Monday, February 25, 2008

Tracked!

High: 38° F
Low: 19° F
Conditions: Partly cloudy with more snow on the way.


An unexpected snow squall brought a new inch of snow late last week. With it, came a renewed opportunity for caninaturalist investigation of the most sleuthy kind.
.
Winter is a time of sparseness in the animal world—of slinking and hunkering, rather than parading and lounging. This can make canine naturalism tough. At first glance, there isn’t a lot of nature to observe, especially since those animals residing strictly outdoors find themselves low on food and energy. Most of our walks the past few weeks have been studies in a kind of Taoist emptiness, and it’s rare for us to see any creature other than an intrepid bird or two.
.
Snow, however, makes our search a little easier. With it, an animal can escape our immediate notice while still allowing us to cross paths. And since each track includes enough skin cells to entice Ari’s expert nose, she experiences something at least as rich as locking eyes with an actual animal. In fact, the scent in these tracks seems to make her deliriously happy--moreso, sometimes, then seeing the actual species leaving the track. Her glee in turn pleases me. The hidden animal is no doubt relieved by the compromise, and all three of us leave the landscape happy, more or less.
.
When this new snowfall arrived, we knew we had to get outside and investigate. We suited up in cross country skis and skijoring harness and left for the 50-acre town forest down the road. There, we encountered some of our favorite footprints:
.
The serpentining trail of a single red fox (Vulpes vulpes) :
The deliberate hop of a snowshoe hair (Lepus americanus), located vulnerably nearby Mr. Fox:
The similarly proportioned, but more measured, pacing of a gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) :

And finally, the well-packed superhighway of our local whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) herds: .
At each set of footprints, Ari stopped our progress immediately (sometimes causing me to tangle my skis and come crashing down in the underbrush. Thank goodness for the padding of layered clothing and too many Valentine’s Day cookies). While the perennially clumsy human tried to right herself, the caninaturalist plunged her nose deeply into the track, savoring the bouquet of woodland animals.
.
This process makes for a pleasant pace, assuming I’m not late for class or on my way to a meeting. And for the most part, Ari is a good sport about restricting herself to a few deep breaths before willingly moving on. But halfway through our early morning ski, all of that changed. A new track appeared on the trail:
.
With four round front pads and a thick center heel, this track matched Ari’s in length and beat it in width. It would be tempting to classify it as canine, were it not for the breadth of the pads and the noticeable absence of claws. This was a cat. A very big cat.
.
Ari took a few tentative sniffs and registered wary concern. The smell was probably a little reminiscent of her housemates, Mouse and Leila Tov, but it was much gamier and considerably more intense. These were not tracks left by pampered house cats.
.
So what was it? According to my colleague, wildlife professor Jim Nelson, the size and distribution of the tracks suggests we were either following a very big bobcat (Lynx rufus) or a not inconsequential lynx (Lynx canadensis). Either way, this was a serious feline—at least according to Northeast standards.
.
We skied on, following the tracks closely. The caninaturalist, no longer interested in bounding ahead (and thus making herself an easy snack), trotted close to my hip, tangling us both in the jore line. I think she was hoping any predator would choose to nosh on the more visible human before feasting on timid dog. Even teasing her cowardice and threatening to destroy her street cred back home wasn't enough. Ari was insistent: we would head into the woods together. No ifs, ands, or buts.
.
We hobbled the way around the rest of our ski loop, tripping one another and arguing about who would go first around particularly tight bends. And then the plot thickened even more.
.
As we neared the start of our course, we both stopped. There, just ahead, were the tracks we had left skiing the mile from the car to the start of our loop. And there, on TOP of our ski tracks were more giant cat tracks. We were being followed.
.
Ari smelled the ski tracks, her own petite prints, and then the overlayed feline paws. She flattened her ears and raised her hackles. This would not do. I have to admit I felt my own shiver of mortality as I watched her assess the scene. Neither bobcats nor lynx share the predatory aggression of mountain lions and other big cats—at least when full-grown huskies and humans are concerned. Even still, I couldn’t help realizing: we had become theoretical prey.
.
We made our way back to the car quietly and with more deliberation than necessary. As Ari kept her nose peeled down near the ground, I craned upwards, looking for a telltale paw slung over a deciduous branch. There were none that I could see. Even still, one thing was certain: for all the slinking and hunkering we were doing, we were not going unnoticed. As we know all too well, snowy tracks don’t lie.

27 comments:

The Army of Four said...

Wowzers, that's scary! THere are a bunch of wildcats here, but they all wear purple and go to Kansas State University. They seem relatively harmless.
Play bows,
Zim

brucesc said...

This was very exciting to read! You and Ari are very good detectives. We see bobcats here in coastal South Carolina fairly often, but not lynx and cougar, which one should take much more seriously! I found your blog through nature blog network, btw.

jan said...

I enjoy your snow seminars but being even "theoretical" lunch would be scary.

Marigold said...

Oh! A mystery! Watson and I were quite fascinated. Alas, we have those pesky Cougars about too...which is why we get locked in the barn at night. Having 'Chevon' on the menu would not be a good thing, in my estimation. Wise move, that moving on. :)

KGMom said...

Oh my--trust your dog's caution. Neither of you wants to be an attempted lunch.
It is wondrous how dogs stick their noses in tracks in the snow.
My dog sticks her nose in one, then the next, and the next. Same scent, but she has to gather more info.

Khyra The Siberian Husky said...

WOW!

What a khool trek woo had!!

Woo made sure your momma shared khwite the interesting story with us!!!

Hugz&Khysses,
Khyra

PeeEss: there are LOTS of stoopid khats in our state - they wear blue and white and have paw prints on EVERYTHING they own!

Pippa said...

Even I don't think I would be chasing big cats like that. Ari was right to be wary.

Mistress says she loves loves cross country skiing - not that she's done it for a few years, but she still has her skiis hanging up, just waiting to be dusted off...I won't be there though.

Pippa

Gus and Louie said...

We are sure glad that you made it out of there without becoming kitty food.

Big Sloppy Kisses
Gus and Louie

Farmgirl_dk: said...

Incredible story - I was perched on the edge of my chair...you guys are awesome trackers to notice all that you did...even noticing then that you were the ones being tracked. I found your observations of Ari's behavior changes so interesting - you two are quite a team. Glad you're safe, though...btw, do you carry a bigg-ass stick, pepper spray or something on these treks of yours? I would imagine your husband is probably insisting on this at this point, if he hasn't already! :-)

The Daily Echo said...

Woo! We wouldn't want you and Ari to be cat snacks! It was cool hearing the story from the safety of our computer though.
ECHO

Kathiesbirds said...

Kathryn, the first thing I noticed about your blog is the weather postings. I cracked up! When I lived in Maine I recorded the weasther everyday. I would get so discouraged by the gray and cold and rain, but especially the grayness. Recording the weatehr somehow made me feel I could master it. Living in Maine our lives are dictated by weather. Now that I live in AZ, it's amazing how free I feel. We still get some wacked out weather here, but mostly during the Monsoon. Flash Flodding is a wild ride! BTW, this was a fun post to read. If you're ever back near the Scenic Santa Ritas, let me know!

Sandpiper said...

This is so interesting! I love walking in the snow and studying the tracks. I recently saw bobcat tracks at a place where I like to walk, and now I can't wait to get back and see if it's been back there again!

Steve, Kat, & Wilbur said...

Very cool! I wonder if that will happen to us when we start skijoring!

Kat

Sharon said...

What a day! I loved they way you wrote the story and all your observations.

What is skijoring? Any pictures of Ari in her harness? Needless to say, we have NO winter sports here.

JB's Big World said...

You have such wonderful nature! Cat tracks? Big cats? I wish we could see more animals outside our house, but there is more construction coming and much of the wildlife is being pushed out further....
--JB

Dr Tweety of da Fab Five said...

It iz so nice to meets you. Da momee likes da bloggie here & waz touched by your commintz at ourz.
Tank you soo muchee.
Love, Dr Tweety

Kapp pack said...

That was very cool, yet scary at the same time. Glad you didn't meet up with that kitty face to face!

WOo woo, Kelsey Ann

PKPWV said...

Ari...being stalked by a big cat-yikes! It's much more fun to stalk small cats!!! We have Mountain Lions in southern Cal-but I've never seen one since we live near the ocean...I only see raccoons and skunks...never BIG CATS or even their tracks. I bet the smells were awesome!

Velcro

Holly said...

wow, all that fun stuff to sniff an smell! I would love to hunt all those interesting creatures!!

Holly

Simba said...

I love the photos of the paw prints. Not sure I'd want to meet the wild cat though.

Simba x

umekotyan said...

Good evening Ari.
Also on the snow, there are signs of life.
The existence of Wild Cat is assumed there.
It is necessary to run after the mark, and the discovery of.

from loved ume tyan

Me & my puppies said...

Oh my! We're glad you made it back safe.

Mary said...

Stalked by a cat now thats qute a story!

Fay said...

Big cats! I've never seen any tracks around our house. People tell me they don't like to come out in the open so I'm relatively sure we and our dogs are safe on our property. I've never ventured into the woods across the road, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear there are big cats over there. Very exciting post!

Thanks Kathryn and Ari!

Turbo the Sibe said...

We have bobcats here. But my Human has only seen 1 dead one.

Ali said...

This is what I truly love about Maine --the wild edge next to the backyard. I know what it really means is that we are encroaching upon the wild things, but.... I love that the wild things are still here, close enough to experience. I just hope we leave them some space.

Ali

Gary,Charity,Scarlett&Katie said...

What an exciting and scary adventure! It reminds me of a story I read in one of the Little House on the Prairie books long ago. Glad you two are safe and sound.

Charity