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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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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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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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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.)