Speaking of Nature: Tracking an unseen predator

  • After following tracks in his back yard that indicated a rabbit had been killed, Bill Danielson happened across a paw print in the snow that informed him the mystery predator was a bobcat. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • By following the trail of tracks in his back yard, Bill Danielson eventually found the place where the bobcat ate the rabbit. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson


For the Recorder
Published: 2/11/2019 6:00:09 AM

So there I was, stuck between what I wanted to do and what I knew I had to do.

I wanted to call in sick and wait for the sun to come up so I could figure out what kind of tracks I had found. What I had to do was go to work. So, lower lip quivering with frustration, I headed into the house, grabbed my car keys and drove into the darkness of an early morning in winter.

While in the car, I made my appeal to the Photo Gods. I knew the weather was supposed to be calm, but even the slightest breeze might shift the fresh, powdery snow around to obscure the tracks. However, everything I had seen on the weather forecast suggested no snow, no wind and no temperatures over 30 degrees. If I got really lucky, those tracks might be waiting for me when I got home.

As it happens, I was granted all the luck I had asked for and found everything intact when I returned home. Unfortunately, it was dark by the time I arrived and there was little point in taking more of the same photos. So I made a second appeal: “Please Nikonus, please Iso, grant me more time.”

I went to bed that night trying to imagine what sort of predator could capture a rabbit in the dark, kill it very swiftly and then drag it away. All the time, I had to account for the fact that the rabbit’s feet were dragging on the snow, which meant this predator had to be rather short of stature. To my mind, there were only two possibilities — a fox or a bobcat. Only a closer look in the light of day would tell me if I was right.

To my delight, the tracks were still untouched the next morning. Even better was the fact that the sun appeared to be ready to break over the horizon and throw some shadows. This was exactly what I needed and, as luck would have it, it was exactly what I didn’t get. The sun was unobscured just long enough to paint the cloudy sky with brilliant color, but then it went behind the clouds. The white tracks disappeared into the white snow.

Then, at about 10 a.m., I caught a break. The sun broke free of the clouds and I rushed outside to capitalize on the situation. Up close, the tracks that I found convinced me that my hypothesis about the identity of the predator was correct, but I still wanted more. On a hunch, I followed the tracks to the west of my house where a stand of white pines may have produced even better conditions for preserving tracks.

The crust was dusted with only the slightest layer of powder and the tracks all but disappeared, but I turned north to follow them and I was finally granted my reward. Up ahead I saw an unmistakable scattering of fur upon the snow, and when I arrived at the scene, I even found blood. This is where the rabbit had been consumed, and in the snow nearby, I found a beautiful footprint left by a bobcat. My hypothesis was correct and I started taking photos.

There were actually three places where it appeared the rabbit had been eaten, and at one of the these spots, I even found a bobcat dropping. There were also a lot of bobcat tracks in the snow, and I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps there had been more than one cat in my yard that day. There was no way for me to tell, but why would an adult bobcat have crisscrossed my yard so many times? Perhaps a mother and a kitten or two?

Bobcats are really interesting animals and they are surprisingly good at remaining unobtrusive. It is possible that you may have one of these cats living in your area, but you’ll have to get out and look at tracks in the snow to possibly detect their presence. Otherwise, they may live their lives right under your nose without ever being noticed. It’s kind of a nice thought, actually.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 21 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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