Every so often, a reader will send me a photo of a wild critter, throw themselves at the mercy of the court, and ask the age-old question: What is this?
Sometimes, I’m stumped. Much of the time, I have a pretty good idea. But all of the time, I ask for a second opinion.
The reason: Long ago, I learned that there are thousands of critter-experts here in Maine. Mess up on an animal ID, and you’ll hear about it. Immediately … and repeatedly.
Birders are particularly enthusiastic, I have found. But that’s another story.
As a member of the outdoors team working for the daily newspaper that nearly sits on the edge of the wilderness, we also get phone calls from readers seeking help. Again, I usually seek a second opinion.
How do you trap a skunk? Call an animal control officer. How do you stop the hawks from eating the birds at my feeder? Call Bob Duchesne. How can I finally bag my first deer? Your guess is as good as mine … and I’ve yet to fill my tag after years of hunting.
One time, a woman called me looking to identify an animal she’d not even seen. This, I’m proud to say, was one of my proudest moments.
“I heard this animal,” she told me. “It was big. I could hear it walking on the paving stones outside my bedroom. Then it made a noise.”
“I’m not sure I can help you,” I told her. “Unless … you can make the noise for me.”
She did, perfectly grunting out the call of a bull moose. That noise, I knew. And not even the critter-experts could have disagreed with me … because she didn’t call them.
Earlier this week, I received an email that was more or less typical: Andy Koziol of Holden saw a critter, took a photo, and said his friends were of two opinions. Some said the cat was a bobcat. Others saw a lynx.
Luckily, nobody called it a mountain lion … that happens quite a bit, too.
My response: In typical fashion, I sent it along to Jennifer Vashon, a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Then I told Koziol that Vashon is usually very prompt with her responses to such questions, and we ought to hear something from her soon.
By the time I finished emailing him, her response was in my in-box.
“It is a bobcat,” Vashon wrote. Then she explained why.
That’s really why I’m sharing the photo today: The more we learn from the experts, the more likely we’ll be to correctly identify the next bobcat (or lynx) we see.
“Lynx have a dark black bar on the outside edge of the facial ruff,” she wrote. “Also, the white throat of a bobcat is more evident than on a lynx, likely due to the brown coat of a bobcat and more gray coat of a lynx. [This cat] also appears to have short ear tufts — again, bobcat. Lynx have longer ear tufts, greater than one inch.”
Then Vashon got to the crux of the matter: Many of us can ID a lynx when we get a gander of its oversized hind feet. In this photo, they’re obscured. In this case, Vashon took an educated guess based on her other observations.
“The feet are hard to see in the picture, but they, too, appear small (proportional to the animal),” she wrote. “Lynx have pretty large feet, almost like a puppy that hasn’t grown into its paws.”
So there you have it: This critter is a bobcat.
And as always, if you’ve got questions about what’s been creeping around in your backyard, feel free to send ‘em along to me. I’d be glad to take a guess … and even more happy to ask for an expert second opinion for you.
John Holyoke can be reached at email@example.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke