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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Joy in the mountains

Joy in the New England mountains with one of our first dogs.
We still miss you Astro.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A feline courtship

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!

Friday, February 26, 2010

The path of a bobcat

Today's morning hike started when the sky was dusky black, with only a faint glow of the day to come. Another light but deep layer of snow had fallen over night, and some flakes still fluttered through the dawn air.
K and I headed for the meadow, following a pack of coyote tracks. They peeled off before we stepped out into the heart of the meadow. The vast expanse of the meadow sparkled with fresh snow, a clean palette for finding animal tracks. As I scanned, I saw a set of bobcat tracks join my trail ahead of us.
We started following, with my excitement growing as I saw that the cat's course aimed directly toward the scent post at Bobcat Boulder where my infrared wildlife camera sat waiting. In the photo below, the bobcat tracks march directly to the scent post and then jumped up onto the boulder. My wildlife camera is barely visible on the tree in the far left of the photo.
According to the tracks, the bobcat had visited the scent post, a pile of scrapings and scat that sits under the protective roof of the boulder. Then, he'd backed up and leaped about 3-4 feet vertically onto the boulder.
To my utter dismay, I discovered that the bobcat's arrival didn't trigger my camera. It was set to record video using infrared light. If it had worked like it has on many occasions in exactly this spot, the video of this bobcat would have been fun to watch. I was disappointed.

We skirted the boulder and kept following the tracks. The cat marched up an open and snowy slope, and then entered a sparsely forested plateau. He carefully walked under the protection of trees where the snow wasn't deep. When I strayed from his route, I once found myself in snow up to my thighs. His strategy was smart. In the photo, the bobcat's tracks marched ahead of K who sat waiting for me.
As we crossed the lightly forested area, the sun just below the eastern horizon stained the sky orange and purple.
To the west, the clouds hovering over the Divide glowed pink behind my chocolate furry companion.
As the bobcat patrolled his territory, he stopped to check almost every boulder outcropping. Usually, he skirted the edge, checking under rocks. I'm guessing he was sniffing scent posts (we found several) and searching for rodents or rabbits.
The nimble bobcat chose some death-defying routes. At this spot, he climbed up a nearly vertical rock face and then slipped through a slot in the boulders.
We went the long way around the boulders and discovered his motivation for sneaking through this outcropping. A veritable rabbit party had occurred, based on the scattered lagomorph tracks on the other side of the wall of boulders.
Based on the furious chase tracks, I suspect that the bobcat caught his dinner here. His purposeful tracks leaving the area made a straight line toward a very isolated locale - a perfect place for him to hunker down and eat. Alas, I was out of time because I had to get to a doctor's appointment. So, I abandoned his tracks and headed toward home. I hope to return tomorrow to see if I can find evidence that the bobcat did indeed hunt down a rabbit dinner last night.

As we emerged from the dense forest where we'd abandoned the bobcat tracks, the low sunlight filtered golden onto the snow.
As we tromped toward home on the trails, we intersected the beginning of our bobcat's nocturnal odyssey. Because the tracks were filled in with an inch of snow, we knew that they were left earlier in the evening than the tracks we'd just abandoned. Indeed, it was K who alerted me that we'd crossed our cat's path again. She found the tracks and sat while staring at me to catch my attention.
She's turning into a good tracking dog. She never takes off chasing or following the tracks without me. She simply 'tells' me that there's something to pay attention to.

She showed me that the tracks had wound through a boulder pile as the bobcat ascended from an isolated canyon where he might have spent yesterday napping.
Alas, after perusing this new discovery, I was truly on the verge of being late for my surgeon's appointment so we headed east, straight into the risen sun, toward home. I truly wished that I'd had time to follow the tracks to both ends. It's so much fun getting a peek into the real life of a bobcat.
I've had PT and surgeon's appointments in the past two days. Both of them assured me that the new pains and incredible fatigue that have floored me recently are completely normal. My PT massaged my three-day headache away, a miracle as far as I was concerned. Interestingly, she asked me to look straight ahead and then to each side so that she could measure my neck's range of motion. My "straight-ahead" is about 15 degrees to the right of where it should be. The reason is that the muscles on the right side of my neck are spasming so hard that they're constantly pulling my head to the right. I wonder if that's why my hikes have all been big clockwise circles?

My surgeon buoyed my confidence in the bony fusions growing between my neck vertebrae. I'm on the right track, moving fast, but he emphasized that I'll continue to have pain and fatigue until at least 3 months post-surgery. He wants me to start using my neck more normally - without the support of any brace and without constantly tensing my muscles out of fear of hurting myself.

My final topic of conversation with the surgeon was a potential operation on my low back to fix the huge disc herniation adjacent to the series of previously fused vertebrae. It's an overwhelming proposition so soon after my major neck surgery - so I hope to put off lumbar surgery for as long as I can bear the pain.

Thanks to all of you for your support - it has made this recovery journey so much easier!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Bobcat spirit and 'mountain-crazy'

After spending my hike yesterday searching for signs of a bobcat, a handsome feline dropped by our territory yesterday evening. He or she must have known that I needed an infusion of the bobcat spirit.
Just before the bobcat's visit, we saw our local dog seven-pack and their human while we hiked our trails around sunset. A storm sat on the western horizon, painting the sunset a dusky blue.
The local dog pack has a new leader, a young GSD, who likes our dogs much more than the rest of the pack. The GSD ran ahead and met us, all wiggles and happiness. He immediately sensed R's playful soul and tried to entice him to play. The pack, as a whole, scares R. Consequently, he looked afraid of the GSD who was doing frenzied play bows.
Their pack is always spread out over a large area so I never capture full feeling of insane pandemonium in a single photo. But, they are seven crazy dogs, and all the dogs in the neighborhood have a healthy fear of them.

Yesterday, as we chatted with our neighbor, the other dogs wandered away, and R began to look interested in playing with the GSD.
Soon, R and the GSD started running around, and I thought that a full-fledged play session was about to erupt. Just as they started to play, the other dogs noticed and burst into frantic high-pitched alarm barking. In response to his barking pack, the GSD's body language became assertive while R began to shrink. Notice how the GSD was leaning forward and looming over R. K became worried about her little brother at that instant and started sneaking toward them.
As the cacauphony of barking escalated, R planted himself under his favorite human's legs, and K protectively stood over him. The GSD started licking K's chin in what appeared to be a conciliatory gesture.
Then, the GSD backed off, and the rest of our chat was uneventful in terms of dog behavior.

That story reminds me of a zany interaction that I had with this group soon after my neck surgery. About two weeks post-surgery, I was out for my daily walk but I wanted to avoid the pack. I was afraid that a dog might knock me over or that a fight might erupt, and I'd be unable to even try to help K. I heard the pack coming from a distance but I had just turned onto a side trail that they never use. So, I thought that K and I had veered off their radar.

I was wrong. The dogs chased us down, encircling me and a cowering K as they barked like crazy. These dogs have never physically hurt my dogs but they are scary en masse. Then, to my surprise, the human turned onto the side trail following her dogs to me. She ran hard, shouting between loud breaths that she was SO glad to see me.

Once she arrived, she said that she'd been carrying tiny scissors in her pocket for days, hoping to see me on the trails. I was mystified. Tiny scissors - were they a gift? Or, something to help with my neck? But, as I tried to figure out the mystery, I also tried to monitor the dog pack and K - which takes about 99% of my concentration. I always fear that K will somehow provoke an attack and the whole pack will pile on. It's never happened but it always feels like it might happen.

Then, my friendly neighbor explained herself. She had stitches in her back and didn't want to drive to town to get them removed. She thought that I'd be the perfect person to remove them. I was the 'chosen' one because I don't get squeamish about things like stitches.

So, she wanted me to take out her stitches at that instant, in the middle of the trail, with eight dogs having tense interactions all around us. And, to top it off, she wanted me to try to do it while wearing my rigid neck brace that made it impossible for me to bend and look at her back. Oh, and I forgot, it was 15°F - and she planned to expose her back for long enough for me to take out her stitches. I was flummoxed - really and truly floored by this unprecedented request.

Now, this story might help you to understand why I refer to us mountain residents as "crazy". I think that we all become zanier with each passing year spent living in the midst of the forest. I didn't remove her stitches that day... to my mind, it was simply impossible under the circumstances. But, since my neighbor thought that it was a perfectly normal request, I keep wondering how crazy *I* have become over the past decade!

Hmm, as I think about it, stumbling upon hibernating bears and then voluntarily returning to the den while wearing a rigid plastic neck collar soon after major surgery qualifies me as mountain-crazy! And, setting up a wildlife camera next to a deer that was just killed by a mountain lion definitely puts me in the mountain-crazy category.

To try to stave off the mountain-craziness, K and I started today with what I hoped would be a short sunrise hike but I could barely see the sun through storm clouds enveloping our world.
The skies did turn light gray, and K loved frolicking in the snow.
But, by afternoon, blizzard-like weather hit us like a sledge-hammer. Believe it or not, that's K in the middle of the photo - although she looks more like a black bear than like a chocolate labrador!
With it snowing like crazy on top of the fresh 10" of powder that we already have, we may be tromping the forest on snow shoes tomorrow. Now, that's mountain-crazy - a woman in a rigid plastic neck brace snowshoeing through a foot of snow! But, no one will even blink an eye - it's normal behavior for a crazy mountain person!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Year of the Bobcat

The aches and pains from my surgery are still dominating my consciousness. My approach to life is to trudge on, trying to embrace the aspects of life that I love, to help me forget the pain. Seeing this coyote trotting briskly through our clearing was a good start.I decided that trying to find bobcat tracks to follow would be a fun adventure so K and I began our hike by hitting all of our local cat's favorite spots. Those spots are generally boulders near meadows. So, we examined every boulder near our most expansive local meadow. K climbed up a snowy boulder.
We didn't find tracks or scat near that boulder but I captured a photo of my best furry friend.
We followed the bases of massive and imposing boulders, since bobcats love to leave their signs in those unique spots.
We perused every speck of ground in boulder fields but the elusive bobcat seemed invisible today. In our boulder scrambling, we found a glorious and remote viewpoint, that I suddenly realized sat only a quarter mile above the bear's den. After enjoying our private summit, we quietly retreated further from the den.
It was a peaceful spot that seemed to soothe my soul although not my headache. I hugged K for solace.
As one last try to find bobcat tracks, we dropped down toward a canyon trail. Voila, a bobcat had briefly followed in the packed furrow left by K's and my previous forays into this canyon.
This feisty bobcat soul, who weighs a tenth as much as a male mountain lion, left scat on the mountain lion's favorite scent post. K sniffed it.
But, after being parodied today about my habit of showing "actual pictures of piles of scat" in my posts, I won't show you a photo of our glorious find! The Thundering Herd's post made me laugh and laugh. Thanks Herd! I really needed a good chuckle.

I've looked at my Kathleen Coy bobcat painting many times over the past two days, a gift from my blogging friends that still astonishes me. All of you have no idea how many times that gorgeous painting has made me smile. Here's to the Year of the Bobcat!
To wind down the day, our foursome took a sunset hike together, and it felt like medicine for my soul. It didn't make my head or neck hurt any less but it made me smile. I'm lucky and I know it.
Now, our labraduo is sharing a bed for the first time since R started sporting the stylish cone. Although the cone doesn't upset R even a tiny bit, it scares poor K. She's been keeping her distance, until tonight. Of course, her new-found courage has emerged just as R is ready to have his staples taken out. C'est la vie!
Of course, if K actually sees R as the beast with one green glowing eye that he appears to be in the photo, perhaps her fear makes sense!

Thanks to everyone for their words of encouragement after yesterday's post. I know that I'm on a roller coaster, and that my body will rebound soon. I see my PT and my surgeon in the next two days so I'm almost sure that I'll get reassurance that this exacerbation of pain and fatigue is perfectly normal. In the meantime, I'll keep trying to do the things that I love.