On Saturday, November 19, started nippy. I reached a remote area of the Shawnee State Forest in southern Ohio at dawn, the mercury at 13 degrees. Perfect, as I was after strange fleeting ice formations known as frost flowers. I found those, the first ones I had seen, but any finds that day would be overshadowed by a mammal.
The first creature I saw was a gray fox. It was a harbinger of things to come.
After finding and photographing numerous frost flowers – icy toppings that form around the base of dittany plants – my mind turned to birds. I drove into an old clearcut overgrown with vegetation, camera and big lens in tow. There were plenty of bird subjects – Hermit Thrushes, Pileated Woodpeckers, Purple Finches and more – but my luck of getting them in the lens was average.
A surprising sight
Eventually I made my way back to the vehicle and as I approached the lightly traveled forest lane, I calmed my steps. Everything crosses roads, and it can pay off to look up and down to see who may be.
Stealth paid off on this occasion. I slipped near the alley and looked down the hill. Not far away was an adult female bobcat leading two kittens across the road! I quickly put down the tripod and camera and started shooting.
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Mirrorless cameras make no sound when the shutter is pressed, and cats have never done that to me. The mother did not linger, immediately heading about 10 feet up the wooded hill. She began digging around and, as I later learned, opening the entrance to a mother’s den site.
The two kittens have lingered by the side of the road, and they are staring at mom in the attached photo. The kittens will be kittens, and they walk around a bit, even exchanging a few air bats. In all, I was able to observe them for over a minute before the family disappeared into their underground lair.
Bobcat population on the rebound
The resurgence of bobcats in Ohio is an environmental success story in a time of too many tales of doom. At the time of European settlement, small cats (male 30-35 lbs, female 25-30 lbs) would have been common throughout the state. Jack Gottschang, in his 1981 book, “A Guide to the Mammals of Ohio”, considered it unlikely that there were breeding bobcats in the state. Epic habitat loss, likely in tandem with early human persecution, has dramatically reduced bobcat numbers in the eastern United States.
In recent decades, bobcats have made a comeback. The proliferation of trail cameras has brought to light their increased number. It’s likely that all well-forested areas of Ohio have at least a few bobcats, and in optimal sites they may be at or near peak occupancy. The Ohio Division of Wildlife received 521 verified reports in 2021. From 1970 to the present, bobcats have been documented in 77 of our 88 counties, with most reports coming from the non-glacial mountain region.
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Most lynx kittens are born in the spring. The couple I saw were only about half the size of their mother, and I asked biologist and bobcat expert Laura Hughes for her opinion on their age. She thinks it’s possible that something happened to the queen’s spring litter (female bobcat). Young kittens are very vulnerable to predation in their first weeks. She probably bred again and had this pair around July, making them about 4-5 months old. They will stay with their mother for seven months or even longer, covering a home range that could be seven square miles or more. Their prey is mainly small mammals such as chipmunks, mice and rabbits.
Bobcats are a fascinating and important part of our natural heritage and a positive indication of the recovery of forest ecosystems. Ohio was approximately 95% forested at the time of settlement, dropping to perhaps 10-15% by the turn of the 20th century. Today, about a third of the state is forested.
Until the mid-1800s, two other wildcats were present in Ohio: the lynx and the cougar (mountain cougar). These big cats could not survive the human attack, and there is no hope for their recovery in Ohio. I and many other conservationists are thrilled that at least one of our three cats is making a comeback.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature atwww.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.
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