A couple months ago, a neighbor of mine sent me a photo of a bobcat eating a chicken it had caught in his yard. My husband and I live in Topanga Canyon- in the old community. In fact, we are fortunate enough to live off of Entrada, the street you would take if you wanted to go for a hike starting at Trippet Ranch, a main entrance and parking area for access to Topanga State Park.
We've lived in Topanga for a few years and my neighbors, seeing my truck loaded with traps among other, more interesting, items, know me as the "bobcat lady." So, this bobcat photo was sent to me, and I could see in the photo that the bobcat had very beginning signs of mange! With permission from my neighbors, I set traps on a few properties, as well as one in the State Park (I also have permission to set traps in the State Park) to try to target this bobcat. Traps were set on October 20, and I had a timeline to follow- I was scheduled to leave or Hawaii on November 4 to go to a conference.
October 20-Nov 4 may seem like a long time to have traps open to catch a bobcat. However, we (the National Park Service and I) typically leave our traps open for weeks, and up to 2 months when we are targeting bobcats. In fact, I don't like to leave my traps open for less than 3 consecutive weeks! This goes back to their biology- they are solitary animals with territories- and this means they have low-density populations. They can take a while to cover the entirety of their homerange, and if you set only a single trap within a bobcat's homerange, you have to wait for the opportunity for the cat to walk by your trap! Ideally, you want set more than one trap within an area that a single bobcat uses so that you can avoid waiting for what sometimes feels like forever for the bobcat to walk by. However, in this case, I had only a single picture taken in a neighbor's yard sent to me several weeks after the fact. It was a shot in the dark to guess where this bobcat might be.
So began the story of B290 (and B287). I had five traps total that I set, and checked them daily, twice a day, as we must do. I caught several species of animals in this effort- 2 raccoons, 2 domestic cats (people's pets!), a horned owl, a coyote, and 2 bobcats!
On October 22, a day I was scheduled to give 2 talks, I happened to catch B287. Of course, the captures that you may wait weeks for always seem to happen at the most inopportune time! I checked my traps in the morning on October 22 and had nothing in them. I gave my first talk from 1-3pm in Topanga. Then I went out to check my traps again before heading to Franklin Canyon for my second talk fo the evening (scheduled at 7pm). And of course, I had a bobcat in one of my traps! B287 was a healthy young male with no evidence of notoedric mange. So, with my husband and a friend in tow to help, we got samples from B287 and also gave him a prophylactic treatment for mange, just in case. Then I rushed to my talk in Franklin Canyon!
I kept my traps open, still hoping to get the mangy bobcat in the neighborhood. November 3rd rolled around, and still no sign of a mangy bobcat. I was scheduled to leave the next day at 5pm for Hawaii, so I decided to risk it and try one more night to get the mangy bobcat. By the rule of inopportune moments for a capture, the day I was flying out for Hawaii certainly fit the bill! Plus, it was supposed to rain the next day, and we sometimes feel that with weather changes, we get captures.
Since I had a lot to do before leaving, I got up at 4am on November 3rd to check my traps just in case I did have a capture. The capture process take hours to complete starting when you find out that you have a bobcat in a trap. So, I needed some buffer time in case I got a bobcat capture. I went out to check the traps and sure enough, I caught a mangy bobcat! He would be numbered B290 (the National Park Service caught 2 bobcats between October 22 and November 4). I protected him in the cage from the immenent rain by putting a tarp over the cage while I got all of my gear together. I also called Joanne Moriarty at the National Park Service for backup to help me put a radio-collar on the bobcat.
This radio-collar would have GPS capabilities. At regularly scheduled intervals that we programmed before putting the collar on the bobcat, the collar will connect to satellites to record the exact location of B290. Then, as frequently as I feel is necessary, I can remotely download the data using a computer and a special antenna! By downloading the data, I can see all the location events that I programmed the collar to collect!
These data are valuable in telling us where the animal goes, if it crosses roads- where it crosses them, activity patterns, etc. In B290's case, he was captured with mild notoedric mange. We treated him in the field with a dose of Revolution (donated to us by Pfizer). Now, however, we want to monitor his health and whether the medication helped the mange. So, using the radio-collar, I will track his movements. And because I have his detailed movement patterns, I can also place remote cameras within his homerange that will periodically take photos of him (whenever he walks by). I can visually assess if his mange is worsening. By combining the collar data with the photos, if his disease progresses, we will learn how the disease affects his movements. If he deteriorates significantly, I can try to recapture him and take him to a wildlife center for rehabilitation.
So, at daybreak, Joanne and I walked to B290, still in the cage. We drugged him, as we must do with all wild bobcats that we handle. We assessed his health, collected samples, put on the radio-collar, and treated him for mange. We gave him fluids to help him recover from the drug. Within 2 hours of drugging him, he was off- with a radio-collar that would follow his movements.
And now I follow B290 and have put cameras out to check on him. This weekend, I will check the cameras for the first time and hopefully put out a 6th camera that a friend will lend me (I had to borrow 2 cameras and by a couple to add to the two I had!). Stay tuned for updates on B290.
Today I drove around Topanga area for more than 4 hours trying to find B290 by listening for his radio-signal. I still need to locate him so that I can download data from his radio-collar. It's unbelievable how much time can be spent driving the roads of a single neighborhood.
And the disappointing news is that after all that driving and test of my patience, I failed to locate exactly where he was. I drove in Topanga State Park from Eagle Rock to Parker Mesa, on Topanga Canyon Boulevard north to nearly the Top of Topanga, along Old Topanga Drive, and a lot of streets in between- and the closest I got was thinking he was deep in Greenleaf Canyon. Just when I thought I almost had him, my truck started acting suspicious! The engine light came on and the cab had a distinct smell of gasoline.
So, I headed home to get my husband's car. By time I made it back to Greenleaf Canyon (a mere 20-30 minute time lapse), I could no longer hear B290's radio-collar. He was clearly on the move. The most frustrating part is that after I gave up and decided to call it a night, I continued to listen for him on my way home. Just as I pulled up to my house, I heard him again! I still don't think he was close enough to my house for me to download him, but hopefully he's trekking his way closer to my neck of the woods so my day will be easier tomorrow since I will have to go out again to search for him.
This day is an excellent example of the mundane work we biologists must deal do when working with carnivores. A lot of people expect our job to be non-stop excitement, seeing bobcats or mountain lions everyday we go to work. But today is more exemplary of a typical day rather than a day seeing and handling our study animals. Because we work with such elusive creatures that are rarely seen, and creatures that seem to work to remain unseen, we often rely on these remote tracking devices to learn the biology of the animals. When we say we go out to "track" an animal, we generally aren't on foot with a magnefying glass to the ground. Rather, we are in our car, driving roads, with a radio-reciever buzzing intereference that sounds worse than white noise on a T.V. If we are lucky, we hear the "bleep bleep bleep" of the radio-collar placed on an animal. And after spending hours driving around hearing interference, unable to listen to the radio or something auditorily pleasant to distract from the grating interference, the "bleep bleep bleep" is a relief- and within me, instills a calming sensation. I know I'm close- or at least "closer" than before to the animal. But close could be miles if the topography were just right. Regardless- it is the chance to learn something new about the animal and where it has moved to since the last time we heard it's collar, and that is gratifying.
In B290's case, what is clear so far in tracking him since November 4th is that he definitely crosses Topanga Canyon Boulevard- a very busy road with lots of sharp turns. In other words- a very hazardous road for wildlife. As of yet, we have no evidence that once crossing Topanga, he keeps heading west such that he crosses Old Topanga. Thus far, he has remained north of School Road in Topanga, east of Old Topanga, South of Entrado Road, with his homerange straddling Topanga Canyon Boulevard.
Yesterday I continued my search for B290. I searched for 6 hours yesterday, bringing my total to more than 11 hours over the weekend and finishing my day with a 3-mile, last-ditch effort hike- and without download success despite the efforts! The good news is that by the end of the night on Sunday, I felt pretty confident where he was, and why, despite knowing where he was, I couldn't download the data from his collar. He was tucked deep into a canyon in Topanga State Park less than a mile east of Topanga Canyon Blvd. If I'd figured out where he was while there was still ample daylight, I may have continued the hike to try to get closer to him. However, it was dark by time I figured out where he was, and so I stuck to fire roads and major trails rather than trying to bushwack my way to him.
He may have been in a drainage or a rocky/bouldery spot, and despite being able to locate him, I couldn't get a clear, constant, unimpeded signal. Also, if you are familiar with the area, you know that there isn't road access into every canyon in the park. While this is one of the most amazing thing about Topanga State Park, it means that I won't always be able to get clear signals to B290, and that downloading his data will require maximum patience and effort some days (or weeks).