Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Cougars and Bobcats and Bears, Oh My! Where the Wild Things Are

Actually, they’re right here—at Berryridge Farm. Or close by.

This month marks three years since a cougar killed all our hens. (After all this time, it's still painful to walk by the deserted chicken run...sometimes I think I still hear them clucking.) And just weeks ago, our closest neighbor’s Sharpei (a good-sized dog) was badly mauled by a cougar. That said, cougar sightings in our area are extremely rare. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, a male cougar will roam a home range of about 50 to 150 square miles, and a female about half that. ( I understand it’ll take about six months for these big cats to cycle through a given hunting ground—we’ll know one is prowling around when the scat shows up on the road.

Now bobcats, we’ll see a couple of times a year, generally skulking around at the edge of the woods. I saw one a few weeks ago near the main road, where someone had recently cut down a big stand of firs. Last summer, John and I had the extraordinary experience of seeing one at close range. One day when I was watering our biggest blueberry patch, a young bobcat came into our yard, not at all spooked by we humans. We were in the middle of a long dry spell, and I thought maybe this bobcat had come close because it was thirsty. We put out a bowl of water a good distance away, hoping it would take a drink. The cat lingered in the yard, but never did go near the bowl.

When it comes to bear sightings, I’ve never seen one on our ten acres. But I have seen more bear scat around here in the past year than any other. Again, it’s always in the middle of the road! (I guess they like to take their breaks while keeping an eye out for threats. Although who’s going to threaten a bear, I ask you?) As far as identifying bear scat: not to be too graphic, folks, but it's easy to recognize. It looks like a small pile of asphalt, and in the summertime has what appears to be fruit pits mixed in. I imagine it’s the pits of either Bitter cherry or Indian Plum fruit, both native trees.

Even if bears stay on the down low on our property, I have seen black bears nearby, usually when I’m riding my bike near our place. Last summer, I was heading out on my bike on the main road below our property when an adult bear (huge!) followed by (count ‘em) three cubs lumbered across the pavement. I quickly did a U-y, and backed up to watch them. The foursome disappeared into the woods on the other side of the road, but I could still hear the crackle through the brush. I kept watching, and within moments, they appeared again, on a high ridge—heading up an all but vertical slope. I couldn’t believe how fast they could travel almost straight uphill.
A few months before, I was riding about four miles from home when a saw a small tree tremble like someone really strong was shaking it from below. Or an earthquake was happening. There was a loud crack as a limb broke, and a young bear dropped out of the tree. Seemingly unhurt, it scurried into the brush.

My last sighting, not long ago, was also the oddest. And funniest. I was again on my bike, and some distance away, next to the road, I saw what looked to be a man, dressed in dark brown. He was hugging a telephone pole! (Or, I wondered, was it a guy taking a “comfort break”? But really, in full view of cars?) Anyway, as I got closer, I saw it was a young bear. He had both arms around the pole, and was moving up and down against it to scratch his tummy. As a car approached, though, he quit scratching. The driver stopped so he could cross the road, and he sauntered into the trees.

Luckily, all these predators are big enough so you can see them coming. A couple of days ago, though, I saw a much smaller creature I’d never seen before in all our years here in the Foothills. It appeared to be a rodent, although lots bigger than a mouse, vole, or even a rat. I was again, watering the blueberries when this little bugger leaped out of the brush, and boinged across the yard like a small kangaroo. Five jumps and about 15 yards later, it dove into a clump of thimbleberry. Was it a Weasel? A kanga-rat? I have no clue.

Back to the big guys. I’ve learned to accept that large and scary wild animals are close by, and hope that if I mind my own business, they will mind theirs. Recently, a Fish and Wildlife officer was patrolling our road, and pulled into our driveway to introduce himself. John and I had a nice chat with him, but most helpful was his tip about encountering wild creatures: “Just remember that they are far more scared of you than you are of them.”

Wise words. I just hope our local wild things keep cooperating. And if you can identify my mystery mini-kangaroo critter, I hope you’ll share it here!