San Diego wildlife photographer shoots 10 cougars in his backyard – NBC 7 San Diego

East County resident Roy Toft has been photographing wildlife around the world for three decades. Talking to him, you realize very quickly that he has a million stories, maybe more than 2 million. One of his new ones, caused by the pandemic, however, does not take place in Botswana or Costa Rica.

For this thread, one with a stunning ending, he only had to walk out his back door.

Toft is a Navy brat who ended up in Poway when he was 6 years old. He left to pursue his photographic dreams but returned to San Diego County 17 years ago in Ramona, where he had family, eventually purchasing a 28-acre tract in Ramona wine country (Personal note: He there is a wine region in Ramona? Follow-up history?). Sadly, he lost his home to the firestorm in 2007, but he rebuilt, and when he did, he turned a negative into a positive, taking advantage of where the fire dissipated Chaparral and creating a pathway through his property.

“Trail cameras, which I consider to be small, reasonably priced video cameras that a lot of people use – hunters use them to see where the deer are – so I put them on the…trail in the valley which I did, basically, after the fires,” said Toft, who was interested in seeing what kinds of animals were around.

Two inexpensive trail camera choices from Roy

Five years ago there was a lot to see.

  • Browning Trail Strike Force Extreme 16MP Camera: $109.99
  • Browning Recon Force Edge 4K Hunting Camera: $219.99

“‘Oh, we got coyotes walking, cool,'” Toft recalled thinking. “Bobcats. And then, four years ago, I had my first mountain lion, and it made me think, ‘Wow, I didn’t think we had mountain lions here. I know that they are there, but I didn’t know they crossed our valley right here behind the house.”

Then, in 2020, the university-educated wildlife biologist’s international work and the rest of the world came to a screeching halt, Toft did it again, making the best of a bad situation: while he had previously set up the occasional wildlife camera trap on his property before, now he was seriously focused on the project, and it paid off, big time.

“I’m being punished, you know? said Toft. “I travel for a living, so all my trips are cancelled, all my work is gone, so it made me think, ‘OK, it’s time to put a selection of nice DSLR photo traps in the valley, and try to make some nice pictures of what we have here and make it my new project, my backyard project here in Ramona.”

What is a “phototrap”?

“That means a camera that’s on the ground and is triggered by an infrared beam or motion – you don’t have to be there,” Toft said, later adding, “three, four. five strobes. So you’re basically setting up a field studio.”

While Toft has spent a lot of time photographing big cats (“That’s the sexy thing, and everyone loves it”), his interests aren’t so narrowly focused.

A juvenile mountain lion that spent two weeks at the San Diego Humane Society’s Ramona Wildlife Center has been released into the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange County by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, it has been announced friday.

“I photograph everything from leafcutter ants – I was a snake,” Toft said. “I had a whole garage full of snakes when I grew up in Poway. I loved snakes, and I catch them all the time on my property here and photograph them.”

About once a month, however, what he sees are mountain lions.

“We don’t have mountain lions all the time,” Toft said. “You know, there are houses here, it’s, you know, it’s probably not a place where they actually live full time, but they cover a lot of territory and so, they use my track to cover a part of their territory.

Incredibly, Toft says, he has stills and video of 10 different mountain lions, which he can tell apart by facial markings, cuts on the ear, nose differentiation, and a pattern around the whiskers that looks like to a fingerprint.

“You can identify them,” Toft said. “The resolution of these cameras is so good you can zoom in,” adding, “I saw about 10 different mountain lions crossing this valley. Now I’ve had two mums – one with two little ones – and the recent mum who was here last August had three little ones.”

There’s a big male cougar who, Toft assumes, “this is his home territory. The males are 100 square miles, 200 square miles. So like your tomcat, they don’t like other males around. I have two or three bucks that I have got on my cameras, but a main one coming though.”

Toft’s trail and watering hole cameras captured a who’s who of local wildlife: cougars, coyotes, California gray fox, raptors, lynx, possums, skunks, mule deer and raccoons, to name a few -ones. One animal, however, escaped him.

One of two orphaned mountain lion cubs has been released back into the wild after being rehabilitated in San Diego County.

“Ring-tailed cats, which aren’t a cat at all…but they’re these cool little animals with long ringed tails, usually live in the desert but I know we have a population here on Mount Woodson,” said said Toft, mentioning mammals that are part of the raccoon family. “Very small population.”

For San Diego wildlife, perhaps nothing is more precious than water, which is why Toft has built not one but two waterholes on his property, both less than a half-mile away. mile from his house. The moist substance is a magnet for animals.

Even though Toft — who, no one will be surprised to learn, he’s worked with National Geographic, among other high-profile names — has plenty of evidence of cougars near his home, he says he’s not at all worried about its four-legged neighbors, nocturnal and otherwise.

“They don’t want anything to do with us,” Toft said. “They see us all the time. We just don’t see them very often. They’re out there and, so, kind of a message – I started taking pictures of these cougars and letting my neighbors know… “Another one passed, guys” – but putting it on [like], ‘Hey, isn’t that cool? We ran a cougar through our valley at night. He doesn’t want anything to do with any of us, he doesn’t want to be seen. “

Toft’s mantra is that the cougars are out there, they hang in there in a tough environment, and they rarely have a negative impact on us.

An orphan mountain lion cub who arrived at the San Diego Humane Society’s Project Wildlife Ramona campus is in better condition after weeks of intensive care by medical staff.

“We should be thrilled to still have the best carnivore in North America,” Toft said. “It’s them and the bears, and that’s it, and, look, we’ve wiped out our bears from most of California, at least our grizzlies.”

That said, Toft acknowledged that he might not let small children run around his valley without a few adults, but he pointed out that there are rattlesnakes to walk on and other dangers. .

“You just have to watch your kids, you know? said Toft.

These days, Toft is back on the road, usually seven months a year, but mostly passing on his knowledge. But not everything is theoretical. He has just returned from a six-week trip to Botswana and India to photograph snow leopards and tigers.

“I just got home this week,” Toft said. “I’m still exhausted, but… it’s good to be home.”

Wondering what walks around your garden when night falls? Toft said he puts around two grand on a camera trap setup, but if it’s just a video camera you want, they’re not too expensive or complicated to install on their property.

“They’re cheap,” Toft said. “At $100, $150. A bunch of different companies make them. Like I said, hunters use them, wildlife enthusiasts” – he gestures to himself – “use them too. They are really cool for shooting video. They have horrible stills, because it’s just not designed to make nice stills… but they’re great for video. People can put them on their trail , behind their house, and, yes, you see this bobcat walking around in the middle of the night, and it’s cool for the whole family to see.”

Want to know more about the Toft’s Wild Ramona project, maybe order a print? To go here to view the Toft website.

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