Hidden Cameras Capture Stunning Photos of Wildlife in the Santa Cruz Mountains

by on May 27, 2014

 
A mountain lion takes a stunning "selfie" in front of one of Georgia Stigall's motion-sensor cameras. (Photo courtesy Georgia Stigall)
 

 

 

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eorgia Stigall fell in love with the Santa Cruz Mountains early in life. The rich, orange-red glow of madrone and towering Douglas fir forests, the sun-baked chaparral, and especially the oak grasslands in the bioregion where she was raised stayed with her into adulthood, so much so that in 1996 she purchased land and made a permanent home above the fog in those mountains. Her property is right up against a large swath of Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District land, and far away from roads and people, making it an oasis from the buzzing metropolis of Silicon Valley below, not just for her, but for the many animals who live there.

But Stigall doesn’t mind sharing. In fact, she specifically chose her site because of the habitat values and all the critters that were on it. “‘Location location location’ is right,” she says. From a childhood spent camping with her family around the state, to her past and present work as an amateur naturalist and habitat restoration volunteer, her love of the outdoors is deeply rooted. She does her best to run her property like a nature reserve by leaving the land wild and keeping human presence to a minimum, effectively extending the protected land adjacent to it. But how many animals live on the land? What are they up to? Her furred and feathered neighbors don’t exactly come over to borrow sugar. Many of them – like the badgers, gray foxes, and mountain lions — are excellent at staying out of sight and gliding through the forest on silent paws. To find out who was hiding in the shadows, she had to get a bit stealthy.

A mountain lion on a cool September night. Mountain lions have night vision that is much better than our own, as well as acutely sensitive hearing. They typically hunt alone from dusk to dawn. (Photo courtesy Georgia Stigall)

A mountain lion on a cool September night. Mountain lions have night vision that is much better than our own, as well as acutely sensitive hearing. They typically hunt alone from dusk to dawn. (Photo courtesy Georgia Stigall)

Stigall has installed 12 compact infrared motion-sensor cameras on her property. With military-grade names like HC500 HYPERFIRE and MOULTRIE M80, the small camouflaged cameras dot the landscape, snapping images both day and night as critters walk in front of them and trigger the flash. Mountain lions peer into the distance, eyes aglow in the reflection of the camera’s lights, and gray foxes tromp through the grass — moments humans rarely see, for a brief moment illuminated. But the cameras capture more than the surprised wanderings of mammals in the night — they also record a variety of information correlated to the image, such as the temperature, time and date, even the phase of the moon.

The gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus, whose species name means "ashen silver", is the most common fox in California, where they still outnumber the eastern red fox. They live in coastal and lower elevation mountain forests, tromping about on rather short legs, which they use to climb trees for food and safety. In the darkness, their silvery-grey coat with conspicuous patches of yellow, brown, rust, or white on the throat and belly blend into gray lights and shadows. (Photo courtesy Georgia Stigall)

The gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus, whose species name means “ashen silver”, is the most common native fox in California. They live in coastal and lower elevation mountain forests, tromping about on rather short legs, which they use to climb trees for food and safety. In the darkness, their silvery-grey coat, with conspicuous patches of yellow, brown, rust, or white on the throat and belly, blends into gray lights and shadows. (Photo courtesy Georgia Stigall)

Stigall has been hooked on photographing around her property since she began in 2009, and considers the cameras a phenomenal way to get high-quality images of local wildlife. Although deciding where to install a new camera can sometimes be a tricky art – and often an exercise in trial and error – Stigall has a straightforward approach. She will leave each new camera in one place for about a week, and then check the images to see which animals (if any), have been photographed. If there hasn’t been a lot of activity, she will move the camera to a new spot. The cameras that have found permanent homes – like those along the trail, or near the property gate, are located in areas where there seems to be a lot of four-footed traffic.

Although many of the images are taken at night, the majority of animals on Stigall’s property are not strictly nocturnal. She is particularly fond of the transitional periods of the day – the early and late hours as the sun crests or falls below the rim of the mountains when animal activity is at its highest. “Dawn and dusk are the magic times,” she says.

A mountain lion against a darkening sky seems to blend in with the landscape - yet stand out as an inmistakably feline. The approach of nightfall means heighneted activity for mountain lions, which typically hunt deer, rodents, raccoons, and other prey from dusk until dawn. (Photo by Georgia Stigall)

The approach of nightfall means heightened activity for mountain lions, which typically hunt deer, rodents, raccoons, and other prey from dusk until dawn. (Photo by Georgia Stigall)

When the sun is up, Stigall usually is too — out and about on her property removing non-native plants. She fights a constant battle with one plant in particular — yellow star-thistle — an invasive spiny yellow-flowered plant from the Mediterranean. Introduced to California after the Gold Rush, yellow star-thistle now infests agricultural fields, vacant lots, parks, and natural areas all over the state. The thistles prevent native species of plants from growing and lead to biodiversity loss in areas of dense colonization like the grasslands on Stigall’s property.

With 16 acres of the grasslands on her property infested with yellow star-thistle, it takes a constant effort to stem the tide of the spiny hordes. On rare occasions, she says, she gets discouraged, but seeing all the animals thriving on her property keeps her motivated and inspired that the work she is doing is worthwhile. So she keeps at it, and takes a lighthearted approach. “In late July and early August, when it’s really hot above the fog, and all I want to do is swim, I say it’s OK to put down the tools for a little while,” she says.

A motion-sensor camera captures the moment as two mountain lions crest a hill on Stigall's property. One lion turns to look off to the right. What caught its attention? (Photo by Georgia Stigall)

A motion-sensor camera captures two mountain lions near the crest of a hill on Stigall’s property. One lion turns to look off to the right. What caught its attention? (Photo by Georgia Stigall)

As the above photograph shows, Stigall’s efforts don’t always go unnoticed. A motion-sensor camera captures the scene as two mountain lions crest a ridge on Stigall’s property. As one lion saunters towards the camera the other stops and looks off to the right. What caught its attention?

“People ask me that a lot when they see this photograph,” Stigall says. “Well, it was me!”

She was working noisily just uphill from where the cats were at the time, so although the mountain lion couldn’t see her, she assumes that it was her  weeding activities that caught the big cat’s attention. But that knowledge doesn’t worry her. In fact, she loves this picture.

“What I really like about that is he didn’t come up to investigate, he walked away from the source,” she said.

Mountain lions weigh from 80 to 180 pounds, stand two to three feet high, and can reach a length of eight feet from nose to the tail, but generally remain unseen among the coastal forests, arid hillsides, and scrub and oak woodlands where they roam. Still, Stigall is aware of the potential dangers of encountering a mountain lion. So she carries pepper spray with her. In Stigall’s pragmatic view, it’s worth taking some simple precautions in order to be able to share the land with wild animals.

“The best way to keep them safe is to keep ourselves safe,” she says. “We have a moral responsibility to be the ones who think it through, because we can. Mountain lions aren’t harmless but they are blameless.”

A juvenile mountain lion looks curiously into the camera on a crisp February morning. Mountain lion kittens (or cubs), are born with camouflaging spots that fade in maturity. Kittens stay with their mother for up to two years and then disperse to establish new territories. (Photo by Georgia Stigall)

A juvenile mountain lion looks curiously into the camera on a crisp February morning. Mountain lion kittens (or cubs), are born with camouflaging spots that fade in maturity. Kittens stay with their mother for up to two years and then disperse to establish new territories. (Photo by Georgia Stigall)

Stigall isn’t quite sure how many mountain lions reside on her property, but there are two adults for sure, as well as mountain lion kittens that appear on camera during the February breeding season. Juvenile mountain lions stay with their mothers for up to two years and then disperse to establish their own territories, which range widely, but can vary from 50-400 square miles for a male, and typically less than half of that size for a female. Dispersal is a very dangerous time for mountain lions, when the young animals are trying to find a place to go they must often travel across busy highways, like Highway 17, or skirt the edges or even enter suburban neighborhoods where they are often shot over public safety concerns.

Stigall says she takes great satisfaction in keeping her land a safe haven. And she believes that wildlife photography can instill a greater appreciation for the nature in our own backyards. She often encourages others to buy a camera or two (or 12) and put them around their property.

“One doesn’t need a large parcel to benefit from having them,” she says. “I do ’warn’ people … once you have one camera, you’ll want more than one! But if you have a large parcel, even 1.5 acres, you are going to want more than one camera. It’s so entrancing.”

She says she often hears from people who have bought a camera but don’t know quite where to put it. Her advice is simple: “Just put it out there and see who you get. They’re easy to move.”

Stigall snapped this photo of a bobcat as it wandered through a gopher field from her window, only 15 feet away. (Photo by Georgia Stigall)

Stigall captured this scene of a bobcat and two deer from her window, only 15 feet away. (Photo by Georgia Stigall)

Stigall also takes many photos with a handheld camera, particularly of bobcats, coyotes, deer, and birds. The above image of a bobcat stalking gophers in the field in front of her house was taken from a window 15 feet away. With their black-tufted ears, short “bobbed” tail, and whiskery face, bobcats are distinctive. Although generally most active at twilight and dawn, they are known to stay up for a few hours after sunrise; during the colder months of fall and winter they respond to the increased activity of their prey during the day by staying up later themselves.

A lifetime spent observing and reveling in this bioregion has clued Stigall into certain times when she is more likely to see bobcats than others, like after a rain, when sunshine is beating down on the wet soil, and gophers get really active. “You can almost predict when the bobcats will show up,” she says. She even coined a term, “bobcat weather,” to describe the phenomenon.

Wind blows grasses and the tawny coat of a Coyote (Canis latrans). (Photo by Georgia Stigall)

 A coyote (Canis latrans). (Photo by Georgia Stigall)

Coyotes are also primarily nocturnal, but can be seen during the day, especially in areas with low human pressure. Stigall generally photographs them with a handheld camera as they wander the grasslands on her property.

 

A coyote. (Photo by Georgia Stigall)

A coyote. (Photo by Georgia Stigall)

Stigall frequently shares her mountain lion images with the researchers at the Santa Cruz Puma project, who collar and track pumas in the Santa Cruz Mountains in order to get a better understanding of their physiology, behavior, and the potential impacts of human development that is fragmenting their habitat. But sometimes just taking in the wonder of nature is the best reward. “The day we saw a mountain lion in front of the house I had no desire to grab a camera,” she says. “I was enthralled.”

There are also more than 70 bird species on her property. She sees peregrine falcons commonly, great-horned owls, western screech owls, pileated woodpeckers, and bald eagles. But she cautions against just looking up. During her time leading crews for the National Park Service, she instructed people to wander through the meadows looking for insects like ladybugs and sphinx moths. Her appreciation for the natural world ranges from large to small, furry to feathered to scaled, and she says she hopes to inspire others to feel the same. “Look around,” she says. “You never know who you will meet.”

 

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19 comments:

Elizabeth C. Creely on May 27th, 2014 at 7:41 pm

These pictures are fantastic! Really enjoyed this.

Amy on May 27th, 2014 at 9:39 pm

Wonderful photographs! I really enjoyed this story. Thanks!

Taruno on May 28th, 2014 at 3:32 am

Great stuff Georgia! I’m always waiting for the next link on your posts. And these last ones full day light and color are stunning, it’s like being there, looking into their eyes.
Thanks for this joy, I love those animals.

Jill Vaile on May 28th, 2014 at 6:55 am

I spent 15 years living on Skyline and around the Summit and took many many pictures but never thought to have cameras like yours. There is no greater heaven on earth. I miss it every day. Thank you for sharing your beauty.

Anne on May 28th, 2014 at 11:04 am

Your property sounds exactly like ours and your wildlife may also visit us occasionally. We are bordered on three sides by Mid Pen property and just received an outdoor camera for Christmas and I have been experimenting with it. I would love to hear from you about how you mount your cameras, the settings you use and other pertinent details. So far I have had a little but not a lot of success.

Kritter on May 28th, 2014 at 6:41 pm

Amazingly beautiful photos, Georgia.

Thank you for sharing with everyone.

Corey on May 29th, 2014 at 10:33 am

Thanks for caring and sharing! I to would be enthralled, sometimes a moment with nature is all you’ll need.

John & Carol! on May 29th, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Being locals, these photos hit close to ‘home’ no-pun-intended..

I’m in awe of the male cougar’s size– even the baby, alone, looks bigger than the bobcats..

Ty for showing these, it’s 2014 and I’m thankful you have these up!

Kristine on May 29th, 2014 at 12:43 pm

Amazing photos of the big cats doing their own thing. Such a treat!

virginia Disbrow on May 29th, 2014 at 5:58 pm

george and I are now living in Oregan, but I was born in 1932 and raised in Santa Cruz and bonny Doon … we are very lucky to have your beautiful pictures.. my daughter and her family moved here at the same time we did because the area is just like where you are taking your pictures.. daughter took some pictures off her patio porch and counted nine deer… life is good.

charlotte coqui on May 29th, 2014 at 6:50 pm

i’ve worked on the los trancos trails making pastels and not once have i come across a mountain lion. i would love to see one in real time. thank you so much for sharing these wonderful photos!

Sharmila Hoffman on May 30th, 2014 at 9:18 am

My daughter sent me this wonderful article with your amazing photos. What a gift to see these magnificent creatures. Thank you so much.

Alexandria on May 30th, 2014 at 11:23 am

Beautiful and inspirational! Thank you for sharing!

Anne M. Beggs on May 30th, 2014 at 4:14 pm

Truly stunning! I agree with the above comments, inspiring and amazing.

wendy wilde on May 31st, 2014 at 8:26 am

Wonderful images – I loved seeing the animals in their natural world !! Thanks !

Georgia on May 31st, 2014 at 9:05 am

Thank you for all the great comments! Much credit to Rachel Diaz-Bastin, for her synthesizing & writing skills, as well as photo selection. She did a wonderful job!

lesley obermayer on May 31st, 2014 at 9:19 am

Hi Georgia,
Thanks for sharing your wonderful wildlife photo’s

I wonder if we share the same mountain lions. I also border MROSD and I am a close neighbor of yours in Portola Heights. I have had five encounters with these magnificent beasts in the past year or so. Most of my neighbors have seen them, and one of my neighbors was visited by two cubs on his porch.
Here is a short video
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2v2DPN__h_w

and these are some photo’s taken at the same time.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDJbYUBfUho

Eda on June 1st, 2014 at 10:17 am

Stunning photography and sensitivity! Thank you Georgia for sharing this splendor with us. I so love the Cougars, and all the creatures are lovely to behold! They touch my heart and soul. You are so blessed for your gift and willingness to share it. Thanks for the insights and information too!

Lisa Robertson on June 11th, 2014 at 7:50 am

Hi Georgia,
What a joy to view your images, and to read your blog. Would you mind if we share these on our website and facebook page? We’d certainly give all credits to you. Thanks so much if you don’t mind.

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