How to View Animals Without Disrupting Their Behavior
By Paula Musto
The great pumpkin massacre in our neighborhood this fall piqued my interest. What creature ate the large orange orbs that decorated our front yards? Telltale signs—footprints, teeth and claw marks—indicated it was a big guy or gal. Most likely a bear, the neighbors guessed. Though maybe raccoons or deer.
I had long been interested in wildlife photography, a challenging skill requiring stealth stakeouts and lots of patience, but the overnight visitors who devoured our pumpkins suggested another approach—the wildlife cam, also known as trail or game cameras. Wildlife enthusiasts can mount these motion-activated cameras to a tree or post outside their home to capture images of animals undisturbed in natural settings and, importantly, during nighttime hours when many species are most active.
Wildlife cameras were first marketed to hunters, but today many people use the devices out of curiosity to see what’s in their backyard, according to Tom Davis, a biologist with the National Park Service/Blue Ridge Parkway, who uses the cameras both professionally to study wildlife and as a photography hobbyist.
“The cameras are an excellent way to better understand and appreciate the wildlife that surrounds us,” Davis says. “As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words—this is a way to observe wildlife and do so without human interference.”
The cameras use motion or heat detectors and can be placed in a natural environment and left to trigger themselves the moment an animal crosses nearby, working night or day to offer glimpses into the lives of the critters that roam our natural landscapes.
Thanks to technology improvements in recent years, many models capture good-quality images that can be downloaded to your computer; if Wi-Fi-equipped, photos can be exported directly to your smartphone. Cameras can also be programmed to take video.
Western North Carolina’s abundant and highly diverse wildlife populations make it an excellent venue for this type of photography. With a little patience, you can record the comings and goings of a wide variety of animals, says Davis, including bears, raccoons, deer, skunks, possums, coyotes, foxes, bobcats and many species of birds. For research purposes, Davis and teams of volunteers periodically install cameras on numerous sites along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“It’s sort of like Christmas,” he says. “You never know what you are going to get.” This is true whether your set-up is in a natural habitat like the Blue Ridge Mountains or in your own backyard. Choosing a location for a wildlife camera in your yard can be a fun process, but may require some trial and error to get just the right perspective of animals. Davis advises placing the camera 12-18 inches off the ground and, since we live in bear country, it’s important that the device has a sturdy security encasement. Bears are known to eat (or at least smash) cameras as well as pumpkins.
Over the last decade, the cameras—wildlife officials refer to them as camera traps—have become useful tools, helping scientists around the world better understand animal species in the wild. Earlier this year the US Fish and Wildlife Service reported observing an extremely rare jaguar on its cameras in southern Arizona, signaling that the felines may still be viable in the rugged mountain area. Closer to home, Davis recorded a seldom seen Eastern Spotted Skunk whose population decline has puzzled scientists in the Appalachian region.
“The cameras have made our jobs easier,” Davis says. “Each photo represents data that allows us to test hypotheses which have profound implications for our study of wildlife populations, including their behaviors, trends and distributions.”
Wildlife cameras come in a broad price range that includes budget and high-end models, but according to Davis you can expect to find a good-quality device for under $150. Here’s what to look for when shopping for a camera:
• A hardy and weatherproof model is important to shield the camera from water, ice and extreme temperatures. Many devices are camouflaged to fit in with their surroundings.
• A good motion-activated camera can lie in wait for days or weeks until something comes by to get its attention, so look for a long battery life. Some use rechargeable batteries, while others rely on AAs.
• Many models offer wireless connectivity options. These cameras can be paired with smartphones, tablets or computers, allowing you to remotely access and view the captured images. This feature provides real-time monitoring and eliminates the need to physically retrieve the camera’s memory card.
• There is a wealth of information online, including a helpful buying guide from Digital Camera World at DigitalCameraWorld.com/buying-guides/best-trail-cameras.
• In the Asheville area, Sportsman’s Warehouse has a large selection of cameras in the budget category, and dozens of models, including the latest high-end cameras, are available at retail sites online.
If a wildlife lover is on your holiday shopping list, a motion-activated camera might be an ideal gift. It can open a window into the hidden world of the animals that share our planet.
Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit whose mission is to help injured or orphaned wildlife, support WNC’s wildlife rehabilitation network and provide wildlife conservation education. To learn more or donate, visit AppalachianWild.org.