Midfield Takedown

It’s no secret that Mother Nature can be a cruel, unmerciful witch, capable of administering unimaginable pain and suffering while snickering at weepy, bleeding-heart sentimentality.

Nature lovers moored in reality accept the good with the bad, of which there is plenty to go around. The following tale about an unfortunate encounter between a maturing fawn and a big tom bobcat fits the bad like a homespun Merino sock.

The story unfolds in bucolic Waldo County, Maine, where my brother-in-law, Buzz, manages a 125-acre gentleman’s farm about a half-hour inland from Belfast. There, over the past 50 years, he has creatively manicured the old Howard dairy farm into an idyllic, off-the-grid nature preserve tailored to his self-sufficient ways. He harvests cordwood and mushrooms from his woodland, apples from his orchard, lowbush blueberries from his hillside, eggs and meat from his henhouse, and trout from his ponds.

If he still hunted, he could add salubrious wild meats to his diet, but he can do without venison, wild turkey, woodcock, partridge, and waterfowl.

A retired professor and doctor of foreign culture and language, he and his female partner, Leigh, study birds, trees, plants, wildlife and the environment with Thoreauvian passion. A legacy is in place to protect the place when he is gone.

Like the rest of New England, his Montville farm has endured an unusually wet summer that interfered with his orchard, garden, and tractor chores, not to mention the natural seasoning process of open-air cordwood piles. Though Buzz and Leigh made necessary core adjustments as best they could, their normal routine was disrupted, and the necessary modifications weren’t always ideal.

Committed to optimizing their acreage as a sustainable farm and nature refuge, they are fully aware and accepting of nature’s cruelties for wildlife that shares their land. Their isolated location only enhances one of their favorite and constant activities: bird and wildlife observation, be it through the bay window, off the seat of a tractor or doing chores in the barn, fields, orchard and woods.

They know one deer from another, how many tagalong fawns each doe has in tow, the number of antler points displayed by resident bucks, how the nesting season went for turkeys and grouse, and when the occasional moose, bear, or bobcat passes through.

With four eyes constantly scanning the terrain, assessing and sharing what they have seen, the couple doesn’t miss much. It’s a labor of love. Their life mission.

Which brings us to the big bobcat that showed up earlier this summer, a “bruiser” Buzz estimates to weigh in the neighborhood of 50 pounds. If so, it’s a whopper in bobcat world. The graceful, cautious cat showed itself “from time to time” this summer, forcing Buzz to protect his chickens – easy pickins’ for such an efficient, opportunistic predator.

Online research told Buzz that a dominant tom like the one sharing his property covers a range of 36 miles and intentionally works alternate quadrants of that sphere to avoid overhunting an area. Bobcats primarily hunt small game, such as rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, waterfowl, turkeys and grouse, but are known to take down small deer by ambush and stalking, most often pouncing from trees and other elevated perches.

For several weeks prior to the recent incident, Buzz and Leigh had noticed palpable unease among the deer feeding close to their house. On several occasions under the cover of darkness their curiosity was piqued by the sound of deer delivering sharp, blowing alarms that warned of looming danger.

On September 15, they were awakened at 5 a.m. by a piercing, scream-like fawn distress call accompanied by incessant blowing by its doe mother. The pathetic distress calls continued for five minutes, then stopped as the doe continued blowing and stomping about. Buzz and Leigh knew a kill had occurred. They planned to investigate the scene in the light of day, well aware that what awaited them would not be pretty.

Walking out into the field later that day to a patch of green grass surrounded by a higher hayfield, they easily found the kill site about 80 yards into the middle of the field. There, Buzz reports, “the fawn was tackled, killed, dragged to the edge of the forest, partly eaten and neatly covered by leaves and sticks – classic evidence of a bobcat caching its kill to conceal it from ravens and other scavengers.” The cat had eaten a leg and part of the back before covering his prize for future feedings.

Buzz says the conditions for a midfield kill were ideal: wet, quiet terrain, light predawn fog and mist, a concealing hill, and a favorable, soft breeze that was barely detectable. Those advantageous factors provided the cat with enough cover to creep within pouncing distance and take down the estimated 40- to 50-pound victim.

Fawns, typically born around Memorial Day, grow quickly and are more than capable of fleeing danger by September. Buzz thinks the odds were squarely against the experienced adult cat, perhaps a one-in-10 shot. Everything had to line up perfectly, and did.

The kill was quick. The cat tackled its unsuspecting prey with a jarring neck shot, using his claws and teeth to puncture the fawn’s throat in several places. The fatal wound was a gaping hole opened along the carotid artery and jugular vein that bled out the fawn quickly.

With his kill-assessment phase complete, Buzz’s nature classroom was just beginning.

Wearing rubber gloves and boots to minimize human scent when examining the scene and taking photos, he and Leigh carefully re-covered the fawn with leaves and sticks. He returned to the scene later that day and set up a trail camera, seeking confirmation that the big bobcat they’d been seeing was indeed the predator, and to examine the culprit’s feeding patterns.

Well, as that old folk song goes, the cat came back, but it didn’t even wait till the very next day. Instead, it returned a couple of hours after the camera had been deployed. As expected, it was the big tom they’d been watching, and he made quick work of devouring his prize. By Day 3, the carcass was reduced to bones – a fascinating process to watch.

Though I didn’t tell Buzz so until after the perpetrator had been positively identified, I initially held out hope that the kill had been the work of a cougar. They, too, bury their kills and return in subsequent days to eat them. Never in the world of modern-day New England cougar sightings has anyone captured such an event on film. Could this be the first? On my own brother-in-law’s farm? Nope. Too good to be true. Just a bobcat. Fascinating, nonetheless.

Buzz was particularly interested in one aspect of the feeding routine. With his hunger satisfied on the first visit to his cached fawn, the cat dragged what was left to a new location 15 feet deeper into the forest. “There,” wrote Buzz, “he covered the remains with copious amounts of leaves and sticks. Clearly, this was a time-consuming job. The ground all around the fawn was scraped clean, and all of the debris there located was piled on the remains. Indeed, this second covering was even more thorough than the first.”

On a poignant note, the fawn’s mother kept returning to feed at the kill site, perhaps hoping for a miraculous reunion with her fawn. On the day of the kill, she grazed not 50 feet from the covered fawn carcass. A sad sight indeed – one interpreted by my brother-in-law from the proper perspective.

“We love seeing deer, and especially fawns,” he wrote in an email to friends. “That said, we also like having large carnivores around and know they play an important role in keeping the deer herd in check.”

To him, it all came down to a basic balance-of-nature principle that’s as old as life itself – a tenet that some New Age “nature lovers” would rather forget. Such selective denial is not progressive thinking. It’s ignorance.

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