Lisa Kaczke, Duluth News Tribune
Thomas Spence was looking for moose to photograph near Tofte on Saturday morning when he came upon a Canada lynx standing in the road.
Then a second lynx entered the road from the woods. Then another and another and another.
Five lynx cuddled in the road in front of Spence for a minute on Saturday before bounding off and disappearing into the woods of the Superior National Forest. But it was long enough for the Tofte photographer to get a few photos of the group.
"I couldn't believe it. I still am a little floored. As I was taking pictures, I was kinda laughing because I couldn't believe it was happening," he said.
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Seeing the five lynx is now among Spence's top wildlife experiences in his 25 years of living in Tofte, on the North Shore. He said he believes the group he saw was a female lynx with her four kittens.
Though lynx are occasionally seen in the wild, it's unusual to happen onto several together, said Ron Moen, a research biologist with the University of Minnesota Duluth who has studied the species. But it isn't unusual for a family group to be traveling together this time of year, he said.
"The kittens stay with the mom for almost a year, so that part is not unusual," Moen said. "But it's unusual to see that many together. (It means) good foraging conditions."
A female lynx might have from one to six kittens, Moen said. The U.S. Forest Service has documented lynx reproduction in Minnesota every year since the early 2000s, he said.
Kittens are born in May and stay with their mom for about 11 months, learning to hunt.
A typical adult female lynx weighs about 20 to 24 pounds, Moen said.
"They look a lot bigger," he said.
When Spence posted his lynx photos on social media — he posts his photos as "ThomasJSpence Images" on Facebook and as "toftetom" on Instagram — on Saturday afternoon, the photos quickly garnered thousands of comments, likes and shares.
Spence had recently watched a video of a lynx hunting a snowshoe hare, its primary food source, in Ontario — so when he came upon the lone lynx on the road, "intently staring into the woods," he thought he was going to witness it hunting. He stopped his truck and planted himself in a nearby snowbank with his camera to watch.
"As I waited, the first kitten — I assume it was a one-year kitten — emerged from the woods and I thought, 'Oh my, there's two of them now. This is going to be one of the best photography experiences ever.' Within probably another minute, three and four emerged out of the woods over the snowbanks ... they all just started cuddling like kittens with their mother. Again, I thought, 'It can't get any better than this.' After 30 seconds, maybe a minute, a fifth one came out of the woods," he said with a laugh.
After cuddling in front of Spence, the group began walking up the road. They weren't in a hurry and about 100 yards up the road, they gathered together once more before scattering into the woods. He said he thinks the lynx were "hunting with Mom."
Spence said the lynx were fully aware of his presence and they looked right at him.
"As each one emerged out of the woods, they'd check in with Mom and then they'd look over at me and see what I was up to. But I wasn't really moving so I don't think they thought I was a threat," he said.
Spence has only rarely seen lynx in his many years in Tofte. When he has, it's usually been just one — and the moment lasts only the few seconds it takes for the lynx to run by, he said. He saw two lynx together once, in the same area around Tofte about a decade ago. But he's seen more lynx so far this winter than he's seen in the previous five winters combined.
Minnesota's lynx population has fluctuated in recent decades, depending on the population of snowshoe hares. State officials at one time said lynx weren't native to Minnesota and instead came into the state from Canada during winter. But scientists discovered in the 1990s and 2000s a native population of lynx that bred in northern Minnesota. Moen told the News Tribune in January that an average of up to 200 lynx now live in Minnesota, mostly in St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties.
Lynx are listed as threatened in Minnesota, Maine and some Western states, giving the cat some protections from illegal killing and habitat destruction. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in January that it will begin drafting a rule to revoke the lynx's threatened species status. The move to de-list, if it advances, would put lynx management back in the hands of state and tribal natural resource agencies.
While Spence wants to keep the specific location of where he took the lynx photos a secret, he explained that he takes most of his wildlife photos "in the woods out of Tofte — when you look at a map, there's really only one way you can go into the woods out of Tofte." He mainly photographs moose and tries to get outside to take photos every day, depending on how much light there is before and after work, he said.
He went out on Sunday to see if he could glimpse the lynx again. The area had received a new layer of snow and he saw lynx tracks in the snow about 2 miles from where he saw the group on Saturday, but that's the only trace of the animals he could find.
"Whether or not I actually have that experience again, I would be shocked if anything even close to that happened again. Two years ago, I did have five bull moose walk out on me so maybe it's a thing with me, the number five. I'm going to go look for wolves next," he joked.
Sam Cook of the News Tribune staff contributed to this report.