Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Looking for bobcats

The center of Effingham is a mountain range unbroken by roads. Lacking waterfront, commerce or industry, the town's land has gone back largely to forest over the years. With little to attract disruptive development, the town's more or less functional ecosystems may end up being its best fortune.

The trick with environmental protection is to find the selfish human angle that accidentally brings along losing propositions like aesthetics or wildlife. As humans figure out that most of their drinking water comes from underground, they give more scrutiny to what goes on top of that ground. A natural environment produces better results than a built-up one. Even if you only drink beer and never bathe, clean water makes better beer.

The shriveling artificial lakes in the American west show that reservoirs don't hold water as well as aquifers do. And aquifers show the trickle-down theory in action. A lot of precipitation falls over a wide area and soaks down into the various layers that hold it for later use. To preserve recharge areas, a lot of land needs to be left alone. What luck. We happen to have a lot of land being left alone already.

This area and adjacent sections of Maine are already getting attention from groups like The Nature Conservancy because of the large tracts of restored forest and areas relatively uncut by roads, allowing not only for geological and hydrological function, but wildlife habitat and corridors as well. So interested towns and regional groups are taking stock of what is here and what could be here to set priorities for areas to protect.

The official surveyors need permission to enter someone's land and look around, so not every parcel gets examined in detail by an educated eye. The scientists depend on traipsing wanderers who cross unmarked property boundaries on an innocent bushwhack and might see and photograph sites and sights of interest.

Last Sunday, Mrs Umm and I headed out to a place she'd never been, on the advice of a naturalist that it looked like a promising area for bobcat denning sites. The naturalist is conducting an inventory of habitat types in town, but doesn't have clearance for this particular spot.

The search area was more than a mile from home and required about 1,000 feet of climbing to go up and over the peak behind us and start up the one beyond it. The slope is not very steep on average, but there's no trail. The leaves and black flies are both coming out in the sudden burst typical of northern New England. We should have gone two weeks ago, but weather and schedules did not cooperate.

The naturalist had told us to look for old porcupine dens that a bobcat would take over. We found several on our way up the long slope of the home mountain, complete with their scat.

One of the dens

Other scat was probably owl pellets. It was hard to tell, because they had dried to crumbly whiteness.

From the summit of our home mountain there was no clear line down into the col. That side was logged in the 1990s, allowing just enough time for it to grow back into sapling hell. The areas that weren't logged are still choked with undergrowth. We picked our way through the least tangled sections, trying to stay on course.

We found this rock wall in the middle of nowhere.

At the bottom of the col we intersected an abandoned ATV trail. An old logging road comes up from the paved road about a mile down on the other side of the ridge from our house. This trail continued that line over the col and disappeared down into young growth on the other side. It didn't help us much. We left it soon to head over toward the steep, rocky, overgrown face of the nameless peak where the naturalist thought we might find the cats.

With the new leaves and voracious bugs, we couldn't see very far or hold still to listen very long. Nothing in view looked like any kind of den. We'll have to go back when the leaves are off to get a better look.

It was a beautiful day for a hike, anyway. And on the way back down on our side of the mountain we saw two porcupines in a tree. One was climbing hurriedly up from the ground while the other one waited, looking very casual on a high branch.

The woods are full of wildlife this year. We had a lot of deer during the winter, and heard coyotes. Now we see a lot of turkeys, squirrels and assorted small birds, and have strong evidence of at least one bear.