Nine years ago, my wife and I retired to a Colorado mountaintop home at 9,400 feet near a national forest. After being here six months, I saw my first mountain lion in the wild, just 12 feet from the window. I managed to take a grab-shot as it was leaving. At the time, I hadn't appreciated how rare mountain lion sightings were. So rare in fact, that the sighting made a human-interest story on a Denver TV news program. The sighting gave me inspiration to try to capture a better-quality image of a mountain lion in the wild, but another chance sighting would be extremely unlikely. My best chance would be to set up a crittercam to monitor the backyard 24/7. While crittercams (trail cams) are commercially available, for many reasons I decided to build my own from components available on the internet.
The setup consists of a motion detector, a high-quality DSLR camera, three strobe units and DC power supplies. The motion detector was mounted outdoors facing the previous mountain lion sighting area near the window. The camera was mounted indoors at the window. A hood made of black PVC tubing bridged the small gap between the front of the lens and the window pane to prevent reflections. The primary strobe was mounted outdoors, protected under a second-story deck and somewhat higher than the camera. The other two strobes, used to soften shadows, were mounted indoors at the window, approximately two feet on either side of the camera. Because this setup would be on continuously, DC power supplies were used in place of batteries.
With this permanent setup, everything could be preset. The camera was on manual focus and exposure. The lens was fixed at ƒ/11, a good compromise between depth of field and sharpness. During daylight, the flash units were left on, but the ISO of the camera was lowered to accommodate the daylight conditions. When an animal triggered the sensor, the system was set to take five images, each one second apart, followed by a brief hold time before the system was ready to be triggered again. For wildlife concerns, food was never used to attract mountain lions, bears, bighorn sheep or other large animals.
This system has been on for more than eight years now, capturing images of a variety of animals, most in focus and properly exposed. The animals have sometimes shown interesting and unexpected behavior. Each day, there would be over 100 images waiting to be examined. What fun! By far, red foxes and skunks dominated the images. Many of the foxes seemed to enjoy playing in the light flashes after dark. One red fox vixen repeatedly brought her three kits to play under the strobes while she sat on a rock watching. As the kits grew up, they continued to come to play under the flashing lights.
The wild animals photographed include red foxes and fox kits, silver foxes (a black variety of the red fox), gray foxes, skunks, raccoons, rabbits, black Abert's squirrels, mule deer and fawns, one ringtail, coyotes, bighorn sheep, black bears and bear cubs, and on three separate occasions, approximately two years apart, a mountain lion.
This image of a red and a silver fox was taken by this crittercam setup during an afternoon snowstorm. It’s not known what has attracted the foxes' attention.
Nikon D3X, AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D, two Nikon SB-28 strobes, Einstein E640 flash. Exposure: 1/250 sec., ƒ/11, ISO 400.