Sept/Oct 2014Island of the Bobcatsby Cheryl Lyn Dybas
X marks the spot for bobcats on South Carolina's Kiawah Island.
It's on the prowl from three hours before sunset until midnight, and again before dawn until three hours after sunrise. Each night, it moves two to seven miles, mostly along the same route. Along the way it visits known locales, just like the humans in whose shadows it lives.
Its favorite stomping grounds are a brush pile or thicket, or the shadows beneath swaying sweet grass.
It's a bobcat, and only rarely do it and people cross paths. Or so we thought. But in fact, bobcats are very much among us here, stealthily making their way through rural woodlands and suburban neighborhoods, across meandering streams, highway bridges and golf course fairways.
Dawn on a November morning. Sunlight streams through low-hanging clouds and loblolly pines, dappling a road that cuts across Kiawah Island, an 8,000-acre barrier island and popular resort destination fifteen miles south of Charleston. Ours is the only vehicle in sight. I'm traveling with Jim Jordan, lead wildlife biologist for the Town of Kiawah Island. Suddenly, we spot a reflection where there should be none: oncoming, dead ahead. The truck's low beams meet a yellow-green glow, the eyeshine of a tawny, hunched-over creature; a bobcat for sure!
We skid to a stop. For a heartbeat or two, the cat does the same, gazing at us with seeming curiosity. Then, with a flick of the short tail for which it's named, it's gone, vanished under one of the 1,100 villas on the island. Stunningly, it's actually the very condo in which I'm staying. "The place should be renamed 'Bobcat Villa,' " quips Jordan. "What are the chances . . .?"
We pull into the first open parking space, jump out of Jordan's truck and scramble through the shrubby wax myrtle that's everywhere on the island. In the dense vegetation, we learn to prowl like a bobcat. Soon we crouch beneath the corner of the villa, where Jordan points to not one, but two pairs of feline eyes staring back at us. A female bobcat and her nearly-grown kitten are curled up, hiding in the crawl space under "Bobcat Villa."
We sit in silence on our haunches, savoring an experience that's rare - in most locations in the country. Places other than Kiawah Island, that is.
"Bobcat observations are usually few and far between," says Jordan, "but not on Kiawah." In the decade or more Jordan has studied Lynx rufus, the bobcat's scientific name, he's often glimpsed the cats several times a week. Almost anywhere on Kiawah, X marks the spot for bobcats.
"The extensive maritime forest that lies just behind Kiawah's oceanfront dunes offers bobcats the cover they need to hunt prey and raise young," says Jordan. More than thirty-five bobcats roam the island's underbrush, more than double the density on the South Carolina mainland.
Bobcats on the increase
Found in most continental U.S. states, bobcat numbers are on the rise across the country. After more than two decades of limited hunting and trapping, bobcats are bouncing back in a big way.
The felines are twice as large as housecats. They walk with stooped postures, characteristic stubby tails up. The carnivores - whose favorite meal on Kiawah is cotton rats (cottontail rabbits elsewhere in the country) - live six to eight years and have few natural predators, other than humans. Bobcats don't have it made in the shade, however.
The bobcat has one of the most valuable pelts of all of South Carolina's furbearer species, according to biologist Jay Butfiloski of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and head of the agency's furbearer management program. The demand for bobcat furs has increased, he and other scientists say, as a result of the ban on international trade of endangered wild cat species. Bobcats aren't classified as endangered, but their harvest is nonetheless carefully monitored.
In South Carolina, bobcats are among the furbearers that may be hunted or trapped in season. Hunting season dates for bobcats and other furbearers are listed in the annual Hunting and Fishing State Regulation Guide published by the DNR (available online at www.dnr.sc.gov). Trapping may take place from December 1 through March 1 and requires a commercial fur harvester's license issued by the DNR. Additional rules specific to trapping can also be found on the DNR website.
On Kiawah Island though, no bobcat hunting is allowed. "The island has an ordinance prohibiting the discharge of firearms," says Jordan, "making shooting a bobcat illegal [here]."
Tracking a (sometimes) elusive feline
To learn why Kiawah is high-end real estate for bobcats as well as people, Jordan sets cage traps baited with Bantam roosters. The roosters are protected in enclosed rear parts of the cages. "A rooster's job," he says, "is to entice a bobcat into the front."
Once captured, each cat is weighed, measured and examined to determine its overall health. Researchers then outfit it with a radio-collar that uses satellite technology to track its wanderings.
Over the past decade, Jordan and other biologists have monitored dozens of bobcats on the island, including the "Bobcat Villa" bobcat. "With GPS data," says Jordan, "we can identify the corridors where bobcats travel. It turns out that they use neighborhood woodlands, marsh edges and golf courses as feline highways."
Here a cat, there a cat, everywhere a bobcat
Kiawah's rows upon rows of pines, wax myrtle thickets and long sandy beaches are nirvana for bobcats. The cats have been spotted sitting on manhole covers, on docks, by lagoons and curbs, and along beach boardwalks. A few have even relaxed on homeowners' decks, dozing away the afternoon. Some have sauntered into open carports and garages. Still others have sipped water from birdbaths, watching nearby humans doing outdoor chores.
People on bicycles, in cars, on foot, on porches, walking dogs . . . bobcats have treated all with nonchalance, including the stars of the 94th PGA Championship, held on Kiawah in 2012.
While human eyes were watching Tiger Woods, other eyes were on the course. A female bobcat wearing a GPS collar claimed the best view in the house. Among thousands of people who crowded what's known as the Ocean Course, the bobcat sauntered around hole numbers four and five, finally chosing a spot: in a sand dune near hole eight.
Bobcats frequently criss-cross the Ocean Course, exiting into nearby backyards. On many afternoons, Jean Sussman, who's lived near the course for fifteen years, has a visitor of the feline kind.
"At least one bobcat comes and sits under my palmetto trees," says Sussman. "Usually it's a lone male bobcat, but sometimes a female will show up with her kittens. They'll follow me with their eyes as I go about my business, then head back toward the golf course.
"Like right now!" she exclaims, pointing to a bobcat not six feet away as it rustles through grasses at the edge of her yard. "He's looking for his usual place for an afternoon nap."
Bobcats regularly rest along the fairways, she says. "I've seen them just taking in the human passersby."
Sussman's experiences mirror those of hundreds of residents and visitors on Kiawah every year, says Bill Lacey, manager of The Sanctuary, a 255-room hotel that's arguably the public centerpiece of the island. "Bobcats often stroll across The Sanctuary's lawns," says Lacey, "acting like they belong there."
Last September, Kathy Fishman, a resident of the island's Rhett's Bluff community, had what might be the ultimate Kiawah bobcat experience. "I heard our indoor cat meowing," she says, "so I went to see what was up. The biggest bobcat I'd ever seen was reclined on my porch, engaged in a stare-down with the living room window. Whether at me or itself, wasn't clear."
There's something mysterious about the gaze of a bobcat, Fishman believes. "Their demeanor is 'I see you but you don't see me.' If you go looking for them, often you won't find them. They have to let you glimpse them."
Whitetail management - predator style
What doesn't go looking for bobcats are the island's white-tailed deer. Although Kiawah Island bobcats dine on rodents for much of the year, in the summer months they feed on fawns. Almost three-quarters of the fawn mortality on Kiawah is due to bobcats, says Jordan, and that's a good thing. With no hunting allowed, the deer on Kiawah are also prolific, and the thriving population of bobcats has helped keep deer from overrunning the island.
"Deer control is the main reason conservation has been so successful here," says Jordan. "Without bobcats, deer would soon take over, damaging natural habitats and human property," he adds. "Bobcats may well be saving Kiawah Island."
Deer have given way to bobcats - to humans' benefit. Now bobcats need the favor returned.
Kiawah's bobcats: how adaptable are they?
With each passing year, optimal bobcat habitat - brushy forest - is more patchily distributed on Kiawah. Bobcats pussy-foot their way through housing developments and across island streets. "Roads are our bobcats' number one threat," says Jordan. "More bobcats are killed on Kiawah's streets than for any other reason. We ask that residents and visitors 'slow down for cats.' "
Although the island has a thriving bobcat population, cats living on the more developed west end have larger home ranges than those on the less developed east end. "West end development may be forcing bobcats to travel greater distances to find prey and shelter," says Jordan.
Those longer treks often take bobcats across thoroughfares such as Salt House Lane. We're back in Jordan's truck, where it's now almost high noon. Suddenly, the biologist looks to his right, thinking he sees "something cat-like." Indeed he does. One of his six GPS-collared cats, a female, is on the side of the road, sitting on the curb. "She could have been waiting for us," says Jordan, "but it's more likely she was about to 'look both ways' before crossing this well-traveled intersection."
He hopes that Kiawah's bobcats will continue to fare well in a changing environment. That means weathering more development in the short term, and the effects of global warming in the longer-term. Sea-level rise may eventually swamp the island, leaving little to no maritime forest habitat.
In Native American symbolism, the bobcat represents vigilance, patience and clear vision in dark places. To survive into the next decades and beyond, it will need all those traits, as well as an ability to share territory with that other ubiquitous island animal: Homo sapiens.