Update on Returning Wildlife

Photo courtesy Bill Banaszewski
by Bill Banaszewski

Ten years ago, I wrote an article that was published in the Winter 2010 issue of Life in the Finger Lakes magazine about wildlife species that were returning to the Finger Lakes Region after a long absence. In that piece, I focused on the elusive bobcat and fisher, which were flying under the radar with very few personal sightings. In other articles prior to 2010, I had written about the comeback of black bear, coyote, and river otter. 

Since those articles were published, each of these five mammals have now reestablished themselves throughout central New York – either naturally or with the assistance of wildlife management efforts. For the most part, the forest-dwelling animals such as bear, bobcat, coyote, and fisher have returned naturally. The fisher population hit a low point in New York in the early 1930s. Coyote, rare in the ‘30s, entered New York’s Adirondack Region from Canada and has since experienced the largest expansion of its range of any carnivore. They are now found throughout the state. River otter were absent for nearly 100 years, but have now been reestablished, mainly due to a trap and transfer effort by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York River Otter Project, and partnering colleges. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s regional wildlife biologist Scott Smith, river otter have now reached capacity in suitable water habitats throughout the region.

I was fortunate to participate in the project to reestablish river otter in the Finger Lakes area when four otter were fitted with transmitters and released at Finger Lakes Community College’s Muller Conservation Field Station at the south end of Honeoye Lake in November 2000. Students and I used telemetry and trail cameras to track and record the otter; it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my teaching career in environment conservation at the college. 

Trail cameras are triggered by heat and/or motion sensors in order to monitor activity at a site without a photographer being present and without disturbing wildlife. If the cameras are strategically placed, they are able to record images of a variety of wildlife. Three decades ago, my early images were captured on film, which needed to be sent out for processing, sometimes taking weeks before any evidence could be seen. Fortunately, today’s digital trail cameras provide near instantaneous imagery. Photographic evidence can be much more conclusive of an animal’s presence than a fleeting personal sighting. Images can be enlarged and enhanced on a computer and shared and examined by other wildlife experts, providing a more positive identification.

The research I’ve been doing with trail cameras on my property prompted me to revisit the issue of returning species. I was curious to know if these shy and secretive animals that are seldom seen were actually present on my property. As a result, I have downloaded thousands of images of wildlife, mostly deer, turkey, fox, raccoon, squirrel, opossum, skunk, and the like (as well as a few trespassers). Recently, I’ve been elated to actually see images of black bear, fisher, bobcat, and coyote wandering on my land.

Black bear – Three images, late October and early spring, all at night

Fisher – Three images, October and April, two at night, one during the day

Bobcat – One image, April, a good- sized bobcat, at dawn.

Coyote – over 40 images, over a 10 year period, most at night. After enlarging and examining the images, at least seven different coyote were identified. One large coyote triggered numerous images as it was feeding on a deer carcass. I estimated its weight at more than 60 lbs. I also concluded that coyote were successfully breeding, as recorded on four different photos of coyote pups.   

I should note that I have not had a personal sighting on my property of any of the above-mentioned animals with the exception of the coyote, which affirms the value of trail cameras to document the presence of elusive wildlife.

Aside from my findings, the environmental conservation faculty and students at the Muller Field Station have numerous trail cams placed throughout the Honeoye area wetlands and have determined the river otter are not only reproducing, but are more numerous than previously thought. 

I recently spoke with wildlife biologist Scott Smith, as I did 10 years ago. I clearly remember him saying then that there would be an “explosion” of these animals, and indeed that has been the case. We talked about how previous evidence of returning species mainly came from sightings by hunters, naturalists, road kills, and incidental trappings – and a few from newly emerging trail cameras. Today we mused that it seems as if everyone has a trail camera set up afield. The result is the documentation of these secretive and returning animals has become a more exact science, and trail cams have become an important wildlife management tool. The cameras have clearly shown that all five mammals are more numerous that even wildlife experts realized, and are examples of seldom seen indicators of a healthy ecosystem. 

Trail cameras are an enjoyable, fascinating, and an educational way to enhance your wildlife viewing. What better time than now, while we’re all staying closer to home, to take a different look and see more of what’s happening in our own backyards with a trail cam. I highly recommend you give one a try.

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