By PATRICK MEIGHAN
HOLLIS – Paul MacFawn Jr. has driven down Rocky Pond Road in Hollis dozens of times. But on this particular summer morning, movement off the side of the road caught his eye.
The road was wet following a morning of rain. The rain also kept temperatures cool, even though the hour was approaching noon.
MacFawn eyed the south side of the road where it skirts a conservation tract known as the Whaleback property. He kicked his pickup truck into neutral, eased to a stop and shut off his engine. He sat perfectly still, waiting.
After a moment, a tawny feline marked by faint spots and black ears stepped out of an undergrowth of ferns to the side of the road. The cat paused a mere 35 feet from MacFawn’s truck.
MacFawn spent a lifetime as an amateur naturalist and sportsman, hiking, hunting and camping in the White Mountains with his father.
“I was like a little kid in a candy store.” MacFawn said.
He gently, quietly reached for his camera.
MacFawn began concentrating on wildlife and nature photography in 2009 as he was recovering from stomach cancer. His father, Paul McFawn, of Campton, who had battled cancer at the same time, passed away Oct. 11 of that year.
Out on disability from work while he recovered, and no longer helping to care for his ailing father, the Nashua resident began driving back roads of Hollis, Brookline and other nearby towns with his camera at the ready.
“I never traveled anywhere without my camera at my side. It’s on. It’s ready to go,” Paul MacFawn said.
So on July 27, MacFawn grabbed his Nikon D5000 digital camera, pointed the lens out of his driver’s side window and began clicking.
The shutter noise caught the attention of the bobcat, which looked directly at him. MacFawn then heard another sound, a soft meowing from the car and a higher pitched squeak in response from deep in the brush.
He realized then that he had chanced upon a mother bobcat with at least one kit. After a moment, the mother slowly and cautiously crossed Sandy Pond Road by herself, and MacFawn thought she would disappear into the brush and forever from his view.
Instead, the cat paused at the north side of the road and meowed several times. A second kit emerged and followed his mother slowly back across the road. In a moment, the family disappeared into the underbrush.
MacFawn was shaken and puzzled. Bobcats are famously timid toward people, and clearly, the cat had sensed his presence. Why would she dare to expose herself to his view for a full 2½ minutes instead of waiting in cover until he left?
A quick glance into his rearview mirror answered MacFawn’s question.
A coyote was sitting on the road about 10 feet or so behind his truck. MacFawn guessed he was biding his time, waiting for the opportunity to dash out and seize one of the two kits with the mother unable to defend both.
Even a large, 40-pound Eastern coyote wouldn’t likely tangle with a 20-pound bobcat if it could help it, but a kit would be easy prey.
In essence, the bobcat had used MacFawn’s truck as a shield, sensing the coyote wouldn’t dare play his hand with a human nearby.
MacFawn hopped out of the truck, and the coyote quickly turned and trotted away. His final photograph of the incident is the south end of the northbound coyote.
For an amateur wildlife photographer, the morning provided the encounter of a lifetime.
For officials of Beaver Brook Association, it was proof positive of the value of conserving large, contiguous tracts of land.
The Whaleback property was recently acquired by the nonprofit conservation and educational organization. The land across Sandy Pond Road, where the second kit lay in hiding, is slated to be developed into 27 housing units, said Thom Davies, Beaver Brook Association executive director.
“Paul’s story and his photos reveal the conservation effort that went into preserving that parcel to begin with,” Davies said. “We don’t get photos like that very often. They’re very elusive, as you can imagine, and not that common.”
MacFawn had hoped to photograph wildlife to enter in the association’s annual autumn art and photography show at its Maple Hill Barn headquarters on Ridge Road.
One of his bobcat photos made such an impression, Beaver Brook included it with its annual holiday-season letter to supporters asking for contributions.
The organization has had a great response to the letter and photo, Davies said.
There’s a lesson in all this to the casual nature lover, MacFawn said. Go into the woods, leave your pet dog at home and your cell phone off, be quiet and listen, and you never know what nature will present to you.
MacFawn has enjoyed nature all his life, and photographing nature and wildlife is a way for him to give back, he said.
“I have a spiritual connection with the outdoors. Personally, that’s just how I feel,” MacFawn said.