PITTSFIELD – “Almost never.” That’s how often Pittsfield nature photographer Mark E. Thorne gets close enough to capture a bobcat, the state’s only wildcat.
Last weekend Thorne got lucky. He spent more than four minutes documenting a female bobcat and two of her cubs as the animals pulled up off South Mountain Road, within the city limits.
After decades of photographing wildlife in County Berkshire, that in itself would be remarkable for Thorne, a self-employed electrician. His last encounter was not fleeting, as is usually the case with this elusive creature, which is more common in western Massachusetts than people know.
Bobcats are about twice the size of large domestic cats and can weigh 15 to 35 pounds and grow to 2 ½ to almost 4 feet long, according to the state’s Fish and Wildlife Division. Females and juveniles are smaller.
“They actually turned to look at me,” Thorne said. “They heard the engine running on the camera. Seeing them in the wild and taking a picture is hard. It’s this difficulty that makes it so rewarding when you get something like this.
Thorne, 66, has been taking photos since the age of 10, starting with a brownie. He made the digital leap a long time ago, after years of developing films and printing photos in a makeshift darkroom.
Thorne shares his best photos with friends and colleagues at the Hoffman Bird Club. His personal archives contain spectacular photos of bald eagles perching at Lake Onota. One of his bobcat photos from 2011 appears on a Massachusetts Audubon Blog.
In October 2010, Thorne hid behind a corner of his garage to photograph a prowling bobcat. A year later, he used his truck as a cover to capture views of an adult bobcat resting behind a stream. He watched a gray squirrel make the mistake of getting too close. “The lynx got up and grabbed him.”
Often, friends point out a sighting to him. In May 2020, Thorne set up a portable photography store near a Lenox barn, hoping to collect footage of a family of red foxes living below.
Thorne remembers that as he waited blindly, 50 feet from the barn, the heat that day ignited, turning his hiding place into a “sweat lodge.” He couldn’t open the air vents, fearing it would reveal his presence. The smell of cow pies in a nearby field kept him company. After waiting inside the blind for a few hours, two puppies emerged.
Later that day, he shared photos with friends, along with a description of his settlement.
“Despite the blind, they knew I was something that didn’t belong there,” he wrote.
Thorne says he enjoys seeing wild creatures up close; it moves him in a way that a zoo doesn’t.
“Just the feeling of wonder,” he said of the lawsuit. “I don’t have any fancy explanation as to why I shoot what I do. I love nature, I love all creatures, and I especially love capturing things that people don’t or often can’t see. Being curious and patient, and always retaining a sense of wonder towards all creatures are the things that make me trudge through the swamps and woods.
Family time with bobcats
Last weekend, her sighting spanned an unlikely four or five minutes off South Mountain Road in south Pittsfield, as the lynx kits played and their mother remained on alert. Thorne says he normally sees bobcats in flight, from behind. This time he was able to quickly assemble his Nikon D500 and film before the animals retreated.
“I only had a few seconds to assemble the camera,” he said. “Both kits went pretty well because most of the time they were up against me. I was just aiming the camera in the middle of their bodies. You need a long lens for them to fill the frame.
“I finally have the kind of high-quality cameras and lenses that I only dreamed of when I was young,” he said.
A female bobcat like the one Thorne documented this weekend produces one litter per year, usually with two cubs. Mass Wildlife says that young bobcats stay with their mothers until they are big, at least during their first winter. People could see more cats in Massachusetts.
“Lynxes adapt to suburban environments and can be seen in backyards and residential areas,” says Mass Wildlife in a fact sheet. “Lynxes rarely cause conflict with human activities.”
Thorne approached within 40 feet of the three bobcats over the weekend. The two kits were frolicking, especially the smaller of the two.
“He was bouncing around in the bushes, having fun on his own,” Thorne said. “I was very lucky to have what I had.”