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Researcher's work counts


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000

EAST LAKE -- It turns out one form of hunting is allowed in the protected backwoods of Brooker Creek Preserve.

The trophy? The elusive paw print. No gun is needed, no blood will be shed. Just bring a pencil and paper, maybe a guide book.

Leading the safari is Claudia Nocke, research scholar and leader of a crew of volunteers who have set their sights on tracks left by everything from bobcats to weasels. She is heading a project to track and count the animals.

The project will help identify which species of mid- and large-size mammals live in the 8,000-acre preserve, how many call it home and where they congregate. In a related project, Nocke is tracking the movements of river otters in the preserve.

Nocke, 30, lives to track mammals. She was born in Germany and schooled at the University of London. In Costa Rica, she spent more than three years on the trail of ocelots, margays and other exotic animals for a wild cat rescue station and the International Foundation for Environmental Restoration, Education and Management.

She got to know the cats, especially the ones who hung around the rescue station. The workers had names for all of them and could recognize them on sight.

A talented artist, she sketched animals such as Nase, and 96 of the drawings ended up in a book Nocke and her boyfriend, Carlos de la Rosa, wrote. Carnivores of Central America was published in February by University of Texas Press. De la Rosa, an environmental education coordinator for Pinellas County, is working to create the environmental education program at the preserve.

As a research scholar at the preserve, Nocke is in charge of keeping track of the mid- and large-size mammals that roam its territory. There are red and gray fox, striped skunk, river otters, Southern flying squirrels, marsh rabbits, white-tailed deer, armadillos and opossums.

On a wide sandy trail near some power lines, Nocke spotted the tracks of still another species and pulled the hand brake on the Mule.

"Coyote tracks!" she said.

She jumped out and walked back about five feet, bent down and looked at the tracks, tracing one lovingly with her finger.

"They are pretty fresh," Nocke said. "See? The front feet are bigger. And the coyote walks a little sideways. And look, he is going the same direction we are."

After the inspection, Nocke boarded the Mule and took off again, following the tracks. She said it is easier doing it this way than on foot.

"When you are following the tracks you almost have your nose to the ground," Nocke said. "The other day I almost ran right into some deer."

Deer sightings in the subdivisions surrounding the preserve are so common that virtually no one calls to report them unless one is hit by a car and lies dead or dying. But it is a different story with wild cats. Residents are fascinated with the idea the cats they see at the edge of the forest could be Florida panthers, also known as pumas.

Most "phone up," Nocke said, to report the sighting. Some take photos of the animals and show them to Nocke insisting the image is indeed a panther. Nocke takes great care to let them down gently and with dignity.

But so far, every cat that has been reported has turned out to be a bobcat, an animal that weighs on average two times more than the average housecat.

"People really want to see pumas," Nocke said. "It's so much cooler."

The confusion is understandable, Nocke said. It is not common knowledge among people without a background in biology that bobcats actually do have tails -- about 10 inches long.

"Instead of bobcats they should be called short-tailed cats," Nocke said.

Still, Nocke waits for the day when someone calls to report a puma, and it actually is.

"It's always possible," she said.

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