Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Pretty Kitty

     Let's take a look at the hook-up scene in Washington County. I know what you're thinking. "Finally, he's going to write about something juicy and salacious. What we expect from the web." Sorry to disappoint yet again, but the hook-ups I'm referring to are between bobcats. Actually, they are way more fascinating than those of another species whom we won't mention. As proof, there's a remarkable series of photographs taken earlier this spring that lets us peek behind the curtains of the mating game - bobcat style.
     Dr. Gordon Ellmers was out with his camera looking for birds along the Hudson River. Nothing unusual about that. He goes out often and gets lots of great pictures. But, as he was coming north on CR 113 in the Town of Easton things got interesting. He was surprised to see a bobcat cross the road ahead of him. Then startled to see a second cat come out of the woods to greet the first. The male and female circled each other, growled and apparently liked what they saw, soon trotting off together. Ellmers, leaning out the window, was able to catch the action in ten quick shots. Check them out on his facebook page.

Gordon Ellmers photograph

     Bobcats are notorious loners, stealthy and seldom seen. But the hormones of mating season make them restless and bring them together. Combine that with the sparse vegetation of late winter and it may be the best time to see our only remaining native cat.
     Cats are mammals in the order Carnivora, family Felidae. There are four genera with 37 species. The genus Panthera includes the big guys: lions, tigers,leopards and jaguars. In the Felis genus are 30 species ranging from the puma and bobcat to your friend who fills the litter box - F. catus, the domestic cat. Our house cats appear to have differentiated from the African wildcat (F. silvestris) some four thousand years ago. Some consider them the same species as they can and frequently do interbreed. Today there are about 30 breeds of domestic cat.

Sprinkles - wild no more

     The bobcat (F. rufus) is found thru out much of North America. The are about three feet long and less than two feet high, weighing up to 30 pounds - bigger than a house cat, smaller than a mountain lion - although sometimes confused with both. The lynx is similar but it is no longer seen in upstate New York, the victim of habitat loss. Our area was also once home to F. concolor - aka the cougar, puma, mountain lion, panther and catamount. Obviously a cat of many alias's, both a feared and cherished part of the northern forest's mystique. These beautiful, tawny beasts are much bigger, with a long tail and a longer reputation. Most scientists agree that there are no breeding populations in the northeast, although there are occasional sightings reported, including some in eastern Washington County.

     Assuming the encounter that Gordie photographed went according to nature's plan, we should have some little bobcats coming along any time now. Gestation is a couple of months and litters are most often two or three kittens. According to the DEC the Taconic highlands of eastern New York are a bobcat hotspot. Heavily forested but with open fields nearby and rocky ledges for denning, they make good habitat.

Taconic hills

     The bobcat photos drew a lot of attention on facebook and in local media. It's interesting to ponder our relationship with wildlife. Bobcats can be hunted and trapped in season, a practice abhorrent to those who just want to view them. In the past they have been seen as threatening - a reaction many predators evoke.

     Early settlers in Washington County lived in fear of panthers, bears, wolves and rattlesnakes. Their Own Voices is a book of oral remembrances collected by Dr. Asa Fitch and edited by Winston Adler. It includes tales of catamounts in Salem and a 1200 pound bear that took thirteen shots to kill. Warpaths, Wildcats and Waterfalls has a chapter on The Great Kingsbury Wolf Hunt of 1801. This raucous event involved a constricting circle of heavily armed hunters in the boggy area surrounding Wood Creek. Today Rt. 196 crosses here and it's known as the Adamsville Flats. Back then it harbored the den of a pack of grey wolves with a taste for hogs and sheep. By the time the hunt was over eleven wolves (and countless other animals) were history. No record of how many hunters were bagged.

New Swamp Road in Kingsbury

     It's easy to see such bloodshed as wantonly brutal. Especially from the security of our comfy homes where a few bluejays at the feeder is our idea of wildlife. Tougher to imagine the world of the pioneer where danger lurked in every shadow and simple existence seemed tenuous.

     In Timber Rattlesnakes in Vermont and New York, Jon Furman examines our response to this misunderstood and much persecuted reptile. The Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm describes a trip thru the Kingsbury swamp in 1749: "...we found it difficult to get over such trees, because they had blocked all the paths, and close to them was the chief retreat of rattlesnakes during the intense heat of the day." Asa Fitch heard stories of rattlers in the eastern hill into the mid 1800's. Today there's just a small population of Crotalus horridus in northern Washington County and they have gone from having a bounty on their heads to being a protected species in our lifetime. Attitudes can and do change.

     Animals make us more alive. The awe they inspire, even the fear they can invoke are a part of what makes a place special. I remember seeing fresh moose tracks and scat in the woods up above Huletts Landing. Makes you look around, feel a little bit smaller and more vulnerable. And some evenings I'll go out for a run at dusk, keeping to the edge of the fields by the darker woods. When a coyote suddenly lets loose with a yip-yip-howl my pace about doubles. I'm not sure how I'ld react if a bobcat lopped out in front of me but I hope for the chance to find out.

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