Susan C. Morse is a nationally recognized wildlife ecologist and tracker. She is founder and director of KEEPING TRACK®, which offers field workshops for citizen science volunteers, biologists, land managers, transportation agency personnel, and land trust leaders. Keeping Track workshops provide hands-on experience with science-based tracking and wildlife monitoring techniques, which yield information critical to successful conservation planning and preservation of wildlife habitat.
Portions of this article first appeared in Vermont’s Rutland Herald and The Times Argus, and were originally made possible by the Wellborn Ecology Fund.
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know a certain tom-bobcat’s tracks, and whenever I encounter them, I’ll poke along for a spell to see what he’s been up to. I always backtrack – follow his trail the way he came, not the way he’s going – out of respect for his privacy and his absolute need not to be harassed, frightened, or forced to expend precious energy, especially during late winter's season of potential food shortage and deep snow.
The tom’s tracks led me toward his refugia among high cliffs and talus. These seemingly precarious spots are typical south or southwest-facing bedsites, or “lays”; the winter sun provides much-appreciated warmth. My 33 years of field research in northern Vermont has demonstrated the critical importance of these cliff and ledge habitats for bobcats. Massachusetts biologists suspect that affinity for rocky ledges is one reason why these wild felines are common in the central and western parts of the state.
Times are relatively good for bobcats in New England – much better than earlier in the 20th century, when overhunting, habitat destruction, and a paucity of prey severely limited their numbers. In addition to stricter game laws, bobcats now benefit from access to lower-elevation habitats, thanks to the regrowth and reconnection of countless thousands of acres of forest cover. This reforestation helped other species as well, including moose, white-tailed deer, river otter, and fisher. Unfortunately, our forest-cover expansion has come to an end. New housing and busier roads are whittling away at prime lowland habitats and threatening the corridors that link them.
But this tom still has room to prowl. I circled around to the other side of the bony ridge to pick up his trail. The tracks showed that, at sundown, the napping cat had abandoned his bed and headed out for a date and possibly a nice meal in the forest below. Along the way, the sometimes-hurrying tom frequently paused beside rotten stumps or conifer boughs. If you kneel down at such places and sniff the surface facing the hindfoot tracks, you’ll detect the distinctive odor of cat urine: “Elixir de kitty!”