Spying on Wildlife

Matt Sacco, director of programs at Cayuga Nature Center, holds a newer trail camera model alongside an older model and a camera in a lock box. Photo by Clara MacCarald

By Clara MacCarald



Matt Sacco, director of programs at Cayuga Nature Center in Ithaca, likes to tell this wildlife detective story to campers. It had to do with the bird seed that was disappearing fast from a couple of feeders in front of the main lodge, faster than if only birds were eating it. The center’s staff wanted to know who was to blame, so they set up a trail camera.

A few days later, when they downloaded the pictures, they had their answer. The camera had captured a mother and her young raccoons feasting during the night while the staff was home sleeping. The mother raked seed out of the feeders for her children, but one little raccoon went so far as to get onto a feeding platform.

Why didn’t spilled seed give the family away? They had accomplices. In the early morning, turkeys stopped by to clean up the mess, destroying the evidence before staff came in for the day.

“The kids just love this,” says Matt. They don’t have to take his word for it – they can see the photos themselves.

Rising Use

Trail cameras were developed primarily for hunters who use them to scope out game, but increasing numbers of non-hunters are discovering the joys of animal surveillance, too. The technology continues to improve while camera prices drop. Matt has met several people who began using them as a retirement hobby. He even knows people who have caught human intruders with them.

A basic camera that takes photos when it detects motion can be mounted outside, but a range of other options are available. Some models include infrared, a picture viewer on the camera itself, wireless capabilities, and even the ability to record video and sound. Solar panels are a fun accessory for backup power during extended use. The more you spend on equipment, the more you should consider a lock box. Matt occasionally finds photos of people examining his cameras, and bears are notorious for destroying them.

Jason Hamilton, chair of Environmental Studies and Science at Ithaca College, is excited by the increasing private use of trail cameras, although he’s had to correct people who send him photos of housecats mistaken for bobcats, or bobcats mistaken for lynx. There’s so much to discover. “It helps you build a relationship with your property and the animals on your property,” said Jason.

Getting to Know Your Land

Mike Hall is the airport manager at the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport, and president of the Wings of Eagles Discovery Center in Horseheads. For the last decade, he’s also been a trail-camera user on his 100-acre tract in Dryden. Mike sees plenty of wildlife on his own, but the camera lets him see the action happening while he is absent. He’s captured photos of coyotes, bobcats, foxes, skunks, opossums, turkeys, chipmunks and squirrels. Squirrels can really fill up a memory card, but fortunately his model has lots of memory space.

He sees a lot of deer, too. The really big bucks, whose necks are so thick that Mike compares them to elks, never seem to be out during the day or even walking along the road at night. As Mike puts it, keeping out of people’s way is how they get to be so old. But the camera catches them.

Each photo has a date and time stamp. Reading these has made Mike realize how much the animals are watching him, even when they’re hiding. Not only do coyotes skillfully avoid him, sometimes passing by 10 minutes after he does, but foxes do the same thing to the coyotes.

Keeping Track

It’s not just property owners and hunters who want to know where the animals are and when. Wildlife science asks similar questions. Jason has about a dozen cameras in his lab, which are often out on the Ithaca College Natural Lands for classes or research. Even close to campus they’ve taken pictures of shy coyotes, as well as other animals that you’d expect to see, like foxes, raccoons, deer, skunks and opossums.

Jason and his students use large sandboxes in front of some cameras to ask an additional question: how are an animal’s tracks and movements related? He points out that amateurs as well as professionals can improve their tracking skills by using a similar setup. He baits these cameras to increase the chance of seeing something.

Baiting can draw animals in from elsewhere, which is a bad idea if you want to know what lives in an area normally. But without bait, whether a camera captures a photo of an elusive species like coyotes or bobcats may be simply a matter of luck.

This past summer Jason headed a search for bobcats on the 560 acres of the Natural Lands. One part of the study required placing trail cameras in likely bobcat habitat based on the knowledge of trained trackers, which may lead to better ways of searching for thinly distributed animals.

Teaching the Forest

Larger mammals like bobcats are always a crowd pleaser. A few years ago, the Cayuga Nature Center teamed up with first graders at Caroline Elementary School to set up trail cameras. Among the photos of deer and squirrels was one of a bobcat. Teachers and administrators were just as excited by all the pictures as the students.

The center runs camps in every season, and there’s always something to look for. Spring is a great time to focus on young animals, at locations ranging from bird nests to fox dens. Summer has fawns, while fall has animals preparing for winter. “A camera is much more patient than you,” says Matt, and it’s less intrusive than a group of kids.

If nothing else, Matt says, trail cameras get people of all ages to start asking questions about local wildlife – and maybe even get some answers.

Expert Tips

Covert or not covert – Many of the most interesting animals are active at night, but some cameras take stealthier night pictures than others, notes Jason Hamilton. Infrared startles animals less than a traditional flash, and a startled animal may avoid that spot in the future.

Get to know your equipment – Jason suggests trying out different settings and sensitivities. Too sensitive and you’ll find a slideshow of leaves rustling. Not sensitive enough and you’ll just see disappearing tails.

Trail camera placement – Are there tracks in the snow? A muddy spot where animals are crossing a creek? Matt Sacco says all of these are good spots for a camera. Or, look for a food source such as a garden, corn field or dead animal.

Leave it alone – Many animals key in to human scent. Matt says you can wear rubber gloves and avoid using products with scents, but the best way to get rid of human smells, as well as getting animals used to the camera, is by leaving the camera outside for a long time before downloading the photos.

Batteries matter – If you’re going to leave a camera out for months, make sure the power source will last. Good batteries are worth spending money on, says Jason. He suggests buying rechargeable batteries and being aware that cold weather will drain them fast.

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