Robert Martinez decided four years ago that he wanted to catch a mountain lion – on digital film, that is.
He brought his Reconyx still camera and lashed it to a tree in the Angeles National Forest above Glendora. Then he flipped on the motion sensor, went home and waited … and waited.
Two weeks later he returned to find a photo of a deer – a big disappointment to a lion hunter.
The grocery store worker figured he needed more firepower, so he bought a video camera and set it up on a hill that was dotted with puma tracks.
When Martinez switched out the memory card three days later and watched it on his home computer, he caught four seconds of a mountain lion walking by in broad daylight.
"It was crystal clear," Martinez said. "It was awesome."
Since then, the 43-year-old has been hooked. He's spent about $8,000 on camera equipment and uploaded more than 150 videos of bears sniffing Santa statues, mountain lions dragging deer carcasses and a female cat howling at the sky. The videos have drawn nearly 1.4 million views on his YouTube channel, Parliament of Owls.
(Martinez actually has caught footage of owls, but he named the channel after a line in an Elliott Smith song.)
By documenting animals, Martinez has joined a loosely knit group of professional and amateur wildlife photographers known as "camera trappers." In a very short period of time, these trappers have helped to expand scientists' knowledge of creatures that inhabit the borders of urban sprawl and have introduced millions of city dwellers to their fanged and furry neighbors.
"It's really valuable information that people have shared with us," said Amy Rodrigues, a biologist with the nonprofit Mountain Lion Foundation in Sacramento. Images from hobbyists like Martinez have been particularly helpful in documenting the mating and cub-raising habits of urban mountain lions, she said.
Camera-trapped critters include P-22, the Griffith Park mountain lion who was snapped in front of the Hollywood sign by a National Geographic photographer, and California's sole surviving wolverine, which was paparazzied by a graduate student. The list also includes a male mountain lion that trekked from South Dakota to Connecticut in search of a mate, only to be struck and killed by a car.
On a recent day, Martinez parked at the base of a mountain in Glendora and strapped on his backpack, which held an old Apple computer, extra batteries and some sports drinks.
Martinez swept his long brown hair off his face before starting up a trail. He wore a black T-shirt and jeans to protect against bugs and snakes. "It's going to be hot, but better safe than sorry," he said, sweat already beading on his forehead.
He hiked up a road into the forest and then slipped down a steep slope into a canyon he discovered several years ago. As he picked his way through loose rock and fallen trees, he kept an eye out for rattlesnakes.
"I had a close call here," he said, passing a bush.
Martinez had been interested in mountain lions since he was a teenager, watching nature specials and reading books about them, and hiked the Angeles National Forest since high school. But he never studied science or considered himself much of an outdoorsman. "I wasn't even a Boy Scout," he said.
Martinez studied graphic design in college before starting a job at Stater Bros. After his wife found him watching a video of a mountain lion captured by a camera trapper, she urged him to try it himself.
Even though he owns nine cameras, Martinez acknowledges he's no photography expert. Instead, he buys the equipment and has a friend set up the camera traps while he figures out the best places to put them.
"I'm not really sure how a lot of the cameras work," he said.
He goes to check his cameras three or four times a week and he's found some startling video, including a nighttime image of a mountain lion making a high-pitched, eerie mating call and others of the cats feeding on a deer and playing with their young.
Last year for Christmas, he placed a Santa doll at some of his sights as a joke and got footage of bears and lions eyeing St. Nick curiously.
Martinez places his camera near areas with water or where he's seen lion excrement or deer kills but doesn't claim much expertise. "It's a lot of luck," he said.
But, Leslie Anastassatos, activism coordinator at the Mountain Lion Foundation, said, "it's really hard to capture a mountain lion on camera anywhere."
Rodrigues added, "A lot of pictures we see are pictures of deer behinds and tails."
Martinez believes he's seen about nine cats in the forest and nicknamed a few: Limpy, the female with a leg injury and a new litter of kittens; Left Eye, which seems to have a vision problem; and Nicky, an adult with a distinct cut in one ear.
"You feel like you get to know them after a while," he said.
When he reached a watering hole about a mile off the road, Martinez checked two cameras that he'd placed in safety boxes and secured with cables. (About a year ago, someone cut through cables and stole about $2,500 in equipment from another site.)
A few months ago, he'd caught images of a bear and her cub playing at the site and lions gnawing on deer bones, but when Martinez put the memory card into his filthy computer he found 108 images of squirrels. "Nothing much," he said.
He checked a second camera. "A lot of squirrels and birds," he said, sounding disappointed.
As he walked back to his car, Martinez mused about moving his cameras to different locations. "I think about it sometimes, but I'm afraid I'll miss something really cool," he said.
Then he decided to check one last camera trap, near the top of a steep mountain. When he popped the memory card into his computer, he found video of two fox kits playfully jumping off a tree.
"This is so great; I wasn't expecting anything on this camera," he said. "I'm going to put this up online."