One hot afternoon during a recent heat wave, I saw an animal streaking across the road ahead of me in the hollow where I live. My brain was churning trying to identify what I was looking at. The first word that came to mind was âfox.â Lots have been crossing the road lately. As I got closer, the animal suddenly turned back the way it had come, so I got a chance to see more of it as I slowed down and finally stopped in the middle of the road. I realized it was not a fox, but a cat of some sort.
Too big for a domestic cat, so it must be a Bobcat (Lynx Rufus) I thought, no matter how rare such sightings are, especially at that time of day. Bobcats, which are native to Virginia, are extremely shy of humans, stealthy, and nocturnal. And it didnât look like any ones Iâd ever seen in photos or live in zoos. Was it a mutant, or an exotic species that had escaped or been released?
The cat climbed the short, steep bank on the side of the road and attempted unsuccessfully to get through the sheep fence at the top. At that point, it was about 10 feet from the car. It looked back at me, giving me the most feral look Iâd ever seen â the essence of wildness.
Through my master-naturalist training and years of observation, Iâd learned two things about wildlife identification: look for key âpointsââ physical and behavioral characteristics specific to a species that differentiates it from other species; and assume the species is common, not rare, until proven otherwise.
Bobcats Iâd seen typically had been bigger and sturdier, with medium-length fur accented with spots and stripes and a relatively short tail (for which the cat got its name) thatâs furry and thick. This cat, by contrast, was quite thin, on the smallish size, had almost uniformly grayish-brown on the top (white underneath, which is typical of Bobcats and cougars), and had a skinny tail almost half its body length, I estimated the cat to be about 20 inches long and 16 inches high.
I have to admit I also considered fleetingly whether it could be a cougar cub, keeping in mind that the likelihood of cougarsâ running wild here is a controversial subject about which I have not reached any conclusions. In any case, the overall size and shape just did not fit. And it had the Bobcatâs distinctive tufts of fur along jaw, with a black stripe running through each, and the head was the right shape. The tail also had the Bobcatâs characteristic white tip and black patch just preceding that. I kicked myself later for not noting whether the cat had tufts on its earsâanother key ID point. If it was indeed a Bobcat, it was likely young, a female, or both.
As soon as I got back to the house, I looked online for images of Bobcats, finding quite a bit of variation, but none that looked close to the one Iâd seen. Still not completely sure of the catâs ID, I sent a description to two wildlife expertsâLou Verner, a wildlife biologist with the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries, and Marshall Jones, a former deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who now works for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal and is deeply involved in tiger conservation.
âStill sounds like a bobcat to me,â Lou responded. âBobcats, like all species, exhibit a certain amount of variability with regard to physical traits such as coat color, tail length, etc.â Regarding the tail, he wrote that some are quite long and âropey.â
âEverything else in your description is certainly consistent with bobcat,â he concluded, adding, âConsider yourself lucky to get that much of a look at one!â
It was good to get confirmation on the ID, and I totally concurred that it was an unusual stroke of luck to see such a shy species, particularly during the day. Marshall basically backed up what Lou had said and also congratulated me on the sighting, writing, âAfter more than 40 years of observations, I’m still waiting to have my first unambiguous sighting of a wild bobcat, though I’ve seen a number in captivityâ¦.â He added that he had once seen an animal running across the road in Rappahannock County at night that, he wrote, âcertainly gave me pause because of its combination of long tail, apparent tawny color, and the way it moved (more like a cat than a dog.).â Noting he had a much poorer view of that animal than I did of the cat I saw, he concluded his experience showed him âhow much variability there can be in what our brains tell us we’ve seen in animal encounters.â
As Arthur Conan Doyleâs Sherlock Holmes famously said, ââ¦when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.â In this instance, it was more about eliminating the highly improbable to confirm the likely.
Pam Owen is a wildlife writer that lives deep in the woods of Rappahannock County. She pens a blog Wild Ideas in the Blue Ridge and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org