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Picture This: National Geographic's Steve Winter captures LA's elusive cougars

Cougars

Steve Winter/National Geographic

A hidden camera records Hollywood’s most reclusive star—this male cougar first seen in Griffith Park in Los Angeles almost two years ago. A radio collar tracks his moves, but residents see scant sign of him.

Cougars

Steve Winter/National Geographic

Photographed on a ridge above Los Angeles, a male cougar labeled P-22 made his way from the Santa.Monica Mountains to Griffith Park—an island of habitat surrounded by homes and highways.

Cougars

Steve Winter/National Geographic

Experts thought cougars rarely socialize, but F-51, a female living near Grand Teton National Park, traveled and fed with another female one spring. Eventually the other female adopted one of F-51’s kittens.

cougars

Steve Winter/National Geographic

Clawing into a mound of snow to get at an elk carcass, a female cougar triggered a concealed camera. The snow’s crust was frozen so hard she could open only.a small hole to reach the meat.

Cougars

Steve Winter/National Geographic

Clawing into a mound of snow to get at an elk carcass, a female cougar triggered a concealed camera. The snow’s crust was frozen so hard she could open only a small hole to reach the meat.

Cougar

Steve Winter/National Geographic

Perched atop dinner, this four-month-old kitten survived a wolf attack that killed two littermates, earning her the nickname bestowed by Teton Cougar Project researchers: Lucky.

Cougars

Steve Winter/National Geographic

A mother cougar and two nearly grown kittens cross a pasture near Kalispell, Montana. Young cougars generally.strike out on their own between one and two years of age. Their search for territory not already claimed by older cats.leads some into human habitat—and trouble.

Cougars

Steve Winter/National Geographic

This cougar was shot by a homeowner, then confiscated by South Dakota’s game agency. Responding to complaints.that the cats are reducing elk and deer numbers, the state this year allowed hunters to shoot up to 100 of an estimated population of 300 cougars.

National Geographic

National Geographic

Cover image for the December 2013 issue of National Geographic.

Steve Winter

Steve Winter/National Geographic

National Geographic photographer Steve Winter captures a jaguar swimming near Club med in Cancun, Mexico.


How do you take a photo of an animal you'll never see?

That was wildlife photographer Steve Winter's conundrum when he set out to capture the ultimate example of urban wildlife for National Geographic's December 2013 issue: a cougar that roams the hills of Griffith Park in Los Angeles. 

Though cougars are shy and nocturnal, scientists have been studying and tracking the animals for years. But rarely have they been seen going about their daily — or nightly — lives. 

RELATED: Audiovision: Cougars like you've never seen before

After being alerted to the presence of at least one mountain lion in the hills of L.A. by Jeff Sikich, a wildlife biologist with the National Park Service, he arranged to have a special tracking collar affixed to the animal to help pinpoint where the cougar was every two hours. This made it possible for both Winter and scientists to study his patterns and to figure out where to place a series of remote, infrared cameras. 

Winter really wanted was a "money shot" of the cat in front of the Hollywood Sign. A shot Sikich at first thought was "crazy."

"Eight months later he said, 'guess what? We just had a trail cam picture from the bobcat study the National Park Service is doing in Griffith Park. We have a cougar in Griffith Park'," said Winter. "There was my challenge...we just needed to figure out where he walked."

Then came the waiting game. It took a whole year to get one shot of the cougar — dubbed P-22 — but the results are breathtaking. The first shot of P-22 depicts the cat posing on a ledge with the city of L.A. illuminated in the background. 

“Cats are habitual animals," Winter said. "We found that there was an area on the ridge that he liked walking down, so I placed the camera there. Sure enough we got him...he just posed for the one with Hollywood and L.A. in the background."

Another challenge Winter faced was the fact that the images would be taken in complete darkness. A long exposure was necessary to get both the cougar and the city in the background, but he had to set up the cameras in a way so the images of the cougar would not come out blurry. 

"On the Hollywood sign, it's a 4-second exposure. He does not stop, he doesn't care about the flash or anything," said Winter. "He walks by the camera stays open and is exposing the sign. Luckily we had fog that night because the sign is not lit. and the light from the city is bouncing off the clouds and is lighting the letters of Hollywood." 

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Correction: Language in second graf has been altered for clarity. Though there is more than one mountain lion living in the Los Angeles area, only one, P-22, has been confirmed to be roaming Griffith Park. The cougar photographed by Winter is P-22.


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