The Forest Unseen

Forests will always hold your secrets, for that’s what forests are for.

~Victoria Erickson

We’ve been gone for a couple of weeks (more on that adventure in the next post) and the trail cameras were busy keeping up with the goings-on back home while we were away. Lots of the same sort of behaviors we have seen before, but some heavy rains filled our ephemeral stream and that area became more attractive to many of our woodland neighbors. Here are a few highlights from the last couple of weeks that we would have not known about save for the eyes of the trail cameras.

— I put a camera on one of our wildlife pools and this little mouse appeared almost every night, scampering all around the edge. Somehow, it managed to avoid the four outdoor cats that have become a nuisance on our property.

— The Raccoons also enjoy the wildlife pools. You just never know what you might find (the first Spotted Salamander eggs of the season appeared while we were away!).

— Prior to the rains, the dry creek bed was a playground of sorts for the local squirrels. It appears as though we need some squirrel predators…where are the Red-tailed Hawks when you need them?

— The resident bucks are tolerating each other better now that the rut is over. Is this akin to a couple of bros doing a fist bump?

— At the other side of our property, some very nice bucks hang out at the local acorn bar

— After the rains, the creek is a popular stopping point to quench your thirst and check out your reflection

— This log by the creek is a busy highway for Gray Squirrels, various species of birds, Raccoons, and…

— our Bobcat makes a return visit and strolls down the busy log path, stopping to sniff who else has traveled that way

Things You Might Not See

Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

~ Francis Pharcellus Church

It had been over a week since I checked the three trail cameras, so I was anxious to see what had transpired in our patch of woods without us knowing. There has been a definite increase in deer activity and most of the video clips contain images of some of the many (probably too many for the health of our woods) White-tailed Deer going about their business. With acorns and hickory nuts falling, the deer are visiting certain spots under these trees more and slowly searching the ground for the nutritious morsels. It is also getting to be that time of year when the bucks are paying more attention to the does…it is the start of the rut. There are a few big bucks roaming the woods, often in each others’ company. The cameras have caught glimpses of two six-pointers, one eight-pointer, and a number of smaller males (plus many more females and a few young of the year). This clip shows a young buck rubbing his antlers against a Painted Buckeye shrub, no doubt thinking about what might lie ahead (if he is lucky). A doe and fawn are nearby.

Young buck briefly rubs his antlers on shrub

Another video from the south slope showed something I have never observed – some rather unsightly deer warts on two young bucks. At first, I thought they were a type of warble (lesion) that is caused by a botfly. Warbles are common on squirrels here in the Piedmont and the large skin deformations caused by the botfly larvae can be quite grotesque in appearance. But the bumps on these deer looked different. After searching online, I believe these are so-called deer warts, a type of cutaneous fibroma caused by a virus. There are many types of fibroma-causing viruses in nature but this one is specific to deer and cannot be spread to other wildlife or humans. Apparently, they are quite common in deer and can be transmitted when an area with broken skin comes in direct contact with an infected deer or with a surface that an infected deer rubbed against. Studies show that they occur more frequently in male deer, especially young bucks, and the wart-like growths occur most often on the head, neck and forelegs. Though they can be gross-looking, they typically do not harm the deer and they usually regress and vanish over time.

Two young bucks with cutaneous fibromas (deer warts)

The last video clip I’ll share is another thrilling one for us. Earlier this summer, a camera caught a Bobcat walking down our then dry creek bed. That was the first time we have ever had confirmation of these sleek feline predators on our property. Last week, just before sunrise, another Bobcat sighting was made on a trail in the ravine closer to the house. I’m assuming it is the same animal, but who knows! Whatever the case, we are super excited to know this species is roaming our woods. Now, to see one in person…

A Bobcat strolling through our woods just before sunrise last week

Trail Cam Delights

Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.

~Boris Pasternak

The heat of summer seems to have slowed the activity around the trail cameras in our woods, but sometimes, amid all the images of squirrels, raccoons, and wind blown leafy branches, there is is a jewel that really makes me appreciate the 24-hour a day presence of those eyes on the trees.

This first one is from a while back and is a very quick clip showing one of the opossums that uses the root ball den site carrying some leaves back to the ‘possum hole with its tail. Who among us couldn’t use an extra hand now and then?

A Virginia Opossum carrying leaves in its tightly curled tail

One of the things I have been surprised by recently is the lack of trail camera images of deer fawns. I have been seeing them along the roads here in the neighborhood for a few months, but they have not been recorded on a trail camera until this week.

Doe and fawn mosey by the Raccoon den tree

This next one is the video that I have been waiting for…a Bobcat in our woods! The video is cropped a little so it is not as sharp as some, but this is a clip of a nice-sized Bobcat walking down the now dry stream bed in our woods. I have long hoped to see one here in the neighborhood. We have plenty of woods and potential prey, and being near the Haw River corridor, there is ample habitat for these majestic animals.

Bobcat walking down the creek bottom one morning last week

I have admired the mystique of these secretive wild cats for many years. My first sighting was probably back when I worked for NC State Parks and I spotted a Bobcat and her kittens walking down the road at Goose Creek State Park. Since then, I have seen them mainly at wildlife refuges in our Coastal Plain – Alligator River, Mattamuskeet, and at Pocosin Lakes NWR. Most have been quick glimpses of one as it slinked off into the vegetation. Only a few have been recorded with a camera. Here is a brief list of some of those photographed encounters…

A distant view of a Red Wolf (right) tucking its tail and scurrying by a Bobcat at Pocosin Lakes NWR. The wolf was trotting down the road when it encountered the Bobcat in the brush, which assumed the typical cat pose of arched back. The wolf moved to the other side of the road, keeping an eye on the feline as it went past, and then hurried on down the road.
A pre-dawn encounter on a Christmas Bird Count at Pocosin Lakes…a Bobcat carrying a Snow Goose. When we stopped the car, the Bobcat dropped to the ground and crawled across the field to a wind row of trees and disappeared.
I went to the other end of the windrow, assuming the Bobcat would go down and cross onto the woods. As I stood there, some birds flushed out of the trees in the wind row, and then I saw it, sitting there in the thick brush staring at me. I’m not sure how long it had been there, and just as quickly, it disappeared.
I had just photographed a bear across a canal at Pocosin Lakes and was going to do a three-point turn and go the opposite way on the road. When I looked in my rear view mirror, a Bobcat was in the road behind me! I spent several minutes watching this beautiful animal as it eased on down the road and into the woods. More photos on this sighting can be seen here.

Note the white patches on the back of the ear in the photo above. Look at the video clip again and you can clearly see these distinctive white marks on the back of the ears. My only other Bobcat sighting in the Piedmont was one at Mason Farm Biological Reserve in Chapel Hill many years ago. When I returned to the parking lot I saw what looked like a large cat sitting in the adjacent field. It was looking away from me and I saw those white patches and it was then that I knew it was a Bobcat!

My most memorable encounter was when Melissa and I spotted a Bobcat walking down a road at Pocosin Lakes one hot September afternoon. It went into the brush when we drove toward it. We went a little farther, parked, and got out and sat behind the car and waited. The Bobcat finally came back out and walked up, sat down, and looked at us for a bit before walking off into the thick pocosin vegetation…magical! More on this encounter in a previous post.

Though I have been lucky to witness Bobcats in the wild several times, there is something extra special about knowing there was one in our woods. I just hope one day I will be lucky enough to see one for myself in our personal refuge.

A Rare Day

…a very secretive animal; you rarely see them.

~Paul Rezendes, in Tracking and the Art of Seeing

Secretive indeed. I have been lucky over the years to have seen several (about twenty five or so), mainly at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. A few others at Alligator River and Mattamuskeet, one in Chapel Hill at Mason Farm, one in our mountains, and one in a swamp in South Carolina. Many have been brief glimpses. One that I wrote about last September, was a long, privileged view of one casually walking toward me, and snagging a quick snack along the way. All have been special to me. So, Monday was a very good day when I saw two of them. I have had only one other day where I was lucky enough to see two. One was chasing another one when they ran out into the road in front of a friend and I at Pocosin Lakes several years ago. We saw them for less than 20 seconds but it left a lasting impression.

Bear in reeds 1

If it had not been for this guy, I would have probably missed a rare sighting (click photos to enlarge)

The first sighting on Monday was one of those lucky moments where things just work out. I was driving on a road south of Pungo Lake when I passed a bear in a patch of reeds across the canal. It stood up as I drove by, so I kept going and turned around to pass by again, so it would be on my side of the car for a photo. The bear stayed put for a few clicks of the shutter, but was actually a bit too close for the lens I had. It slowly turned away and walked off. I started to do another three-point turn to resume my drive through the refuge, and when I glanced in the rear view mirror, something stepped out of the brush alongside the road about 75 feet behind me.

Bobcat behind my car

Bobcat came out behind my car

I couldn’t believe it…a Black Bear in front of me, and a Bobcat behind me. I had to complete the turn in order to get an image, and when I started to, the Bobcat slipped back into the brush alongside the road. Having seen this before, I knew there was a good chance that, if I waited, it would come back out. I drove a little closer, pulled at an angle so I could get a shot, cut the car engine, and waited.

Bobcat looking straight

After waiting a few minutes, the Bobcat came back out to the road

Sure enough, the graceful cat came back out in almost the exact same spot after only a couple of minutes of waiting.

Bobcat close up

A mesmerizing gaze

It looked around, glancing my way a time or two, and then walked out into the road.

Bobcat looking at me in road

The Bobcat kept an eye on me as it walked down the road

The harsh shadows made for tough exposures, but, hey, it was a Bobcat!

Bobcat walking away from me in road

Out for a morning stroll

It started walking slowly down the road, weaving from side to side. I cranked the car and started to follow at a snail’s pace. The Bobcat wandered over to the edge of the canal on the opposite side of the road twice and paused, seemingly trying to decide whether to cross. I was ready to leap out of the car if it did, as I really wanted to see it swim across the canal and get out on the other side.

Bobcat walking away from me in road 1

It decided not to swim the canal, and then headed back toward the thick brush

But, it never did. And then it gave me an up close look at one of the signs you usually see instead of seeing the animal itself…it hunched its back and deposited an unmistakable Bobcat scat at the edge of the road. It’s not often you get to witness animal sign being made, or that you get to share such a thing with readers:).

Bobcat scat and boot

The scat seemed large for the size of the cat

Bobcat scat

Bobcat scat is tapered and often blunt at the tip

The cat then walked off into the brush. I waited, and waited, but it didn’t return. I got out and checked the scat and was surprised at how large it was given the size of the Bobcat (the cat I photographed last Fall was much taller than this one). Bobcat scat can be distinguished from similar-sized canine scat by being fairly segmented and often blunt at the tips. This scat contained hair, and lacked the larger chunks of bone often seen in Coyote or Red Wolf scat. And while we think of cats as always covering their scat, one of my track references (Tracking and the Art of Seeing) says that Bobcat cover their scat about half the time. I figured I would have to show pretty pictures of the animal to get yo to read this far and learn about poop:).

Later that afternoon, while watching a deer along a road at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, another Bobcat came out of the brush and walked toward me. It was over 300 yards away, but both the deer and I intently watched it as it walked closer. It then disappeared back into the brush before I ever took a photo. But to have two of these secretive animals in one day….I’ll take it, and be thankful for it, photo or not.

Bobcat looking straight crop

A two Bobcat day…one to remember



The Encounter

“The soul is the same in all living creatures, although the body of each is different.”   Hippocrates

I take a break from the caterpillar posts to share a truly incredible moment with you. A friend and I traveled east over the weekend to search for caterpillars for the upcoming museum event I have mentioned in recent posts. Anytime I am down that way, of course, I always hope to observe bears or something else that is hard to find here in the more developed Piedmont. The day started out with driving on dirt roads near my favorite refuge, Pocosin Lakes, looking for caterpillars. Years ago I had learned the ways of caterpillar hunting by car from my friend, Paris Trail. He would drive very slowly down an isolated dirt road looking for chewed leaves in the vegetation along the edges, stopping to check out anything promising. We had good success finding some interesting caterpillars for BugFest on country roads out near Columbia (more on that in another post). We headed back toward Raleigh late in the day and I decided to drive through the refuge in hopes of seeing some bears. We had already had some great non-caterpillar sightings – hundreds of Bobolinks, a bird I don’t see that often, feeding in the fields at another refuge, Alligator River. We had also seen a Black Bear sow with three cubs and the largest King Snake I have ever seen as it crossed a dirt road in front of us.

There are miles of gravel roads in the eastern section of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge that pass through thousands of acres of seemingly endless shrub thickets, pines, and flooded forests. I have only been through this part of the refuge a couple of times and seen mainly Quail, Wild Turkey, a few deer, and some snakes. But yesterday afternoon I spotted something a few hundred yards down the road walking away from us. I stopped to check it out through binoculars. It was tough to tell at first, maybe a Coyote, maybe a Red Wolf, but then it turned and I could see the distant outline had only a short tail – a Bobcat!

We watched it for a few minutes as it walked away and then I began to drive towards it at a very slow pace. The Bobcat turned, looked our way and resumed walking down the road, eventually wandering off into the vegetation. We sat a few minutes, and then drove slowly past the spot we had last seen it. It was nowhere in sight, although I knew it might just be sitting in some thick vegetation watching us. I have been fortunate to see many Bobcats over the years, mainly down east at Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes, along with a few in the mountains, and one much closer to home at Mason Farm in Chapel Hill. I have often seen them just sit and watch, confident in their camouflage and the ability to disappear in an instant if warranted. Down the road was a lone pine tree that cast a dark shadow across an otherwise bright gravel roadway. We drove down and parked in the shadow, figuring it would help hide us, and we got out with our cameras (I had my 500mm lens with a 1.4X teleconverter), sat down behind the car to hide our outlines, and waited.

Bobcat after it came back out on the road

Bobcat after it came back out on the road (click photos to enlarge)

Within a minute or two, the sleek form materialized again. The Bobcat was now a little over 100 yards away but continuing in its original path which meant it was now headed our way. The scene was bathed in late afternoon light as we watched the Bobcat through binoculars. We could only hope it would continue walking down the road. As it did, it occasionally stopped and looked or listened for something in the grasses along the edge before slowly resuming its path toward us. At one point, it stopped, cocked its head, crouched, and then pounced off into the vegetation, disappearing from our view. It stayed hidden for a couple of minutes, and did seem to lick around its mouth as it walked back out, perhaps satisfied with some quick snack – a rodent? a frog?, a small bird?…who knows.

Bobcat walking toward us

Bobcat walking toward us

Over the next several minutes, the Bobcat slowly made its way toward us, occasionally looking our way, but mainly checking out who-knows-what along the road edge. We both tried to keep our camera firing to a minimum because at times like these you realize how loud a camera shutter can be.

Bobcat sitting 2

Bobcat sitting in road

It finally just plopped its hindquarters down in the middle of the road, looked around, and then stared straight at us.

Bobcat sitting 1

Bobcat looking right at us

We both were holding our breath, admiring this beautiful wild creature that was sharing a part of its day with us.

Bobcat walking toward road edge

Bobcat walking toward road edge

It then slowly stood up and started to walk toward the opposite side of the road. This gave us a glimpse of its supple power, the combination of a gliding walk with a muscular frame. We both commented later on how all felines from house cats to lions have that same smooth, graceful movement.

Bobcat walking toward road edge looking at us

Bobcat walking toward road edge looking at us

As it continued, it angled back toward us, looking our way and then peering over into the nearby shrubs.

Bobcat close up

Bobcat right before it heads into brush

There is something magical about looking into the eyes of another animal, especially one as elusive and majestic as a Bobcat. It is a rare privilege to spend ten minutes or more with a predator, or any wild animal for that matter, observing it as it goes about its life, allowing you to glimpse into its mostly hidden world.

Bobcat steps into vegetation

Bobcat steps into vegetation

And then, it turned and silently vanished into the vegetation. We were speechless. We waited a few minutes, straining to hear a sound or see a movement that might indicate the Bobcat was still nearby. Nothing. We whispered wondering how close it had been when we last saw it. My friend finally paced it off – the Bobcat had been about 100 feet from where we sat. She turned to walk back toward me and the Bobcat slinked off, rustling a few branches as it went, unseen, into the safety of the forest. Neither of us had seen it while it apparently sat and watched us from maybe 30 feet as we walked and talked about the incredible, unforgettable encounter.