Coyotes are by far the most commonly encountered large mammal at the Santa Rosa Plateau, and can be seen any time of day. See David Jones' Santa Rosa coyotes for some tips about how to maximize your chances of seeing any of our large mammals.
Overall, I usually see an average of one coyote per hour during the day. However, note that this is an average, not a guarantee: on a number of visits I have seen zero coyotes, whereas on others I have seen multiple groups multiple times.
Deer, mountain lions, and bobcats are probably the next most-frequent category of large animals, but they are extremely-infrequently seen. If you hike once a week at the Santa Rosa Plateau for most of the day each time, you'd be lucky to see even one individual of one of these species. You should expect to see thousands of coyotes before you expect to see one of these other species.
In four years of intensive hiking at the Santa Rosa Plateau from 2000-2003, I have seen hundreds of coyotes, groups of two deer on two separate dates, and a single bobcat. (Actually, I was frustrated for almost a decade in not seeing deer here. Others would report seeing them, and I saw their tracks, but I just never managed to see any until recently.) I may have seen a fox at one time, but I wasn't prepared with identification tips, so I can't be sure. Tip: if you think you are seeing a fox, look for a black stripe down the middle of its tail (not a black patch). At typical distances of sightings, you won't be able to tell the difference between a coyote and a fox by size (see below).
However, during that time, I have had visitors come up to me many times to tell me they had just seen a mountain lion, a fox, and even more unusual animals. In some of those cases, they would either point out the animal in question, or the animal would appear while I was talking to the visitor, or I'd go check out the animal, and the animal was always a coyote.
It is extremely easy to mistake a coyote as a mountain lion or fox! It is quite easy to mistake a bobcat as a mountain lion!
There are a number of possible reasons for the ease with which an observed animal is misidentified:
- First, most sightings are of animals at large distances from the observer. The animal is usually incompletely seen, being covered at least partially by the grasses and other vegetation. There is usually no good scale in one's field of view that would enable to get a sense of how big the animal is, even if one were calm and collected enough to try to get a sense of scale.
- Second, humans simply cannot judge distance well, especially at the large distances of most sightings, and especially when called upon to estimate a distance in a short time. A 20 pound bobcat will appear to be the size of a 100 pound mountain lion if you think the distance is only 70% greater than the actual distance (see my personal experience with this).
- Third, if you think you are seeing a mountain lion, your adrenaline is undoubtedly really pumping and you are not a calm, collected, reliable observer.
- Fourth, eyewitness sightings of rare, brief events, are notoriously inaccurate, and research has verified this. See None so blind, an article by Michael Shermer, in the March 2004 issue of Scientific American, that gives the results of experiments that clearly demonstrate how unreliable eyewitness sightings are.
All these reasons often work together in producing a misidentification, even for people who would have no trouble at all distinguishing a fox, bobcat, mountain lion, or coyote when seen in a zoo up close (see link above for an example).
All of our ~40,000 visitors per year together report seeing a mountain lion only 1-2 times per month, and it is extremely improbable that even the majority of these reports are truly of mountain lions.
Of course, since mountain lion attacks are extremely infrequent, but make news when they occur, that is what most visitors are worried about. See Mountain Lion Attacks On People in the U.S. and Canada to understand how rare it is for a mountain lion to attack people. There is an average of only a single mountain lion attack once every two years in the entire state of California.
Although sightings of animals other than coyotes are rare, if you know what to look for (scat, footprints, holes in the ground), you can see clear evidence of bobcats, deer, mountain lions, badgers, etc. on nearly any trail on nearly any day.
The best source to learn about mammals of the Santa Rosa Plateau is Docent Rick Bramhall's Wild Mammals of the Santa Rosa Plateau (2003). This well-done 140 page book is unfortunately now out of print.
Smaller animals are very commonly seen, but many of them are seasonal. These include squirrels, birds, rabbits, frogs, toads, gophers, lizards, snakes, butterflies, tarantulas and insects. There is even occasionally a wild turkey living here for a while!
Of course, the most reliable place to see animals, albeit tiny ones, is the Main Vernal Pool in season, since that is where they live, and they aren't hiding during your visit. Some of the many critters in the Vernal Pool are discussed here.
Go to Animals of the Santa Rosa Plateau
Copyright © 2005-2009 by Tom Chester.
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Updated 10 January 2009