Bobcat vs Turkey

I witnessed an amazing scene today while I was driving down the Feather River Canyon in northern California. Here’s a video of the action:


The initial attack occurred right in front of my car as I was coming around a curve in the highway. I saw a burst of feathers and the twisting of the cat’s body as the two animals fell onto the road. I pulled over, got out of my car, and took a photo of the bobcat locked onto the turkey’s neck.

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The initial attack, which occurred right in front of my car as I came around a bend. In this photo the bobcat has the turkey by the neck.

A car drove by, traveling in the opposite direction. The bobcat spooked and ran off. The turkey stood up, apparently uninjured. I knew that the bobcat wasn’t far away so I began filming the bird in case the cat reappeared. The attack that followed is shown in the video clip above.

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I don’t know the final outcome of this encounter. After the bobcat released the turkey the bird ran up to me and, in a bizarre plot twist, refused to leave my side. Amazingly, I saw only one puncture wound on the turkey’s neck. Meanwhile the bobcat kept coming out of the bushes to assess the situation, ducking back out of sight each time a car drove by.

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The turkey looks to me for help.

Eventually I tried to pick up the turkey to set it on a potential roost where it might be out of the cat’s reach. It didn’t protest when I touched it, picking off loose feathers from its head and back, but it seemed to feel threatened when I tried to pick it up. After the failed pick-up attempt the bird suddenly took off at full speed, traveling along the side of the highway.

I stayed at my car for several minutes to see if the bobcat would run after the turkey. Nothing happened, however, so eventually I drove away. By then the turkey was about 1/4 mile down the highway, with the cat nowhere in sight.

Did the bird survive? My best guess is no, but I could be wrong. Initially I was rooting for the bobcat because WOW! This is Nature in action. Predation is a fact of life and witnessing (and videotaping!) a predation event is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But when the turkey sidled up to me and seemed to be asking for protection I found myself longing to help the poor bird survive. Nature, you’re always full of surprises.

Watch your step!

When walking in the great outdoors there are a surprising number (and variety) of hazards that you can suddenly find yourself stepping on. There are the usual suspects: poison oak, unstable rocks, slippery twigs, holes in the ground. And wildlife. Wildlife should not be stepped on.

Over the last few days I’ve had a two heart-pounding encounters with wild animals, which involved – yes – almost stepping on them. This is not normal, even for a wildlife biologist.

On Friday morning I was out for a bird survey. While conducting a survey I hike, stop at the designated point, identify and count all of the birds that I see and hear at the point within a five minute period (known as a point count), and then hike to the next point.

One month ago when I surveyed this transect I had a face-off with a wild pig. I happened upon the pig as it was bedding down for the day, and the sudden encounter startled us both. After a short stare-off the pig ran away, but my heart took a few minutes to settle down.

With this encounter in mind, I was more cautious than usual when I hiked through this part of the transect. Last time I was here I saw multiple places where large mammals had bedded down, and I suspected that this was a wild pig hangout.

I carefully made my way through the oak woodland, scanning for sleeping pigs and scouting for an escape route should I (or the pigs) need one. In this state of hyper vigilance, I nearly put my foot down on…a fawn.

My brain registered that something was wrong and my foot jerked backward. There it was, a tiny fawn curled up in the grass, nearly invisible thanks to its spotted camouflage. Its mother had parked it there while she went off on some morning errand. The fawn didn’t move when I snapped its picture. What a cutie!

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“If I don’t move she can’t see me!”

Yesterday I was out for my final bird survey of the season, and thanks to my close encounter with the fawn I was extra careful with foot placement. So it was a great shock when, halfway through the transect, I came uncomfortably close to stepping on this fellow:

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This is a blurry picture but I wasn’t willing to get any closer.

Yikes. For this very reason I wear big thick snake gaiters every time I’m out on a bird survey. Hiking cross country through variable terrain and variable vegetation means that you can’t always see where you’re stepping, or what you’re stepping on. I came upon this snake just before 7am, and the temperature was still cool enough that this guy probably wasn’t capable of moving fast. I didn’t receive a rattled warning, and it’s possible that I could have breezed right on by without ever knowing how close my legs were to danger.

But luckily I saw the snake. I backtracked and went well around the hazard. And I stayed on high alert for the rest of the transect.

A day in the life of a wildlife biologist

My alarm wakes me at 4:30am. Today the snooze button is not an option. Today is a bird survey day. I must be in position and ready to begin the survey within 15 minutes of the official sunrise.

I slide out of bed and begin my morning routine: get dressed, assemble lunch, eat breakfast, swallow medication. Then I’m out the door and on my way to work.

At the office I transfer a pile of gear from my desk to my work vehicle. Binoculars? Check. Rangefinder? Check? Clipboard and data sheets? Check and check. I toss my backpack onto the seat and now I’m ready to go.

Today’s survey area is a twenty-minute drive from the office. I’ll be spending the morning counting birds at a cattle ranch, and my findings will help the ranch manager make management decisions about his rangeland. The results will also help me make better recommendations to others who want to improve habitat quality on their land.

By using birds as indicators of land health I will be able to determine which habitat elements and ecosystem processes are present and which are absent. No woodpeckers? The ranch probably lacks snags. No Oak Titmouse? The ranch lacks cavity trees. And so on. If the habitat is there, the birds should be there. If not, there is an important element missing – something that affects not just birds but other wildlife, trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, plant succession, the nutrient cycle, etc.

I park the car near the beginning of my first transect. I put on all of my gear. First the snake gaiters, which will prevent a rattlesnake from sinking its fangs into my leg. The gaiters also keep poison oak from contaminating my pants, and they keep grass seeds/stickers out of my socks. Additionally, they will prevent ticks from crawling up under my pant legs.

Next I put on my binoculars, which I carry using a harness rather than a strap around my neck. Next comes my backpack, followed by my rangefinder and, finally, my clipboard. I look at my GPS unit, where the survey points are displayed, and strike out for my first point.

When I arrive at the point I stand quietly for a moment to allow any birds that may be disturbed by my presence to settle down. Then I set the timer on my watch and begin the survey.

There is an Orange-crowned Warbler trilling in one of the oaks in front of me. A Lazuli Bunting behind me. A California Quail calling somewhere in the distance. Mourning Dove, Blackheaded Grosbeak, Lesser Goldfinch. I collect their names on my data sheet and record the number of individuals seen and heard, along with an estimate of how far away each was from where I am standing. My watch beep beep beeps, and it’s time to move on to the next point.

I hike cross-country through a stream, through poison oak; up, down, and across slopes. Today I intended to survey 10 points, but when I finish the tenth point I discover there is still time to complete the next transect of five points. Completing these five extra points today will allow me to survey all of the points on this ranch in two days instead of three. I’m tired, but I still have some energy left. So I press on.

I finish the last point at 10:30. Perfect timing. As the morning wears on and the temperature warms birds will cease singing. Four hours after sunrise is generally the cutoff for point count surveys, and I’m very close to the mark.

I begin the long hike back to the car. Along the way my ears are alert for new species that I did not detect on my point counts. I hear a Bullock’s Oriole and a Pacific Slope Flycatcher. I record their names in my field notebook.

As I walk I enjoy the beautiful weather and the beautiful scenery. I take a few photos. I feel grateful that I’m getting paid to spend the morning hiking and listening to birds.

IMG_8080By the time I reach the car I have hiked 5.5 miles and detected 36 bird species.  Whew. This is the farthest I’ve hiked in one day in over a year. I’m exhausted, but I feel good. Today it’s obvious that my strength is returning. 

I eat lunch in my vehicle and then drive up to the shop to see if the ranch manager is around. He is, so I stop and chat with him for awhile. Then I get back in my car and drive back to the office. 
At the office I download the waypoints I collected on my GPS unit, primarily concerning the locations of gates and fences that I was not previously aware of. I organize my gear, check-in with my co-workers, and update the ranch map. 

By now I’ve already worked 9 hours and I’m fading fast. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for rain, so I can spend the day in the office entering today’s observation into a database, among other tasks. On Friday, if the storm is over, I will head out for another day of bird surveys. 

Field work is one of the highlights of my career as a wildlife biologist, but it is probably also the reason I have Lyme disease. I do not recall ever having a tick bite, but over the years I have certainly had ample opportunity to be bitten. Now I take extra precautions, like wearing gaiters and light colored clothing, and conducting a tick check after I come back from the field.

The threat of contracting Lyme and other tick borne diseases is always in the front of my mind, but I refuse to give up the pieces of my life that I treasure so much. I will continue to hike and backpack and conduct wildlife surveys for as long as I am able. 

An Evening Outing

The sun was low in the sky when my husband and I began our hike. We parked on a dirt road on the mountain behind our house and continued on foot, heading for a small stream a mile and a half away. We were out for an evening stroll, and we carried only our fleece sweaters, a bottle of water, and a camera. I had once again neglected to bring my binoculars, which I would soon regret.

As we made our way to the stream I kept a mental checklist of the birds that I heard: Spotted Towhee; Western Scrub Jay and it’s darker cousin, the Steller’s Jay; Wrentit; grouse. At the creek I heard a quick burst of song from a Black-throated Gray Warbler. Then the sun sank below the mountains on the horizon and the birds quieted.

On our hike back to the car we heard a shuffling in the shrubs off to our right. I suspected a towhee, because those birds always sound much larger than they are, but when we peered through the ceanothus we saw, instead, a striped skunk.

The skunk became aware of us in almost the same moment that we spotted it. It lifted its tail in warning, then loped away.

Skunk #1 leaving the scene.
Skunk #1 leaving the scene.

We continued on, and only moments later came upon another stiped skunk. This second skunk was moving in the same direction the first skunk had been going, so given our proximity to the initial sighting we assumed that this was the same animal. The skunk raised its tail but did not spray, and I snapped a few photos. The skunk then ran off in the opposite direction.

Skunk #2 with tail raised.
Skunk #2 with tail raised.

Again we continued on, and after two bends in the trail we came upon a third striped skunk! Due to our distance from the first two sightings, this could not be the same animal. It disappeared almost as soon as it became aware of us, and I was not able to take its picture.

We resumed our walk. I was actively scanning the landscape for additional skunks when I caught sight of a black bear making its way down the hill below us. I tried to point it out to my husband, but it had disappeared into a tangle of thick shrubs. However, we spotted it again a little farther along and watched as it climbed up the far side of the drainage. The light was fading fast and the bear was too far away for a photograph, but we stood and watched as it meandered up the slope and disappeared from sight.

By the time we returned to our car we had seen a bear, two (or three) skunks, and at least a dozen deer. It was a beautiful evening for a hike.

This morning after breakfast we returned to the same spot and repeated last night’s hike. This time I had my binoculars. I kept a list of the birds we saw and heard along the way, and while we didn’t see anything as exciting as a bear or a skunk at close range, we did put together a respectable list of observations:

  • Western Scrub Jay
  • Mourning Dove
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Mountain Chickadee
  • Acorn Woodpecker
  • Steller’s Jay
  • Northern Flicker
  • Spotted Towhee
  • Nashville Warbler
  • American Robin
  • Black-headed Grosbeak
  • Cassin’s Vireo
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • Black-throated Gray Warbler
  • Lazuli Bunting
  • Unidentified hummingbird (probably Anna’s)
  • Wrentit
The same location in the light of day.

We live in at the northern tip of the Sierra Nevada, at mid-elevation in a transition zone between habitat types. Thus, while it is usually uncommon to see Acorn Woodpeckers and Mountain Chickadees (or Red-breasted Nuthatches) in the same location, we are blessed with a great diversity of wildlife and often compile unusual species lists. Such was the case this weekend. I’m already looking forward to the next hike!