By Al Seib, Los Angeles Times
It was during a weekend hike in November with my grown son Max along a well-worn trail at an elevation of 1,600 feet in the Santa Ynez Mountains when we both smelled the unmistakable odor of something that had died. We both dismissed the smell as probably from a poor rodent that had met its end.
The following day we watched closely as a turkey vulture soared on the thermals and circled the exact area we had smelled the day before. Max and I decided to take a closer look. With a breeze off the ocean we both found the smell again and followed it into the coastal brush of the Refugio Manzanita, Ceanothus and Toyon.
Only 20 feet below the trail, Max spotted it first.
“It’s a deer kill,” Max said. He also noted the swarm of flies was an indicator.
Being careful not to disturb the scene, we walked around from a different vantage point and noticed a narrow worn trail through the brown grass. I thought it looked as though deer walked here frequently, but Max noticed the trail led under thick branches low to the ground, which would make it difficult if not impossible for deer to travel.
The remains of a young deer.
We looked at the half-buried remains of the dead young deer. It was obvious that dirt, sticks and rocks had been piled on top and in the cavity of the half-eaten carcass. This looked just like the deer kill I had inspected when covering the study of mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains with Seth Riley, an expert on urban wildlife with Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Max and I figured this was probably the work of the apex predator cougar or mountain lion.
Though most of the vital parts of the deer had been removed from the cavity and much of the neck was missing, we figured there was enough meat and bones to draw a carnivore back to the scene to finish the meal.
Four years ago, my sons surprised me with a Moultrie digital flash wildlife cam, which I have used to capture photos of wildlife. Among other things, I have photographed deer rising up on their hind legs to feast on my apple tree. The deer kill might offer something more dramatic. My sons had also given me a Bushnell Trophy Cam HD.
We decided to set up the two wildlife cameras at opposing angles on the trail.
I considered using the video function on the new Bushnell Trophy Cam with the understanding that I might get only one photo of the visitor. After a bit of trial and error, I decided not to risk it and set the camera to take three digital photos in a series within two seconds, triggered by a security sensor device that senses motion like a typical motion detector.
The Bushnell Trophy Cam, left, and the Moultrie digital flash wildlife cam.
Walking carefully on the animal trail trying not to disturb anything, I strapped the Bushnell Trophy Cam to the vertical branch of a manzanita tree and used a small stick to train the aim on the deer carcass. The Bushnell was roughly eight to 10 feet away, allowing for a wide-angle view. The Bushnell uses IR flash, which is an LED night-vision flash that sends a burst of infrared energy that is invisible to the human eye and does not disturb the animals. It is useful for night photos when a visible flash is undesirable.
I worried that the flash of the Moutrie cam might scare the animal away, but I wanted to ensure I get the shot. I positioned the Moultrie roughly eight to 10 feet away from the kill in the opposite direction and attached to a tripod. It can be seen in the background on the photos taken by the Bushnell.
I decided to leave the two cameras, loaded with new batteries, for a week.
When we returned six days later, we crept up on the scene and noticed that the deer carcass had been moved 20 yards away, picked clean and out of the camera angle. My first reaction was that I would not have photos of the cougar feasting on his deer. I feared that another animal might have moved the remains and I would not have confirmation that a mountain lion had been here.
I ran to load the images onto my computer. I had 2,148 photos from both cameras. I had no idea if the photos showed animals or branches blowing in the wind.
The first visitor on the first evening was a beautiful spotted bobcat of generous size. He grazed on the deer, tugging and pulling and setting off both cameras in the process. The flash didn’t seem to deter him. The images are date- and time-stamped, and he fed on the carcass though the entire night and into the next morning. My fear was that the bobcat eventually would tug the remains out of view.
A bobcat investigates the deer kill.
On the second day a vulture landed and began to eat, and that evening the bobcat returned at sunset to again tug on the carcass — only now with much greater effort. At Frame 968, the bobcat quickly departs at midnight.
Nearly three hours later, a much larger head with no spots comes into view of the Bushnell. My son and I yelled out with excitement as we flipped frame by frame. The mountain lion sniffed cautiously at the scene and was photographed by the Bushnell 109 times over the course of an hour. The lion could be seen dragging the deer remains out of sight and was caught in three frames with the flash of the Moultrie cam.
In one of last frames, the lion takes a close look at the Bushnell camera. He was ready for his close-up!
For further photos and video of mountain lions in Southern California, click here.