Along the muddy shoreline of the Winooski River where the silver maples stretch their long limbs out over the water, I always look for animal tracks hoping to find the tracks of a bobcat. Bobcats leave round, golf ball sized tracks with four slightly asymmetrical toes pads, the middle toe leading the rest. Bobcat tracks in Burlington are rare. My chances of finding them along the Winooski River are better than most places in town. These wildcats ghost along the river mostly at night hoping to avoid encounters with humans and dogs. Their motion is fluid, like the water they follow. Their desire to remain hidden means they often flow through the lowest points of a landscape in hedgerows and gullies. Bobcats are an elusive, quiet presence in our City.
Although they are not common in Burlington, bobcats are the most common wildcat in North America. In Vermont, bobcats are at the northern edge of their range. (As the climate warms, they will likely expand their range further northward.) Here in the Champlain Valley the bobcat is a prolific hunter of squirrels, mice, rabbits and even deer. In the boreal forest north of us, their close relative the Northern Lynx eventually takes over hunting for snowshoe hares in deep snow on its big furry feet.
During the early years of European settlement, bobcat numbers increased as lynx, mountain lions, and wolves were hunted to local extinction. Bobcats thrived in the cleared landscape of 1800s by hunting the forest edges for smaller prey such as rabbits, woodchucks, and mice. Bobcat numbers started to decline when coyotes moved eastward into Vermont in the 1940s and fisher were reintroduced in the 1950s. Both of these animals compete with the bobcats for food. Now bobcat populations appear to be holding steady in Vermont at a healthy number lower than their peak in the 1950s.
Lina Swislocki, who served as the Land Stewardship Research Associate at the Intervale Center, found herself coordinating a game camera project throughout the lower Winooski River valley last spring. I went out with her one day setting out game cameras with a fellow Vermont Master Naturalist and St. Michaels professor, Declan McCabe, and Intervale Center Natural Areas Stewardship Coordinator, Duncan Murdoch. We bushwhacked through head-high grasses as we crossed fields to find suitable trees to attach the cameras to. The cameras bore fruit registering over 600 images of animals from bobcats and coyotes to raccoons and mice.
“Seeing a bobcat on our game cameras always felt like a big prize. Of the animals we saw, they felt like one of the most elusive, and seeing them was a very special treat. I was especially excited when we got some videos of a bobcat in the snow. It sat in front of the camera lens and spent about 30 minutes preening and grooming itself. My housecat exhibits nearly identical mannerisms, so it was funny and heartwarmingly familiar to see the same behavior in a wild animal.”
The game camera project — part of a best management practices sharing partnership between the Intervale and other stakeholders along the lower Winooski River — was intended to determine what animals are present on the landscape and which, if any, landscape features or characteristics they find more attractive.
In a previous study that involved trapping and radio-collaring bobcats and monitoring their movements in the Champlain Valley from 2005 to 2007, the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife and UVM found that home-range size averages 9 square miles for females and 27 square miles for males: https://vtfishandwildlife.com/sites/fishandwildlife/files/documents/Hunt/trapping/bobcat-study.pdf The size of Burlington is about 15.5 square miles. So the Burlington landscape can theoretically support a female bobcat or a male using the Burlington landscape as part of its home-range.
A trail camera placed in Centennial Woods by Crows Path executive director, Teage O’Connor, captured footage of a female bobcat and her young of the year feeding on a deer carcass in last November. A (bigger) male bobcat also showed up at the same foraging site. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4S9Jf-7YlIw
Red foxes den in multiple sites in Burlington, but no one has documented a bobcat den in the 20 years that we have been keeping track. The sandy soils in Burlington make great denning sites for red foxes who dig underground burrows. Bobcats prefer to use rocky dens for raising young. So their choices are more limited in Burlington.
I recently borrowed a furbearer kit from Vermont Fish and Wildlife for a Vermont Master Naturalist educational program. The bobcat pelt it contained was about twice the size of a housecat. The caramel, gray, and black pelt looked long, lanky, and lithe. I stroked the black ears and tail tip and the soft white underbelly fur with its endearing black spots. It was easy to imagine young kits snuggled up to the warm belly for a meal. Bobcat kits score a 10 on the scientific scale of “adorability.” Bobcats usually birth between two and four of them. What do the kits need to thrive and grow into adults? Food, water, and perhaps the most limiting factor in the Champlain Valley: shelter.
The Champlain Valley study showed that bobcats faithfully moving through hedgerows and avoiding open grounds while hunting and on the move. This data helped shape the follow up research by Swislocki and others.
“We were particularly interested in waterways and hedgerows – and in the size and quality of habitat for each,” Swislocki says about the Lower Winooski River Project.
In the Champlain Valley, bobcats will follow any available hedgerows to get from a forest patch to another forest patch or river. When hedgerows are removed, land managers may need to replace those connections between forest patches, waterways, and wetlands and grow new cover for bobcats.
I may run into you when I am out this winter along the Winooski River looking for bobcat tracks. Or I may be lucky enough to find a place where a bobcat has backed up against a stump to leave a scent mark. The small patch of potently cat-smelling yellow snow will be a message to other bobcats: “I live here.” And, believe it or not, it will warm my heart. That scent mark means that this place I call home has at least one bobcat calling it home, too.
Written by: Alicia Daniel is the Field Naturalist at Burlington Parks, Recreation and Waterfront and Executive Director of Vermont Master Naturalist.
More tips on identifying bobcat tracks by Sophie Mazowita:
Bobcat tracks are approx. 2″ in diameter (think golf ball size or larger), compared to house cat tracks that are typically half that length and width. They have protractile claws that usually don’t show in their tracks but can be extended from their protective sheaths to gain purchase on slippery surfaces, when moving at high speed or to grasp prey. They also have a large trapezoidal-shaped palm pad that may show 2 lobes at the top and 3 lobes on the bottom. Contrast that to the triangular pad of a fox, dog or coyote. Another tip for distinguishing cat family and dog family tracks is to imagine picking up the toes from the track and trying to fit them inside the palm pad (technically the metacarpal pad on a front foot and the metatarsal pad on a hind): in a dog track, you could probably fit just two toes- if even that- on top of the palm pad before you run out of space. A bobcat or housecat track, meanwhile, has such a large palm pad relative to the toes that you could typically fit at least 3 toes into that pad.
On searching for bobcat tracks:
Muddy or sandy shorelines are a great place to look for bobcat tracks, not only because bobcats frequent shoreline and wetland areas, but also because those make great “track traps” that hold clear impressions of their footprints. Once the winter snows come, you can find tracks more widely across the landscape. Look for them at wetland and shrub edges or traveling along fallen trees, beaver dams and old stone fences–any natural bridges or high points across the land– and along rocky cliff ledges. You may find a break in their regular walking pattern where they sat or crouched, lying in wait to ambush their prey.
On reporting bobcat tracks:
If you see something that might be a bobcat track, you can report it to the Burlington Mammal Tracking Project at https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/burlington-vt-mammal-tracking
Feature image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobcat#/media/File:Bobcat-Texas-9110.jpg