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Posts Tagged ‘bobcat’

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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bobcat painting

The British zoologist Richard Lydekker writes in The Great And Small Game Of Europe, Western & Northern Asia And America: Their Distribution, Habits, And Structure (1901):

For accurate information regarding this lynx (which was first named by the German naturalist Guldenstadt in the year 1777) and its numerous local races we are entirely dependent upon the writings of modern American naturalists, there being no series of specimens in England sufficiently large to admit of an independent opinion being formed with regard to certain disputed points. By some English writers, notably the late Professor St. George Mivart, the red lynx was regarded as nothing more than a local phase of the common lynx; but this view has been shown by Mr. Outram Bangs to be quite untenable, the skulls of the common and the red lynx being easily distinguishable by certain characters of the hinder part of the palate. To point out the details of this difference in a work of the present nature would obviously be out of place, and the reader must accordingly be content with the fact that such differences do exist. So important, indeed, are these differences considered by the gentle man mentioned, that he refers the common lynx to one subgenus, under the name of Lynx, while he separates the red lynx as a distinct subgeneric group with the title of Cervaria. Mr. Bangs l also considers that the red lynxes of eastern North America are specifically distinct from those of the western side of the continent, regarding the former as the true Lynx rufa (or L. rufus, as, perpetuating an original typographical error, he prefers to spell it), while the latter are assigned to Lynx fasciatus of Rafinesque. He also separates the Florida and the Texas red lynxes as a third species of Cervaria, and the Nova Scotian representative of this type as a fourth. The differences relied upon seem to be chiefly connected with the skull and bodily form. But the possibility of intergradation between these three groups is suggested; and even if this prove not to be the case, they are evidently so closely allied that, in the opinion of the present writer, they seem best regarded as local races, or phases, of a single widely spread and variable specific type. This is indeed the view of Mr. F. W. True, who writes as follows : — “The spotted form of the bay lynx, found in Texas, and the banded form, found in Oregon and Washington, have been described as separate species, under the names Lynx maculatus and Lynx fasciatus. They are now generally regarded as geographical races of the bay lynx.”

According to Mr. Bangs, the red lynx, in addition to the peculiarities of the palatal aspect of the skull already referred to, differs from the common lynx by the smaller relative size of the feet (which is most marked in the Florida race), the larger area of the bare pads on the soles of the feet, the somewhat longer tail, and the shorter pencils of hair surmounting the tips of the ears. The fur, too, is shorter and closer. In the skull the upper jaw-bone, or maxilla, forms a junction of considerable length with the nasal on each side, instead of being nearly or completely cut off from the latter; the auditory bulla on the lower surface of the skull is deeper and longer; and the whole skull is narrower, especially in the region of the muzzle. As regards the teeth, the tusks are said to be stouter and the lower molar smaller than in the common lynx.

As is indicated by its scientific and popular names, this lynx, in the summer coat, is redder than the common species; this red tinge, which in winter is restricted to the flanks, making its appearance in the typical race about February. The backs of the ears are black, with a larger or smaller greyish triangular patch; the upper lip has a more or less conspicuous black mark, and the tip of the tail may be white, with several half-rings of black above, but in other cases is black. The amount of dark spotting and striping on the back varies in the different races.

In the proportionately longer tail, the shorter ear-pencils, and the relations of the maxillae to the nasal bones, the red lynx departs less widely from more typical representatives of the genus Felis, such as the jungle-cat, than does the common lynx. The present species is a more southerly type than the latter, ranging as far south as Mexico.

In habits this lynx is doubtless nearly if not precisely similar to the common species. By American sportsmen it is usually termed the wild cat. In severe weather, according to Mr. Herrick, it is often compelled to prey upon porcupines in order to secure a living, and not unfrequently [sic] pays for its rashness with its life, examples having been killed in which the head and throat were transfixed with porcupine-quills (pg. 408-409).

The terms “red lynx” or “bay lynx” are not commonly used now. Lydekker preferred to use the name “Lynx rufa,” but we’ve since moved to “Lynx rufus.”

I have a field guide that was published in the 90s that calls them Felis rufus, but we now classify the bobcat and the other three species of lynx in their own Lynx genus.

But it was confusing for nineteenth and early twentieth century naturalists. What made it confusing was the American colloquial name for the bobcat.  If you call it a bobcat or a “wildcat,” you’re sort of implying a relationship with the wildcats of the Old World. This is probably because in parts of the South, often aren’t much larger than domestic cat, and if you realize that there are bob-tailed domestics, then you’re already going to think of them as wildcats.

And when most people living in this part of the world came from Britain, which had been free of Eurasian lynx since at least around the year 400, and they had no concept of thinking of a bobcat as a smaller species of lynx. It was easier to think of it as a species of wildcat, when you have no concept of a lynx.

To make matters more confusing, bobcats vary greatly across their range. The largest individuals can weigh over 40 pounds, but the smallest are roughly the size of relatively large domestic cat. Some populations are known for their heavy spots, while others are almost entirely one color (except on the belly and legs).  Some naturalists were of the opinion that these cats represented different species, which we now discount entirely.

Right now, we recognize two species of lynx in North America: the bobcat and the Canada lynx. However, there were always attempts to make the Canada lynx part of the Eurasian species, and I’ve seen them referred to as a type of Lynx lynx rather than as Lynx canadensis. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. Canada lynx are snowshoe hare specialists, and they actually weigh less than the largest bobcats. Eurasian lynx, however, are quite large cats, much more closely resembling the large species of lynx which is the ancestor of them all. Eurasian lynx are generalist predators, much like giant bobcats.

But these three species are all chemically interfertile. The fourth species, the Iberian lynx, probably is as well, but it is so rare that no one would waste their genetic material with hybridization experiments. But I have seen attempts to put all of these cats into a single species, which almost universally leaves out the bobcat.

Strangely, the only two species of lynx that have been confirmed to interbreed in the wild are Canada lynx and bobcats. Eurasian lynx don’t live in North America, where they could interbreed with bobcats or Canada lynx, and there are no Eurasian lynx near the Iberian lynx’s range.

So to leave the bobcat out of the Lynx genus is pretty silly.

But it was so hard to classify them before we had a broader perspective on the cat family. There is no way you will ever get me to call a bobcat a “wildcat.”  I also think it may have been wiser to hold onto the red lynx name. “Bobcat’ might suggest we have deer-killing Manx in the forest!

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The tiger of the Allegheny jungle

Most of the Allegheny Plateau in West Virginia has been abandoned. Where once homesteaders grazed herds of cattle and flocks of sheep steep ridgetop pastures and grew corn and oats in rocky river bottom fields, the forest has returned. It is not the forest primeval that stood here when the first European came. Instead, it is the forest of relatively young trees that allow quite a bit of undergrowth to flourish. Everywhere there are edifices of autumn olive and strands of the multiflora rose that stretch out their thorny branches in wads and entanglements of organic barbed wire.

It is the closest thing to a temperate jungle that I can imagine. Even if the hills were cleared of brush, the land would be hard to traverse. Steep hillsides and narrow ravines dominate the topography, and if you have to negotiate the thorny bushes as well as watch where you put your feet, it is impossible to move easily through the country. The only respite are are these flattened out areas that are known as benches, where the oak trees grow tall and you can stand up without being totally lopsided.

But in these often impenetrable temperate jungles, there are plenty of wild beasts. When the land was intensively farmed and grazed, the main wildlife were bobwhites, rabbits, and red foxes. But as restored woodland, they are home to a growing populations of black bears, Eastern coyotes, wild turkeys, and white-tailed deer.

These animals are better hidden in the thickets, and the bears, deer, and turkeys are better fed with the acorns from red and white oaks.

A jungle can be fine with all these creatures roaming it, but what it really needs is a tiger.

Of course, the Americas have only one pantherine, and jaguars don’t live here.

There were once many cougars roaming this land, but they were soon killed off in the name of progress and civilization.

One cat remained, a diminutive lynx that we call the bobcat, but those in the true Southern Appalachians call “wildcats,” perhaps in confusion with the Scottish feline that is actually part of the same species as the domestic moggie.

Bobcats, like all other Lynx, descend from the Issoire lynx of Eurasia. This cat was large and robust, and it was more than capable of bringing down deer-sized prey. The modern Eurasian lynx is still a fairly large cat that hunts a lot of deer, and when the ancestral lynx came into North America, it was forced to become smaller in order to fit a new niche as a somewhat lesser cat.

The bobcat lineage has been in North America for around 2.6 million years. They’ve been the little cats that lived among the Smilodons, jaguars, and American lions. They lived as the secondary cat to the cougar when Europeans arrived.

They are survivors, and they do so because they are so elusive. I know some of my readers in the West see bobcats fairly regularly, but I have never seen one on the wild. The closest I ever came to one is when my dad hit one with a car while I was sitting in the backseat.

I see their tracks and bleached white scat in the woods, and I’ve been able to get bobcats on trail camera a few times.

But this week, I tried out a new camera that has low glow technology, and I got this photo of a bobcat standing right in front of the device.  It just sits there while the camera takes photos, and the last photo on the set is the cat turning to go back into the woods.

I’ve not been able to get anything like this with the older cameras. They make too much noise, and the red lights scare off the predators. Setting up flashing red lights that go all night are a common tool that is used to protect poultry from bobcats and foxes, so it makes sense that switching the technology would have a much better result.

This camera has been able to photograph an animal as elusive as a bobcat. This impresses me very much. It’s a Moultrie 1100i, a bit pricier than the models I’ve used before.

But if the results are this good, I wonder what else I’ll capture with it.

It finally got me a good image of this beast, the tiger of the Allegheny jungle. It returned to its lair in the thorny thickets and steep ravines.

Hooked claws and springing muscles and piercing canines are its living. Its squalls in the night air announce its savagery and its simple independence. It lives according to the edicts of meat and the edicts of bobcat behavior. It stands up to coyotes that dare to take its kills and bluffs off stupid dogs who think they’ve just encountered an overgrown barn cat.

It lives hissing and spitting and squalling.

Yet it does so with an elegance that can be seen only in the cat family.

If any beast met the West Virginia slogan of “wild and wonderful,” it is the bobcat.

The wild and wonderful tiger of the Allegheny jungles.

 

 

 

 

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