where cats swim

and dogs climb trees
THE WINTER BOBCATS OF YELLOWSTONE

PHOTOGRAPHY AND TEXT BY CINDY GOEDDEL

W
inter in Yellowstone National hunt trout, muskrat and waterfowl by leaping into
Park is extreme. Temperatures the Madison River. They use a similar strategy:
may drop to minus-66 degrees hide at the edge of the river and wait until a meal
Fahrenheit and the snow piles swims or floats by. Then leap and, if it works,
up deep. Food becomes scarce, so animals adapt swim back with the meal. Hide the meal where
in surprising ways. A bobcat swims and loses its the coyotes might not steal it.
tail to frostbite. A coyote climbs a tree to steal a For the last four years I have been privileged
meal from a bobcat. to observe and photograph them for hours at a
In Yellowstone at least two bobcats regularly time. Here are three of their stories.

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telltale
On February 2, 2017, I had the photo-
graphic opportunity of a lifetime. The
temperature hovered around 0 degrees and
it snowed most of the day, but occasion-
ally the sun battled through. For nearly
five hours, I huddled in a snow pit and
photographed a bobcat as he stalked and
hunted along the Madison River. Three
Canada geese and a few ducks floated
by his hiding place at the base of a rock.
But he was careful not to reveal his pres-
ence. Hours passed. Then, he focused on
a drake mallard several hundred yards
downstream. Deciding to move closer, he
used a deep bison trail along the river
to stay out of sight, pausing to watch the
mallard. Satisfied, he crept yet closer
without alerting a red squirrel, a mountain
chickadee, a goose, or especially the target
mallard.
Since the cat moved, I had to move, too.
Shouldering my tripod, camera and 500
mm lens, I lumbered up from the snow pit
and used the groomed road to make my
way downstream. The bobcat was out of
sight but I thought I knew where he might
stop. I plunged off the road and into chest-
high powder. One laborious step at a time,
I was able to place myself directly across
the river from the mallard. But no bobcat
was visible. What if he hadn’t come this far
downstream? What if I was the only photog-
rapher foolish enough to plow a 100-yard
trench to nowhere, using only my body and
my tripod as tools? Then, still catching my
breath, I raised my binoculars and spotted
two tufted ears about 50 yards upstream,
edging above the snow pillows. I breathed a
sigh of relief and settled into my new snow
pit, waiting as the bobcat crept closer to the
dabbling mallard and to me.
For nine interminable minutes the
bobcat watched the mallard circling imme-
diately below him; back and forth, back
and forth, back and forth. Finally, when the
mallard’s head was down, the bobcat leapt.
The watery battle lasted nearly a minute.
The bobcat won.

M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 17
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tall tale searched. Abruptly, he crossed the groomed road, giving us a
quick glance that seemed to say, “How can you be so lame?”
Heading directly up into a stand of trees and brush, he placed
Opportunistic and wily, coyotes sometimes watch attentively his front paws as far up a spruce tree as he could reach. Then
as a badger digs for rodents or as an otter fishes, hoping for a he started climbing.
chance to steal a meal. Along the Madison River, coyotes watch Slack-jawed, we looked up. Near the top of the tree clung
the bobcats. a bobcat with a very dead merganser in its mouth. The coyote
For two hours on February 2, 2014, we searched for kept climbing. First 10 feet, then 20, perhaps 30 feet using
bobcats along a 3-mile stretch of the Madison. We looked his mouth, legs, and tail as tools, circling the trunk as he
in all the usual hotspots: inside the hollow log, under the picked a route skyward. The bobcat watched it all, tightening
riverfront log and at the base of favored boulders and trees. its grip on the unfortunate merganser, tensed for a tussle. The
Unless the cats are active, searching often amounts to look- coyote grabbed the bird with his mouth but the bobcat held on
ing for a bit of fur on a log that serves as camouflage. We’d and suddenly the tree rained a cat and a dog. When the snow
had no luck until we spotted a coyote scent-tracking along the settled, the canid had the merganser and the feline marched
river. He was inspecting all the same hangouts we had just away to lick its wounded pride and wet fur.

M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 19
lost tail
We awoke to a bitterly cold morning near Canyon
Junction on February 6, 2014. Overnight the mercury
had plunged to -40 degrees and it took an hour just to
start the snowcoach. The sun came out and the temper-
ature had warmed to -20 degrees when we found the
bobcat. He had just leapt into the river trying for a meal
of trumpeter swan but came up empty-handed. He sat
and groomed his fur in the weak sun, draping himself on
a tree to dry. But he couldn’t dry off his tail, which was
encrusted in ice balls. When I photographed him again
17 days later, frostbite had taken half of his tail. Fur and
flesh had fallen off, leaving an exposed, bony stump of
an already short tail.
Almost three years later, I would photograph him
stalking the mallard.

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M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 21

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