape measure, but they weren’t as clear as the one I chose to use for the post. Pictured here is the clearest measured track photo. With a bit of work, using the tape as a reference, one can see that the individual tracks measure roughly 2 ¼ “ wide by 2 ¼” long. ADULT cougar tracks = 2 ¾” – 3 7/8” L x 2 7/8” – 4 7/8” W. Remember that the person who saw this cat was definite about it being a JUVENILE cougar, judging from its size. Bobcat tracks = 1 5/8” – 2 ½” L x 1 3/8” – 2 5/8” W. House cat tracks (unlike the bobcat, house cats have a long tail, so might be more likely to be mistaken for a cougar?) = 1” – 1 5/8” L x 7/8” – 1 ¾ “W. These measurements rule out a house cat. They are within the range of a juvenile cougar or adult bobcat track, but only the cougar has a long tail (observed by eye witness). In addition, the stride (defined here as a measurement taken from the heel of one footprint to the heel of the same foot in the next footprint) of this cat was roughly 32″. An adult cougar’s stride is 32″ – 44″. A bobcat’s stride is 22″ – 26″. Skeptics are welcome to believe it was a bobcat. I trust my friend’s eyesight and the tape measure enough to believe it was a cougar. Many thanks for your engagement and comments!

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A Bobcat’s White-tailed Deer Cache

1-21-15  bobcat2 cache by Otto Wurzburg 009 (3)Rabbits and hares comprise much of a Bobcat’s diet, but when prey is scarce or hard to capture, adult male or sometimes large adult female Bobcats will attack bedded, weak or injured adult White-tailed Deer. Bobcats often cache prey (such as a deer) that is too large to eat in one feeding, returning to feed on it for an extended period of time. They scrape up leaves, bark, twigs, soil. snow – whatever is available – and cover their prey. When feeding on a deer, Bobcats bite away the hair to avoid eating it, and this discarded hair is frequently mixed with the debris that the cat drags over the kill to cover it (see main photo – taken the day after the deer was cached), or is left windblown around the carcass. A characteristic sign of Bobcat feeding is the amount of hair strewn around the carcass and the lack of broken long bones (Bobcats don’t have the strength to break them with their teeth).

Typically a Bobcat rests near its cache to protect it, but it doesn’t take long for other animals to detect and take advantage of an easy meal. Within three days of this deer being cached, Coyotes and Common Ravens had discovered it, and both they and the Bobcat had eaten enough of it to expose the deer’s rib cage (see insert).

Other predators that occasionally cache and cover their kills include Mountain Lions, Black Bears and Fishers. Large caches found in the winter in the Northeast are likely to belong to a Bobcat or Fisher (Fishers typically cache and feed on deer that they find as carrion).

(Cache discovered by Lynn & Otto Wurzburg, who observed the Bobcat leaving after caching the deer; photograph by Lynn Wurzburg)

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The Effects of An Icy Crust on Wildlife

1-19-15  ruffed grouse snow cave IMG_8590This winter has brought us several storms that have ended in rain and were followed by plummeting temperatures. Just a few inches down into the powdery snow on top of the ground there is a ¼”-thick crust, and if you dig down several more inches, there is a second layer of ice, roughly 1/8”-thick. When a thick, icy layer of crust forms, it can have a dramatic effect on the lives of wildlife both above and below it.

Some animals are relatively unaffected by the presence of a crust but many predators and prey are significantly helped or hindered by it. Ruffed grouse cannot seek overnight shelter from the bitter cold and/or predators by diving into a foot of soft snow and creating a snow cave (see photo). On the other hand, small rodents have a distinct advantage — mice and voles have several layers of ice between themselves and hungry coyotes, foxes and owls. Snowshoe hares lose the advantage they usually have on deep, soft snow — “snowshoes” that keep them on top of the snow when the bobcat or fisher chasing them has to flounder through it. Turkeys don’t have the strength to dig down through one thick crust, much less two or more, in order to reach hidden acorns. If a deer is being chased, its pointed hooves will break through the crust, slowing the deer down, whereas the crust may well support a lighter predator, allowing it to outrun the deer. Red squirrels have to work much harder to reach their cached winter cones and to create tunnels.

What is a mere inconvenience to us humans literally is costing as well as saving the lives of wildlife this winter.

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Snowshoe Hare Succumbs to Avian Predator

1-14-15 snowshoe hare kill site 076The drama that goes on in our woodlands is never-ending, and winter provides us with a window into life and death scenarios. One of the most sought-after prey animals in northern New England is the snowshoe hare. Bobcats, lynxes, coyotes, foxes and fishers are some of the mammalian predators of this lagomorph. In this particular case, however, the predator had wings (determined by wing imprints in the snow and lack of tracks). While great horned owls do prey on hares, there was a tell-tale sign that it was a hawk, not an owl, which produced this pile of fur and bones. If you look to the upper left of the photograph, and to the upper right, you will see lengthy curved lines of bird droppings, or sprays, that were left by the predator as it plucked its prey. Because it was ejected forcibly, and didn’t just drop down on the snow where the bird was situated, the scat leads one to the conclusion that it was a hawk, not an owl, which deposited it. A woodland accipiter capable of capturing a snowshoe hare after an extensive chase, which this was, is the northern goshawk. (Thanks to Nicole Cormen for photo op.)

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Ruffed Grouse on Nests

ruffed grouse on nest  020A Ruffed Grouse’s nest is pretty basic – just a shallow bowl on the forest floor, created by the hen grouse tossing leaves over her shoulder and having them fall on her back, slip down to the ground and form a bowl. Ruffed Grouse lay anywhere from 9 to 14 eggs at intervals of 25 to 30 hours, which means it takes about two weeks for a hen to lay an average clutch of 11 eggs. Each of her eggs weighs about 4 percent of her body weight — the entire clutch will be equal to about half of her weight. Once incubation starts (when the last egg is laid) the hen’s behavior goes from wandering around and feeding voraciously, to sitting on the nest and barely moving. Because of this behavior, as well as her cryptic coloration, an incubating Ruffed Grouse hen is much more likely to see you before you see her. She will stay motionless on her nest, even in the face of danger, hiding her eggs. Once she is certain she has been spotted, she will fly off the nest, exposing her eggs. Foxes, crows, ravens, chipmunks, skunks, bobcats and raccoons are some of the predators responsible for the loss of 25% – 40% of grouse nests each year. After the precocial Ruffed Grouse chicks hatch during the first two weeks of June, they will be led away from the nest site by the hen. Within 24 hours they will be feeding on insects and within a week they may double their weight! (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo op.)

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Canada Lynx “Snowshoes”

12-16-13 lynx & bobcat feet IMG_3811Bobcats and Canada Lynx are in the same genus, and are roughly the same size (averaging 15 to 35 pounds), with Bobcats usually weighing a bit more than Lynx. The size of their feet is vastly different, however, and not proportional to their relative weights. A Lynx has much larger feet and longer legs than a Bobcat. Its range extends further north, which means it must be well equipped to deal with snow much of the year. A Lynx has big, furry paws, and when its feet land the toes spread way out. Both of these adaptations help a Lynx’s feet act like snowshoes, helping it to chase down food in the winter. Much of the time, this food consists of Snowshoe Hares –anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of the diet of Lynx is made up of hares. The soles of Snowshoe Hare feet are also well-furred, particularly in winter, enabling them to run on soft, deep snow without sinking in very far. Because Snowshoe Hares are extremely fast and agile (reaching speeds of 30 mph and jumping 12 feet in a single bound), the feet of any serious predator must also be well adapted to traveling on snow.

Note: Bobcat sightings are much more frequent than Lynx in northern New England (the southern tip of the Lynx’s range) but breeding populations of Lynx have been documented in the last two years in the boreal forests of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

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Striped Skunk Predators

2-8-13 skunk prey-david putnam005 (2)At first glance, this looks like any other kill site, but if you look closely at the hairs, you’ll see that it was a striped skunk that was preyed upon – a rare find, for two reasons. One is that striped skunks spend most of the winter holed up and only amble out during warm spells (which we had recently). Their mating season is also about to begin. The second reason that this find is unusual is that skunks have very few predators, for obvious reasons. Great horned owls and occasionally a coyote, fox or bobcat will risk being sprayed. In this case, tracks were not evident by the time it was discovered. Initially the lack of anything other than hair suggested that the predator was a mammal which carried off the skunk (great horned owls usually eat at the kill site). However, it turns out that the absence of bones, etc. doesn’t actually rule out an owl. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, occasionally when a great horned owl kills more prey than it can eat, it caches the remains for later use. When in need of food, the owl will incubate frozen prey until it thaws and can be eaten. (Discovery and photo by David Putnam.)


Bobcat Kill Site

1-21-13 bobcat kill3 IMG_1888Tracking has its rewards, and when you’re following a predator, one of them is to come upon a site where the predator captured prey. After snowshoeing up and down forested Vermont hills following fresh bobcat tracks, I decided that bobcats don’t always mark their territory as often as I had thought, for this bobcat had not paused, nor stopped to spray urine or defecate the entire time I followed it. Eventually, however, on top of a knoll, it sat down behind a tree. There were marks in the snow that indicated that it had gotten up and then leaped down the slope, sliding several feet when it landed and then pounced on a red squirrel. All that was left of this woodland high drama, in addition to bobcat tracks and blood, was a piece of the squirrel’s tail, some squirrel scat and part of the squirrel’s stomach. If you look carefully, you can see where the bobcat sat (bottom of photo) while it enjoyed its meal.


Bobcat Tracks

1-11-13 bobcat tracks IMG_0550Other than perhaps finding lynx or mountain lion tracks, coming upon bobcat tracks is one of the more exciting discoveries one can make in the woods of New England. Because of their shy and elusive nature, bobcats are rarely seen, but in the right habitat, their tracks can be found. When walking, their front foot picks up before their rear foot touches down. Sometimes bobcats direct register – their hind foot is placed exactly where their front foot has been — while at other times, such as in this photograph, the bobcat’s hind foot touches down beyond where the front foot has been (this is called an overstep). When a bobcat has been walking with an overstep, a close look allows you to see that the bobcat’s hind foot track is more elongated and symmetrical than its front foot track. Because bobcat numbers are increasing in New England, your chances of coming upon their tracks are as high as they have been in the past 50 years. (Thanks to Alfred Balch, tracker extraordinaire, for locating the tracks in this post.)