Thursday, January 24, 2013

An Urban Bobcat

My interest in the bobcat (Lynx rufus) began in graduate school when I was taking a course in Mammalogy.  One of the requirements for graduate students taking the class was to conduct a field research project on some aspect of mammal biology.  Although my principal interest was memorizing the location of every freckle on the mammary system of a redhead I was married to at the time, ultimately I studied the food habits of a colony of beavers living along the South Fork of the Kinnickinnic River that ran through campus.  Fellow graduate student Wayne Norling chose to attempt a population estimate of bobcats in his natal Burnett County, Wisconsin.  Having grown up in northern Wisconsin I knew that there were bobcats out there somewhere however despite lots of time spent tromping though the forests of northern Wisconsin studying animal tracks I had never even seen the foot print of a bobcat.  Wayne had seen them in Burnett County and his research project revealed that there were more than just a few hanging out in those primordial forests.  However you couldn't prove it by me.

The first bobcat I ever saw in the wild was an adult that crossed the road in front of me just east of Carmel, Monterrey County, California, on October 29, 1980.  It made a quick appearance and then like a ghost it disappeared.  My second bobcat was also an adult and this one was stalking a flock of Gambel's Quail  in riparian forest along the San Pedro River east of Sierra Vista, Arizona in May 1998.  I obviously wan't seeing bobcats very often.

Those were the only bobcats I had seen in the wild until I moved to Florida in March 2008. In the intervening five years I've seen probably 20 of these magnificent cats and just like the first two I saw, all of these Florida bobcats were in wild areas like the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Brevard County or mangrove forests on the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Collier County.  That statement remained truthful until yesterday afternoon when I saw one in heavily urbanized Manatee County within spitting distance of Interstate 75 and adjacent to a very busy shopping mall.  The location of the sighting in relation to the freeway and other development is shown in this satellite image from Google Earth.

I was returning from a movie at the Lakewood Ranch Cinemas and following Cooper Creek Parkway home.  As I drove past BJ's Wholesale Store an adult bobcat ambled out of the shrubby vegetation adjacent to the freeway and darted across the road in front of me.  My first thought was that it was a raccoon but it quickly dawned on me that 1) it was too tall and 2) it was spotted and 3) it didn't have a long, ringed, bushy tail.  Then it sunk in - a bobcat.

Bobcat's are refreshingly common in Florida and according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission they are fairly well adapted to urban and suburban settings. That's encouraging given the burgeoning human population in Florida and its attendant and rampant urbanization.  Hal Kantrud, my old office partner at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in North Dakota once said that the key to wildlife biology is the concept of "adapt or die."  Bobcats seem to have taken Hal's words to heart.

Although my thoughts of bobcats will probably always revolve around images in my head of snowshoeing up to a bobcat as it dines on a recently captured rabbit in a northern Wisconsin forest, I will remain happy to see one in my urbanized environment that is filled with nutcase drivers from Ohio every winter.  I just hope they dont run over any bobcats.  I'll keep an eye out for them just in case.


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