A game camera recently snapped the first photos of a bobcat walking through Sand Ridge Savanna Nature Preserve in Custer Township.
This is the second bobcat sighting in a Will County preserve in a little over six months. A mother bobcat and her kittens were photographed walking through a small open area in Kankakee Sands Preserve also in Custer Township in late September.
The cameras, which are triggered by motion, are used in the preserves to document animal numbers and movements. The information obtained by the cameras helps guide the Forest Preserve District's land management strategies.
Photos of bobcats in the preserves are rare because the animals are so elusive, said Becky Blankenship, the Forest Preserve’s wildlife ecologist. So, capturing photos of the creatures in September and again this month at Sand Ridge Savanna Nature Preserve was noteworthy.
"The bobcat was caught on my game camera walking alone along a game trail," Blankenship said of the latest photos. "My camera caught three pictures. I can’t tell if this individual is one from the Kankakee Sands photos.
"Bobcats can have a wide variety of home range sizes, so that won’t help either," she added. "Logically, if last year's photos showed a mother with two kittens, there is a male out there somewhere too. I’d love to get more photos to help piece this wildlife story together."
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Learn more about this candid "capture" and the game camera program with 10 questions answered by Blankenship.
- How often do Forest Preserve game cameras capture bobcats? It normally only happens only once every couple of years, so it’s always a treat to get pictures of bobcats. The cameras are set up to take a three-photo burst when they detect motion. Then they have a 10-15 second delay before taking another burst if there is still movement in front of the camera. Game cameras also are called trail cameras and even camera traps, since they are "capturing" an image of the animal. Things to consider for camera placement are habitat, height, angle, and photo/video settings, and those all depend on the target species. Game trails are great locations for cameras since multiple species use them to move around easily.
- Can you tell if the bobcats in the photos taken in September were male or female or their ages? Based on size, the photos recorded what appears to be a mother and at least two kittens. Females can reach sexual maturity a year after birth, so the mother is at least a year old, and the kittens were likely born this spring. Unfortunately, I cannot determine the sex of the kittens by the photos.
- Are bobcats found in many Will County preserves? We have now recorded them at five preserves: Braidwood Dunes and Savanna Nature Preserve, Evans-Judge Preserve, Kankakee Sands Preserve, Sand Ridge Savanna Nature Preserve and Sugar Creek Preserve. It is very likely they occupy quite a few preserves and are just difficult to observe.
- Why are bobcats hard to detect? They are crepuscular, active at twilight or just before sunrise, which makes them difficult to observe in person. Most of the bobcat photos were taken between 5-7 a.m. and 5-7 p.m. when it is dark, with a few midnight photos and a couple in the early light.
- Why are bobcats so intriguing? Because bobcats are well camouflaged and excellent at avoiding people, they are a rare and beautiful sight. I have only seen a wild bobcat once, and the black-and-white photos do not do them justice. I also appreciate that they are skilled predators that help keep the rodent populations down.
- How do you know if the photographed bobcats are preserve residents or just passing through? There are many variations in study results determining bobcat home ranges. Generally, males travel farther and have larger home ranges than females. Ideally, I would like to capture more images throughout the year to determine if they stay in the area.
- What is the status of bobcats in Illinois? According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, habitat loss and overharvesting of bobcats caused populations to decline severely enough to be listed as threatened in Illinois from 1977-1999. Since then, bobcat populations have responded so well to protection and habitat management that a very restricted hunting and trapping season has been in place since 2016. (Hunting is not allowed in the Forest Preserve District of Will County preserves.) IDNR estimates that there may be up to 5,000 bobcats in Illinois now, and their numbers are still on the rise.
- What other methods are used to determine what kind of animals live in the preserves? Other signs used to determine the species that are present include identifying scat, tracks, lodges, scrapes, feathers, etc. For instance, a deer will scrape the ground with its foot while eating, and turkeys scratch the ground to move leaf litter looking for things to eat. It all depends on the observer’s skill at identifying the animal responsible for the sign. The depth of an animal print in a substance and how old the print is are both variables in making a correct identification. The difference between felines and canines can be difficult to see. Typically, cat tracks lack claw marks since they can retract their claws, whereas canine tracks usually have nail marks. Tracks resembling bobcat paw prints have been recently observed at Laughton Preserve, so hopefully the game camera out there will capture a picture.
- Why does the Forest Preserve use game cameras to track wildlife and what other kinds of species are recorded with these cameras? Game cameras allow us to observe species without needing to be present, which is beneficial for observing nighttime activity, species occurrence patterns, and observing the more elusive species like bobcats, coyotes and foxes. The most common animals caught on camera are deer, squirrels, a variety of birds and raccoons.
- Why is it important for the Forest Preserve to document the species that live in its preserves? The history of the bobcat in Illinois shows us the importance of managing habitat for the species that depend on it. Knowing what species occupy our preserves helps guide our habitat management practices. For example, knowing where we have spotted salamanders helps us determine which areas need to be prescribe burned in the very early spring or later in the fall. We want to make sure we time the burn when the salamanders are underground for hibernation and are protected from the fire.
One of the bobcats spotted at Kankakee Sands Perserve in September 2020.
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