The Tangle Test

Bobcat5There are many ways to rate a day. Perhaps you determine a day’s merit by how many to-do items you’ve crossed off, how many hours you spent outside, how many friends you ran into around town. My personal favorite rating system is the tangle test. By this measure, the best days leave me with bits of the field tangled in my braid as I untwist it in the evening.

Take February 20th, so good I couldn’t even wait until evening to untangle the mess and try to force my hair back into some semblance of order. As our van pulled away from the LaPlatte River Natural Area in Shelburne, my fingers battled a bird-worthy nest of twigs. Apparently that’s what happens when I, in true naturalist form, try to be a bobcat.

Professor Matt Kolan explained to our wildlife management class that simply following an animal’s trail as long as you can is one of the best ways to learn about wildlife behavior and habitat needs. Beyond just knowing which animals are present, you begin to piece together stories of how they use particular habitat features or interact with other animals.

The bobcat we chose to track for the afternoon trotted along an open trail, directly over a set of gray fox prints. It paused, marking a mound of sticks and snow before moving on. It moved casually, seemingly unconcerned about being exposed, but it did not dally, either.

The tracks led into a thicket of honeysuckle. Army-crawling through slush, innumerable twigs lodging in my hair, I studied how the cat navigated the mess of branches. Contrary to cottontails’ hopes, the bobcat seemed undeterred by the shrubs. The trail weaved throughout the thicket, crossing many older, nearly snowed in tracks and joined at times by another larger set. The stand of honeysuckle, that odious invasive, appeared to be a favored hunting ground for the bobcat.

Perusal of a field guide could have taught me most of this. Bobcats prey on small mammals, such a cottontails. Cottontails require dense, shrubby areas for cover. Naturally, bobcats would likely hunt in areas preferred by cottontails. Simple enough. What may not have been evident, however, is that a reviled invasive species could be serving that important habitat role for both cottontail and bobcat.

Time in the field, dirt time, is the only way to fully appreciate nature’s quirks, to learn that bobcats don’t care whether it’s a thicket of invasive honeysuckle or native dogwood as long as prey can still be found. Days with plenty of good dirt time always pass the tangle test. The bits of vegetation I wrestled from my braid that February afternoon were tokens of a great day, full of learning not found on the pages of books.

Clare Crosby is a first year master’s candidate in the Field Naturalist/Ecological Planning Program. If she’s not getting things caught in her hair, she’s probably doing some sort of less adventurous school work, playing music with friends, seeking out shenanigans, or perhaps being a little too excited about a youtube video involving fluffy animals.

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