Ever wonder what kinds of creatures roam our local mountains? If you’ve been dying to know, Johanna Turner can shed a clue. Since December 2007, she has been “camera-trapping”—placing small motion-activated hidden cameras in secret locations in the Southern California mountains to capture video footage of rarely seen wildlife.
Over the course of three years, Turner has filmed bears, mountain lions, bobcats, badgers, raccoons, foxes, bighorn sheep, ringtail cats, deer, coyotes, skunks and possums. She records her findings on an ongoing blog and YouTube channel called CougarMagic.
Recently, Turner took her cameras to the Verdugo Mountains, yielding footage of mountain lions, bobcats, deer, and miscellaneous smaller animals. She has also filmed at Earl Canyon Motorway, Hostetter Fire Road, Whiting Woods and Pickens Canyon, as well as the Arroyo Seco, Eaton Canyon, Mt. Baldy and countless other Los Angeles area locations.
Though secrecy is an essential component of Turner's work, she was willing to talk to Patch in an exclusive Q & A about some of her methods and what she hopes people can gain from her videos.
How did you become interested in camera-trapping?
Anza Borrego State Park offered a three-day workshop that followed one of the park's biologists as he studied the mountain lion population there. Part of the class explained the use of motion-triggered cameras, which I had never heard of. I assumed the cameras were expensive and complicated, but the biologist told me they were available in sporting goods stores and are popular with deer hunters. I started shopping for one as soon as I got home from that class. Three years later, I now have seven cameras.
How would you define what you do? Is it a hobby? A side project? A passion?
It's all of these things. Many hikers take up geocaching to add another layer of interest to their hikes—I’m sort of geocaching for wildlife. You never know what you'll get on the camera, so the suspense and feeling of discovery is always fun.
Give us a rundown of your process. How do you choose your locations?
I look for areas of easy travel for animals. These are usually small canyon bottoms or ridge lines. Something at a water source, or along an easy route to water is perfect. I never put a camera right on a hiking trail, because people will steal or damage them. The camera needs a sturdy tree to be locked onto with a cable lock and/or screws, and about 2 feet off the ground is a good height. I usually leave the camera out for at least three weeks. If I've picked a good location, I will almost always get a few good captures in that amount of time. In more remote places, the camera might be there for a couple of months.
What kind of cameras do you use?
Most of my cameras are Scoutguard SG550s. They use 8 AA batteries, are weatherproof, about the size of a soda can, and use a small array of infrared emitters. These are small LEDs that glow faintly red. Night video and photos are black and white, but other cameras that use a normal white flash will take color photos at night. I don't use white flash because the battery life is much shorter, and it also startles animals. The camera has a motion sensor, and triggers when an animal walks by. I recently bought two new cameras (UWAY NT50s) that record sound with video, so I'm experimenting with those right now.
Do you employ any kind of bait?
I have tried leaving a small amount of food to lure animals in, but stopped doing that for two reasons – one, food mainly attracts raccoons, crows, and possums, which aren't all that interesting, and two, it's a really bad idea to get wildlife attracted to human food and even worse to be luring them closer to people. It's also illegal to feed wildlife in California, and specifically illegal to use food as bait when hunting.
What's the most remote location you’ve gone to?
The camera gear is heavy, and of course I have to make two trips (one to place the camera, and another to get it back), so I generally stick to easy hikes. The most remote by distance would be the ridgeline leading out to Ontario Peak, near Mt. Baldy. That required a 13-mile round-trip hike. The least accessible camera was in the upper section of Eaton Canyon, which required rappelling gear, rock scrambling, and swimming.
Are you ever surprised by what you find?
I was amazed to find two mountain lions living in the Verdugos recently. I didn't believe that was a big enough area to support even one, though there have been sightings over the past few years. I was incredibly lucky to capture a ringtail [cat] in Big Tujunga Canyon. They are very small animals, distantly related to raccoons. They're purely nocturnal, and live in crevices in rocky cliffs. Ringtails are not rare or endangered, but it's very rare for a person to see one. I've also had cameras trigger on flash floods in canyons on two occasions.
What about privacy concerns from hikers?
Some people are concerned about their privacy, and I respect that. Using trail cameras on public land is legal. I actively avoid getting hikers on my cameras, and in the rare chance I do, it will just be video of their legs from the knees down as they pass by, so I hope no one worries too much about it.
Has your awareness of local wildlife changed since you began camera trapping?
Absolutely. I'm amazed at how close to "civilization" the animals are comfortable living. I've also realized that even though we don't see them on hikes, they are there! People think I would be more afraid to hike once I find there are mountain lions using the trails, but I actually feel much safer. Yes, they are here—they've always been here—and with the millions of visitors to the national forest and residents in the foothills, dangerous encounters are incredibly rare. Our wildlife wants nothing to do with us. (They do go after pets in our backyards though, and that's a much more serious issue.)
Is there anything specifically you hope people will take away from your videos?
Yes. I hope that learning about these animals can reduce or eliminate fear. There is a difference between healthy respect and caution, and unreasonable fear. Large predators are very important to the balance of wildlife, and the entire ecosystem. Easy precautions by homeowners can almost always eliminate the potential for conflict. Hikers can go in groups, and avoid dusk and dawn, although I personally hike solo all the time without worry. In over ten years of hiking, specifically looking for mountain lions, I have never seen one in person and it's unlikely most other people will either.
Which Southern California wilderness area do you plan on investigating next?
Since the Station Fire has so much of the San Gabriels closed to hiking, I'm starting to explore the Los Padres National Forest near Ojai. I'd also like to try some desert locations, like Joshua Tree.
Where can people find out more about camera-trapping?
A couple of good links for people interested in more detail: ChasinGame.com has a great discussion forum, and reviews of different models of trailcams; and Camera Trap Codger is a great blog by a biologist in Northern California who gets wonderful images.