Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Take only pictures; camera trapping!

As a child, I remember seeing photographs of startled birds and mammals in nature magazines and National Geographic.  Knowing how hard it was to observe even common mammals like badgers near my home town of Athlone in Ireland, I was enthralled by the idea that the animals could trigger cameras and capture their own images.  In our teens, a good friend and I spent a number of nights up in trees near badger setts trying to catch glimpses of these fascinating animals.  We knew that they were there; we had looped briars around the entrances to their underground setts to catch hairs.  We failed to catch hairs because the badgers removed the briars, and we failed to capture all but the briefest glimpses that left us wondering what we had really seen.

Camera traps were out of reach for the average Irish teen, and indeed 1970s versions were not exactly user friendly.  Early traps were single-shot film cameras used by professional wildlife biologists.  They were expensive, challenging to use, and required wait time while film was developed.  Many things are different in 2014 and camera traps have dropped in price, increased in sophistication, and are very very easy to use.

This evening I removed the chip from a camera I installed in August.  It has been clicking away at passing animals without much care or attention from anyone.  Similar cameras have revolutionized wildlife biology and made wildlife photography available to a far broader range of people.  It's hard to say that my little camera trapping adventure has revolutionized much of anything, but it's a lot of fun for my favorite 8 year old to see what comes through our back yard.

The camera is installed on the corner of our deck at about 4 feet off the ground and pointing down at a 45 degree angle.  I have tried various angles and placements, and this approach seems to eliminate false triggers by windblown tree branches, and distant photos of out-of-focus birds and joggers.  Most of the photographs are actually of the animals I'd like to see. 

Birds and mammals trigger the camera by movement and photographs are taken in natural day light or using an infra red flash at night time.  It runs on a dozen rechargeable double-A batteries and stores photos on an SD card that slots right into my computer.  As I write this I'm glancing through literally thousands of photographs of backyard wildlife.  It's a far cry from the days of single shot cameras.

My daughter and I strategically place left over food in the path of the camera to attract birds and mammals.  After an October apple picking adventure, we placed a pile of apple peelings in the yard.  An opossum, who seems to be one of our most frequent visitors, spent several hours on three successive nights gorging on apple peels and shared the night shift with a cottontail rabbit.  A chipmunk and several grey squirrels took over the day shift and were joined by cardinals and blue jays.

Wildlife biologists are regular users of camera traps and an array of scientific questions have been answered using very similar cameras.  European investigators used camera traps to see how many of the baits left out for foxes were actually consumed by foxes as compared to non-target animals.  It turned out that hedgehogs were regularly consuming the baits, but simply burying the bait or placing it nearer to fox dens drastically improved success.

 Even our simple back yard setup is generating data that could easily be used to address a number of questions.  For example, the published accounts of cotton tail rabbits suggest that they are most active near dawn and dusk.  But in my back yard, I most often photograph rabbits after mid night.  Quite obviously I may well be photographing the same midnight bunny on several nights, but it does suggest that I should repeat the experiment in a different location and capture evidence from one or several other rabbits.

Our yard is visited by skunks, racoons, opossums, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and several different neighborhood cats.  We have also captured photographs of several birds including catbirds, grackles, cardinals, bluejays, sparrows, juncos, and robins. Skunks have distinctive coat patterns and there are at least two that visit our yard.

I can't recommend a specific camera brand because I have only tried one.  I can say that I'm very happy with the Reconyx camera that I'm currently using.  An available metal housing makes it possible to string a cable lock through the housing and the camera reducing the possibility of theft.  However, I can strongly recommend camera trapping as a fun family activity and a way to connect to seldom seen animals that quietly slip through our back yards.  Once could very easily craft a fascinating science fair project or indeed publishable study with the budding scientist in your life.

All photographs taken using a Reconyx HC600 Hyperfire

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