To oenophiles and sightseers alike, Northern California's Napa and Sonoma counties stand out as America's quintessential wine country. But the sunshiny valleys and their vineyard-stitched foothills have a semi-wild hinterland in the Mayacamas Mountains, and the reigning overlords – albeit ultra-shy ones – are mountain lions, aka pumas.

These Mayacamas cats are the subject of the Audubon Canyon Ranch's Mountain Lion Project, headed by Dr Quinton Martins, a big-cat expert who brings years of experience tracking leopards in South Africa and elsewhere to the study. Several female pumas and one male have been GPS-collared thus far.

Recently, GPS data from an 11-year-old female, P1, led Martins to suspect she'd made a kill in the general vicinity of Glen Ellen (where the Audubon Canyon Ranch manages the Bouverie Preserve). Upon ground-truthing the clustered locations, Martins confirmed his hunch: a full-grown black-tailed deer buck lay cached in typical puma manner (heaped with duff and leaf litter) in an anonymous tangle of manzanita, poison-oak and blackberry. 

Martins set up a remote camera at the kill, and on July 30 it recorded some heartwarming (err ... unless you're a deer) images: two of P1's young, still-spotted kittens visiting the half-buried blacktail carcass. Check out one of the youngsters inspecting its hooved meal:

"At four months these kittens are mostly eating meat provided for by mom and are unlikely to be suckling anymore," Martins reported on the Audubon Canyon Ranch blog. "Their teeth have developed enough to chew on soft meat."

Besides the basic thrill of spying (unobtrusively) on a Sonoma County puma family's jungly dinner table, the footage provides an encouraging update on P1's 2017 litter. Back in April, researchers managed to film her then-trio of ten-day-old kittens – a great coup for the Mountain Lion Project, as it was the first time one of the monitored pumas had given birth.

The deer-kill video reveals that at least two of the three kittens have survived into high summer: not an insignificant achievement, given that the Mountain Lion Project reports young pumas have about a 50-50 chance of making it to adulthood.

"As these youngsters traverse the landscape with their mother, their greatest risk in many wild populations who are not hunted by humans is infanticide – being killed (and even eaten) by other males moving through the territory," Martins said. "This is why P5 (our collared adult male mountain lion) would play such an important role in securing or safeguarding an area."

The Mountain Lion Project will be keeping close tabs on P1 and her pair of pint-sized deer gourmands as part of its ongoing efforts to understand puma ecology in the fragmented, viticulture-heavy landscapes of California's North Bay. We may get another update within the next couple of months, when this venerable lion mother's GPS collar will need replacing. In other words, stay tuned…



To header image: National Park Service/Flickr