Alice Tjaden rushed to pick up her camera late Sunday, keen to capture an image of a furry something resting on a retaining wall at the bottom of its hill overlooking the Mississippi River.
The evening sky made the creature hard to see, but there was just enough daylight left to make out a beige coat, white and black mutton chops, a white belly, and spotty paws. Using Photoshop, Tjaden was able to brighten the image, revealing piercing yellow eyes and pointy, bushy ears.
It was not a fox, as her husband, Herb, had initially predicted. It was a lynx.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Tjaden said Tuesday from the back patio of his Burlington home above his sloping back yard.
Bobcats are native to Southeastern Iowa, but they are notoriously shy and rarely seen, which is why Tjaden was doubly surprised to see the big cat languish in one spot the next morning with daylight on him. allowing to admire and photograph the features of the majestic cat in full view.
“He / she was handsome,” Tjaden said.
Hearing the sound of Tjaden’s camera shutter, the cat, whom Tjaden calls Bob, left his post.
A regular contributor to the Pictures of Burlington Facebook page, Tjaden posted her photos of Bob there. The post was greeted with enthusiasm and admiration from the creature.
“Beautiful” and “gorgeous” were among the most commonly used words in the comments.
Others shared their own bobcat sighting stories and trail camera photos taken at night.
Seeing a bobcat during the day is rare, said Vince Evelsizer, fur-bearing animal biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
“They are very secret and especially nocturnal,” he said.
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A growing population of bobcats
It is for these reasons that it is difficult to determine the exact number of bobcats in an area. But population trends can be determined by a combination of surveys, the most telling being the Iowa Bowhunter Observation.
“There are a number of archery deer hunters who receive a survey from us and they fill it out during archery season,” Evelsizer explained. “They’re asked to record after each hunt how many deer they’ve seen and how many fur-bearing animals, so foxes, skunks, raccoons and bobcats, things like that. idea with this is that bow hunters remain quietly in camouflage for long periods of time and see other creatures besides deer. “
There’s also the Spring Spotlight Survey, in which MNR staff drive predetermined routes with searchlights and simply record all animals seen.
Through these surveys, it was determined that the bobcat population in southeast Iowa has experienced an increasing trend over the past three years. The 10-county region contains the most bobcats in the state.
Evelsizer said the increase could be linked to abundant prey possibly due to cyclical rodent populations, or other subtleties such as ideal times to breed and have litters.
A decrease in their two-legged predators may also be at play.
“Trap harvest and fur harvest could be down,” Evelsizer said. “It’s an aging population that is doing this and the fur market hasn’t been very strong in recent years.”
It was hunting that placed bobcats on the endangered species list.
A story of bobcats in Iowa
Bobcats are native to Iowa, but were almost extinct in the late 1800s and early 1900s due to unregulated trapping and shooting, as well as habitat loss.
“Europeans, when they first settled in Iowa in the mid to late 1800s, generally hated predators and viewed them as a threat to our livelihoods,” Evelsizer said. “There were a lot of family farms that had poultry and other animals, and there was no regulation back then.”
Bobcats in Iowa and other Midwestern states continued to decline over the following decades, and in 1977 bobcats were placed on the endangered species list.
They started making a comeback in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
A study of bobcats in southern Iowa by the DNR and Iowa State University that began in 2003 found that the genetics of bobcats in southern Iowa matched that of bobcats in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.
“What’s important about this is the bobcats that moved into Iowa, the breeding population started in southern Iowa and began to expand into other counties in southern Iowa. Iowa, ”Evelsizer said. “They weren’t from the north at all.
The study, which ended in 2011, also found that the population had become sustainable enough to allow hunting and trapping.
When is bobcat season?
In 2007, Iowa had its first regulated bobcat hunting season, with a quota of just 150 allowed across all counties in southern Iowa.
The limit has expanded somewhat, with counties in southeast Iowa allowing up to three bobcats per licensed trapper or hunter per season, which begins on the first Saturday of the first full week of November and ends on December 31st. More northern counties with lower populations limit hunting to one lynx per hunter or trapper.
“It’s pretty conservative,” Evelsizer said.
Maintain a balance
While most admired Tjaden’s bobcat, others advised caution.
“Beware of owners of small dogs,” said one person.
Bobcats are known to slaughter small dogs and cats in rural areas. But it happens most often at night, and Evelsizer noted that it had not been aware of many such cases in Southeast Iowa.
“Anyone who lives in a more rural area, especially where there are woods and has small pets and sees or hears a few bobcats, care should be taken with small dogs and cats,” said Evelsizer. “Lynxes can catch them and kill them if they are encountered at night.”
There are also fears that the increase in bobcat numbers is causing the Des Moines County turkey population to decline, which has declined in recent years. But there is no evidence of a link between the two yet.
MNR began researching turkeys in the area last winter, using rocket nets to catch the chickens and fitting them with radio transmitters to track their movements and the cause of their death.
“They would like to know if there is disease or things like black flies,” Evelsizer said of his colleagues.
Bobcats don’t hesitate to kill turkeys, especially young ones, but feeding studies have shown felines to be convenience hunters, eating mainly rabbits, squirrels and rodents, although they are also known to occasionally kill small deer.
Evelsizer, which hunts and traps itself as a means of population management, said they are predators like bobcats and coyotes – whose populations have declined slightly in southeast Iowa in recent years. years – which help control populations of other species.
“I think predators are a good thing to have ecologically, even though we humans might not like everything they do. They play an important role at the ecosystem level.” , Evelsizer said. “They often prey on or feed on weak and sick animals first, and that usually helps more animals stay physically fit, as predators chase them and only the strong survive. And this has genetic significance for it. fitness with all the wildlife out there. “
What is the litter of a bobcat?
At least one of Tjaden’s neighbors has reported seeing bobcats near their property, and Tjaden hopes she sees Bob again.
The frequency and frequency of these visits largely depends on whether Bob is male or female.
Male bobcats have a range of 22 square miles. This usually straddles the territories of two or three female bobcats, which have a litter of nine square miles in winter and seven in summer when raising kittens.
Bobcat kittens will stay in the den for about six weeks before joining their mother on her hunts. As they become more independent, males begin to search for their own territory in suitable habitat, leaving their mothers before females.
What to do if you see a bobcat
If you come across a bobcat, keep your distance, especially if you have young children or small animals with you.
Cats are notoriously shy and finicky, but that doesn’t mean they won’t attack if they feel threatened.
If you are not at a safe distance, back slowly and deliberately, make loud noises, or do both.
If you’re at a safe distance, “just take advantage of it,” Evelsizer said. “They’re pretty secretive. If they’re worried that it’s too close or too close to a pet, they may just scream or make noise to scare it.”