July 12, 2009
When I first came up to inspect this "flat spot" camping area in the Santa Cruz mountains
in April or May, I found some scat, animal droppings, in one place near the two storage
containers which have since been removed. A field guide to animals suggested bobcat or
mountain lion. Many weeks later, I found some scat on top of one of my waste buckets. I
laughed, it was as if the animal understood what the buckets were for.
But in retrospect, it is more likely the animal was re-marking this place as it's territory, not mine. Also, the bucket is well over a foot high, closer to a foot and a half, not something a mere bobcat would likely be able to deposit scat upon, at least not dead center on the lid. As the robot in the old "Lost in Space" TV series often said about seemingly innocuous things, "Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!"
Getting water Sunday evening, I saw two bucks on the steep dirt driveway again. I paused. As usual, they adroitly stepped off onto the steep mountainside to let my car pass.
Near midnight, I went to put out my trash and turn the solar panels toward the morning's sunrise. (I telecommute. I need the power for the computer and internet link.) Something off in the distance went "Naaahrrt" at me. It sounded a bit hoarse. Age? A goat? I aimed my flashlight at it, and saw two close set eyes looking at me from a foot or two off the ground, maybe 60 feet away in the darkness. Predator eyes, not the wide set eyes prey animals use to see all around them. It was clearly focused on me. It went Naaahrrt again. Was that supposed to be a hoarse growl?
I clapped, it Naaahrrted. I picked up an empty water jug and beat a quick tune, "boom... ba-boom boom" against my leg. It Naaahrted at me three times. Can't count to four, huh? I stood my ground, beat the tune again. Again, it Naaahrrted three times. As we went back and forth, I could sometimes see it's close set eyes reflecting my flashlight. Two feet high? Bobcat? Mountain lion? A dark, thin, cat-like body raised it's head and turned. Two and a half feet high, at least. We went back and forth beating and naaahrrting a number of times, each of us standing our ground.
I thought about getting into the car and driving toward the edge of the flat spot to make sure I really scare it off; but didn't. Not easy to see where the edge of the clearing drops off in the darkness, and it's a long, long way down! Hard enough to be sure of the edge during the daytime, when I tried it. I remember Barry B., now long gone, insisted on taking his shotgun when we first hiked up here in 2004. This is where Barry would have gotten off a few rounds, maybe gotten himself a free meal. He did that on occasion at night when he camped at Ray's on the other side of the ridge. He was also drunk most nights, so one never knows just what he was shooting at, maybe not even him. (Another reason for not walking around at night here.) Interesting stories, though.
An owl off in the distance picking up my "boom... ba boom boom" rhythm with his "hoot... ho-hoot hoot." On hearing a simple tune often enough, owls will do that at times. It is part of the nature to play by exchanging songs, alternating parts singing them, etc. The owls and I did that at prior residences with far more complex tunes. We seemed to really enjoy each other's company in music.
More, I think the nearby owls well recognized what made the other sound.
Soon, there were three, then more, a dozen, then two dozen and even more owls echoing my short tune as the nearby hill woke up. I hadn't heard the owls here before, not in such numbers. As the beast and I went on, more owls joined in the hooting from up along the ridgeline several thousand feet away, then way across the valley from Ormsby, my old friends in the large colony near where I use to live two years ago. I was so glad to hear them, it meant most had survived The Summit Fire. I repeated the booming some more, with the owls echoing it, a growing army hooting my tune, rooting for me. At one point, it almost seemed as if the whole mountainside was a living breathing organic being.
I could almost see the beast's head rise, turn to look off toward the owls in the distance, perhaps remembering scrapes it had with them, weighing uncertainty, risk. The glowing eyes disappeared in the darkness, then turned full height glaring at me again before the cougar lowered it's head and disappeared for the night. With the owls echoing me, I wasn't alone. It was. And it knew it! That's when it decided to leave.
It was the owls who spooked him, not I.
After the beast left, I reflected how Owls are individuals, funny in their own ways. During the commotion, I remember one nearby owl seemed to wake up confused. It hadn't caught on to the synchrony, or the tune yet; but having just heard the beast Naaahrrt, it was going to give it all it had as it started hooting! Soon, its hoots did pick up the tune and it joined the loose synchrony of our surprisingly large community.
All these owls joined together to help me, a human, scare off a common predator. What is really amazing, is how it start first with a small group of owls who heard both my protest and the cougar, quickly understood my "tune" was protest, and adopted it. Only then, did it start to spread well over half a mile to other groups. There was likely other communication going on that I was not aware of, for this to spread in that direction, specific to the valley that predator was in.
The cougar, if that was what it was, responded to the growing numbers with growing uncertainty. It got the message.
I love these owls. Do the owls really care about me? Well, they care about their family, raising and teaching their young, and care about their community, which includes many relatives. I guess I am part of this community, especially after this. Just as I was part of the owl community on Ormsby, where we would sometimes alternate parts of catchy tunes.
RiskWhile that may seem like a victory, it was not my victory. The beast had confidently stood it's ground against me; it was the owls who "raised it's sense of uncertainty" enough by their sheer numbers, that persuaded it to leave. That beast was not chased off by the concrete sense of another superior beast or some imminent danger; but by something far less certain and more mystical, something more subject to re-interpretation as it weighs hunger vs risk another night.
The beast, cougar, puma, mountain lion, or whatever it is, it remains a danger. There have been a number of deaths and serious injuries even in the more civilized portions of Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties from large cats. Joggers are injured every few years, some even killed and partly eaten. In most cases, some large cat is killed and labeled the perpetrator, pacifying public outcry.
It was one thing to camp on Ray's property next to the road, where people and homes with dogs are nearby. There, the smaller bobcats understand it is not their territory. But out here, there is no traffic, no one. This is the beast's home territory, and in a moment of my weakness or confusion, or it's hunger, I am a potential meal. It's view may be that I would likely be a more difficult meal than a buck; but lacking antlers, perhaps not.
Another caution, the Naaahrrt isn't the usual snarl; it sounds hoarse and aged. It said that it is the older and weaker large cat which, no longer agile enough to catch deer, turn to human prey.
I think I need be more careful out here...
A month or so later, one of the distant human neighbors who had heard of my adventure tried beating a similar tune, "Bang.. bang bang", at night. None of the owls responded. I do not believe it was a knack I have, I believe the early hooters, having heard the beast growl, really understood the purpose of my tune and somehow conveyed it to the others. Owls are intelligent, they know whom their friends are.
Science News article: Cognition and awareness in birds and other animals.