Tuesday, January 30, 2007

NC bobcat sighting surprises and delights author

Stealthy animals more often heard than seen; still, keep eyes peeled

My husband and I got up early and headed out on our motorcycles. Our sunrise ride took us through some pretty countryside, by fields and forests and streams.

Any naturalist, hunter or farmer will tell you that the early morning hours are the best for wildlife viewing, and this morning was no exception. We saw many of the usual early risers -- deer and birds, among others -- but one animal was difficult to identify.

I rounded a curve, and for a split second, the animal stood at the side of the road. It immediately slipped away and disappeared into the thick underbrush. It was as big as a dog; but I noticed that it didn't move like a fox or a coyote.

As we rode, I wondered what I had just witnessed. I couldn't make sense of it. We were a long way down the road before I realized my luck. I had just seen a bobcat!

Bobcats live in every county in North Carolina -- ours included. Given adequate habitat, they don't mind being close to human activity; but they avoid the very densely populated areas. They are extremely secretive, clever and quick. It is rare to see one in the open.

They are also very difficult to track. The paw prints are about 2 inches in diameter -- about twice the size of your average house cat's. They show four toes and no claws, of course, as cats retract their claws when they walk.

You may hear a bobcat and not see it. Its growl is fearsome and sounds as if it were coming from an animal the size of a mountain lion.

In olden days, bobcats acquired nicknames like "woods ghost" and "lightning" and "ol' spitfire." The name "bobcat" probably refers to their short tails.

The bobcat's tail and its body are dark on top and white underneath. The tail is also tipped in white. Its thick fur is light brown or reddish brown in the summer and is sometimes grayer in the winter.

Bobcats aren't very big. They usually weigh between 15 and 20 pounds, but large males can weigh as much as 40. That's why it surprised me when I found out they will kill the occasional whitetail deer.

That is quite a feat of strength and tenacity. The bobcat will either stalk a deer where it sleeps or lie in wait along paths in the woods that are frequented by deer. The cat jumps on the deer's back and sinks its teeth into its prey's neck at the base of the skull. The deer may run and stagger and flail for some distance, trying to shake its attacker, before falling in exhaustion to its death.

A deer provides more meat than the bobcat can consume at one sitting, so it returns to the kill several times. The bobcat will often drag its prey to a more hidden spot and paw at the ground around the carcass in an attempt to cover it up. These scratch marks around a dead deer are a good indication of a bobcat kill.

Rabbits, squirrels and opossums, however, make up the larger percentage of a bobcat's diet. They will also feed on birds, rats, raccoons and snakes and have been known to take an occasional farm animal.

Bobcats usually mate during January, February and March. The young are usually born in May. They can and do mate at other times of the year, however, so the kittens are sometimes born as late as October.

The female bobcat gives birth to two to four kittens and raises them on her own. She doesn't dig a den. Instead, she finds shelter in a hollow log, at the base of a fallen tree, under large rocks or in low shrubs and brush piles.

The kittens are born blind, and at first they rely on mother's milk. At about 4 weeks of age, they will begin to explore their surroundings. They eventually hunt alongside their mother before striking off on their own.

Except for a short mating season, a bobcat lives a solitary life, rarely coming in contact with another adult.

In captivity, bobcats have lived as long as 25 years, but in the wild, their life expectancy averages 3 to 5 years.

It is unlikely that I will see a bobcat in its natural habitat before it sees me and slips out of sight. Nevertheless, I am keeping my eyes and ears peeled. I am hoping for a bit of luck and another chance glimpse of this wonderfully wild, elusive cat.

http://www.charlotte.com/mld/observer/news/local/states/ north_carolina/counties/cabarrus/16564357.htm

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