Bobcats (Lynx rufus) are relatively common in forested areas (click here for range), but they are highly secretive and difficult to see in the wild. As a result a bobcat sighting is a rare treat and most outdoor enthusiasts will only detect bobcats using cameras, like our eMammal volunteers, or by interpreting bobcat track and sign.
Bobcats live a wide variety of habitat, but they love thick cover, rocky features, and varying terrain. As a result they often do not leave clear tracks, but other clues can give them away. Bobcats will often leave scat (or poop if you don’t want to be scientific about feces classification) on trails or the side of roads. It can be hard to tell the difference between scat from bobcats and fox and coyote. Bobcat scat is typically more round and sharply segmented and less “ropy” than coyote scat, and is very dense. If you press on it with the bottom of your shoe the scat will feel hard and not compress much while coyote scat will be much softer (I only recommend this test with relatively old scat!).
Other bobcat sign includes scrapes and beds. Bobcats will make scrapes to cover up scat or as an independent scent marking. These scrapes can be either uni-directional, with one long scrape ending in a pile, or multi-directional with the pile in the middle of several paw marks (see photo). Bobcats are usually crepuscular, and will bed down for the day in steep areas with lots of cover. If you are persistent in searching such areas you may find several kidney shaped depressions where a bobcat has repeatedly bedded down for the day. Do not confuse kidney shaped bobcat beds with round deer beds.
When bobcats do leave clear tracks they can be identified by 4 toes with a large heel pad often has two lobes at the top and no claws (see photo below). The toes usually have some asynchrony to them, with one of the middle toes slightly leading. The heel pad is much larger in comparison to the toes than gray or red fox tracks. As you can see from the photo below, fox tracks have much smaller heel pads compared to the toes and show claws. Red fox tracks may also show hair in very clear tracks like the photo. If you look at the house cat tracks (which are very similar to bobcat tracks) in the top of the picture above the fox tracks you can get an idea of the difference in pad to toe proportion.
If you pay close attention to bobcat track and sign your odds of seeing a bobcat in the wild greatly increase. Good luck!
For more information about bobcats:
Elbroch, Mark and Kurt Rinehart. Behavior of North American Mammals. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2011. 374 pgs.
Lariviere, S. and L. R. Walton. 1997, Lynx rufus. Mammalian Species 563:1-8.