Animal Tracks - Mountain Lion (Cougar) - Puma concolor

Mountain Lion (Cougar)

Puma concolor (formerly Felis concolor)


3 1/16 - 4 in. L x 2.75 - 4 5/16 in. W 2 15/16 - 4 1/8 in. L x 2 9/16 - 4.75 in. W

Cougar Tracks


Click here to hear a lion roar. (26K WAV)



Natural History of Cougars


Mountain Lion drawing by Kim A. Cabrera. Do not
                    use without permission.

Mountain lions are also called cougars, panthers, catamounts, or pumas. These big cats have many common names. They are the largest wild cats in North America.

These solitary animals avoid people if they can. Their primary prey is deer, but they do eat porcupines, raccoons, birds, small mammals, foxes, mice, and grass.

The lion is a magnificent animal which was hunted to near extinction and is now making a comeback. There have even been reported mountain lion sightings in the eastern U.S., where they were once thought extinct.

A single male lion may require up to 175 square miles of territory for its home range. They prefer wild areas frequented by deer. One lion will consume about one deer per week. A lion will cover the remains of its prey and return to the kill to feed until the meat begins to turn. If you find a lion kill, don't hang around the area. The animal may still be nearby. An adult can weigh up to 200 pounds.

Young mountain lions have spots and a ringed tail, and thus are sometimes mistaken for bobcats. (The bobcat has a short tail, while the lion has a long tail.) A litter of one to six young are born between late winter and mid-summer. The cubs stay with their mother for one or two years.

Lion tracks show four toes on the front foot and four toes on the hind foot. The retractable claws do not show in the prints. Lion tracks can be over four inches long.

They are good climbers and can leap more than 20 feet up into a tree from a standstill. They can jump to the ground from as high as 60 feet up a tree. A single male lion may travel 25 miles a night when hunting. Lions may be active by day in areas far from humans. They are most active at dawn and dusk, the times when deer are out feeding.

The scientific name "concolor" means "of one color" and refers to the cougar's tawny coat.

Mountain lion track

Mountain lion or cougar track. Left front foot.
                    Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

A nice clear cougar track in wet sand. This track was found crossing a dirt road near my home. This is the left front foot. Look for the leading toe and the shape of the heel pad.

Mountain lion or cougar tracks. Hind print on
                    top of front print. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera

Very nice pair of cougar tracks in mud. Mountain lions walk carefully, like all cats. Their hind tracks often overlap the front ones, sometimes covering them up. In this pair, you can see the front track in the lower right. The hind track is the clearest one because it is on top. These are the right tracks. Although these tracks were made in deep, soft mud, there are no claw imprints.
Cougar track
                  in dried mud. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

A left front mountain lion (AKA cougar or puma) track. This was found in an old, dried up muddy area on a trail that is infrequently visited by humans.

                  detailed cougar (AKA mountain lion) track in dried
                  mud. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

This track was made by the same cougar as the one above. This is the left front paw print. The heel shape of this track is very well-defined. Notice the lack of claw marks.

                  Cougar track in dried mud. Photo copyright Kim A.
                  Cabrera 2008.

Another track made by the same mountain lion as the two above. This one shows good detail in the heel pad, including the three lobes. Notice the teardrop shaped toe pads too.

Mountain lion habitat. The dried mud where the
                  above footprints were found. Photo copyright Kim A.
                  Cabrera 2008.

The muddy place where the tracks above were found. This is an old abandoned road that runs above a steep-walled creek. The canyon is very remote. In this dried muddy place, I found the tracks of cougar, coyote, opossum, raccoon, bobcat, deer, and more. It was a good find.

A beautiful
                  cougar track in sand. Right front foot. Photo
                  copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

This beautiful mountain lion track shows the overall shape very well. Notice that the track is asymmetrical, unlike dog tracks, which are very balanced and symmetrical. This is the right front track.

                  beautiful pawprint in sand. Left front paw. Photo
                  copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Another fine example of a mountain lion track in moist sand. This is from the left front paw. Notice the asymmetrical alignment of the front two toes, which is characteristic of feline tracks.

                  distinctive shape of the heel pad of a cougar. Photo
                  copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

This is a close-up of the heel (metacarpal) pad of a mountain lion track. Notice the two lobes on the leading edge (top) and the three lobes on the hind edge (bottom of photo). This shape is characteristic of cat tracks.

The trail of
                  the cougar that made the tracks in sand. Photo
                  copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

The trail of the cougar above in damp sand. This mountain lion walked here in April, and I found tracks in this exact same location a few months later, in July. I think it was the same cougar. They tend to have regular routes that they travel through their home range. The home range can be quite large.

                  habitat where the sand tracks were found. Photo
                  copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

This is the habitat where the tracks above were found. Across the river is state park land. The rest is privately owned. It is not visited often by humans and the animals have the place to themselves most of the time. Until a tracker wanders in, that is!

How to Identify a Cougar or Mountain Lion Track Video
Trailing a Cougar or Mountain Lion - A Video Showing a Trail I Followed
More Mountain Lion Tracks! A collection of my photos.
Mountain lion tracking videos

Mountain lion tracks in snow. Great photos.

Cougar, Puma, Mountain Lion Videos

Many species on video from a trail camera
Cougar, mountain lion, puma video from my trail camera

Below is a lion track I found near Albee Creek Campground in Humboldt Redwoods State Park (California) in April, 1998. It was a good print in mud and I made a plaster cast of it.

                      track - mountain lion

mountain lion track cast in plaster

On the left is a mountain lion track cast in plaster of Paris. This cast shows all the details of the foot. It was cast from a mold. Casts made in the field are rarely this defined, and usually have soil stuck to them which cannot be removed without destroying details of the cast. This cast represents the right front foot.
This animation shows the outline of the mountain lion track in the photo. You can see that the second toe from the left (the inner toe) is further forward, making this the right foot. Also, the shape of the heel pad will tell you this is the front track. For more on how to do this, see the canine vs. feline page.

This track was found in a landfill area in Northern California in September 2007.

Cougar track animation from a photo by Kim A.
                    Cabrera. Photo and animation copyright 2007.

Cougar track photo and animation by Kim A.
                    Cabrera. Copyright 2007. Do not use without

Another excellent cougar track with animation showing the track outlines.
                  tracks found in a landfill. Photo copyright by Kim A.
                  Cabrera 2008.

This overlapping pair of mountain lion tracks was found in a landfill. Look below for an animation that shows the sequence of footfalls that created these tracks in the dust.

Animation of cougar foot falls. Photo and
                  animated graphic copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Cougar tracks found in a landfill area. The animation shows the sequence of footfalls. These tracks are a day old and show signs of aging. It had been very windy the day they were found.

A set
                    of slightly overlapping cougar tracks. Photo
                    copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Another set of mountain lion tracks from the landfill area. These two footprints do not show as much overlap.

Right hind
                  cougar track. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2003.
A beautiful right hind track in dust. Notice that the leading toe is very clear here.
Very nice
                  cougar track in mud. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera

A nice cougar track in mud. This was one of several that showed the cougar walked across a pile of dirt and then went across an open, graded dirt area.

Nice right
                  hind mountain lion track. Photo copyright by Kim A.
                  Cabrera 2003.
This mountain lion track was found on a dusty road.
The cougar had walked up the road, possibly following a bear and her cubs.
Mountain lion pawprint in dust. Photo copyright
                  by Kim A. Cabrera 2003.

A very nice cougar paw print. Dust is wonderful for tracking! Trackers love this kind of soil. It gives very nice imprints.

Heel pad of a mountain lion. Photo copyright by
                  Kim A. Cabrera 2003.

This is the shape of the heel pad of a mountain lion. Notice the three lobes on the hind edge. The two lobes on the leading edge are difficult to see in this photo because they didn't clearly make an imprint.Dog tracks will sometimes show three lobes on the hind edge, so use several clues to help identify any track you find. 

                  clear mountain lion paw print. Photo copyright by Kim
                  A. Cabrera 2008.

A nice left front track from a mountain lion. This one was part of a trail that led me through a landfill area.

Very worn and aged mountain lion track. Photo
                  copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

This is what a cougar track looks like after a week of being weathered by wind. This was fresh when I found it at the beginning of the week. When I went back many days later, it was barely recognizable. However, if you look closely, you can still make out the shape of the heel pad, as well as a few toes.

                  cougar tracks in sand. Photo copyright by Kim A.
                  Cabrera 2008.

Two partial cougar tracks in damp sand. These were found in early spring. The heel pad at left shows the typical shape of cougar heel pads.

                  mountain lion track. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera

A partial mountain lion track in moist sand. This was part of a trail that I followed along a river bar in spring.

Right mountain
                  lion track. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

A mountain lion track in dust. This is the right foot. If you look for the leading toe, it will tell you which paw is right or left.

Cougar track in mud. Photo copyright by Kim A.
                  Cabrera 2005.

A track left by a mountain lion as it crossed a recently graded surface. The heel (metacarpal) pad left a very good imprint here.

Mountain lion track found in mud. Photo copyright
                  by Kim A. Cabrera 2005.

A good example of a mountain lion track in mud. This cougar walked on top of a mound of dirt, which had turned to mud, leaving good tracks.

metacarpal pad of cougar track
The metacarpal (heel) pad of a cougar track. Notice the three lobes on the hind edge.
                  track right hind foot
A beautiful right hind track in dust. Can you pick out the leading toe? It is referred to as toe #3.
puma track in shade
This cougar track was difficult to photograph because the lighting was too shaded.
left hind track of cougar
This is the left hind print of a cougar (AKA puma, mountain lion, panther)
puma cougar track after rain

This cougar track has been rained on several times. It has had over 7 inches of rain on it, but it still visible.

cougar puma tracks after rain
This pair of cougar tracks has had five inches of rain. They are still identifiable as cougar tracks.
puma track after two inches of rain
Cougar track after two inches of rain
cougar left hind track
Beautiful left foot track!
donated image of cougar and dog tracks

This is how the donor found these prints. The one on the left was made by a Newfoundland breed dog. The one on the right was made by a cougar. (Thank you for the photo donation!)

donated image of cougar and dog tracks

The photo above this one shows how these two tracks were initially found. In this image, I have manipulated the dog track on the left so that it is facing the same direction as the cougar track on the right. I did this only to show the two side-by-side and offer a better comparison. Images on this site are not manipulated normally. This one was just too perfect not to make better by having the two tracks face the same way. When they are side-by-side like this, you can compare the features of each and learn what identifies the left as a dog and the right as a cougar track.

Cougar track cast. Photo and cast copyright Kim A
                  Cabrera 2008.

A cast made from a cougar track found in coarse soil. This is the cast of the left front foot. Notice the asymmetrical alignment of the foot, which is characteristic of cat tracks. The teardrop shape of the toe prints is also visible here. The leading toe is visible at the top left. Since this is a mirror image of the track on the ground, this is the left front foot.

Cougar heel pad cast. Photo and cast copyright
                  Kim A Cabrera 2008.

This close-up shows the heel pad from the cast above. Notice the three parts to the hind part of the heel. These are called lobes. The leading edge does not clearly show the two parts in this case, but you can see that there is a tiny indentation there. Two lobes on the leading edge, or a flat appearance in this case, are also a good clue to mountain lion tracks. But, remember to use multiple clues to identify your track!

puma scat
A beautiful example of puma (mountain lion) scat. Their scats often have this appearance like little round balls. You can see bone fragments and fur in this sample. The ball-like appearance is typically found in cougar scats. They are quite firm. You cannot easily squash these scats with a stick. Firmness and size help to rule out coyote scat, which can be close, but not quite the same size. Bobcats produce similar scat on a smaller scale. Bobcats don't have the same huge jaws that cougars do though, so they can't crush large bones. They can crush proportionately smaller bones though.
(Photo donated by Dave Berry. Thanks!)

Canine vs. Feline tracks (Is it a cat or a dog?)
More Cougar Sounds
Female cougar in heat sound (167KB WAV)
Cougar purring sound (68KB WAV)
                  lion or cougar. Photo by Kim A. Cabrera 2007.

This young mountain lion was in a presentation by a rehab group. The red object it is chewing on it the handle of its leash. Young mountain lions have spotted coats, but lose that color as they grow older.
You can see some faded spots on the coat of this young cougar.

Mountain lion or cougar tracks photo. Copyright
                  Peter DeSimas 2008.

A nice set of mountain lion tracks in snow. The single track on the right shows all the identifying characteristics of a cat track. The alignment of the toes, with one toe leading is characteristic. Also, the heel (metacarpal) pad shows clearly the three parts to the hind edge and two parts to the leading edge. The lack of claw marks is also a feline track characteristic. The doubled print on the left shows a hind print on top of a front print. The overlap makes it look like there are five toes, but it is really two tracks. Donated photo. (Thank you!)

Cougar paw
                  print photo, right front foot. Copyright Peter DeSimas

A close-up of the single track from the above photo. The large heel pad with relatively straight sides indicates this is the front track. The alignment of the upper left toe leading indicates this track is from the right paw. The teardrop shape of the toes is characteristic of cougars as well. In dog tracks, the toes are often more rounded in shape. The outer toes on dog tracks can look somewhat triangular in shape.

                  pawprint photo. Copyright Peter DeSimas 2008.

This track is actually two tracks overlapping. It appears as one print with five toes, but it is two, each with four toes. This is a common identification puzzle in tracking. The tracks of many animals overlap like this, making their tracks appear much different than pictures found in field guides, which generally show perfect single tracks. Tracks vary so much that one track made by the same foot of the same animal may never look like another made by the same paw. That's part of what makes tracking so much fun. You will never lose interest because there is always something more to learn about it.


Mountain lion in tree. Photo copyright by
                      Mike Schmitz 2007.

Mountain lion in tree. Photo copyright by
                        Mike Schmitz 2007.

The beautiful mountain lion photos above are courtesy of Mike Schmitz. The lion was treed by his dog. Amazing photos!


Personal Notes on Cougars


I have found cougar tracks many times. Many of the tracks belong to a young lion who has moved into one of my favorite tracking areas. I have heard many cougar stories from people who have lived in this area for many years. There is a town near here called Panther Gap, supposedly because of all the cougars that lived there when this area was first settled. (Donít bother looking on a map. Even on local maps, there is nothing to indicate Panther Gap. Itís just too small.)

This lion can leap pretty high. I found tracks once where it leaped up onto a big redwood log from the ground. A pretty good leap from a standstill. Despite all the negative stories about cougars, I still enjoy finding their tracks. I saw my first lion in July, 1998. It ran across Highway 101 right in front of me. This was about four miles south of the town of Weott, California. It was a young lion.

In July 2002, I saw another mountain lion. This one was crossing the road near Elk Prairie Campground in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park at 11p.m. The lion paused in the road, then sauntered off into the brush and disappeared. My friend and I gave each other "High Fives" because we were so happy to have seen one. I wished I had my flashlight handy so I could get out of the car and see more of the cougar. But we decided to leave it alone and continue our journey.

My funniest mountain lion encounter occurred a couple years ago. I was on a lawn tractor, heading up a dirt road to mow some grass in a field. As I approached the curve, a mountain lion walked around it toward me. He saw me, stopped in his tracks, and did a double take. Then, in a single bound, he jumped across the road, and bounded off into the forest, where he disappeared. I bet I was the last thing that cat expected to run into on that road!

Not too long after that encounter, I was leaving for work one morning when I looked off across the field to the left of the dirt road. Next to some brush, sitting there are pretty as can be, was a beautiful mountain lion. I stopped the truck to take a photo, but the cat disappeared quickly.

Several years ago, I was hiking along on a dirt road on my neighbor's property. I was in a place that was relatively quiet and had few signs of human presence. I walked out of a grove of trees and up the road. Up ahead, I saw a tawny-coated animal come out into the open and proceed to walk my way down the road. Luckily for me, I had my camera slung around my neck. I stopped walking and hoped the cat would not see me so I could get a photo. As I slowly raised the camera, it looked right at me and stopped. Then, it turned around and started to run off the way it had come from. Darn it! I fired off a few photos anyway, not even having time to focus. Sure enough, all I got was a couple pics of a very blurry cougar as it ran back up the road. I followed, since I had to go that way anyway. I looked for tracks and hoped to get another glimpse of it again, but had no luck finding it. It sure was beautiful though!


Here's a cougar story that happened to me February 5, 1999:


I went out exploring an old washed-out road this evening. The sun was low in the sky when I started out. I crossed a creek and continued up the old, overgrown road. In some places, there were washouts and slides. There was a place where there was actually some old asphalt, but the road had long-ago subsided, leaving little islands of asphalt atop pillars of soil protected from the rain by their asphalt caps. It was at the base of one of these asphalt-capped pillars of soil that I found the cougar tracks. The cat had jumped down from atop the pillar. There were several good prints in the soft soil.

Mountain lion tracks with my foot for size

I followed these on up the road. I began to notice a lot of cougar scats in the road. Some were very old and scattered, and some newer. I kept an eye on the sun as it sank out of sight below the ridge. The road continued on and I wanted to see where it went. As it got darker, I decided this wasn't such a good idea after all. It had rained off and on yesterday and today and those tracks weren't really that old. So, I turned around and started back the way I had come up. I got past the spot where I first found the tracks and, in the fading light, saw something that got me moving a little quicker. There was a cougar print, a fresh one. The dirt at the edges had not even begun to dry yet and this track had not been rained on at all. It hadn't been there when I started up the road. Looking around at the sandstone bluffs above me, I searched in vain for a glimpse of the elusive tawny-coated critter. Sadly, I was not to see one this day. I turned and headed back home, disappointed not to have seen the cougar that had been following me. Maybe next time.

That's one big kitty!

This is the right front foot. Notice how the second toe (from left) is farther ahead of the others? This toe is analogous to our index finger. Since the track is an imprint of the actual foot, that would make this the right foot. The large heel pad tells you it is the front foot. To see how a penny compares in size to a domestic cat track, visit the domestic cat page. A cougar track can be four inches long. Domestic cat tracks are usually only about an inch long. A penny is 3/4 inch wide.


The Cougar on the Beach
December 28, 2000
Black Sands Beach, Shelter Cove, California

The location of this track find - Black Sands Beach in the King Range National Conservation Area, Shelter Cove, California. Also known as the "Lost Coast." This wild stretch of coastline stretches north for over 30 miles. There are no roads, only trails. It is a great place to hike if you want to really get away from it all. It is the longest wild, undeveloped stretch of coastline in California.

Black Sands Beach - December 28, 2000.
                        Photo by Kim A. Cabrera.

Pair of mountain lion tracks with stick for
                        scale. Stick is three inches long.

I was walking along the beach looking at and photographing skunk tracks and trail patterns when I turned around and saw the distinctive shape of this heel pad in the sand. The light was rapidly fading as the sun sunk below the horizon, so I quickly began photographing the mountain lion tracks. The lion had hopped down from a bluff and walked along the base of the bluff toward a freshwater creek that emptied onto the beach here. The track on top is the hind track. Size is about three inches.

Two sets of mountain lion tracks with a
                        stick for size. Tracks in center are raccoon.
The tracks on the far left and far right are mountain lion tracks. The pair in the middle are raccoon tracks. The straight mark in the sand at the top of the photo is where I rested the stick to take a photo. However, the shadow from the stick was cast over the tracks, so I moved it. The stride here is about 16 inches. The light was perfect for photographing these tracks. The sun was very low in the sky, giving long shadows in the tracks.

Circled mountain lion tracks on the beach.
                        Photo by Kim A. Cabrera.

As I walked along, I circled the tracks just for fun. Who knows? Maybe someone will come along and find them and wonder why they are circled. If they look closely, they will probably see what kind of animal it was. I often wonder if anyone has ever found the tracks that I sometimes draw circles around. It is my hope that they look a little more closely at the tracks in the circle and maybe try to identify them. It's always good to get more people interested in tracking. This is one way I try to generate interest. Sometimes, I will even draw the name of the animal next to the circled tracks.

The tracking stick in the photo is a little over three feet long. The stride is between 16 and 18 inches.

It is always a special experience for me to find the tracks of this elusive creature. The experience is heightened by standing in a place where I know a big predator walked not too long ago as the sun sets and it gets dark. That's the time to saunter on home.

The Cougar that Visited Me
January 4-6, 2001
Near Redway, California

My next cougar tracking experience occurred less than a week after the Cougar on the Beach incident. I was exploring the river bar below my place when I again found the distinctive tracks of a cougar. This one had passed by within the last day or two. It was almost dark when I found the first set of tracks. I followed it along the river bar until it climbed up the bluff overlooking the river. I ran back home for some plaster of Paris. There was the possibility that it would rain overnight and I wanted to cast some of the excellent tracks I had found. I poured the plaster and waited. And waited... and waited it got darker and darker. As I waited, I thought about how close this animal had been to my place. Had I been standing on the porch when it walked by, I would easily have seen it. I finally decided to go get a flashlight and lantern and a noise-maker. It was not a good place to be - out on the river bar alone at night when a cougar had been in the area not too long ago. I had no idea where it was at that moment, so it was best to go get some light. By the time I had hurried up the hill to get my lights, it was fully dark. I waited about 15 more minnutes to give the plaster a chance to dry, then headed out with my bright lights to pick up the tracks. I retrieved them and got home safely, but there still remained the rest of the trail. Where did it go? How far would I be able to follow the cat? I decided to try again after work the next day. This was winter, so it got dark around 5:30p.m. Luckily, the weekend was coming. But, if it rained before then, these beautiful tracks would be gone.
The next day, I hurried home from work and grabbed some plaster and my camera. I was determined to follow this cat. I found the place where the cougar had climbed to the top of the bluff. Then, it had followed a trail at the top of the bluff that paralleled the river. This led to a grove of redwood trees. Behind the grove, the lion had climbed down the bluff to another river bar. There, the tracks were easily visible as the cat had walked across some nice flat sand. I found the best tracks yet and jumped up shouting, "Treasure!" They were almost perfect tracks. That yell alone was probably enough to scare the cougar off had it been anywhere near.

Cougar track in sand. Left front foot.
                        Photo by Kim A. Cabrera.

Where the cougar went... By this time, I was pretty sure I knew where it was going. This might have been the same lion I had encountered in February 1999. (See story above.) It was heading for the mouth of the creek where it had been before. I'm fairly sure it spends most if its time up in that drainage. I followed the trail until I came to a jumble of rocks at the mouth of the creek. Here, the cat had jumped up on one rock, hopped to another, and hopped over the water to the sand on the other side. I stopped following here. It was again getting dark and I had to get back and take some photos. It was not supposed to rain and the next day was Saturday, so I planned to bring some plaster and return then. In the photo on the left, you can see the river on the right. The mouth of this creek is beyond the largest rock, behind the little mound of gravel. The arrows point to the places I found cougar tracks. It left some sand transfer on top of the two rocks it hopped on. The little backwater lagoon runs between the rocks and the sand on the other side, not visible in this photo. Two sets of tracks led up to the first rock.
The stride varied from 18 to 20 inches when walking. This part of the trail followed open sand until it arrived at a small creek. Cats like to avoid obstacles like sticks, leaves and debris which can cause noise when stepped on. They are very careful about where they place their feet. Watch your pet cat walk sometime and you'll see how this works. Cougar tracks with stride measured. Stride
                      was about 18 inches. Photo by Kim A. Cabrera.
Nearly perfect mountain lion track The cat jumped over the small creek and landed in a sand dune. That was where I found the deepest and best tracks. This one of the prints from where it landed.
The tracks along the edge of the sand dune. The location proved to be a difficult one to make castings on due to the slope of the dune.

A cougar trail

Casting cougar tracks.

Here is how I overcame the problem of casting tracks on a slope. I built little sand walls to contain the plaster on the downhill side. I built up the walls high enough that the plaster could flow into all parts of the track. Some parts were deeper than others in the final cast, but at least I was able to make casts of them. Notice the walls prepared around the tracks I haven't cast yet. The plaster takes about 1/2 hour to dry. The trail continues off the lower right corner of the photo. I also found one set of bobcat tracks that crossed the mountain lion trail on this dune.
A real treasure - an almost-perfect mountain lion track. It is rare to see these animals, but finding their tracks is almost as good an experience as a sighting.

Cougar track with ruler for size.

Calvin and Hobbes comic copyright by United
                        Press Syndicate.

While tracking the cougar, I felt a little like Calvin must have felt above. Potential cougar food!



The Cougar that Stayed for a While
October 25-28, 2001
Near Redway, California

October 25, 2001

I went for a walk today, just because I wanted to look for tracks on the sandy patch on the river bar. (Curiosity outweighed my need to keep my ears warm and not freeze them off on the windy river bar.) I had heard a strange noise last night long after dark. My cat, Tiger, was outside, as usual. He likes to stay outside, even at night. The others all come inside, but he refuses to do so. Even when it is cold. Well, last night, I heard a thump and what sounded like a hissing sound. Now, that usually means Tiger has encountered a raccoon or a skunk. He usually runs from the raccoons, hisses at the skunks. This was a big thump though and I immediately grabbed my flashlight and was out the door less than 10 seconds after I heard it. I saw nothing, although Tiger was not at his usual post on the porch. He doesn't go far from the source of his food. I called him several times and waited a few minutes. I looked under the cabin and looked for tracks, thinking all the while of the night Bones was dragged off by the bobcat. Finally, he came trotting down the hillside. He was way up there for some reason. Something had scared him off. I couldn't see any tracks out there, so I figured he had made the thump when he jumped off the boards under the cabin. I didn't think anything more about it until I was walking along the river bar and happened to decide to go up the big river access trail. I had been down by the water and had found the sand patch torn up and some black and white clumps of fur scattered about. It looked like something had attacked a skunk and torn out pieces of its tail fur. I headed up the gravel and got to the bottom of the access trail where a shape caught my eye. Two tracks side-by-side, worn by the wind until the edges were rounded. They were unmistakable. Not a bobcat... too big for that. Mountain lion. A young one too. Eagerly, I took photos of them and then followed them backward. I wanted to see where the lion had come from. I found tracks here and there in patches of sand interspersed with rocks as I went toward Redway beach. I found where the lion had come down the rock on the southern part of the camp property. I stopped there and decided to follow it the other direction and see where he had gone. It was dusk and the sun had long ago gone behind the ridge. It would be too dark soon. The wind had kicked up a bit and was rustling the leaves enough to cause me to keep looking back over my shoulder. I went back to the river access trail where I had first picked up the trail. Following along, I found tracks going in both directions. There was an area where the lion appeared to have stayed for a while because there were numerous tracks. I got near a log that had been washed up by the river and had since overgrown with berry vines. There, I stopped to examine some scat that may be porcupine scat. Then I noticed the smell. It smelled like something was dead nearby. Ick! I moved on rather than crash into the brush to examine what might be the mountain lion's food cache. Perhaps Tiger had heard something last night. Maybe he heard the cat kill a skunk? I found another place not too far away where the cat's tracks were crisscrossing each other. It had spent some time here. Looking up, I saw the window of my cabin about 100 feet away through the trees. This summer, the maintenance guy had cut some trees here and it is now very easy to see most of the camp from the river. Had I been looking out that window last night, I would have seen the lion. The tracks showed no rain pock marks. In sheltered places, the tracks looked almost fresh. In unprotected areas, the wind had worked on them and flattened some out until only the shape remained. But they were no more than a day old. One of them had some lizard tracks inside, in the heel mark left by the cougar. I found one nearly perfect track. The light was almost gone, but I tried to take a picture anyway. I hope it comes out. I then stacked a few rocks around this track, hoping to protect it from the wind so I can come back tomorrow with better light and get another photo. I followed the trail on. At the smaller river access trail, where I had come down, I found more tracks. I had been focused earlier on getting to the sand patch because I had seen ravens there and wanted photos of their tracks. Had I looked at my feet, I would have found much more exciting tracks. The cat had paused here too, perhaps considering whether to go up that trail, or continue on the river bar. It apparently decided on the latter because the trail led north on the river bar, toward where I had seen lion tracks last January. This one followed the same path. It could have even been the same lion. I didn't go up the hillside to see if it had climbed up there. The light was fading fast and there wasn't time. I headed back and stopped to examine a pair of shoes and a shirt that was laying on the rocks. This hadn't been here several weeks ago. Maybe the lion ate the shoes' owner? Time to get outta here! I hurried back to the trail and on up to camp, checking the trail for telltale tracks. There were none. A raccoon had gone down the trail to the river, but no lion had come up that way. There were numerous tracks from my cats on the sandy trail. Tomorrow, I think I will go to the place where I found the lion tracks in January at "Effluent Creek." If I am correct, he will have gone that way and up into the drainage of Leggett Creek. In a way, I want it to come back, although I worry about Tiger. He refuses to come inside, or to come near enough so I can grab him and bring him inside. But, I want to hear a mountain lion scream. I have been told what it sounds like, but never had the privilege of experiencing it for myself. I want to hear that sound that is supposed to send shivers up your spine and make you glance nervously at the locks on the doors and the shadows under the trees. Of course, I don't want to be on an empty river bar in the dark when I hear it.....

October 26, 2001

The mountain lion tracks I had found yesterday had proved too enticing to ignore. So, earache or no, I had to go back and see what the story was. The river bar was already in full shadow as the sun had just dipped below the ridgeline. The first place I went was where I had placed rocks around the most perfect track I had found yesterday. There, I stopped to move the rocks aside. The track had been protected from the wind and was still in good shape. I took numerous photos of it from different angles, with and without a penny for scale. Then I moved on looking for more tracks. I got several more photos. Soon, I ended up at the place where I had first detected that smell yesterday. I sniffed around and looked at the vegetation. There were some trampled areas and broken branches. I decided to go on in. Cautiously, of course. There were numerous deer trails in there and I took what appeared to be the most heavily used one. Under an old rotting alder branch, I found some sawdust and chunks of wood. Thinking I might be following a porcupine, I looked up to find where the material had come from. There, staring me in the face, was a pair of gaping holes left by a pileated woodpecker. I have been hearing one calling near here for several weeks. It had chosen a good place. The hole was on the underside of a branch where it would be sheltered from the rain. How do animals know such things? I came to a place where I smelled the familiar scent very strongly. I moved in through the brush. There was a wider trail here, much wider than a normal deer trail. Bear? I continued on and found a place where an animal had laid down, matting the grass down in an oval shape. The trail led back toward the camp. I was right underneath the parking area near the dumpster. Suddenly, I saw something ahead. It was a dark form resting in some matted down grass. It wasnít moving, so I contined my approach. As I drew closer, the first thing that hit me was the smell. I had found the source. I took photos as I approached. It was a doe. She had been killed with a bite to the back of the neck. There were marks in the grass where the carcass had been dragged. The hunter had begun to consume the prey from the hindquarters. The bones appeared to be all there, save a few ribs that had been eaten.

This kill had not been abandoned very long. The other animals would have scattered the bones. I believe those mountain lion tracks I found yesterday were made that morning or late that night. This kill was probably abandoned around the same time. I had followed the tracks yesterday to the north end of the river bar. I didnít get a chance today to follow them further to see if they ended up where the ones in January had. This find took precedence over trailing the lion to the mouth of the creek.

I took numerous photos from all angles. I got close-ups of the hooves and feet. I then backtracked to the scene of the actual kill. It was not far away. The lion had briefly chased the deer, then killed it. There was torn-up vegetation. There had been a little struggle, but not much. The lion had then dragged the carcass under a log and out into the patch of grass on the other side. It had then spent quite a long time laying next to its kill, feeding when it was hungry. The grass was matted down in a big circle around the carcass. It had probably been there for several days. There was little meat left for the scavengers. I kicked myself for not seeing the lion that was all of 150 feet from my door!

It will be interesting over the next few days to watch the behavior of the turkey vultures and ravens. I wonder how long it will take until the bones are picked clean. The skunks and raccoons and foxes will probably join in as well.

I took the trail up to camp. This new trail comes out by the clothesline. There, I noticed something I had seen when I hung up laundry two days ago. A mound of dirt scraped together. I had noted it in passing several days ago. Now I looked a little closer. There, near the mound, was a cougar print. And the mound itself contained cougar scat. A scrape pile! Territorial marking! I looked up. My truck was parked not 30 feet away. I guess that ends any trips to the clothesline to retrieve my laundry after dark. I will have to pay attention and remember to bring in the laundry before dark from now on. Just in case.

October 28, 2001

I spent half the day today tracking the mountain lion. I first went to the north end of the property and found that it had indeed followed the same route back to the creek drainage as it, or another lion, had taken in January. I found only the one set of tracks there, headed back to the creek. So I went back to the scene of the first tracks I had found below the lodge. I returned to where the kill was to check on the scavengers' progress. They had been busy and had dragged the carcass about ten feet. Most of the bones have been picked clean, but there is still more left for the really desperate scavengers. The tracks there told me that two coyotes had been there. I then followed a well-worn path up the embankment toward the camp. I found a place up there where the lion had laid down. The vegetation was matted down in a circle. It had a perfect view of the cascass below. It probably went up there after eating its fill just to sleep it off. Just as my cats do. The thing is, I looked up and there was the clothesline about 20 feet away. There was my car about 20 feet beyond that. There was my window not too far from there. This lion had lain there when I was walking around not 50 feet from it. I know I had done laundry during that time, and had hung it on those lines. In fact, there was some hung there now. I found several tawny, stiff hairs snagged on berry vines where the lion had walked through to get to the open space by the clothesline. So, that scat mound I found there did belong to this cat. I took a photo from the cat's eye view of my place. Very interesting what he could see from there. And kinda scary in a way. I definitely won't be making trips to the clothesline after dark anymore. I cut off a short berry vine that had a lot of hair snagged on it. I am going to tape the hairs in a notebook or something to keep them. Not every day that a big kitty visits you so close. I found a total of four places where the cat laid down to nap and digest his meal. I also found several exits he had used to get to the river from the brush where he was spending so much time. I looked all over, but didn't find any more scent mounds or scat.

I walked around the dirt parking area, looking for coyote tracks. I found them. Two coyotes. They had briefly harassed a deer right near where I park. I followed the tracks and found them coming down the road. They had been there before I got home last night. I got home really late. Their tracks were under, or partially under, the incoming vehicle tracks I had made late last night.

The other scavengers who have been hanging aorund are the ravens and turkey vultures. The ravens are much more noisy about their activities than the vultures are though. I hear them over there near the site of the carcass in the morning.

So many critters to track. So little time. When you think about how many animals are out there, and that each has four feet, that's a lot of tracks. All just waiting for me to come along and find them.... Tracking is the only really fun thing to do. If I didn't recognize those tracks as mountain lion tracks, I wouldn't have found all this and would have been totally oblivious to the story that was played out so close to home. A brief glimpse into the life of a cougar. One more reason to learn how to track anything that moves....


More Cougar Track Photos

Cougar track in reflected light from my
                        mirror. Photo by Kim A. Cabrera 2002.

Cougar track in shade, illuminated by the reflection from a camping mirror. This technique allows you to control your light source and makes subtle tracks stand out from the surrounding soil. Hold the light as close to the ground as possible to create an oblique angle. This makes good shadows in the track itself. This is the left hind foot.
Two cougar tracks overlapping on a dusty dirt road in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Direction of travel in the photo is from right to left. The full track on top is the right hind print. Pair of cougar tracks on dusty road. Photo by
                      Kim A. Cabrera 2002.
Three bobcat and two cougar tracks on a dusty
                      road. Photo by Kim A. Cabrera 2002. Three bobcat tracks and two cougar tracks on a dusty back-country road at Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California. Photo taken in August 2002. Bull Creek Fire Road, south of junction with Kemp Fire Road.  The cougar was walking toward the top of the photo and the bobcat was going the opposite direction. Notice the size difference between the tracks of the two species.
Cougar paw in a Visitor Center display at Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California. The characteristics of a cat track are visible here. The leading toe indicates that this is the left foot. The shape of the heel pad indicates it is the front foot. Two lobes on the leading edge and three on the hind edge of the heel pad further help to identify it as a cat track.

                        lion paw photo. Photo copyright by Kim A.
                        Cabrera 1999.

                        track photo donated by Jim Forsberg, MN, 2007

A nice cougar track in snow. Photo from Minnesota, by Jim Forsberg. Thanks! Right front foot.
Another beautiful cougar track in snow. This photo and the one below are courtesy of Robert Means. Thank you!

                        track in snow. Copyright Robert Means, 2007.

                        tracks in snow. Copyright Robert Means, 2007.

A pair of cougar tracks in snow. This photo and the one above are courtesy of Robert Means. Thank you!

Mountain lion track casting. Also called
                          puma, cougar, and panther. Photo copyright by
                          Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Mountain lion track in mud. Also called
                        puma, cougar, and panther. Photo copyright by
                        Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

The cast on the left was made from the track on the right. This is a left front foot. The toes were splayed due to the terrain the mountain lion walked on. It had walked over a small mound of dirt on the side of a newly constructed dirt road. It had then rained 8 inches before I found the track. For having so much rain on it, it was in very good condition. This track was located in an area I call The Wasteland. It's a landfill where sludge from a water treatment plant is buried. People don't go there much, except to bury more sludge, so the animals have the place all to themselves. I've found black bear, mountain lion (cougar), bobcat, gray fox, skunk, and many more species there. The photo above right was taken near dusk, using the flash on the camera. It was too dark to get a good exposure. I had walked into the area and cast some excellent bobcat prints and was waiting for the casting material to dry. I found the cougar track as it was getting dark, so I came back the next day with more material to make the cast. The casting material used here is called Traxtone. It's harder than plaster of Paris once it dries and cures for about a month. It's also very expensive, so I only use it for tracks in good condition.

Mountain lion track in mud. Also called
                          puma, cougar, and panther. Photo copyright by
                          Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

The track on the left was the same track as in the photo above right. I took a photo when I went back the second day, prior to making the cast. I had better light that day. Notice that one of the two forward toes is aligned ahead of the other. This will help you identify left from right on mountain lion tracks. This is the left front foot.
Photo of a cougar paw taken from a photo by a hunter. It is legal in some states to hunt mountain lions, but not in all states. This is the left front paw.

                        left front paw. Photo donated.


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