I unexpectedly and happily fell into the practice of wildlife camera trapping (and by camera trapping I mean capturing images of the animals, not trapping them). When I came to Barnstable Land Trust looking for a volunteer project and interested in ecology, Will Holden, BLT’s Land Stewardship Coordinator, told me about his idea to deploy a wildlife camera on BLT’s properties to see and share how animals are using the conservation lands, and we got started on making it happen. We’ve been excited with the results!
What are wildlife cameras?
Wildlife cameras (aka trail cameras, game cameras, or camera traps) are triggered to take a picture or video when an animal passes by. They are valuable tools for observing animals in a way that may be less disruptive than other observation techniques. The first camera trap was deployed more than 100 years ago with the early triggers being trip wires and pressure plates1. Today, wildlife cameras are readily available as small units comprised of a digital camera, passive infrared sensor, and infrared flash. The infrared sensor detects a moving object with a warmer or colder surface temperature than the surroundings1. Thus, mainstream camera traps can detect many mammals and birds but are unlikely to notice cold-blooded reptiles and amphibians.
Camera trapping is increasingly being used in conservation and ecology research globally to document species population parameters and study animal behavior.1 For example, one study in the Eastern United States involved over 300 volunteers in operating trail cameras at 1947 sites within protected forests in order to examine the influence of hunting and human recreation on animal distribution. Generally, they found habitat variables to have a greater influence on animal distribution than human recreation2. In a study a bit further from the woods of Barnstable, researchers collected picture data over the course of six years at the Makira Natural Park, Madagascar to examine the long-term persistence of carnivores in this area. Unfortunately, they observed large declines in the occupancy of four native carnivores while also seeing a rise in the occupancy of feral cats3. We are not currently trying to answer any scientific questions with BLT’s camera, but are enjoying getting a glimpse into the lives of our animal neighbors and seeing how they are using our conserved lands!
Setting up a camera trap
The first step when deploying the camera at a new site is to choose a location. I spend some time looking for animal signs (prints, scat, trails) and for landscape features, such as breaks in stonewalls, that might funnel animals. We recorded the most animal sightings in the two locations where I was able to place the camera near distinct animal trails. Note: in order to minimize disrupting animals, it is important to not block an animal trail with the camera or to place cameras near areas particularly sensitive to animals such as dens.
It is also helpful to think about how sunlight might influence the camera. Tempted by a good setup spot, I once positioned the camera facing east from a forest edge into a meadow and was rewarded with thousands of empty shots! The movement of sun-warmed leaves and branches was triggering the camera. In general, facing the camera north helps with this issue, though it may not be such a problem if both the camera and detection area are within a uniformly shaded area. Another piece of camera trapping advice is to set up the camera at an angle to an animal trail or expected path of animal motion since the infrared sensor is more likely to register an animal moving across the detection zone rather than straight toward the camera1.
Once I have chosen a spot for camera trapping, I strap the camera to a tree within a few feet of the ground, depending on the terrain and tilt of the trunk. Next, I’ll set the camera into test mode, which flashes a red light whenever the camera would be triggered, and crouch-pace in front of the camera to make sure it is detecting in a wide and far enough range. I’ve also found it helpful to align a digital or phone camera lens with the wildlife camera lens and snap a picture to check the composition of the shots.
Finally, I set the camera in photo or video mode and walk away for as long as my curiosity will allow! Usually, that’s about one week. We have two SD cards so when I visit the camera I can just swap one out. Checking the SD card is a moment of excitement and anticipations and I am guessing the BLT staff have heard my exclamations of awe as I flip through the pictures on the volunteer computer. So…
What have we seen?
Between September 21, 2018 and January 29, 2019, on properties in Cotuit, Marstons Mills, and West Barnstable, we recorded at least 14 different species of mammals (small rodents are harder to distinguish) and 9 species of birds. The 5 most commonly recorded animals were gray squirrels, raccoons, eastern chipmunks, blue jays, and rabbits. That seems fairly consistent with the animals I most often see, subbing in deer for raccoons, since I am not nocturnal.
The table to the left shows the number of sightings for each species captured on camera. For this project, we considered it a unique species sighting if the sighting occurred a minimum of 30 minutes after the species was previously sighted on camera. This was done in an effort to avoid multi-counting an animal that may have just been hanging around the camera for a while. That being said, it is possible that only a handful of squirrels, say, were seen in the 76 photo captures of them, but, unfortunately, I cannot be sure, as I am unable to distinguish individual squirrels by pictures. If two or more animals were in the shot at one time, each animal was counted as a sighting.
We were surprised at how fast our species list grew and it has been awesome to get pictures of animals we rarely or never have seen in person! What do you commonly see in your yards or out and about in Barnstable? What have been your most exciting local sightings?
Stay tuned for a follow-up post in which I will share, in my opinion, some of our most exciting captures on camera thus far!
1) Wearn, Oliver R. and Paul Glover-Kapfer. Camera-trapping for conservation: a guide to best-practices. Woking, United Kingdom: WWF-UK, 2017.
2) Kays, R. , Parsons, A. W., Baker, M. C., Kalies, E. L., Forrester, T. , Costello, R. , Rota, C. T., Millspaugh, J. J. and McShea, W. J. (2017), Does hunting or hiking affect wildlife communities in protected areas?. J Appl Ecol, 54: 242-252. doi:10.1111/1365-2664.12700
3) Farris, Z.J., et al., The times they are a changin’: Multi-year surveys reveal exotics replace native carnivores at a Madagascar rainforest site, Biological Conservation (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2016.10.025