Georgia 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.”