Bobcats don’t always live up to their repu- tations for being secretive creatures. My first bobcat encounter involved one racing toward me, charging like a freight train out of the woods.
I’d been quietly photographing wildflowers in an adjacent
meadow at the foot of Mount tamalpais when I heard it coming,
a wild thing thrashing through dry leaves and snapping twigs.
I didn’t have time to run, so I braced myself. all of a sudden the
wildcat hit the brakes as it emerged from the woods and met my
eyes — and just as suddenly, it spun around and bounded away
through the woods. looking through the tangle of coast live
oak, hazel and douglas fir, I spotted a second bobcat following
on its heels. a male and female, I surmised, after hearing the
unmistakable yowling of bobcat passion in the canyon below.
My next run-in with Lynx rufus occurred in the same general
area, but this time the encounter was much closer. the cat was
facing away from me, perched on a rocky outcrop where it was
focused on something directly below and hidden from my view.
the cat looked back over its shoulder at me once — I was no more
than 10 feet away — but quickly snapped its attention back to its
intended prey, which turned out to be a baby deer.
when the cat raised and wiggled its rump, I knew it was about
to pounce. as it dropped out of sight behind the rock, the fawn
bleated in horror, drawing its alarmed mother out of the nearby
brush where she’d been feeding. the doe looked accusingly at me
for a moment but quickly realized the blame lay elsewhere and
charged to the rescue. no match in size for a full-grown mother
deer, the luckless bobcat escaped like a shot out of the brush
and clawed straight up a douglas fir tree. the doe and fawn
soon ambled, apparently unscathed, into the woods. Fir needles
drizzled down from the bobcat’s perch.
when I moved from a small town in the sierra nevada moun-
tains to san Francisco more than 20 years ago I immediately
set out to explore the wild lands across the Golden Gate bridge.
thanks to the work of everyone who fought to preserve the
coast as open space, there’s a nearly unbroken wildlife corridor
stretching from the Marin Headlands to the Point Reyes national
seashore. bobcats can be encountered along the whole stretch.
over many years of weekend jaunts, I would occasionally
see a bobcat here and there. the encounters were usually brief
and always spontaneous, an excellent surprise. once in a while
I met a cat that wouldn’t run away before I could photograph it.
the first of those cooperative cats had a radio collar so deeply bur-
ied in its fur that I didn’t even notice it until I enlarged the photos.
a little bit of online sleuthing turned up one of the biologists who’d
done the collaring as part of a study on bobcats that live near urban
areas. I was amazed to learn that the biologist had last collared a cat
in that area
10 years before I’d taken my photograph. the life span
of a wild bobcat is about 12 years, and I suspect the advanced age of
the cat is what made it so tolerant of my presence.
subsequent experience would teach me that a younger bobcat
might also tolerate being close to humans. as I spent more time
photographing the animals, I eventually learned to tell them apart.
all of a sudden they weren’t simply random animals, but specific
cats with recognizable facial markings, gaits and even personalities.
three of them — I nicknamed them de niro, Redford and
Rocky — were males who accepted my presence for as long as
a couple of hours at a time, and on more than one occasion. I
called them the three kings because they seemed to be the lords
of their territories — wildcat royalty.
I’ve tagged along with them as they’ve prowled across the
landscape, from soggy meadow to windswept hillside. I’ve
watched each of them stalk, pounce on, capture and devour prey.
I’ve investigated their scats. I’ve watched them clean their fur,
scent-mark their territories and enjoy a bit of warm sunshine on
a frosty morning. I once photographed de niro while he slept,
even as he dreamed (his rapid eye movement beneath closed lids
as plain to see as on a sleeping person).
I’ve also watched a healthy cat become sickly, as in the case of
Redford. there is no comfort for an ailing bobcat — no family or
friends to catch extra gophers, no doctors to kill the parasites,
no paid sick leave. although I felt pity for the unfortunate animal, it evinced no pity for itself.
there were a couple of years when I saw the three kings so
frequently I wondered how I’d ever missed them. then, one
winter, everything seemed to change. Redford seemed unable
to recover from his illness, or perhaps from his old age. toward
the end of March that year, I saw him for the last time. summer
passed, then fall, and finally it was winter again — the best time
to look for bobcats — but still no Redford. nor did I catch so
much as a glimpse of Rocky in any of his old meadow haunts. I
did see de niro again, looking cocky as ever, but only once.
Just when I thought I was getting to know them, the cats dis-
appeared, once again living up to their reputations for secrecy,
and reminding me to savor every precious sighting.