Track Ageing

Ageing tracks is a way to determine when an animal was present. This can be very useful if you are studying, photographing or hunting an animal. Here is a photo of a mountain lion track on which I now have some history.

IMG_3700 2-day old track

This photograph was taken on Friday September 22nd 2017 at 2:33 PM.

This track was made in deep dust on a little-used road. The dust is deep because it is in a portion of the road that is fairly steep and the soil is deeper than most of the area. Summer use tears up the soil and reduces it to fines of dirt and small rocks.

Here is another photograph of a track in the same series of prints. It’s not exactly the same track, as a truck ran over the portion of the track that I photographed two days earlier. Here is the first photograph.

mountain lion track IMG_3691 rotated CCW 90

This track photo was taken on Wednesday September 20th 2017 at 12:47 PM.

Because this track has not been deformed, I concluded right away that it was  at most  hours old and possibly only minutes old.

When ageing tracks one looks for deterioration caused by the forces of nature. Weather is a key. Wind reduces clarity of the track. The September 20th track is very clear and the edges are sharp. It has not been disfigured by wind.

Rain is another important weather element. A heavy rain may wipe tracks out completely, but it will also create the beginning of a new time line.

Gravity also has an effect, but it takes longer for gravity to take effect. Other tracks also can be used in aging. For example, cars will eliminate many tracks. On heavily used hiking trails, people may eliminate all wild animal tracks by day. Animals will replenish their tracks at night.

If you want to find a bear track on a mountain hiking trail, the best opportunity will be first thing in the morning.

I know that it was quite windy on Wednesday evening and there was also a very light rain. These are major sources of the deterioration that took place between Wednesday and Friday.

If the weather had been perfect with no rain and little wind, the Friday track could have looked much closer to way it did on Wednesday. However, additional truck traffic might have completely wiped out all the tracks.

The conclusion is that the key to good track ageing is the creation of a time line that records the timing of any activities that could cause deterioration or complete elimination of the track.

Here is one last photo. Look at it closely and you’ll see a leaf in the front track. You can tell that the leaf was blown in, not stepped on, by the lion. The strong winds blew on Wednesday evening before sunset.

IMG_3700-1 track with leaf

A heavy summer rain can create a track pattern that can be deemed to have been made within a short time frame for as much as several weeks. A track in mud can only happen while the ground is very wet and the palette for a mud track created following a summer rain is often only receptive for about half a day. Once created, a mud track often lasts until the next heavy rain.

Snow is the very best palette for ageing tracks and one can learn a lot about animal tracks if they are blessed by living in a region with frequent winter snow – something we don’t have here in the SF Bay Area.




Big Cat

While driving dirt roads, I often look for tracks. When I see something that looks interesting, I roll down the window for a closer look. Today I rolled down my window and beheld the best series of mountain lions tracks I’ve ever seen.

The site was a steep slope where I always grimace when towing my trailer. The road snakes into two quick switchbacks. The dust is deep in summer and the mud scary-slippery in winter.

These tracks were deep in dust and very clear, giving the impression that they were freshly minted. Nothing makes a better track imprint than deep dust.

The lion had walked along the side of the road for a considerable distance leaving a perfect imprint of every step. Here is what I saw and photographed.



My Swiss Army knife is 3.5 inches long. The lion had a trail width of about four inches and a stride of about two feet. Because the lion was walking down hill, the cat’s rear foot did not directly land on it’s front foot as it normally would when a wild feline is on level ground.

The single set of tracks gave me the impression that they were those of a big tom with a pot belly – maybe full of venison.

Note: Thirty minutes ago I made this post. Something bothered me so I decided to pull out my trusty references, most important is the Peterson’s Guide to Animal Tracks. After spending a few minutes re-evaluating, I concluded that my interpretation of the tracks was incorrect. Should have checked sooner.

Yes this was a big cat and it may have had a pot belly, but it was not walking. It was trotting. This leads me to believe that that cat may have been in the road ahead of me as I drove down the hill and it began to trot when it heard me coming. That’s the reason it didn’t direct register.

Nobody had driven the road since I departed yesterday at dusk. This is an area with little travel. In fact the section of ground where I saw these tracks is owned by the East Bay Regional Park District and the parcel was purchased to protect a known mountain lion den nearby.

Something that I did not say earlier was that about twenty yards further down the road, the cat did a 180 turn. In retrospect, I believe it decided to reverse course and then move off the road.

Maybe it was watching as I photographed it’s tracks. Mountain lions are very sneaky.

Sorry about the confusion, but tracking is always a puzzle and I should practice more often.

The Arrow Head

Wednesday morning, the fifth day of our Devil’s Garden hunt was a little rough. I got to my spot and waited for the sun to light up the scene so I could advance without spooking deer, but it was to no avail as another hunter arrived and chased the deer out of the woods.

That’s what happens when other people discover the deer you’ve been coveting. You have to expect it to happen once or twice each time you hunt in the public domain for a week or more.

The other hunter chased five bucks out of the nearby timber and I spotted them on a ridge top. They were obviously nervous. That’s when I realized exactly what was going on. I spotted the hunter and his driver friend who picked him up in a white dodge truck after he had completed his chase.

It had rained the previous day and tracks on the ground were very easy to follow, so I decided to pick up the trail of the five bucks – a couple of them big ones- and give it a try. I didn’t really think I would track them down, but I wanted to find out if I could.

The wet ground provided a great medium for the tracks. Here’s a photo I took of one of the buck tracks. They always look bigger in mud and the hoof sinks in farther than with dust.

IMG_3584 deer track

After about three or four hours of following the bucks, but never seeing them again, I gave up and began the walk back to the timber where I intended to still-hunt for bedded bucks.

I’d been looking at the ground all day, so it’s no surprise that I kept on looking and then a shiny black piece of obsidian appeared. It was a nice looking point, but unfortunately the tip was broken which is often the case. I snapped a photo of the arrow head.

IMG_3599 arrow head

I have to say that the find lifted my spirits a bit and gave me some energy, which may have contributed to the next days success.


Tracking Blood – The Wall, the Cliff

Waited for a few minutes and realized that there was no need to wait. This buck would not be found alive, but would it be found?

That’s always the question. This is not TV. Bucks don’t stop and drop.

As this buck passed out of sight, he was running like a race horse. He plowed through a barbed wire fence, breaking one of the strands. And, unfortunately, he was heading down hill.

It was 3 PM and hot. I grabbed a bottle of water, my field glasses, some trail marking tape and my swing-blade knife. That was all I wanted to carry. I hoped it would end quickly.

Searching for first blood is always painful. I walked the trail – nothing obvious.

I walked about 100 yards down the most likely route. Nothing obvious. Why couldn’t he just be there, lying on his side?

Doesn’t happen that way.

Looked at my phone for the time. I was already drenched in sweat. Thought about asking for help. Rob and our friend Terry were somewhere on the ranch, working on projects. Maybe I should text them?

At 3:18 PM I sent a message: “Just shot a good one.”

Then I went back to tracking. Put on my reading glasses and found a drop of blood. Then another and another. The trail began to line out.

Amazing how much easier it was to see blood with the readers on. I moved out at a decent rate. The blood was steady, but limited.

Most of the drops were on dead leaves, rocks branches or on the wild oats.

At 4:11 PM, almost an hour after my call for assistance, my cell phone sounded. It was Rob. He replied, “Cool,  pond on 26?”

I replied, “Yes, still tracking.”

Rob asked if I wanted help? I felt like saying, “Are you kidding?” but only responded “Yes.”

About 100 yards from the start of the trail, I was still on blood, but it was tough going. It was wickedly hot. Occasionally I’d walk ahead and search the area with my field glasses.

I got a break when I found a drop of blood about 50 yards down the trail. Kept thinking I’d find him on his side at any time, but he wasn’t there.

Then I found my arrow. It was covered in blood from one end to the other. It was clear that my arrow had penetrated through both sides of the buck, but it had remained in him for nearly 200 yards. This was a good sign.

At 4:34, Rob texted that he was at the pond. I told him to come straight down the hill and he’d find me. Now I was about 200-250  yards from the pond, but I couldn’t find any more blood.

Rob and Terry arrived and I was quite relieved to have help as I was hitting the dredded wall. I was reaching the point where my concentration was declining. Rob found blood where I couldn’t.

Then we got a big break. The buck had back-tracked for about 20 yards, leaving the main trail and Rob spotted his hoof print. As the buck was heading down a steep incline, his hoof marks were clear. Combining his tracks and drops of blood, the process began to speed up.

We began to notice that he was wobbling, bouncing of brush and trees.

He was off the main trail. Terry moved ahead of Rob and I. It was now about 6 PM and it was cooling off a little. I didn’t have much left, but we knew he wasn’t far away. The question was, would we find him before he spoiled?

Terry was standing on the edge of a cliff, and said matter of factly, “He hit the ground right here.”

Rob and I were about 25 yards behind Terry and abandoned the blood trail to walk to Terry’s side. That’s when Terry looked over the 20 foot high cliff and spotted the buck. He had gone over the edge and landed on a boulder about half way down.

He was surrounded by a patch of poison oak, but he was ours. I would not have recovered him by myself. I just wouldn’t have had enough stamina.

Probably would have found him the next day – after the buzzards worked over his stinky body. We arrived at the site of his demise after nearly four hours of tracking. He probably covered that same route in less than a minute.

I climbed down to the boulder and pulled him off into the poison oak. Terry and I drug him to a shady spot where I could work on him.

We took photos. I was so tired that I could barely hold my head up.

We couldn’t drive an ATV to  this spot, so after the photo session,  I began the process of boning while Terry and Rob climbed the hill to retrieve my pack, game  bags and water.

It was all I could do to wrestle the intestines from the deer, cut off his hind quarters and remove his back straps.

Terry returned and helped bone out the hind quarters and finish the front quarters. I assisted, once again thankful for the help.

Rob returned about 7 PM and we were almost done with the meat. Next I sawed off the buck’s antlers and we loaded the pack. Climbing the hill with the meat would be my final job.

It was slow going as my legs felt like they might explode.

Finally the truck and more water. My legs were cramping, but the test was over.

From the top of the ridge I called home. It was  9:04.

PS: I’ve eaten barbecued back strap the last two nights and the meat is excellent!

Mountain Lion Track in Mud

Mountain lion track in a muddy trail, early morning with ground frozen.

Mountain lion track in a muddy trail, early morning with ground frozen.


This is about as undeniable as a mountain lion gets. My guess is that the track was made in the evening, the day before I found it. The ground was frozen solid when I snapped this photo with my Iphone. An hour later, the morning sun had melted the frozen ground. In just an hour’s time, the track had become disfigured by the water.

Originally I wouldn’t have thought the track was so fresh, but after seeing how the water degraded the track, I was convinced that it was not very old.

When an animal makes a track in mud, the track deepens and enlarges. This is likely a mature mountain lion of average size. My Swiss Army knife is exactly 3 1/2 inches long.

I spotted this track along Arroyo Del Valle near the Del Valle Reservoir dam, just off the hiking trail. This is an area frequented by mountain lions.

Never seen a mountain lion along this trail, but there are other signs of their activity. Last year I found a carcass near the location of the above track. It appeared to be a lion-killed deer carcass.

My dog often sniffs out deer leg bones along the trail and rib bones litter the brush along the creek. Although deer are seldom visible, they can be spotted when disturbed while walking in the brush along the creek where they hide during the day. This is where I occasionally search for Pro V1 golf balls.

Mountain Lion Track on Freshly Graded Road

My pocket knife is 3 1/2 inches long, about the length of this track.

This is not a large lion or a small one either. The ground is soft, which is why the track shows at all. On hard ground one seldom spots lion tracks. This lion track was found on a road that also held many deer tracks. Where there are deer, lions will follow.

Bucks are growing their antlers.

One of the benefits of predators is that they move their prey species around, protecting flora from overgrazing.

Ranch Visit, Spring Maintainance

We’re considering doing some significant work on a key spring at the ranch. The project will include installing a new spring box and a couple of modern troughs. Of the two troughs currently in place, one doesn’t work at all and the other won’t last too much longer. This work will insure a longer life for the spring and help spread the grazing more evenly.

This trough is working, but we'd like to install a new concrete trough.

The project should qualify for matching funds under the Farm Program. We’ll know for sure once the plans have been finalized and approved. The spring currently has no spring box, just gravel and a pipe. The second trough will be installed down the hill a few hundred yards. There’s plenty of water to handle two troughs. We may install some type of wildlife drinker as well.

We came upon a sow and two juvenile pigs not far from the spring.

This sow and juvenile has been spotted before. They're living near the spring.

Here's where they were rooting when we came along.

Although many people call this damage, I’m not sure it amounts to much. Maybe it’s beneficial.

Here's a track from the biggest of the three pigs, the sow.

My guess is that the sow was pushing 200 pounds.

On the way home we saw buzzards cleaning something up. Another Ranch Road victim?

Looks like a calf, but I didn’t get out to get a better view.

Observations While Tracking Mule Deer in Snow

On the BC deer hunt, my guide Wes Phillips recommended that we try to locate buck tracks along a road and then track the deer down. Although we made several attempts, we never quite caught up with the bucks we followed, but we came close. On one occasion we caught up to a yearling doe that had been traveling with another doe and the buck we were after. We must have just missed seeing the buck. It is an exciting way to hunt, but the noisy snow made it unlikely that we’d get in range of a shooter buck.

Here are a couple photos of deer tracks we found.

Deer tracks crossing each other.

At this track site, I measured the tracks of two deer. The larger had a stride of 25 inches toe to toe and a trail width of five inches from hoof centerline to centerline. The smaller, a trail width of three and a half inches and a stride of 18 inches. Because I didn’t see these deer, I cannot say for sure if it was a buck and doe or a doe and fawn, but the 18 inch stride of the smaller deer leads me to believe it was probably the later.

Here’s another trail where two deer apparently walked the same trail.

While trailing deer, we came upon deer urine in the tracks. Apparently the rutting buck was urinating on his hind legs, a practice that occurs as the bucks pursue does. On another occasion we came upon a drop of blood, a sign that the deer may have been gored while fighting another buck.

On another occasion, we came upon a site where the buck had jumped another deer from it’s bed. Wes believed it was probably a rival buck.  Signs in the snow made it clear that the bedded buck had jumped up in a hurry.

Bear Tree and Black Bear Sign

As my cousin Wes and I watched the big bear, he walked into a patch of timber. He approached a tree and stood tall, apparently using it for a scratching post. He then turned and rubbed his back. It was a back scratcher as well.

We took note of the tree, but didn’t get a chance to visit it on that trip, but on the next trip (during the rifle deer season)we walked past the tree when following a nice buck. Although we didn’t find the buck, we did stop at the tree and check it out. Here is what we found.

Wes at bear tree cropped and resized


Wes hand at bear tree marking cropped and resized

We also found some hair and scat.

bear scat at bear tree cropped and resized


Here’s one of the bears. I’m not sure if it’s the one that scratched the tree.

black bear best cropped

He was a long ways away. In all we saw about ten bears between our two hunts in D6.

bear track cropped and resized

Above is a photo of a track of one of the bears that passed by our camp.


This is a sketch of a black bear track as I measured it on an X-12 archery hunt for mule deer several years ago.

According to biologists with the California DFG, the black bear  population in California has been on the rise for several years. The department will ask that the quota for black bear take be raised again this season. It is important that the bear population remain healthy, but not larger than habitat can support.

Others say that black bears are impacting deer populations. They prey mainly on fawns, but there is also a theory that black bears find mountain lion kills and because they eat the carcass before the lions can finish it off, lions are forced to kill more deer than they would otherwise.

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.