This morning, well after the sun had arced high above the horizon and warmed the snow, K and I headed out to continue our bobcat tracking. We found a spot where our bobcat ducked under a barbed wire fence, and the barb snagged a tuft of bobcat fur. I wonder how many animals get hurt by barbed wire? Why not just use regular wire?
K waited for me in a grove of skeletal aspens while I photographed the tuft of fur. We still followed our tracks from yesterday.
Soon, we passed the end of yesterday's tracks and followed the bobcat tracks deep into the forest. The bobcat walked carefully, placing each back paw into the imprint of the front paw on the same side. K peered over her shoulder in the direction that the tracks went.
The bobcat still checked every boulder outcropping and tree well. That hunting behavior made me reject my notion from yesterday that the cat was carrying away dinner to an isolated place.
Soon, the hiking got much rougher. First, we crossed a gulch into sunshine and thin snow on the south-facing side. But, the bobcat didn't choose to follow the easiest route, the almost snow-free path, but rather climbed up the south side of the gulch and re-entered the deep forest. Almost no humans ever visit this part of our wilderness and it's a mecca for our most shy wildlife. So, as always in this type of habitat, I put K on a leash. The bobcat tracks march off behind her nose.
This bobcat definitely knows this forest in intricate detail and always followed paths of low snow cover, despite the bottomless powder that covered most of the forest floor. Like yesterday, I followed in the wise steps of the cat and didn't stray from her path. Otherwise, I might have drowned in the snow!
Soon, we hit some huge jumbled piles of boulders, replete with numerous crevices that could have led into caverns. I eyed all of them, wondering who lived in them, but saw no signs of permanent residents. I did find a bobcat scent post - this photo of a "pile of scat" (bobcat) is for The Herd! My chemical handwarmer is for scale - it's 3.5" long.
The bobcat climbed through one steep and slippery set of boulders. I don't think that my big-city surgeon has an inkling of what a "hike in the woods" means for me. Yesterday, he suggested that I join a gym to do my rehabilitation walking on a treadmill - I wanted to ask, but restrained myself, if there were bobcats in gyms!
Once we'd cleared these obstacles , the bobcat continued her careful saunter uphill to an even more formidable boulder outcropping. She climbed a sinuous path straight into the heart of the boulders. I couldn't follow without risking my neck so I circumnavigated the outcropping twice, looking for where her tracks exited the outcropping.
I climbed to the very top of the boulder jumble from the uphill and gradual side. A flat and snow-covered boulder as wide and long as a volkswagon sat on the top. I took a photo of the view, which awed me. Complete silence enveloped the forest.
Despite gaining the high view of the whole area around the boulders, I was still flummoxed. Where did my bobcat go? Even K didn't seem to know.
The only tracks leaving the boulders moved at a high speed bound, and my bobcat hadn't used that gait in the many miles that I'd already tracked her. Moreover, another almost identical set of bounding tracks approached from the far side of the outcropping. It looked like they chased the first animal back in the direction that we'd just come from.
I didn't think that my bobcat had left the bounding tracks that departed the outcropping. So, I started thinking that the bobcat had bedded down *inside* the towering hill of boulders, in a cavern accessible only to small animals. I peeked in several crevices but saw nothing.
I quickly realized that if the bobcat was inside the boulder pile, I should leave because I was probably freaking her out. So, I followed the most obvious set of bounding tracks.
I thought that following these tracks was probably a fruitless undertaking because bobcats never bound for long periods of time. This animal bounded and bounded and bounded through deep snow, over small ridges, and through the depths of gullies. Moreover, the second set of bounding tracks that I'd first spotted at the boulder pile kept weaving across the tracks that I was following. The existence of the second set of tracks had me 95% convinced that I wasn't following bobcat tracks because they're almost always solitary, except during mating season or when a female has kittens.
However, soon one of the bobcats crossed a boulder. A deer would have jumped it but the bobcat leaped onto it, leaving her signature paw print. Wow, I thought, I've actually been following the bounding tracks of bobcats - perhaps a male and female found each other on this odyssey. I remembered that I'd recently seen a bobcat on my wildlife camera rubbing her face against a scent post boulder - a common behavior when a female is in estrus - further bolstering the growing notion that I'd run across the tracks of a pair of courting bobcats.
Then, both sets of tracks came to a tree stump and at least one of the bobcats, and maybe both, circled it slowly.
It looked like one bobcat sprinted away from the stump, with other bobcat close on her heels. A huge cavern in the snow looked as if they'd both landed both in the same spot - but I don't know if it was at the same time, or not.
Very soon, the two paths diverged, but only briefly. Then they converged again. They followed this weaving pattern for a half mile or so. The tracks reminded me of a pair of puppies cavorting, chasing each other, sometimes bumping each other, occasionally leaping onto each other, and having a frolicking good time.
Soon, the two sets of tracks met a human trail. In the messy mix of human and loose dog tracks, I could no longer figure out where the bounding felines had gone.
According to my reading, male and female bobcats find each other during mating season based on the scent left by the female in heat and using caterwauling. Apparently, a female in estrus makes high pitched screaming noises to attract a mate. I wonder if the bobcat who I initially followed caterwauled from the boulder pile that she climbed, eventually attracting the sprinting male whose tracks bounded onto the scene.
When a male bobcat finally finds a female in estrus, the courtship starts with cavorting, which is probably what I saw in my tracking today. The pair stays together for days, mostly playing and hunting together at first, before finally mating numerous times. Then, the male departs, and the female gives birth about 9 weeks later and raises the young as a single mom.
The thought of a mystical pair of bobcats cavorting in the forest and then combining their genes to produce kittens makes me smile. I'm glad that I doggedly followed their tracks to figure out the courtship story! Here's to our bobcats!