On a rainy spring morning in 2007, I was riding shotgun in a muddy flatbed Ford F150 down County Road 8 in Rio Blanco County, Colorado. Driving beside me was Bobby Castaldo, manager for Marvine Ranch. It was the first day of scouting for a new project, and he was exuberant with colorful descriptions of all the locations I needed to see, experience and photograph. Bobby had a keen eye for wildlife, and even through the smear of the windshield wipers he was able to spot hawks, foxes, coyotes, deer and elk at admirable distances.
No special vision was required however to notice a large mountain lion that bounded deftly across the road fifty meters ahead. Soaked from tip to tail from the early morning rain, the mountain lion seemed to take up an entire lane as it leaped gracefully in less than two strides across the road and into a willow thicket. After a full two seconds to make sense of what we saw, we roared with excitement, rolled to a stop where it crossed the road, and to the best of our abilities, saw nothing. Although the big cat vanished as quickly as it appeared, the image of that fleeting encounter is seared into my memory. It was the first time in 36 years of living in the mountains that I saw one in person.
Due to their elusive and shy predispositions, seeing a mountain lion in the wild is a rare, and always memorable occurrence. Ironically, as homes & neighborhoods continue to encroach on their native habitats, most people see them from their living room window. Photographically, the encounters are often too brief, too far away and often too dark to get a publishable image. There's good reason why most of the published images of clean, well-fed mountain lions are taken at game farms and zoos. Thus, obtaining a high quality image of one in the wild requires a lot of time, hard work, and most of all, luck.
When I received a commission seven years after that blurry first encounter to photograph 228 acres of valuable wildlife habitat closer to my home in Eagle County, I made it a priority to finally go after the elusive cats that haunt our hills, forests and imaginations. To bring the animals to life however, I wanted to capture more intimate, contextual views of daily life that long telephoto lenses often fail to render.
No matter how stealthy and clever you think you are in stalking wildlife, especially predators, they always have the upper hand and will never act natural in your presence. Therefore the best way to capture more natural behavior, unaffected by human intrusion, is to remove the human from the equation. Standing in my place would be a tripod-mounted high resolution DSLR camera rigged up to an offset flash and infrared-beam triggering system, all weather-proofed and camouflaged in native vegetation.
After a few weeks of reconnaissance and careful consideration of many variables including lighting, weather, vegetation and typical behavioral patterns, the ideal location for a camera trap was chosen. For the next several months, barring technical glitches, dead batteries or destruction at the paws of a curious bear, the camera would record everything that passed through the beam, day or night, rain or shine.
Every week the system would be checked, maintained, and any captured images reviewed and downloaded. After four months of numerous captures of elk, deer, foxes, squirrels and a couple black bears, the elusive and majestic mountain lion finally passed perfectly through the frame at a steady pace. Among several captures of mountain lions at this location and others on the property, this was my favorite due to body position and the beauty of the natural light.
The reward of capturing animals in the wild like this, in context with their habitat, is always well worth the planning, persistence and patience. But more important than the technical triumph is the revealing of a more intimate, natural portrayal of wildlife that elicits a sense of awe and appreciation in others.