This story first appeared in the June/July issue of Bangor Metro.
This is a true story. My wife had only one request for her birthday this year, and that was to see a Canada lynx. Sandi had never seen one, whereas I had encountered two over the last decade. She decided it was her turn, and it was my task to get one.
Outwardly, I smiled. Inwardly, I groaned.
A Canada lynx is not something you can just order online. Even if you could, gift-wrapping it would be a painful challenge. Besides, they’re scarce. They’re also elusive.
The lynx is similar to a bobcat in size and appearance. It often looks a little bigger, because its longer rear legs give it a taller look. Both cats have black ear tufts, but the lynx tufts are longer. Even though the bobcat is named after its bobbed tail, the lynx tail is actually shorter, and its tail tip is completely black. The lynx also has huge, fur-covered paws that support its weight in deep snow as it pursues its favorite food.
Snowshoe hares make up about 75 percent of its diet.
The Canada lynx is federally listed as a threatened species. It is listed as a species of special concern in Maine. Nobody really knew what their status was until the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife began to study them in 1999. Before 1967, they could be hunted and trapped in Maine, and there was even a bounty on them.
The lynx is widespread across Canada. Their range barely dips below the border. Until recently, Maine was the only New England state known to have a breeding population, mostly in the northwestern corner of the state. Evidence indicates a few have now moved back into their former range in New Hampshire and Vermont, after being extirpated in the mid-1950s.
There probably aren’t more than a thousand lynx in Maine. They hunt mostly at night, in areas of inaccessibly deep snow. The notion that I could produce one as a birthday present was far-fetched indeed. Still, I had one thing going for me. We were going to be in lynx country often during the early months of 2021.
Sandi and I are volunteers for the Maine Bird Atlas project — a five year study to map where all of Maine’s birds are. Biologists at Inland Fisheries and Wildlife repeat the study every few decades, using comparisons of the data to signal grand changes in Maine’s habitat and environment. The entire state is divided into blocks that are three miles long and wide. Because few volunteers feel comfortable in remote areas of the north woods, we assigned ourselves the task of walking miles of logging roads above Millinocket, Greenville and Jackman.
That is how we came to be on a logging road just south of Chamberlain Lake and the Allagash River headwaters. The bird atlas requires a minimum of three hours surveying a block in the first half of winter, and a revisit in the second half. I was in the area much of January, and took note of where I was seeing the most snowshoe hare tracks. Occasionally, I would see paw prints the size of a human hand, almost certainly made by a ghost cat. When we returned in March, I remembered one road that seemed particularly promising. I saved it for a Sunday, when I knew there was little likelihood of logging operations and truck traffic.
It should not have been this easy. Three miles down a side road, on the way to our first walk of the day, we rounded a corner and immediately noticed something large and tawny high in a spruce. My first thought was porcupine, promptly followed by the realization that it was too big. A cat! The morning temperature was only 10 degrees. It’s likely the cat climbed to a safe place for a nap and the warming rays of early sun. Safety is important to an animal that can fall victim to the larger coyote, or even the smaller fisher.
Since the cat was treed, we were free to walk right up to it, and it didn’t seem to mind that much anyway. We double-checked the clues, confirming it wasn’t a bobcat. For 10 minutes, the lynx watched us watch him, interspersed with a few brief catnaps — him, not us.
That evening, we celebrated a near impossible birthday wish granted. Sandi was elated and I was relieved, at least until she said, “You know what I have never seen in Maine? A pine marten.”
Bob Duchesne, Bangor Metro