Foxes and bobcats are ghosts of the woods

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I begin 2017 with a resolution to see two of the more elusive mammals that occupy my woods — a gray fox and a bobcat. Both are cryptically colored and difficult to see in their natural habitat.

Though winter woods seem to provide little cover, it’s amazing how well these two ghostly apparitions can simply vanish before one’s eyes. Their muted grays and browns blend in perfectly against a background of naked gray trees.

For example, several years ago I glanced out a living room window on a chilly March evening and noticed movement near the compost pile. A gray fox was sampling our leftovers.

Vanished quickly

I watched with my naked eyes, and then suddenly — poof — it was gone. Its salt-and-pepper pelage acted as an invisibility cape. A few minutes later the fox dashed across the yard in hot pursuit of a fleeing cottontail.

The rabbit escaped the fox with a series of zig-zag hops. The fox then faded into the woods. That was the best look at a wild gray fox I have ever had.

The only ones I had seen previously were quickly vanishing forms along a road or on the edge of the woods.

Avoiding detection

Gray foxes are wary and nocturnal, and they usually avoid detection.

Like all canids, foxes are opportunistic carnivores, but they’ll eat just about anything when food is scarce. And like most members of the dog family, foxes store surplus food in shallow holes they cover with leaves and dirt.

They mark these caches with urine and return later when hungry. Gray foxes are native to the hardwood forests of North America, and they are surprisingly well adapted to climbing trees.

The long, sharp, curved claws on their front feet enable them to shinny straight up a tree trunk and jump from branch to branch. This skill may explain why gray foxes eat so many birds.

More rare

Though gray foxes are elusive, spotting a wild bobcat is an even greater challenge. Over the years, I’ve seen a few road kills, but glimpses of live bobcats have been few and rare.

Bobcats are surely more common than most people suspect. Rural mail carriers and UPS drivers see them quite regularly. But they’re shy, secretive, and primarily nocturnal — another woodland ghost.

The few I’ve seen over the years have been crossing the road at night. My only daytime observation was in southern Oklahoma.

I was birding early one morning and sensed I was being watched. I turned to the forest edge, and there sat a bobcat about 20 yards away, staring at me from the cover of a red cedar thicket.

By the time I raised my binoculars, it was gone. I had to wonder if I had actually seen what I knew I had.

Thrilling experience

Watching a bobcat is thrilling, but it almost certainly sees you first. They’re too small to be a threat to humans, though I suppose a toddler might be fair game.

This widespread spotted cat is about twice the size of a big house cat, with proportionally longer legs. Its spots can be quite subtle. Bobcats weigh 10-40 pounds. The tip of the bobbed tail is black above and white below.

Bobcats inhabit a wide range of habitats from rugged woodlands to swamps and deserts. Like most cats, bobcats are ambush predators; their primary foods include rabbits, squirrels, ground hogs, fawns, turkeys, grouse and small rodents.

On a scale of elusiveness, gray foxes rank just behind bobcats, but seeing either one is equally exciting and makes for a lifelong memory.

I hope I’m not being greedy, but I’d sure like to see both of these ghostly mammals this year. Wish me luck. And happy New Year!

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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