Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bobcats in California

For 12 days in February the residential program went on a trip to California. While there we did a lot of tracking, played a lot of rat hack, and enjoyed the sun as much as we could before heading back to the Pacific Northwest. We saw several bobcats there, mostly in fields near our campground near San Francisco, but one - the most exciting encounter, was in Sunol Regional Wilderness.

We stopped in Sunol for two nights. It was a pleasant way to break up our drive and get acclimated to California. We were given the day to explore, swim, nap, or whatever we felt like doing. Several of us decided to hike to the top of flag hill. It provided a great view of the valley and hills as well as being a great place to take a short nap in the sun. Some of us decided to take an alternate route back down, and while walking down a little ridge I noticed a gray shape moving next to a tree. I got the attention of the person ahead of me and I tried to show him where the shape was - it blended in with the tree very well when it wasn't moving. Eventually he saw where it was, but it moved out of sight by the time the rest of the crew caught up. We were pretty excited, but not entirely sure what it was. Fortunately we got a few more glimpses of it as it slowly walked around, stopping a couple of times to sit and then scratch. With these sightings we were sure it was a bobcat. It walked out of sight again, and we excitedely decided to go over and see if we could find any tracks/figure out what it had been doing. Unfortunately there was a bit of a ravine between where we were and where it had been, so we walked around the edge of the ravine until it became narrow enough that we could cross over. Of course just as we were getting to the other side someone realized that the bushes we had been skirting (and had we brushed up against or even grabbed some for support?) were poison oak. Huh. We scrubbed our arms and hands with dirt in hopes of getting rid of any excess oil and kept on our way, figuring that what we had seen was probably worth a little poison oak if we did end up getting it.

Hiking in groups can have advantages and disadvantages for seeing wildlife. With a bunch of people, it is more likely that one of them will see what's there. On the other hand, a bunch of people are more likely to be noisy and scare away animals before anyone has a chance to see them. Our group was reasonably good about being quite (once we had a concrete reason to be quite anyway), and I'm sure grateful for the extra sets of eyes.

When we finally got back to where we had seen the bobcat, most of us were looking around for where we had seen it scratching, but Marcus was looking around and saw it walk over the rise of the hill in front of us. We decided to postpone looking at "boring old" cat scratches made only minutes earlier in favor of trying to see more of the cat. Up the hill we headed. Marcus thought he had seen it head off to the right so we angled off that way and looked across the wide open fields, but didn't see it anywhere. Surely it didn't head to the left because there were quail hanging out in the road that was there and they didn't seem at all alarmed (apart from a little concern about keeping some distance from us). After looking around to the right for awhile Theodore and Susan (who were moving slower and stealthier than the rest of us) said they thought they saw something moving off further to the left. We had pretty much given up on the right so we headed to the left along the road toward a little picnic area near a big barn. Rees was up ahead and got my attention - indicating that he had seen something. I got up to where he was, but was puzzled. What was he looking at? The upright chunk of wood next to the barbeque pit? Slowly though the log transformed into a bobcat. It was amazing. Just sitting there 30 yards away. Looking at us occasionaly but unconcerned. After a few minutes it got up and walked off towards the barn. Marcus, Rees and Susan decided to head around the other side of the barn to see if they could see it as it walked past. I went to look at where it had been sitting (right next to a critter-sized tunnel in the ground) and continued on, following the direction the cat had gone. As I was approaching Theo also was coming up along that side of the barn. The angle I took allowed me to just see into the barn and I saw that the bobcat was sitting in there, so I motioned to Theo and we crept up and watched it through a hole left by a missing board in the side of the barn. A noise on our part alerted the bobcat to our presence, so it spent some time looking at us. I hurriedly got my camera ready, and the next thing I know - it's walking in our direction! I had my camera out and ready as it skirted the corner of the barn and walked around us - right through my shadow about 10 feet away! Well, I snapped as many pictures as I could as it walked off down the hill. The rest of the group came around the barn and we talked over the events and realized that they had poked around their corner of the barn and that's when the bobcat headed in our direction. We decided we would let the bobcat have some peace and rather than continue to trail it, we explored where it had been. In the barn it had also been sitting next to some animal holes, and by the look of the tracks in the dust, it went by there fairly often. It was starting to get late, so we were in a bit of a hurry, but we went back and looked at where we had first seen it and found a couple of latrine areas that it appeared to visit regularly. One of the places it had scratched appeared to have been to spread scent from a recent scat; one of the other scratches was over an even fresher scat that we figured it had probably produced in the period of time we were watching it.

(Click picture to enlarge)