What Was That?!

There’s always something new.  Sometimes pretty, sometimes not.  Sometimes a known thing I’m glad (or sorry, like an invasive alien plant) to see.   And sometimes a total mystery–not just a UID (unidentified)  bird or plant, but a mystery that’s startling and stops me in my tracks.

This morning I went out as usual, to do a complete walkaround of the west grass, up and across the “hump” on the north fenceline, and back along the east side of the dry woods, and time it.  Warm and humid (lots of dew on the grass), but an easy walk west along the south fenceline of the near meadow and then west to Cloud Pavilion and that patch of big bluestem.  No breeze at all yet.  The sun had gilded the creek woods, and didn’t touch me until I was maybe halfway down the south fenceline.   It was a nice morning–some birds calling but not as many as a month ago.  Those birds have left.  The white-eyed vireos were calling, though.  I didn’t spook a deer from the brush near the south fenceline–no “sneezes” and no crackle of leaves or twigs.   I could hear people with shotguns trying to hunt doves in the distance.   I got into the tallgrasses near the creek, where the mowed path is narrow and the big Argiope orb weavers like to build across it, but didn’t find any this morning.  Admiring the bright golden spear tips of the Indiangrass as they were poking out of their sheaths.  Spotted a dull-colored female damselfly perched on an Indiangrass leaf.   Usually I hear at least one deer “snuff” or crackled the undergrowth as I walk from the south end up to Center Walk, but today the woods were stiller than usual.

I was in sight of Center Walk, which runs from the Entrance Meadow of the Creek Woods up across the West Grass to the SW corner of the Dry Woods when I heard a loud call I’d never heard before.   At first I thought it was a big bird of some kind so I looked at the treeline to the north, along the fence, and couldn’t spot anything it might be.   Whatever it was called again…and then again…and that made it clear it was in the West Grass north of Center Walk, moving downslope to where my planned path ran.   I compared it mentally to other critter sounds I’ve heard: loose dogs, coyotes, feral cats, various birds, sheep, goats, cattle, horses.  Nothing fit.  I stopped at Center Walk.  North of there, the tallgrasses disappear except for Little Bluestem (which right now ranges from waist to shoulder high; some of its tallest seed stalks were about eye level.   The sound came again, this time in sharp, staccato phrases, all on one pitch, and now (as whatever it was got closer) clearly not a doggish sound, but the sharp 2-to-4 short sounds in a row reminded me of the warning cries of some critters to their young or group, from “Come NOW!” to “Stay DOWN” or “SNAKE! SNAKE! SNAKE!”  It sounded like a large whatever, *intending* to be heard at a distance..  I had the sense that the volume filled the entire West Grass with a warning of some kind.  I was the obvious object of the warning.  “Human!”

Did coyotes have a separate call for that?   R- had come across a coyote family in the gully system, and they made no sound at all, but did a quiet, quick, trot into cover.   I had started a gray fox vixen once, who “knew” me and had gone to sleep under a bush while I was watching the birds at the water and photographing them.  Then I got up, without any warning, and she exploded out from under her bush with a yelp, then stopped and gave me a dirty look…”You scared me, you stupid human!  You’re supposed to make a little noise without moving to let me know you’re getting up.”    Then she faded into the brush.  So foxes have a very small-canid yelp.  Coyotes yelp. This was not a yelp–more like a very loud chirp-squawk.  I couldn’t make that sound (didn’t try, then.)

Even though it didn’t sound like a dog, I’m very wary of stray and feral dogs and just stood there watching the trail north.  Suddenly there was movement beyond where I was looking and a longish, dark shape moved quickly across and into the Creek Woods.  Because of the tall grass between us, I know it had to be higher than knee high.  I had the impression is was perhaps 2 1/2 times longer than tall, but I was guessing on how high because of the grass.   It wasn’t trotting like a dog.   It wasn’t running like either canid or felid.  The movement struck me as surreptitious, trying not to be seen, but more interested in getting into cover.  The calls had ceased.  I heard no more.  But I had a serious concern about following the trail north to the north fenceline.  The whatever it was had impressed me as being big enough to give me trouble if it wanted to, and the thick growth along that trail would make ambush easy.  If whatever it was had young (could’ve been following it without my seeing them)  that would be … not exactly safe.

So I called R- (back home, eating breakfast) , told him what I’d seen, that I didn’t want to take the trails I’d planned and would instead take Center Walk straight away from the Creek woods, and check behind at intervals.  I did that, then circumnavigated the Dry Woods, with a side visit to Fox Pavilion to refill the wildlife waterer there.   No further calls were given by the whatever.  No deer stirred in the Dry Woods, either.  I usually spook at least a couple-three deer there.  Plenty of deer tracks on the trails.  I heard small birds–Carolina Chickadee, Black Crested Titmice, one mockingbird.  Black Vultures were out and about but not much else.  Back up to the north fenceline and east, silence in the woods, but for the flup-flup-flup of Black Vulture wings as they finally decided they could get up in the air.

So my mystery is still a mystery.   Not a bear, not an elephant, too big for a fox and also I think for a coyote.   We don’t have wolves here now, and all the wild dog types have pointy noses: this was blunt in front.  Bobcats look “square” because of their short tails, not long and flowing.   All the cats in the area are tannish (with or without spots) although there’s a dark gray-phase jaguarundi down in extreme S. Texas …and it’s not large–2-2.5 feet long, including tail, 15-18 pounds, says my mammal field guide.   They’re not known this far north.   I’m reasonably sure (even discounting my size guess as much as possible)  the whatever was bigger than that.  Jaguar…not known in Central Texas, though it has a black phase much farther south.  Mountain lion–we know we’ve had one around now and then, but they’re tan, not dark.   It’s tempting (but it’s HOT) to go back out as the day heats up and try to see if there’s anything in the midst of the West Grass or the Dry Woods to indicate a kill site.  A bunch of vultures, disturbed grass, etc.  We’ll see how dedicated I am….R- is busy sawing up a large branch that came off the pecan tree in the other house’s front yard.

Here’s an article on the wild cats of Texas.  https://texasnativecats.org/cats-of-texas/


18 thoughts on “What Was That?!

  1. Hi – hope you and yours are both safe and sane.. WOW. I have no idea what it could be – should you wear a small bell that would tinkle and warn animals you are coming. Of course you would miss seeing them, but I would not like to see the headline – Rising Young Writer carried off. I have seen flock of ducks and geese readying for their trips south. But nature is sure interesting

    Jonathan up here in New Hampshire

    1. We’re safe…sane is in the eye of the beholder. Our “normal” animals are always aware of where we are…the rattlesnakes don’t always move (except to coil up and threaten) but the deer, rabbits, coyotes, etc. treat us as possible threats. Cougars are not usually a threat if they don’t feel threatened, don’t have young nearby, etc. I know the rules for reacting if one does look too “interested”. (Whether I can do it effectively or not is something I’d just as not live-test.) So no tinkling bell. Sometimes I sing or talk to myself, too.

  2. How mysterious! Now I’m curious too but have no idea. Panther/cougar was my initial guess but apparently not dark enough? Presumably too far south for wolverine. Please let us know if you figure it out!

    1. Jeanine–mountain lion would’ve been my guess if the whatever hadn’t been so dark, but I’ve since been told by a friend whose husband grew up on a remote ranch that some “lions” are more brown than tan. So maybe. I’m going to write to an organization that has a website about Texas wild felids and see if they have someone with more expertise. I know the wildlife along the Texas-Mexico border has been badly disrupted by the !***!!! Border Fence and all the heavy human activity there, and wondered if a jaguar that had “visited” across the river got spooked and headed north into new territory, unable to get back by the way it came in. Jaguars do have a melanistic phase. Or if a jaguar someone bought illegally as a cub for a pet was abandoned when it got big, and it’s an escapee.

    1. Me, too. No wish to come nose to nose with a mountain lion, though I’d love to *see* one at a safe (???) distance. We’ve enjoyed knowing that at least one wanders through our place from time to time. We don’t have *near* the acreage it would need, or other wildlife to feed it, that it would need to stick around much beyond a month or so.

  3. How very odd! I do hope you get another chance to identify it and let us know what it was!

    Here, foxes are very far from quiet, especially when mating. The number of times I have been woken in the night – and yes, Iive in the inner city, but so do foxes, nowadays!

    1. Our gray fox does make some sounds while mating (We have no red foxes right in this area for comparison) but the sound I heard wasn’t like that. After listening to a lot of recordings of cougar sounds, it’s clear that they have “Come to me” and “Where are you?” mating calls, mother-to-kitten/kitten to mama calls, and “Here I am, where are you?” calls when traveling in family groups. Some are quite similar to what I heard, esp the “similar to some bird calls” effect.

    1. Pretty sure it’s not Sasquatch . Yes, I’m being careful. But humans are far more dangerous than Sasquatch, mountain lions, or even rattlesnakes. We have the guy up the street whose house has burned *twice* (this time during the power outage in the severe (to us) cold spell…something blew up, then ammunition started going off…). He’s rebuilding with fake logs (log sections, peeled and nicely pale (ick!) already nailed to “house sections”. Anyway, there’s the guy in the next block with the BIG yellow and black rattlesnake flag and a glaring white privacy fence around his back yard and a bad urban attitude. Lots of good people, too, but we have our proportionate share of mean, difficult, etc. ones. (I am of course, all sweetness and light and if you believe that, how about bidding on this nice bridge that I airlifted from London to Texas, or the more modern one that I…um…acquired from NYC?) Since I snarled in email to an organization I loathe that bragged to me today they were going to sue “abortionists” and I should send them money. Part of the Trump Group of Ghastlies.

  4. Does your part of the country have coy dogs or coy wolves? Nova Scotia had a grown woman killed by a pair of coy wolves some years back. She lived long enough to tell the tale. DNA evidence corroborated it. The pair was taken down, but the locals remain very vigilant.

    1. Coydogs, yes. There was one here in town when we moved here (um…40 years ago) that led a gang of pet dogs into mischief, chasing a local farmer’s cattle in the field we later bought. It got into our horse lot before we built the new fence, and met my dog-loathing horse, who chased it across that lot, teeth snapping at its heels–the coydog left fur behind on the fence. (Ky was an amazing horse and he did not tolerate dogs that came up and threatened.) The coydog used to go around this end of town after people had left for work, with their “never strays” dogs on front porches…and lure those dogs to come with him and form a pack to chase cattle. I watched him at it; one of the dogs, a sweet family dog lost some poundage once she started running with the pack. All the dogs would come back at lunchtime and sprawl on their porches, when their owners (some of them anyway) came home for lunch. I warned the family they’d better start keeping their sweet dog at home, because I had told the farmer about the pack’s activities and he was gunning for the coydog and any others he found running his calves. (It’s legal for farmers/ranchers to shoot dogs harassing stock in this state.) So the coy-dog was no more, and the sweet dog up the street plumped up again.

  5. Definitely sounds like a Big Cat to me. One lone male that wandered through here made it all the way (documented through scat) from Montana to New York state. So just because you haven’t seen the type before doesn’t mean it wasn’t a Big Cat.

  6. I think so, but the group for Texas wild cats told me rather condescendingly that it wasn’t, of course, because mountain lions aren’t dark and the lady said my description of the sound was all wrong for them, and jaguars haven’t been in Texas for almost 100 years. Fine. They can say that. I saw what I saw and while it may not have been a jaguar or even a mountain lion, it was as I described it and not the kind of mistake R- and I made many years ago which resulted in a family joke about “gully cats.”

    My friend Ellen, originally from South Texas and near me (we started in the same elementary school though we weren’t friends then–she was two years older) remembers several incidents that I also remember of animals no longer considered part of the Texas fauna who showed up across the border (briefly–someone shot them.) There was an arroyo up in Starr County named Arroyo Tigre Grande, too. Once we had a bear, and another time it was a big cat. And neither of us is 100 years old.

    On the principle of “walks like a duck, quacks like a duck” being more likely a duck than something else, “walks like a big cat, size of a big cat, sounds like at least *some* of the recordings of big cats” it’s more likely a big cat than not. I should’ve gone out the same day and photographed the dirt where it crossed the N/S trail but I was hot and tired and didn’t. Then it poured rain and washed out the area. I did find cat tracks in the mud after that, but not big enough…they could’ve been cub tracks or a smallish bobcat track.

  7. The few remaining Florida panthers are all supposed to be down in the Everglades, but two years ago our neighbors photographed one in their pasture… and we’re 300 miles N of Fakahatchee Strand. Other idea was a Fisher Cat (had them in Massachusetts) but there range is nowhere near you.

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