The Winter Bobcats of Yellowstone
Story and Photography by Cindy Goeddel
Winter in Yellowstone National Park is extreme. Temperatures may drop to minus-66 degrees Fahrenheit and the snow piles up deep. Food becomes scarce, so animals adapt in surprising ways. A bobcat swims and loses its tail to frostbite. A coyote climbs a tree to steal a meal from a bobcat.
In Yellowstone at least two bobcats regularly hunt trout, muskrat and waterfowl by leaping into the Madison River. They use a similar strategy: hide at the edge of the river and wait until a meal swims or floats by. Then leap and, if it works, swim back with the meal. Hide the meal where the coyotes might not steal it.
For the last four years I have been privileged to observe and photograph them for hours at a time. Here are three of their stories.
On February 2, 2017, I had the photographic opportunity of a lifetime. The temperature hovered around 0 degrees and it snowed most of the day, but occasionally the sun battled through. For nearly 5 hours, I huddled in a snow pit and photographed a bobcat as he stalked and hunted along the Madison River. Three Canada Geese and a few ducks floated by his hiding place at the base of a rock. But he was careful not to reveal his presence. Hours passed. Then, he focused on a drake mallard several hundred yards downstream. Deciding to move closer, he used a deep bison trail along the river to stay out of sight, pausing to watch the mallard. Satisfied, he crept yet closer without alerting a red squirrel, a mountain chickadee, a goose, or especially the target mallard.
Since the cat moved, I had to move, too. Shouldering my tripod, camera and 500 mm lens, I lumbered up from the snow pit and used the groomed road to make my way downstream. The bobcat was out of sight but I thought I knew where he might stop. I plunged off the road and into chest high powder. One laborious step at a time, I was able to place myself directly across the river from the mallard. But no bobcat was visible. What if he hadn’t come this far downstream? What if I was the only photographer foolish enough to plow a 100-yard trench to nowhere, using only my body and my tripod as tools? Then, still catching my breath, I raised my binoculars and spotted two tufted ears about 50 yards upstream, peaking above the snow pillows. I breathed a sigh of relief and settled into my new snow pit, waiting as the bobcat crept closer to the dabbling mallard and to me.
For nine interminable minutes the bobcat watched the mallard circling immediately below him; back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Finally, when the mallard’s head was down, the bobcat leapt. The watery battle lasted nearly a minute.
The bobcat won.
Opportunistic and wily, coyotes sometimes watch attentively as a badger digs for rodents or as an otter fishes, hoping for a chance to steal a meal. Along the Madison River, coyotes watch the bobcats.
For two hours on February 2, 2014, we searched for bobcats along a 3-mile stretch of the Madison. We looked in all the usual hotspots: inside the hollow log, under the riverfront log and at the base of favored boulders and trees. Unless the cats are active, searching often amounts to looking for a bit of fur on a log that serves as camouflage. We’d had no luck until we spotted a coyote scent-tracking along the river. He was inspecting all the same hangouts we had just searched. Abruptly, he crossed the groomed road, giving us a quick glance that seemed to say “How-can-you-be-so-lame?” Heading directly up into a stand of trees and brush he placed his front paws as far up a spruce tree as he could reach. Then he started climbing.
Slack-jawed, we looked up. Near the top of the tree clung a bobcat with a very dead merganser in its mouth. The coyote kept climbing. First 10 feet, then 20, perhaps 30 feet using his mouth, legs, and tail as tools, circling the trunk as he picked a route skyward. The bobcat watched it all, tightening its grip on the unfortunate merganser, tensed for a tussle. The coyote grabbed the bird with his mouth but the bobcat held on and suddenly the tree rained a cat and a dog. When the snow settled, the canid had the merganser and the feline marched away to lick its wounded pride and wet fur.
We awoke to a bitterly cold morning near Canyon Junction on February 6, 2014. Overnight the mercury had plunged to -40 degrees and it took an hour just to start the snow-coach. The sun came out and the temperature had warmed to -20 degrees when we found the bobcat. He had just leapt into the river trying for a meal of trumpeter swan but came up empty-handed. He sat and groomed his fur in the weak sun, draping himself on a tree to dry. But he couldn’t dry off his tail, which was incrusted in ice balls. When I photographed him again 17 days later frostbite had taken half of his tail. Fur and flesh had fallen off, leaving an exposed bony stump of an already short tail.
Almost three years later, I would photograph him stalking the mallard.
Cindy Goeddel is a professional photographer, instructor, naturalist and guide, specializing in the wonders and wildlife of Yellowstone National Park. Her passion lies in creating images that convey the story and spirit of wildlife, while inspiring others to celebrate and protect the land we share.
Her images have been published in Planet Earth II, National Wildlife, Time, Audubon, Big Sky Journal, Wyoming Wildlife, Montana Outdoors, Montana Quarterly, Montana Magazine, Yellowstone Quarterly, Greater Yellowstone Advocate, and numerous other publications. Her fine art photographs are in private, non-profit and academic collections, including Montana State University and The University of Utah.
2016 NANPA Showcase Mammals: ‘Best in Show’ Peter Pan’s Shadow
2015 Wyoming Wildlife. ‘Grand Prize’ Peter Pan’s Shadow
2015 National Wildlife Federation International Photography Contest, Mammals, ‘First Place’ –Professional Division. Bison Breaking Trail
2015 NANPA Showcase Mammals. ‘Best in Show’ An Otter Runs Through It.
2009 National Wildlife International Photography Contest, ‘First Place’ – Plants and Landscape Professional Division. Treeangle
2012 Audubon Magazine Annual Photographic Awards. ‘Top 100 Image’ –
2009 Banff Mountain Photography Competition, ‘Best Photo’ – Mountain Flora and Fauna Category. Lone Wolf Howling
2009 CIWEM Environmental Photographer of the Year, ‘Highly Commended’ – Natural World Category. Squeeze Play
Yellowstone’s Wildlife in Transition (2013) — Photographs by Cindy Goeddel