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Posts Tagged ‘bobcat’

bobcat tracks ocala national forest

We came to the forest to run the dogs. Many days of hard driving down the East Coast had made them edgy, so we left the wild road of I-95 at Ormond Beach and slipped down through the land of the pine and the scrub until we entered the Ocala National Forest.

Eyes peeled for these little sand roads that cut off into the scrub and pine, we knew it would just be a matter of time before the hounds and German shepherd were racing as wild beasts of the field once again.

We found just such a road, and though I had never driven on such sand and dolomite before, I eased my way into this bit of preserved Florida Wilderness. The dogs were loosed. No one would care. Locals run their dogs on these roads every day, and it would be good for me to stretch my legs as well.

So the dogs tore down the road. My eyes were peeled for wildlife, but the general rule is one doesn’t typically see much wildlife when a pack of dogs is frolicking about. These were once the haunts of the Florida black wolf, a melanistic form that ran the swamps and pine and palmetto scrub and was extirpated from the peninsula to protect growing cattle interests. It had to have been a hardy creature to put up with all that disgusting heat and worminess of such a land.

But even with it gone, most wildlife would have retained some instinctive fear of large canids, which would be reinforced with the advance of coyotes deeper and deeper into the Southland.

So I went to look for a bit of wildness, but I guessed I would see nothing. Where Poet the whippet ran down one sandhill, I thought I glanced at some bobcat tracks. I told myself that I’d merely mistaken whippet racks for those of a large cat. I was getting rusty as a naturalist anyway, and my brain was likely to make me see things that simply were not there.

We ran the dogs up and down the road. Whooping and shouting like foxhunters calling to their hounds on a distant ridge in West Virginia on a starry December night.

And it was as we turned that Jenna spied the tracks, her eyes flew wide.

“What kind of tracks are those?”

“Bobcat.”

And they certainly were. The cat that had left them had to have been a fairly large tom, and judging by the ATV tracks that skirted down the road around them, he had been there that morning, crossing from one set of palmetto scrub to another.

My eyes followed the bobcat tracks on the dolomite and sand road. I spied turkey tracks coming the opposite direction. The two species had crossed paths, though they did not meet in the road.  There was no sign of a struggle in the tracks.

I guessed the bobcat had gone out across the road to go do a bit of turkey stalking. Maybe he’d jumped this turkey, which was also a fair-sized tom, and it had realized that it needed to cross the road, where no fanged and clawed beasts were lurking.

bobcat and turkey tracks ocala national forest

This part of Florida is still essentially wild. The national forest merely keeps it way by the law, but all around there is wooded country.  The people who live in the little towns around the forest choose to live in Florida’s subtropical rusticity. This is not Miami or Orlando.  This is a wild country. Signs along the road warn you of bears crossing the highway, and yes, I would have loved to have seen a Florida black bear.

I didn’t though, but it was enough romance for me to know that they were there, loping around the scrub and pines with the big flocks of wild turkeys and stalking bobcats.

Florida does not draw attention to its wilderness. It advertises its beaches, its urban scenes, and its amusement parks.

But wild places still exist. They just must be encountered, usually with the help of someone with local knowledge.

And yes, I urge travelers to take the jay-off of I-95 and take the country road into the Ocala National Forest. The kids might want to see the cartoon princesses, but you can show them a real enchanted forest.

If I had seen such a place when I first traveled to Florida as a kid, I think I would have such a different impression of the place. I certainly have one now.

Yes, it’s the land of urban sprawl and wild real estate speculation, but it is also a land of bears and bobcats and swaying palmettos in the March breeze.

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canada lynx

North America has two species of lynx, the widespread bobcat (Lynx rufus) and the boreal-adapted Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis). The two species do have some range overlap across the northern-tier of states, and when Canada lynx ranged down the Appalachians, their range overlapped much more extensively.

These two animals behave quite differently from each other. The bobcat is a generalist predator that hunts everything from mice and voles up to white-tailed deer, while the Canada lynx specializes in hunting snowshoe hares.

The bobcat is found in Mexico and throughout the southeast, especially in Florida.  Those southernmost bobcats are often not much larger than domestic cats, but the biggest bobcats, which are found in the Great Lakes states, are actually larger than Canada lynx.

It is well-known that bobcats and Canada lynx do hybridize. Hybrids have been produced in captivity, and hybrids have been encountered in Maine, New Brunswick, and Minnesota.  These hybrids are apparently fully fertile, which leads to the question of how much the two species really do hybridize.

A group of researchers looked into a big sample of bobcats and Canada lynx that came from across the continent. Of the 2,851 cats sampled, only 7 had any evidence of introgression from one species to the other.

This finding shows that bobcats and Canada lynx do hybridize, but it is virtually unknown in the wild. The authors caution that if Canada lynx numbers ever become low, bobcat introgression could swamp the genetics of that population, effectively making the species disappear through hybridization.

This finding is quite different from what has been discovered with gray wolves and coyotes. Gray wolves and coyotes have apparently exchanged genes across North America, and animals of mixed coyote and gray wolf genetics are pretty common.

Because we don’t have evidence of a hybrid swarm, which we do with wolves and coyotes, we have very good evidence to consider bobcats and Canada lynx quite distinct species.  And conversely, it is within reason to question the validity of coyotes and gray wolves as being distinct species

I would love to see a similar study to the genome comparisons performed on gray wolves, coyotes, and admixed canid populations in North america performed on Canada lynx and bobcats. My guess is that there will be some evidence of very limited hybridization between the two species, but it will not be like coyotes and gray wolves.

We don’t have a good handle on when bobcats and Canada lynx last shared a common ancestor. We need some more genomic data to make this claim, but what we know now is that Canada lynx and modern Eurasian and Iberian lynx are sister taxa.

The bobcat is thought to be more basal to the lineage.  Lynx species have been roaming North America since the Pliocene. Indeed, the earliest lynx fossils were found in North America, not Africa, as we previously believed.

The bobcat evolved in North America. It is the last survivor of the endemic North American lynx that gave rise to the other species in Eurasia, while the Canada lynx came back from that ancestral Eurasian lynx population some 200,000 years ago. 

These animals have likely been distinct from each other for a very long time, but they have not yet lost chemical interfertility. It will likely be a while before this happens, but if climate change continues to threat Canada lynx populations, the bobcat will move north into their range and hybridization could become a threat.

So stay tuned to see what happens, but the genetic data clearly show that bobcats and Canada lynx are two distinct species that do rarely hybridize.

 

 

 

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Beagling in the Briers



November loomed over into December.  The great blood-letting known as deer season reached its peak. The big guns now fell silent, and the beaglers strolled out with for a bit of sport before Christmas.

Davy Mitchell ran two beagles, an old lemon-and-white bitch named Yeller and young tricolor named Clint. Clint was a three quarters beagle, one quarter running Walker foxhound, and he was big and rangy for a beagle. And by West Virginia standards, he was a beagle and not a mutt, though he had no papers of any kind. Clint’s eyes were light and wild-looking, almost like a coyote’s, but his nose was pure and true. When he gave tongue on the quest of the rabbit trail, it sang out like a bell ringing from some medieval cathedral, dark and melodious to the point that one would expect to hear a Gregorian chant to come wafting in the breeze as the hound let loose his spoor call. 

By contrast, Yeller had some AKC papers, and for 11 winters, she’d winded her way through the brier patches. The cottontails bolted before her screaming cries, and the shotguns did their job. The reward was simple:  Rabbit in the crock pot, or rabbit fried in ginger ale batter for the master, and rabbit hearts and offal for the hounds.

The ancient rite of man hunting with dog, exercised out on these little Anglo-Norman hounds on thorny ridge-tops on what was once the hinterlands of the British Empire.  The quarry was not the nobleman’s warren rabbits but the true wild Eastern cottontail, which scorns the digging of dens and drops its kits in fur-lined form in the tall grass every spring. 

By the time late autumn finally loomed into winter, the trees and briers were all denuded of leaves, and the red-tailed hawks and foxes had already picked off all the stupid young rabbits of the year. All that remained were the wiry ones that knew how to hide and draw themselves in close while the predators searched hard for a bit of rabbit meat.

Davy went abroad with his brace of hill-beagles.  A long day had been spent at the feed store, selling out what straw and chicken feed the patrons, but by early afternoon, he closed shop, drove home to his manse, and wandered back to his dog yard to gather the brace and head for brierlands. 

In the true South and in Kentucky, beagles are run in packs on rabbits. The dogs usually don’t live together, but every hunt, a bunch of friends get together and run their dogs in a big cluster of screaming cries. And they shoot with caution and comradeship, as if they were hunting bobwhites behind setters, for this is a social event par excellence and not the mere pursuit of the coney by gun and hound.

In West Virginia, though, the beagler is almost monastic at his level of solitude. He often goes alone with a brace or two of his not particularly thoroughbred rabbit dogs, and he goes seeking meat in the last few honey holes of rabbitdom that can still be found in the overgrowing farmlands.

And that was the quest that Davy Mitchell was doing. It was a short December afternoon’s hunting with the good dogs, and all the company he would have were their wagging tails and baying cries and his own solitary thoughts about the world and life and how it should be.

The hounds did their job well that evening. Yeller jumped the first rabbit, a svelte young buck that gave the dogs a good run before the shotgun wad ended his wild chase. The next two were Clint’s to rise, and the strapping young hound bayed with his melodies as the rabbits ran their escape circle through the brush.

Three rabbits were now in Davy’s game bag. Two more would limit him out for the day. Three were a fine meal, but he wanted to give the dogs their sport before he put them away for the night.

The two hounds worked the brier patches. The scent of rabbit wafted through their noses, but no hot scent caught their attention.

The final rays of evening light began to cast upon the gray woods. A barred owl, out early for a bit of mousing or rabbiting as the situation occasioned, sailed over the brier fields. The long December night was in the offing.

The hounds still worked the coverts. They jumped on old fox squirrel, which scurried an dead and decaying red oak to squack out its warnings and its curses. The dogs ignored this distraction, though Clint did feel sorely tempted.

Baying hounds tend to scare off all game. Not a deer stirred from its bedding site, while the hounds worked the land.

But lying still as a stone in in the rocky cleft of a boulder was a big tom bobcat.  He had heard the baying hounds, but he had just eaten a big fill of venison from a gut shot fawn. He bet that the dogs would move on as the evening drew in, but as he rested, the sound of dog feet on briers grew louder and louder.

Clint caught the cat’s scent as he quartered downwind of the rocks. The hound let loose a growl and backed up from his startle. He barked and hackled up. Yeller rushed to her colleague’s side, and she, too, caught scent of the great cat.

The two dogs barked and then began baying like diminutive coonhounds, ad the bobcat tom rose from the cleft and stood on the high boulder, growling and glowering at the dogs that dared rouse him from his slumber. 

It was at that point that Davy approached the din. He glanced toward the boulder, and when his eyes came into focus at the big bobcat, man and cat found each other staring other’s eyes. They were thirty feet apart, and a mutual sense of terror combined with fascination crossed their minds.

Davy had never seen a bobcat up close, and the tom had never seen a man so close to him before. The two beings sized each other up. The sound of hound cries became totally mute. They stared at each other as if they were the only two entities upon the planet

For nearly 90 seconds they were paralyzed in that odd ecstasy of curiosity, but then the cat realized the potential peril of his situation. He gathered up his courage and leaped from the boulder, and then before the hounds could realize what was happening, he leaped again, hitting a favorite game trail that took him away from the brier lands and back into the big woods.

The two beagles raced wildly down the trail, but then they got too nervous in their advance into the big woods and turned to run back towards their master.

They came upon Davy just as the darkness fell upon the land. The rubbery soft hooting of a great horned owl rose from the big woods. A red fox barked out on a distant ridge, and both hounds danced around their beloved master. 

They had had their sport of their day, running the rabbits hard and then rousing this monster cat.  They were had done their running and singing for the day, and they were alive after their adventure. 

Yeller was particularly alive and bouncing. She was no longer the old lemon beagle that had jumped the first rabbit of the day. She was a true hound of Anglo-Norman splendor, standing tall on her beagle legs, a beast of the hunt, a beast of prey, now fully actualized and alive in this December twilight.

Davy smiled and stroked her ears. This was why he was a beagler. He felt that primal connection to the hunting dog that brings the man, the domestic beast, and the quarry into a communion. Thousands of years ago, the quarry was reindeer and wild horses, and the bobcat resting in the cleft of a boulder was a cave lion or a homotherium.

This rabbit chase in the briers was only slightly ersatz, for although lacking that wild glory of yore, it was still a greater experience than most men and dogs experience in their lifetimes.

The lives of dogs and humans is much removed from what we once were but in truth always are. We are still predatory, but our lives demand us to live so differently.

But the wild cries of hounds on the hunt still drive a few of us to wander behind them, letting them work their noses and tongues, and waiting to see what they might jump.

And the quest goes on, even as the world moves away from that organic and primal sort of existence and towards our own digitized epoch. 

From the woods and mud our kind sprang, and some of us go back to it, hounds scenting for a piece of the Eden in our minds that we know is there but can never find.

But it never stops the hunt. 

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A bobcat takes off after smelling where coyotes have been:

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Halloween kitty

Bobcat came by last night, very appropriate for the holiday.

Source.

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The last flame of autumn:

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(I don’t know why he went into eclipse! He’s too young!)

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Bobcat track. You’ve already seen the bobcat, though:

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Quaking aspens against a blue sky:

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Wild turkeys trying to hide:

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Bobcat video

This is the best ever footage I’ve been able to get of a bobcat on a trail camera:

Source.

The last time I got video of a bobcat, it was on the Primos Workhorse, and that thing made so much noise and made too much of a show with its red lights for the cat to stick around.

But with a quieter, less ostentatious camera, I was able to get some decent video of a bobcat coming into some chicken livers in a ditch, including a closeup at the end.

This one has a very lionesque profile.

The are really beautiful animals. I’m amazed that the camera was able to pick up the spots on its legs. Our bobcats aren’t as heavily spotted as those in Western states. Ours actually turn mostly gray as winter approaches, then turn tawny again in the summer, just like white-tailed deer.

I’ve been wanting to get a video like this for a long time. I’m glad I did the camera upgrade!

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