I’ve always considered myself an early riser, but along the way I’ve learned that early is a relative thing. When turkey season comes along in May, I feel like a slug-a-bed. It’s best to get out in the woods before it’s light at 5 A.M., which for me means getting up at 4. Unlike some friends who can just roll out of bed and into the woods, I can’t leave the house without coffee and cereal. Then, of course, with all this activity, the dog wakes up. I try to act like it’s a normal morning, but my birddog isn’t buying it and knows I’m going to leave him behind. And if he sees the shotgun, it’s even worse – I have to try to convince him that birddogs hunt grouse in the fall, not turkeys in the spring. That can take a while.
Which is why, one beautiful May morning a few years back, I could actually see where I was going as I headed to the woods. The sun hadn’t yet come up, and the only bird singing was the wood thrush, whose wondrous fluting lets his brethren know that once again he has beaten them out of bed. In that frail light, I turned up the skid road that would keep me in cover as I made my way up to the open hardwoods. Carrying my hen decoy and my 12-gauge shotgun, I was covered head to foot in camo, my pockets stuffed with every call I own.
On the trail, I noticed a clump of deer hair, not an uncommon sight. Then I saw another, and suddenly there were hunks all over the ground. For certain, a deer must have been wounded here. Then out of the corner of my eye, at the edge of the woods, not quite concealed by a cloak of pine needles, I saw a deer head. It was at the center of two concentric circles, the outer one bare ground raked clean, the inner a mound of the dried leaves and needles. Picture a fried egg, sunny side up. The white is the ground scraped bare. The yolk is the rounded pile of needles, but sticking up out of the yolk is a deer’s head. If that sounds dreamlike, so be it – the sight was every bit as incongruous as any dream you’ve ever tried to tell.
Who caches its kill? Cats do. Clearly this deer had been taken down, partially eaten, and the remnants buried for a later meal by a large cat. “How large a cat, precisely?” I asked myself as I poked around in its larder. Recent credible catamount sightings came quickly to mind, but I convinced myself that this was certainly a bobcat.
As a predator (for what else can you call a man dressed as I was?), I’m fascinated when I come upon a kill site. In the winter, I’ve happened upon the wing tips of raptors printed in the snow, accompanied by signs of a struggle and maybe bits of blood. And I’ve come upon concentrations of feathers of turkey or grouse, the carcass gone. These experiences bring home the precariousness of life in the woods, but never have I come across such a compelling kill site.
I pictured the bobcat quietly crouching on a stout lower limb of one of the weevilly pines along the trail and then leaping onto the deer’s back as it passed beneath. The deer would have died from a bite to the neck that crushed its windpipe.
But the violence of that life-and-death struggle was made incongruous by its resolution in the oh-so-tidy cache. The pine needles couldn’t have been raked any more effectively by a well-paid groundskeeper. I imagined the well-fed bobcat sitting on the carcass, reaching out with its front paws, and methodically raking the needles into the mound of protective cover.
That cover proved not to be particularly effective, for not only did I discover its contents, but so did a competing animal. I returned the next three mornings to find the carcass had been dragged farther uphill each time, and more and more of it eaten. A biologist told me it was probably a coyote that was feeding on the deer each night. And then the fourth morning it was gone – head, feet, ribs, hide.
It’s a wild world out there. While hunting, I’ve seen fisher, weasels and mink, foxes and coyotes, but the one local predator that I haven’t seen is the one who starred in this drama. To be sure, bobcats are less plentiful than these others, but they are also incredibly good at remaining invisible. Coyotes might be stealthy, but over time, you’re bound to see them. The red fox is an exhibitionist by comparison. But the bobcat, who knows if I’ll ever catch a glimpse of one, even if it’s right there.