East County resident Roy Toft has been shooting wildlife around the globe for three decades. Talking to him, you realize very quickly he has a million stories, maybe more 2 million. One of his new ones, prompted by the pandemic, doesn't take place in Botswana or Costa Rica, though.
For this yarn, one with an eye-popping ending, he just had to go out his back door.
Toft's a Navy brat who ended up in Poway at the age of 6. He left to pursue his photographic dreams but made his way back to San Diego County 17 years ago to Ramona, where he had family, eventually buying a 28-acre spread in the wine area of Ramona (Note to self: There's a wine area in Ramona? Follow-up story?). 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 where the fire cleared chaparral and creating a trail through his property.
"The trail cameras, which I think of as small video cameras that are reasonably priced and what a lot of people are using — hunters are using them to see where deer are — so I put those out on the ... trail in the valley that I made, basically, after the fires," said Toft said, who was interested in seeing what kinds of animals were around.
Two Cheap-ish Trail Camera Picks from Roy
Five years ago, there was plenty to see.
- Browning Trail Cameras Strike Force Extreme 16 MP Camera: $109.99
- Browning Recon Force Edge 4K Trail Camera: $219.99
" 'Oh, we got coyotes walking, cool,' " Toft remembers thinking. "Bobcats. And then, four years ago, I got my first mountain lion, and that made me think, 'Wow, I didn't think we had mountain lions here. I know they're around, but I didn't know they walked through our valley right here behind the house."
Then, in 2020, the college-trained 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 photo trap on his property before, now he focused on the project in earnest, and it paid off, big.
"I'm grounded, you know?" Toft said. "I travel for a living, so all my trips are canceled, all my work was gone, so that made me think, 'OK, this is a time to put a selection of nice DSLR photo traps in the valley, and let's try to make some nice images of the stuff we have here and make that my new project, my backyard project here in Ramona."
What's a "photo trap"?
"That means a camera that's in the field that gets triggered by an infrared beam or motion — you don't have to be there," Toft said, adding later, "three, four. five strobes. So you're setting up, basically, a field studio."
While Toft has spent a lot of time photographing big cats ("That's what's sexy, and everybody likes that"), his interests are not so narrowly focused.
"I'm photographing everything from leaf-cutter ants — I was a snake guy," Toft said. "I had a whole garage full of snakes when I grew up in Poway. So I loved snakes, and I'm catching 'em on my property here all the time and I'm photographing them."
About once a month, though, what he sees are mountain lions.
"We don't have mountain lions all the time," Toft said. "You know, there's houses here, it's, you know, it's not probably a place they actually live full-time, but they cover big territories and so, they use my trail to cover part of their territory."
Incredibly, Toft said, he has stills and video of an astounding 10 different mountain lions, which can he can tell apart by facial markings, cuts on the ear, differentiating by noses, and a pattern around whiskers that's like a fingerprint.
"You can identify them," Toft said. "The resolution on these cameras is so good that you can zoom in," adding, "I've seen about 10 different mountain lions come through this valley. Now, I've had two moms — one with two cubs — and the recent mom that was here last August had three cubs."
There's one big male cougar that, Toft assumes, "this is his resident territory. Males have 100 square miles, 200 square miles. So, like your tomcat, they don't like other males around. I have two or three males that I have gotten on my cameras, but one main one that comes though."
Toft's trail and watering-hole cameras have captured a who's who of local fauna: Pumas, coyotes, California gray fox, raptors, lynx, opossums, skunks, mule deer and raccoons, to name more than a few. One animal, though, has eluded him.
"Ringtail cats, which are not a cat at all … but they are these cool, smallish animals with long ringed tails, usually live in the desert but I know we have a population here on Mount Woodson," Toft said, mentioning mammals that are part of the racccon family. "Very small population."
For San Diego's wildlife, nothing may be more precious than water, so Toft has set up not one but two watering holes on his property, both within a half-mile of his house. The wet stuff is a magnet for the animals.
Even though Toft — who, nobody will be surprised to hear has worked with National Geographic, among other marquee names — has plenty of evidence of cougars that close to his home, he says he's not anxious at all about his four-legged neighbors, nocturnal and otherwise.
"They don't want anything to do with us," Toft said. "They're seeing us all the time. We just don't see them very often. They're out there and, so, kind of the message — I started taking pictures of these mountain lions and letting my neighbors know they're … 'Another one walked through, guys' — but putting it [like], 'Hey, isn't that cool? We had a mountain lion walk through our valley at night. He wants nothing to do with any of us, he's all about not being seen.' "
Toft's mantra is, the mountain lions are here, they're hanging in in a tough environment and they rarely have a negative impact on us.
"We should be excited that we still have the top carnivore of North America," Toft said. "It's them and bears, and that's it about it, and, look, we've wiped out our bears from most of California, at least our grizzly bears."
That said, Toft did acknowlege that he might not let little kids run around in his valley without some adults around, but he pointed out there were rattlesnakes that could be stepped on as well and other hazards.
"You just gotta watch your kids, you know?" Toft said.
These days, Toft is back out on the road, typically for seven months a year, but mostly passing on his knowledge. It's not all theoretical, though. He just got back from a six-week trip to Botswana and India shooting snow leopards and tigers.
"I just got home this week," Toft said. "I'm still burned out, but … it's good to be home."
Wondering what's wandering around in your backyard when night falls? Toft said he puts two grand or so into a camera-trapping setup, but if it's just a video trail camera you want, they're not too expensive or complicated for anybody to set up on their property.
"They're cheap," Toft said. "A 100, 150 bucks. A bunch of different companies are making them. As I said, hunters are using them, wildlife enthusiasts" — he gestures to himself — " are using them too. They're really cool to shoot video. They have horrible stills, 'cause it's just not set up for doing nice stills ... but they're great for video. People can put these on their trail, behind their house, and, yeah, you see that bobcat walking through in the middle of the night, and that's cool for the whole family to see."
Want to see more of the Toft's Wild Ramona project, maybe order a print? Go here to check out Toft's website.