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Caught on Camera

by Belinda Recio

ABOVE: Camera trap photo taken with Browning Trail Camera

Hands-free backyard wildlife photography

I share my backyard with a pair of mated red-tailed hawks that produce a clutch of eggs every spring. When each year’s new hatchlings fledge, I watch them learn how to become hawks.

During their first forays into the world, I often witness amusingly clumsy aerial maneuvers, failed hunting attempts, and even endearing social play. Young hawks will wrestle, stalk and pounce on one another and even play with objects, such as sticks and stones. Their antics are often so entertaining that I try to sneak up on them with a camera. But no matter how stealthy I am, they always sense my presence and take off before I can get a good shot.

Then I learned about trail cameras, also known as camera traps. These remotely activated weather-sealed cameras can capture candid photographs of wild animals in situations when being physically present isn’t an option or when it isa hindrance.

Hunters use these cameras to figure out the best places to hunt. Wildlife scientists use them to study population numbers, environmental impacts, habitat ecology and behavior. They have documented extremely rare species, as well as species thought to be extinct. Camera traps have even lead to the discovery of new species, such as the Annamite striped rabbit of Southeast Asia. One of the best things about camera traps is how they help to raise conservation awareness. Animal organizations around the world are increasingly using camera trap photographs and videos in campaigns targeted at saving at-risk species because they appear to inspire people to support conservation efforts.

But camera traps aren’t just for hunters and scientists. They offer the rest of us a chance to discover species that are hanging out in our backyards when we aren’t there to watch. They can also show us animal behaviors—playing, grooming, mating and hunting—that are rarely seen in person, or only from a distance. Sometimes these cameras can put a face to that coyote howl or owl hoot that wakes us up in the middle of the night. They can even prove that it really wasn’t your dog (despite his guilty behavior when you scolded it) who knocked over the trash can—it was a raccoon.

But most importantly, camera traps can remind us that we are not alone. They can show us that not far from where we sit at our computers, there might be mother deer grooming their young, foxes sneaking up on unsuspecting rabbits and perhaps even young hawks playing keep-away with a twig.

Trail Cameras (Camera Traps) 101

The features of trail cameras vary, such as whether they take only photos or both photos and video, and whether the images are only stored on a memory card, or also transmitted via cell service to a smartphone, tablet or computer. Other features include resolution (picture clarity), trigger speed (the time between when the camera first senses motion and/or heat until it takes a photo of whomever produced the motion and/or heat), recovery speed (the time it takes the camera to store an image and prepare for the next shot), detection zone (the distance that the camera can sense motion and trigger a photo), flash formats (white flash, which produces color images or infrared, which produces black and white images) viewing options, setup and battery type and life.

Some models are better suited to wildlife watching than others, including models manufactured by two of the biggest and most reliable names in the industry: Browning and Bushnell. Browning’s Strike Force HD Pro and Bushnell’s Trophy Cam HD—both under $175—score high marks by trail camera enthusiasts dedicated to watching and studying wildlife.

One of the best resources for anyone interested in learning more is the Smithsonian’s Wild Project, also known as eMammal. This website is an online tool for collecting, archiving and sharing camera trapping images and data. It also offers online training for camera trappers. For more information, visit emammal.si.edu.

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