LAPORTE, MINN. - Most people will never see a bobcat in the wild, but Mark Lewer has had his camera lens on one for years, waiting for the perfect photo op right in his backyard.

"I can spend 95 percent of my time going in the wrong direction," he said. "Do I go north and look in the woods there? Do I go south? It's just easier to sit here at home."

Home is where bears and birds of every color drop in, and he documents them in striking images that have appeared in National Geographic over the years. He's found that being patiently observant and appreciating what is right in his own backyard is how his best work is achieved — including the picture he calls his photo of a lifetime that appeared in the recent issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine.

"To receive an image of an animal that few humans will ever see in the wild, that was sort of the icing on the cake. That kind of pushed it over the edge in terms of our decision to run it," said Chris Clayton, editor in chief of the magazine published by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Bobcats are the most common of Minnesota's three native wildcat species, but they are incredibly elusive. Lewer happened to have his sights on one since 2020. He watched this particular cat grow, catching glimpses of it in snow, autumn leaves and then one picture-perfect day last May.

He was looking out one of many windows into his backyard when he saw the crouching bobcat staring down her next meal: a cottontail rabbit. "When I saw that, I knew I had something going on," he said.

With his camera within reach — he's always prepared for Mother Nature's next subject — he rushed downstairs where the windows are at ground level. As the bobcat stalked her prey, Lewer was stalking her.

He watched the pair move from the lilacs to the bleeding heart bush until lunch was interrupted and the rabbit scurried off. Lewer tapped the window once to draw the cat's gaze directly into the camera lens.

"It's the best one so far," he said, adding that the image would have been topped only if the rabbit was in the bobcat's mouth.

The photo took off online when it was shared on the DNR's Facebook and Instagram pages.

But Lewer's not into social media. He doesn't have a website showcasing his wildlife photographs that span two decades. He stopped submitting to NatGeo's "Your Shot" when it became all about collecting likes, he said. But he decided to submit his bobcat money shot to the DNR, which brought him a lot of attention.

"I'm not used to it, not at all," he said.

Neither is the bobcat.

"They're super cryptic," said Jason Abraham, a 25-year furbearer specialist at the DNR. "It's a really well camouflaged animal, and they're very secretive."

Along with its stealth, the cats are slender — an adult male tops off at just 30 pounds — and they're highly adaptable with a growing population and range.

Bobcats have forever called northern Minnesota home, with a population of around 2,000. Abraham said Interstate 94 is typically the demarcation line for bobcats. But more are migrating south, and cats from as far away as Missouri are migrating north.

"So we're seeing a fairly strong population of bobcats statewide now, which is really a change from what we've seen," he said. "You just didn't see bobcats in southern Minnesota and now it's fairly common for our conservation officers and area wildlife staff to get calls about someone having seen a bobcat, and that's really cool."

Bobcats are nothing to fear. Like many domestic cats, they don't like humans, and you're unlikely to come across one on a hike in the woods. Reports of sightings in southern Minnesota typically come from trail cameras, not humans.

Also contributing to a growing population is climate-driven change. Bobcats do well in any environment, but they don't particularly care for deep snow. Abraham said with snow depths across the state diminishing, "that's feeding into the increase that we've seen."

"It's one of those animals that does well in a changing climate. They're just very adaptable."

Abraham said he wouldn't be surprised if Minnesotans start seeing more of the animal, which mostly remained under the radar until one wandered into the Lewer's backyard.

Lewer's wife, Cindy, said they might as well be living in a duck blind or deer stand, the way wildlife surrounds them. If you build a buffet for the birds, she said, the rest will come: All you have to do is look around.