Backyard Cougar on Camera

About a month ago, on a whim, I bought two remote cameras and put them up in my backyard.

I had been inspired by the Jaguar camera trap project at Tiputini Biodiversity Station in eastern Ecuador. Jaguars are tough to study, so researchers at Tiputini have set out motion-sensing cameras in the jungle for the past few years. They’ve accumulated some incredible pictures of cats and other rare Amazonian wildlife.

It got me wondering what might be lurking in the forest next to my house here in Oregon. I live about five miles east of Creswell (south of Eugene), bordering Weyerhauser and BLM timber properties; bears occasionally wander through the yard, and who knows what else? I’ve seen coyote, elk, and bobcat near my house, any of which would theoretically be possible in the backyard.

The cameras are marketed toward trophy deer hunters. They use motion sensors to take a picture whenever something walks in front of the lens. These days, the technology is pretty advanced: a good-quality game camera will withstand cold and moisture, snap a photo within a second of detecting motion, record color pictures with a flash after dark, and take up to 50,000 images on one set of batteries. Mine arrived packaged in camouflaged plastic with testimonials from celebrity hunters splashed across the front. Strap one to a tree, leave it for a while, then download the resulting images; you’ll know if there’s a big-antlered buck out there, or anything else large enough to trip the shutter.

Easy enough. I loaded my two cameras with batteries, posted them in likely-looking spots near the edge of my backyard, and went off to southern California to vacation in the desert for a couple of weeks.

The cameras clicked away in my absence, taking several dozen photos over the two-week period. There were lots of deer, as expected. I also got a photo of a feral cat, several squirrels, and an opossum that appeared at 10:41 pm on May 6, 10:32 pm on May 14, and 10:28 pm on May 17 – a true creature of habit.

When I clicked through to the last couple of frames, though, I gasped. There, undeniably recorded by one of my new cameras, stood a cougar (mountain lion) – a mere hundred yards from my back door, just after noon on a Tuesday! In the picture, it is staring straight toward my house (invisible behind a fence and some trees). After I got over the shock, I showed the photo to a contractor who was at the house working on a remodeling project on that particular day, probably eating lunch on the back porch at the instant the photo was taken. It’s likely that the cougar was listening to his conversation.

In 26 years – my entire life – of living here, I’ve never seen, heard, or found signs of cougars in the woods, though I’ve suspected that they’re around.

This just continues my streak of good luck with big cats. In the past 12 months I’ve run into two different mountain lions while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and had close visits with a Margay and a Jaguar in the jungles of Ecuador, all one-on-one encounters in the forest. Now, it seems, the cats are coming to me. Makes you wonder what else is lurking out there…


12 replies
  1. Steve McDonald
    Steve McDonald says:

    Noah, it’s not surprising at all to see a Cougar this close to a house. There’s a lot more of them out there than most of us realize. I find their tracks often near residential areas along the Weyerhaeuser Rd., that heads SE into the hills from Main St. They’ve been seen a few times in the yards of people and around a pond just west of the Bob Straub Parkway. In early Winter, during their mating season, I’ve heard females meowing within a stone’s throw of houses. Last March, I saw a small one cross Daisy St. at 1 am, near the Weyerhaeuser Rd. There are deer there, feeding at night in a wetland area. I’m almost afraid what I’d see, if I put up a remote camera in my backyard. But I think they’re after our housecats and small dogs, not us. I should get so lucky as to spot one with my long-zoom camera in my hands.


  2. Don Sutherland GA-ME 1991 (Littlebuddy)
    Don Sutherland GA-ME 1991 (Littlebuddy) says:

    “Makes you wonder what else is lurking out there…”


    Enjoyed finally meeting you in Bend.

  3. Patricia Keene
    Patricia Keene says:

    Great to see a new post from you, Noah, and what a post it is! Guess it is important that parents of young children be aware and cautious but not induce fear. I’ve always maintained that kitties should be kept inside – even here in Maine, with fishers, fox and other larger carnivores that prey on them. Just yesterday, I saw a large, grey fox strolling across the backyard – it was just dawn. Earlier in the season, I spied a coyote right up next to the window!! I love the big cats, especially cougars, though not sure I’d want to come face to face with one such animal. On the other hand……………Love your story telling and by the way, how is the new book coming along?

  4. Dave Mellinger
    Dave Mellinger says:

    Hi Noah! Jim Fairchild, who lives on the lower slopes of Mary’s Peak, set up a camera trap a year or two ago and also found he was regularly getting visited by cougars — in his case, if I remember right, a mom with cubs.

    They’re around more than we realize.

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    What model camera did you buy, I’m interested in doing this too in Massachusetts and it seems like a sweet setup you’ve got!

  6. Noah Strycker
    Noah Strycker says:

    Steve: Yes, I figured they’d probably be around, but it was cool to get a photo of one to prove it! Interesting about your sightings around Eugene. Glad they’re not interested in people…

    Don: …And thanks for showing me the Tennessee Warbler!

    Pat: Our cat doesn’t venture outside very often. We always thought she was lazy, but maybe she’s smarter than we gave her credit for. The book project is rolling along nicely, I’m about 1/4 done with the text already ;)

    Dave: The Fairchilds’ place would be perfect for cougars, so I’m not surprised…

    Sam: There are tons of different cameras to choose from. You can get a cheap one for $80, a good one for $150, or an amazing one for $450. There are endless features to debate: trigger speed, time between photos, video, infrared/flash, field of view, picture quality… you could spend days sifting through it all (rule #1: don’t pay attention to megapixels, because that has little to do with image quality). I decided that I wanted a camera that took color night photos, which dramatically limited the options since most remote cameras use infrared after dark; IR is undetectable, has less chance of spooking wildlife, and uses less power, but results in black-and-white photos. And I also decided that I’d rather have two “good” cameras than one “amazing” one for the same price. So that’s what I did. For a bit of variety, I bought two different models: a Cuddeback Attack (flash, not IR) and a Scoutguard 565. I’d recommend either of them. I think they’re both under $200.

  7. Patricia Keene
    Patricia Keene says:

    Just checking up on you, Noah and wondering about your new book. Hope it goes smoothly. Any adventures on the horizon for you?

  8. Shari
    Shari says:

    Just thought you might be interested in the world’s largest raptor migration and the best place to view it.

    I know I haven’t been at my blog for a quite some time, but if you go to the older blog posts, you should be able to see some pics at any rate. The migration is in the Red River Valley which at my home is more of a gorge than a valley and is in fact part of my front yard. It occurs in the first week of April and I do believe it is something of great interest to birders of all ages.

    Not only do we have the migration, but we also have a wonderful array of wildlife including cougar.

    My name is Shari and I do hope to hear from you soon!

  9. Dawn and Ram
    Dawn and Ram says:

    Noah…wow! This is awesome. Seriously. I’ve also never seen a mountain lion in all of my time in Oregon. You have inspired Ram and me to get one of these camera’s for our yard.

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