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Nature Notes: Spying in the Dark

Ed Robinson
April 20, 2017

Most people enjoy watching wildlife, but there is a limit to this hobby.  Many species do their best to avoid humans, or they are most active at night.  But there is a great solution to this problem and it can open a new world of viewing for your pleasure, in the comfort of your home.

Long ago some bright fellow figured out that if he mounted a camera to a tree, and put a trip wire across the adjacent trail, she could photograph wildlife in an undisturbed environment.  This was a step forward, but most film-based cameras were not designed for exposure to the elements, and the trip wire only worked once before you reset it.  When digital cameras came along 20 years ago, some clever woman figured out that if you added a motion detector, you could avoid using the trip wire.

The early trail cameras worked but they left a lot of room for improvement – nocturnal photos were made using bright white lights that often startled animals, D cell batteries had a short life span in cold weather, and you could only capture a few dozen low resolution photos.  Today you can find digital trail cameras of high quality with a wide range of options.

The basic components of a trail cam are a digital camera, a microchip, a motion detector, a light source and a case or housing for mounting to a tree, and to protect the camera from the weather. Top quality cameras today will capture crisp, still photos with up to 16 megapixels of information.  Many of them use AA batteries with a life of six months or longer, especially if you use lithium batteries.  Motion detectors can pick up subjects as far as 70 feet from the camera, day or night.  High capacity microchips can now store thousands of still or time lapse photos plus video clips. One of my favorite innovations is the use of high definition, infrared capability and black LED lights that have no visible glow at night, so your photo subjects are unaware they are being filmed (more on this later).  Some models have view screens built in or you take the microchip home and look at the images on your computer or smart television.

Hunters are the primary users of trail cams – we hope to learn where game animals are moving, and the time of the day.  Animals that are wary of humans, especially those with sensitive noses, are not so likely to be spooked by a trail camera mounted in the woods.  At my camp in New York, we use trail cams all year long, scattered through the woods.  We have captured an amazing variety of photos including two sizable bucks battling with locked antlers, a skunk chewing on apples, hawks and owls on a perch scanning for prey and a goofy wild turkey staring into the camera lens as if posing for a passport photo.  The best photo yet was a young coyote and a raccoon with their noses about 12 inches apart.

Thanks to another innovation, more people now use trail cams for security at remote camps or barns.  If you have a cellular signal at your site, purchase a trail cam that can transmit images to a custom website, or to your cell phone.  Even if a thief or vandal smashes or steals the camera, his ugly mug or his license plate is already on file, and very helpful to the police in a crime investigation.

This is a great time of year to buy since trail cams are often on sale after hunting season.  There are many good brands out there, from Bushnell, Browning, Moultrie, Wild Game Innovations and more.  Depending on your needs, you can spend as little as $50.  Either go online to shop, or stop by LL Bean, Cabela’s or Dick’s Sporting Goods to see the various models and get good advice. These little cameras will provide an entirely new dimension to your wildlife viewing, and a window into the dark of night.

If you like Ed Robinson’s writing, check out his two Nature Notes books! Click here for more information.