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The bobcat kittens play. - photo by DAN WITT Special to the Tribune

Welcome to the second edition of Marsh Musings. We are excited to share about one of our coolest adventures yet! Dr. Witt and I have recently had the pleasure of observing and photographing one of the most elusive creatures in Barton County, a mother bobcat and her three babies.

Bobcats are native to Barton County and have healthy population numbers. We just never see them because of when they are most active. They are crepuscular, not nocturnal, meaning they are most active at sunrise and sunset. They live in wooded or grassy areas and have a territory of 5 to 50 miles long. They are approximately 28 to 40 inches long and range from 13 to 30 pounds in weight, depending on sex.

Most people have never seen a bobcat, and even fewer have seen a mother with her babies. Even then, most sightings of bobcats only last for a few seconds. Dr. Witt and I have had the incredible opportunity of watching a mother bobcat care for her young for several months. We have also been fortunate enough to capture their daily routine through pictures and video.

Most of our adventures last a few hours at most, but we have spent days together watching this family. We arrive at our meeting place bright and early, alternating who brings coffee and snacks to munch on. We take the short drive over to Pawnee Rock and usually arrive to a mother basking in the sun. She goes through her daily routine of napping, cleaning herself just like a house cat would, and slowly stretches before going to wake up the kids.

In bobcats, only the mother cares for the young. The mother will find a safe den and have two to three kittens every Spring. The mother we have come to know has three spunky little kittens, all with different personalities. Two of them mind her very well, but the third kitten is a defiant problem child. Much of his mother’s time is spent trying to corral him and keep him safe. For instance, the mother usually growls for the kids to come out to meet her. Two of them bound immediately towards her, but the third, slowly but surely, just pokes his head out. In our minds, he anthropomorphically sticks his tongue out at his mother. She eventually grows impatient and enters the den, only to come out carrying him in her teeth.

She lets the kids play and roughhouse with each other for a while before taking them over the hill to hunt. They pounce, wrestle, attempt to climb trees, dive bomb each other off of a set of pipes, and carefully execute aerial assaults on one other. After the kids wear down (if that’s possible), she lines them up and takes them into the woods to hunt. They do not start out hunting though. Kittens nurse until around two months of age, at which point they start eating big kitty food. The mother will start weaning them by bringing live animals to teach them how to hunt. We have even watched her catch a pack rat and a cottontail rabbit to give to the kids.

The mother will begin to teach the kittens everything she knows about life and hunting. She will teach them to hunt many animals, including rabbits, rodents, turkeys, and even small deer. They are also the main predatory threat to the endangered Whooping Cranes! They can only eat about three pounds of meat at a time, so large prey are buried in a safe area and eaten until the meat rots. She will also teach them how to stalk their prey, which is an incredible sight. They can run of speeds up to 30 miles per hour and put their back feet in the same spots where their front feet stepped to reduce noise when running.

We are so grateful for the time we have spent with these animals. It has taught us so much about nature and has shown us just how similar families are across the animal kingdom. These kittens will stay with their mother until the fall, at which point they will be half grown and weigh around 12 pounds. We hope to spend a great deal more time with them and to continue to document the lives of such an incredible, unique family. Who knows, maybe we will even get the chance to document them throughout their entire six to eight year lifespan! Until next time!

Eric Giesing is an educator at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center. Dr. Witt is a photographer, hunter and semi-retired doctor.