We had our first real snow of the winter this week, which allowed me to resume one of my favorite hobbies—wandering around the woods looking for tracks. Yesterday I grabbed a furry companion, my friend’s dog Mina, and headed out to a nearby forest to look for marten sign and check a camera trap. I’ve been getting a seriously adorable marten on a game camera, but I just can’t seem to get it in front of my DSLR rig. These critters are so much fun to watch on video.
Mina and I found red fox prints everywhere but no marten. Perhaps they’re spending all their time up in the trees. There was fox sign all around my camera trap but the batteries had died due to the cold. It had been in the mid-60’s when I set the camera last week, but a couple days later it dropped to -20F. Winter arrived late, but it made a bold entrance.
Given my high hopes for the marten set, I was feeling a little defeated on the drive home. Hoping to change my luck, I decided to check a spot in the foothills for cougar tracks. Hiking in, I saw lots of coyote, fox, and mule deer prints, partially filled in by early morning snowfall. As we made our way up a rocky canyon, Mina halted to a stop and buried her face in the snow. When I caught up to her I could see why she was so excited—she’d found a fresh set of lion tracks. I was hesitant to forward-track the cat, so I traced its route backwards up a steep brushy draw. Just as I started to think about what a good spot it would be for a cougar to ambush prey, I discovered that the cat had done a wide U-turn and headed back up the draw. I tracked it about 60 feet further and perked up when I noticed one of the banks was freshly eroded, with dirt strewn across the snow. Something had came crashing down the draw not too long before. Sure enough, I noticed some antlers sticking out of the snow, revealing the cached remains of a mule deer. Here’s a shot of Mina (wearing her I’m not a coyote vest) and the recent cougar kill.
At that point my adrenaline surged, not because I was worried about the cat, but because I knew I had stumbled upon an amazing camera-trap opportunity and I would have to work fast to pull it off. I dashed back to the car, drove home, and assembled a camera trap. I swapped out Mina for my friend Bailey Russel, who’s my collaborator on a photography project funded by the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center. Bailey and I returned to the area with a little over an hour of daylight remaining. We found fresh cougar tracks on the hike in; they were right on top of the tracks I’d made hiking out a couple hours before.
When we returned to the cached mule deer, we found ourselves in a tricky spot. The steep, v-shaped draw left few places to set any gear. We had to do a bit of fiddling, but we finally secured a tripod and set the camera so that the head of the deer was in the foreground. There was no place to put my light stand except right behind the camera. I didn’t want my key light to be too on-axis, so I set it about 10 feet high, angling down. I zoomed the flash to 70mm, so the light would focus on the carcass and minimize hotspots in the surrounding snow. We placed a fill light off to the right. At this point we had a safe 2-light portrait and could have been good to go. We wanted to push the boundaries a bit, so we stashed a rim light in the background. I set the rim light a little hot so it would recycle slowly and not show up in all shots. Just when I thought we were good-to-g0, I noticed my camera battery was showing 1/8 power; usually when it drops that fast in cold weather it means it’s about to die. I wrapped it in some extra clothes and crossed my fingers, not liking my odds.
Bailey and I came back the next day to swap out my Canon 50D with a new Canon 6D that I’d rigged to run off external power. We followed a new set of lion prints on the way in, and as we headed up the draw a golden eagle flew out from where the carcass was. My camera wasn’t firing and had clearly died during the night. I flipped the power on and off and found it still had just enough juice to check the images. To our delight, we were staring at a lion on the LCD screen.
This was my first time setting on a fresh kill. A couple years back I passed on the opportunity to set on a wolf-killed elk, not wanting to mess with the pack’s meal. My experience (and those of other camera trappers I know) is that cougars are uniquely bold around camera gear and don’t shy away from shutter clicks or flashes. I was relieved to see that this cougar was no exception—it didn’t hesitate to dig into the carcass, and hung around for several extended periods from 8pm to 4am, eating a good portion of the deer. My friend Brett Jesmer once had a cougar surprise him while out on a night survey for flying squirrels. He threw a rock at the cat and it didn’t flinch; it just calmly looked over at the rock and then returned its gaze to Brett. I sense a similar reaction when looking at sequences of cougar photos from my camera traps. The cats lean forward and give the camera a curious gaze, but a moment later they are back to their business.
Here’s some more shots, hopefully more to come.