It was January, 2009, pre-dawn. A long brushstroke of ultramarine painted by a steady hand adorned the eastern horizon as I arrived at the Round Valley trailhead. Within 10 minutes I was stomping up a steep off-trail hill. Halfway to the crest, I paused to contemplate what I normally contemplate on my pre-dawn jaunts – nothing in particular.
I’d been inert on the incline for about a minute, wearing the stillness like a cloak, when the corner of my right eye caught the flicker of a shadow in motion. Then it came into focus: the silhouette of a bobcat loping along a cattle path, passing 30 feet in front of me in the smoky luminescence of twilight.
The air was perfectly still. The cat, despite its purposeful pace, was perfectly silent. Had I not stopped before it rounded the warp of the hill, had I been swishing my way through the hill’s short grasses, the cat would have heard me and taken a detour.
If you’re an East County hiker with a hankering to spot large wildlife, hit the trail before sunrise or after sunset. You’ll spot the coyote most often and the cougar least. The bobcat falls somewhere in the middle – more plentiful than the cougar but like the cougar, nocturnal, stealthy and unwilling to let you get close. You’d expect as much from a creature whose livelihood depends on ambush.
Though it tips the scales at 20 to 30 pounds, making it only twice the size of a large housecat, the adult lynx rufus is one tough customer. Like its larger cousin the cougar (120 to 150 pounds), the bobcat has been known to take down an adult deer. Its preferred method of closing the deal is a leap uncoiled from cunning cover. In the unlikely event you get within 15 feet of a bobcat, be aware that it can make contact with you without ever making contact with the ground.
A bobcat’s handsome markings and diminutive size might inspire you to offer the cuddly looking creature a saucer of milk. Resist that temptation. Here are three things every hiker should know about bobcats:
As a citizen of the wild the bobcat’s a creature of instinct. You won’t find Raw Human on its menu. It interprets you – your flesh, your mere presence – as strange and undesirable. So relax.
On the other hand, as a creature of instinct the bobcat is susceptible to mistaking you for prey. Should you crouch down, it doesn’t see a crouching human; it sees an object the size of breakfast. This is why children shouldn’t be roaming around unattended at dawn and dusk – bobcat time. Pointer No. 1: In the presence of a bobcat, make yourself as large an object as possible. Stand up and raise your arms.
Another thing that flips the cat’s switch is an object in fast motion. The chase instinct in felines is powerful. It’s why runners and cyclists are at special risk in our regional parks at dawn and dusk. A bobcat that spots you zipping down the trail might not want to eat you, but it might not overcome the urge to run you down.
It’s especially wise to slow down on narrow, winding trails. In heavily foliated passages or when the wind is up, a bobcat might not hear you coming round the bend. If it knows you’re approaching, a bobcat will surrender the trail to you. If you surprise it and it make it feel cornered or threatened, you could be in trouble. Pointer No. 2: When hiking at bobcat time, slow down. And if you suddenly meet the cat up close and personal, back off nice and easy. Don’t run.
Daylight hikers who enjoy exploring off-trail should make a special point of engaging their bobcat radar. Bobcats tend to establish more than one den. See that cave or rocky shelter? It could be a bobcat’s main den – and a female bobcat’s natal den. Don’t assume any critter inhabiting a hollow log or fallen tree is giving you a pass. At dawn and dusk, avoid deep-cut arroyos laced with sheltering tree roots and pocked with large holes. These could be bobcats’ auxiliary dens. Pointer No. 3: Steer clear of rough neighborhoods.
If you encounter a cat in the wild, look for the bobbed tail, tufted ears and face, and dark bars on the inside forelegs. The cat won’t hang around for long, so savor the moment. You’re one of a fortunate few to have caught a glimpse of one of the world’s most adaptable and resourceful creatures, a true survivor – the cat in the shadows.