The difference between a Coyote Track and a Mountain Lion Track

Came upon a mountain lion track while hiking near Del Valle Reservoir last week. It had been raining and the ground was nearly saturated, good conditions for seeing tracks.

I was looking at a variety of tracks when I came upon a set of mountain lions prints. I photographed one the clearest tracks with my iPhone camera. Here it is.

The mountain lion track is more round than oval and the claws don't show, unless the lion slips or needs traction. When the lion slips, it will involuntarily extend its claws and they will show as points in the mud.

The heel pad of a lion appears larger than a coyote or other canine.

Here’s a good example of a coyote track.

The coyote track is more oval and the claws show clearly in the track. The heel pad does not appear as large.

The mature coyote track is smaller than the mature lion track. Large domestic dogs often leave tracks as large as lion tracks and sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. In the case of this lion, I would give the ID a high degree of confidence.

A lion like this can take a heavy toll on a local deer population, especially if she has juvenile cubs.Coyotes usually don't stop to be photographed, except in Yellowstone.

Tracks in a Dusty Road

While on a fishing expedition to McCoy Flat Reservoir near Susanville, I found this set of tracks in a dusty road.

I pondered these tracks for a while and then took a photo so I could do some research. If you figure them out on your own, I’m impressed. After some research, I came up with the answer.

Here’s a closer view:

You can tell the critter has long claws.

Answer: Pocket gopher. For more info click on the link below.

A Tracking Lesson in the Mud

Rob and I were checking one of our ponds last Monday. As we prepared to leave, Rob stopped to look down at four tracks in the mud. The tracks were large, looking to be a buck, and that’s what caught his eye.

Because of the large track size, my guess would be that it was a buck that made the track. However, the actual size of the deer’s hoof can be distorted by mud. The soft medium allows more of the bottom of the hoof to make contact, enlarging the print.

We stood staring at the tracks and I couldn’t resist taking a photo.

This set of tracks had learning potential.

These four prints were made by the same deer and show a pattern.

(Click on the photo for a closer look.) 

Standing over the tracks, we had the advantage of knowing that the deer was heading towards a six-foot wide drainage from the pond. As the deer approached the drainage, it decided to leap over it. On the other side of the drainage was a steep hill – adding to the buck’s need for power. His jump would provide momentum to help him climb the slippery slope in front of him.

Try to imagine the buck stopping at the gap and then leaning forward as he shifted his weight to his front feet. As he dipped his front end down it accepted his body weight. Quickly his hind feet leave the ground and pass his front feet.

As the rear feet hit the ground, the pattern you see in the photo is complete. The four hooves simultaniously hit the ground for a split second.

He’s now coiled to spring forward – his back arched and his hind legs tensed. Quickly loading his hindquarters and uncoiling, his entire body weight shifted onto his hind feet, pressing down deeply in the mud as his front hooves leave the ground and stretch forward. 

In the track of his rear right hind foot print, you can see where the dew paws made a slight impression (dew paws don’t show in a walking track) – his hooves splayed out as they carried his body weight.

We studied the slope where the deer climbed the slope. Heavy rain had eliminated his trail, but the deep impressions left by the initiation of the leap remained.

There are also clues here about when the tracks were made.  The edges of the track are rounded and at one time they held water. The indication is that the track had been made during the latest rains, but before the end of the rains. By checking the recent weather patterns, one can make a fairly educated guess that the deer had passed by about last Friday, in rain and significantly before the skies cleared on Saturday.

Do Coyotes Eat Ants?

Pair of coyote tracks

The pair of coyote tracks in the above photo was pointed out to me by my brother, Rob, during one of our reptile surveys. He had already figured out what was going on, before telling me about them. The tracks were the front feet of a coyote. They were deeply groved into the soft dirt, an indication that the dog had stood in one place, moving his head and forcing the tracks into the ground deeper than usual. The size of the tracks was just right for a coyote, but I wouldn’t rule out a gray fox.

Two feet in front of the tracks was a bush that completely blocked the view in his front vision. He wouldn’t have been looking ahead of him as he could only see about one foot. Yet he had stood in this position for more than a brief moment.  About a foot in front of the track, ants were traveling in and out of an ant hole. The coyote had stopped at this spot to feast on a few ants before moving on.

Tracks and ant hole outlined

With a little assistance, the picture is made more clear.

Here are the ants.

ants circled

I wonder how many ants a coyote can eat.

2009 Kenndy Meadows D6 Pack in Archery Hunt

Fernando was one of our two packers.

Packer Fernando resized

Randy was the other. They work for Kennedy Meadows Pack Station. The owner, Matt Bloom, is very accommodating.Packer Randy cropped and resized

This was a very large bear and we saw him two days in a row. We observed about six bears in bear best cropped

One bruin left his track near camp, but we didn’t have any trouble with our food.bear track cropped and resized

This Cooper’s hawk landed about fifty yards away while Wes and I alternated glassing and nodding. Shortly thereafter, a cinnamon colored bear walked up to within 20 yards of us before attempting to leap out of his hide.Coopers Hawk 2 cropped and resized

On the second day of hunting, this three point buck appeared in the willows below us. We’d seen him on day one as well.


three point buck in sun cropped and enlarged

Then we saw him again on day three, but at about 150 yards. Apparently he’d seen us as well.


three point or four point cropped

His partner was a four-point buck (in the lead), but was more camera shy. Like many bucks, he was better at keeping his head down. As you can see fairly well, this buck has blacktail characteristics.

We have noted that some deer in this area look like blacktails and others more like mule deer. There is  a species called the California mule deer and these deer would most likely fall into that taxonomy.

According to biologists I’ve discussed this with, the California mule deer is not a cross between blacktails and mule deer, it is a species that evolved in this habitat. Could be.

three point following four point cropped resized

We saw these bucks every day of the hunt.

Chipmunks were plentiful, as were many other ground squirrels including marmots, pica and Townsend ground squirrels.sierra chipmonk cropped and resized

The most prevalent creature on the ridge was the Clark’s nutcracker. While watching one of these birds from about 20 feet away through his binoculars, Rob observed one of them regurgitating pine nuts and storing them in a slot in a pine tree.Clarks nutcracker cropped and resized

After a few hours of watching deer in the morning, a three-point buck with a nice spread bedded in these willows. Wes decided to sit on him and see if he’d make a mistake.

Where’s Wes? Wes stalking buck in willows cropped

Wes stalking buck enlarged

There his is. Wes sat next to that large rock for several hours waiting for the buck to show himself, but he didn’t.

One exciting moment occurred on the last hunt day when Wes jumped a mountain lion that took off at full speed until reaching a place to hide behind a large rock.

Tracking the Coyote

The coyote is the most visible predator in our region and probably in North America. Its tracks can be found in most wild places in California and elsewhere in the West. The coyote is a canine and its track patterns are very similar to all canines including foxes and wolves. The tracks below were sketched in my notebooks in 1986. The clear track is a bit puzzling to me, but its the way I sketched it on site. The size of the track is about right for  coyote, but I am surprised by the distance to the front nail print.

I don’t recall the circumstances of that track sketch, but I’m sure I was convinced it was a coyote at the time. One way to explain away the long nail print would be that it  was a domestic dog, but for now I’ll continue to believe it was a coyote track. Even if it was left by a domestic dog, the dimentions of the track are good for a coyote, except for the long toe nail. Such is the nature of tracking. You seldom see the animal to confirm, without question, your conclusion.

Canines are diagonal walkers which means that the right front foot and left rear foot move forward at the same time and the left foot falls nearly into the track of the left front foot (same with the right side).

I’ve read that the rear foot typically falls in front of the front foot when walking, but it didn’t in this case. The speed of the walk may be a factor here. This is probably a slow walking coyote.

In the stride-measured print, the size seems to be consistent with other observations. In this case the stride remained constant not only for the two steps shown, but also for several others that I had no room for. Therefore the coyote near Bogard Ranger Station, California was walking purposefully at a slow rate of  speed, but probably not hunting. If the wild dog had been hunting, I would expect that the stride would have varied a great deal as the coyote slowed to listen and look for mice or other prey.

For some reason, I didn’t measure the trail width of this series of tracks. My sketch has the prints falling almost directly in a straight line, but I doubt that they were, so it only is an indication of stride and not trail width.Coyotes prints are typically indirect register which means the prints are separate or over lap each other. In this case the print of the rear foot covers most of  the front foot. Unlike coyotes and domestic canines, foxes tend to place their rear foot directly into the track of the front foot. This is called direct register.

coyote tracks

I found the coyote pictured below on a trip to Yellowstone Park about ten years ago. He was a beggar and hung out along the road waiting for a handout, much unlike most coyotes which are elusive and wary. I guess that’s why I couldn’t find any photos of coyotes from trips to the ranch, where they are often seen, but always with their rear to the camera – usually running.

Coyote at Yellowstone cropped

When coyotes and other canines run, they leave a series of tracks where all four paws hit the ground near each other and the distance between the series of prints is greater than the distance in between prints. I’ve got some good track patterns of my Labrador running and I plan to include them in a later post. The track patterns of domestic dogs are very similar to wild canines, but the tame critters are probably not as athletic.

Thoughts on Tracking

Our tracks and the tracks of the pursued are intricately woven into the land that we live on. We cannot escape from the mold that we have been placed into. Every creature leaves a unique trail in its path. The ability to decipher this trail and follow or learn about the one who left it is primarily determined by the skill of the tracker.

In 1991, my brother, Rob and I were hunting mule deer in Nevada. The hike to the hunting locating from the truck was about three miles over rugged terrain. We agreed that if we did not meet up by a half hour before sunset, we would return independently.

I was delayed while stalking a buck and did not reach our rendezvous point at the chosen time. Rob had already departed for the vehicles and the sun had nearly set before I began the hike back to our vehicles.

There were no visible trails in the shale and lava rock and the hike would be strictly crosscounty. Although open, the mountain had natural passages and it would not be unusual for the two of us would choose similar routes. The entire mountain was covered with trackless lava rock and shale. I gave little thought to my brother or the route that he may have taken.

In fact, at one point, I tried to climb a ridge that led me to an impasse. I was forced to back track and climbed down the open hillside to a shale-covered area. As I carefully navigated across the shale, lava rock and sage brush, I came to a patch of dirt only about three feet in diameter and when I placed my foot down, I realized I was stepping into a track left by Rob. Not only was I stepping in the same spot, but with the same foot and line of travel. It was over a mile from our rendezvous point to the dirt patch where we left our identical footprints. This did not  happen by chance.

This event sent me a powerful message. People are predictable. Most of us are not trained to figure out how to do the predicting. The same concept applies to all animals, including those we hunt.

Humans rely strongly on vision. Eyesight is the number one tool that hunters use to locate game. We have complete confidence in our vision and instantly interpret the images that our eyes perceive and never doubt the reliability of those images. However, our eyesight at one time or another has deceived us all. That does not deter us from continued confidence in the reliability of our eyes.

If we have complete understanding of the tracks that are all around us, the tracks would be just as reliable as our vision. Our ability to utilize tracks for our own benefit and understanding are only limited by our ability or lack of ability to read sign.

Much of this sign we do see. Some of it is quite obvious. However, most of us choose to deem it unreliable. We choose not to believe what is right in front of us. Why is this? There are several reasons.

Unlike the hunter-gatherers, we spend little time in the forest. The knowledge that creates a working understanding of tracks and sign has not been passion. Concepts that were accepted as truth by ancient man are now looked upon with doubt.

With some effort, a sliver of understanding is attainable. For most of us, we only have time to attain a small insight into the sign that is written all over the face of the earth. Even this trickle of knowledge is a source of wealth to the hunter. By developing skills seldom understood in the modern world, the hunter’s enjoyment of time in the woods can reach a new level.