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ECOS 38 (5): Book Reviews: Camera Trapping

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Francesco Rovero and Fridolin Zimmermann (eds.)

Pelagic Publishing
293 pages
ISBN: 978 1 78427 048 3
Paperback RRP: £34.99

Review by Rick Minter

Data in the wild – from your patio to remote countryside

How does my small domestic cat respond to the local foxes visiting my garden at night?  I am getting concerned now she is deaf and less alert in her older years. Actually, the current two fox visitors from the neighbouring fields leave her be. Cat and fox watch each other seemingly respectfully, for now at least. It is a trail camera (or camera trap), placed each night on the patio, that reveals the nocturnal interaction of this and other wildlife in my back yard. Nothing remarkable occurs in my garden, although one of my cameras snapped a thief raiding my garage, who the police then caught up with, but on the other side of town a friend has filmed a more dramatic cat and fox interplay. His cat Ninny, nothing more than an average moggie, turned and chased off a fox over twice her size when it slunk up behind, tempted by the same chicken bait in front of the camera. In the next clip, the fox was submissive, waiting its turn for any  scraps left by Ninny.  

Out in the wilds of the landscape, in different parts of Britain, my trail cameras film scenes in the natural world which make me wonder and make me laugh. They’ve recorded red deer calving, foxes mating, tawny owls swooping away, foxes stalking mallards, roe deer skipping aside for the onrushing badger, and pine martens at the edge of their known north-east range in Sutherland. One highlight was a greater-spotted woodpecker drilling at a silver birch. This is an everyday event in our woodlands, but the close up view showed the intensity and precision of the woodpecker at work, and its deliberate pause to listen for grubs between its hammerblows. Even pheasants peering into the lens are funny to see, herons strutting and moonwalking look most unnatural, and older roe buck fawns can have prolonged rutting-like tussles. Along shaggy hedgerows the cameras can be frequently fired by birds and close-up moths. At night the bats and moths create surreal contorted shapes highlighted as they dart before the camera. All these events are thought-provoking, front-row views of wildlife brought by this simple and increasingly affordable technology.  

The cameras bring puzzles and surprises too. Why was a bat following a hedgehog, as revealed by my camera in a motorway underpass? One time might have been coincidence, but three occasions? Is the bat using the disturbance created by a ground-level mammal? In Sutherland my camera filmed a more brutal event: a fox disabling a sheep, biting at the front legs to bring it down. The farmer’s stalking friends were quickly briefed to deal with this particular culprit. And back to cats, in a field next to me, my cameras film ferals – there is usually one about at any time. I see domestics but virtually never see a feral cat when I saunter through, yet they are active just 200 meters from my back door. The cameras can spotlight the real meaning of stealth.

Camera trapping can engage people and spark interest in both rare and common species. The cameras provide secret observations of nature, not always complying with the text book. They can be tools for surveys, school projects, and citizen science. They can show us what species inhabit a woodland, forest,  nature reserve, or garden, but remain invisible or absent during our presence.

Grappling with the technology

The modern trail cameras work by detection through passive infrared (PIR), capturing images when movement and heat is sensed. They can be set to video footage, which is usually clearer and more helpful for showing behaviour, but photo burst will trigger quicker, and use less battery power.  

Some animals are aware of the camera’s LED beam (whether red or black glow) or they hear the slight click of the camera on some models when triggered. Footage shows how some foxes and deer watch the device with suspicion, their lantern-like reflective eyes giving a fixed stare at night. Once a camera is installed and has weathered in, it seems to be more accepted by ‘regular’ wildlife in the area. No doubt the smells of plastic, metal, and whiffs of human, make the passing mammals wary of a new object in their territory.

For inspiration on trail cameras, one of the top web-vimeo sites is ‘Off The Pavement’ by David Neils, where you can marvel at the critters of Colorado he captures in the foothills of the Rockies .  Off The Pavement also illustrates the time-lapse function available on many trail cameras. David’s time lapse scenes shows dramatic cloudscapes and weather events across vistas in the Rockies, but you could equally try time-lapse for some detailed observations of nature, or film a construction project to see it in fast format over just a couple of minutes. For filming wild animals David Neils prefers natural lures at his camera sites, such as scent rubbing branches, wallowing spots, drinking pools,  and large stones which get scent sprayed – one of his clips shows a bob cat and then a coyote doing just that, pausing to smell and scent the object as they travel past. It is this kind of delay that you need. Just an extra second or two, but enough time to film the target creature in a little more action. For non-invasive cheap lures I have used marmite smeared on bark, and musk oil impregnated in moss, but lures might attract dogs to your camera, and then the dog owner, which presents risks to the camera. Keeping cameras hidden from people and away from human activity is usually for the best, in terms of wildlife results and security.   

Just a small selection of the trail cameras on display at a game store in Carolina.
Photo: Dave Dickerson

For tips and advice on trail cameras a good source is the Americam sales web site TrailCampro . Here you can see reviews of the top-range branded cameras. The site explains basic requirements for camera trap work, and look at tests on trigger time, night-time illumination range and, the quality of the footage. I find wide angle cameras useful, providing more scope to catch the image of a stealthy animal. You can buy acceptable wide angle cameras, with good enough lighting and fast enough triggering, through ebay and Amazon for around £55. Look out for the models which use micro SD cards. Most trail cameras at any price will do a job, and if you need them in any quantity (and for some sampling techniques you may need to use them in pairs), look at the unbranded models at the cheaper end of the scale. Cameras with black glow LEDs wont be so easily detected by dubious people at night, but red glow LEDs will illuminate further which could be crucial for successful filming at night. Red glow LEDs create the risk of being seen by people present at night once the camera is triggered and emits the red light briefly, so the camera could be exposed to theft. One of my cameras once filmed three deer poachers close up at night in the Wye Valley – they didn’t detect it because it was a black glow model.

How you purchase and deploy trail camera has to be about costs and benefits, and the risks of having them stolen, even on private land, and no matter how covertly they may be emplaced. Paying £200- £400 for a top range camera might only be possible if you have a project budget, otherwise it is only necessary if you need the high sensitivity, near-instant trigger speed, and broadcast quality footage. Deploying pricey cameras makes you more prone to protecting them with python locks or metal boxes, which in turn make them more clunky and less covert.

To set up cameras you need to read the landscape. Use natural tethering points and look for a convergence of trails. Pinch points and funnels in the landscape are best, as well as water sources and natural vantage points. If a log is over a trail, that may be the delaying point you need to film creatures slowing to pass.  Cameras are better set very low (again, see Off The Pavement to illustrate this), but this isn’t always possible amidst rapid Spring vegetation growth, or the Autumn condensation misting up low-level cameras. Point cameras uphill not down, away from sun not towards it, and along trails and paths not at sharp angles to them. Trial and error will hone your skills on positioning cameras for best results. 

Different models of trail camera being tested in the garden before deployment.
Photo: Dave Dickerson

Specialised approaches in camera trapping

It is the American game sector and the huge market in hunting and stalking which drives the market and the innovation in trail cameras. US web sites such as Cabela’s, as well as outfitter and game stores such as Bass Pro and Cabela’s stock a bewildering choice of trail cameras, but the standard use of these cameras for scouting out deer does not necessarily suit all wildlife research. For instance, the wild cats conservation and research body Panthera took to customising its own camera traps to get the precision and sensitivity required for their work   

If you are surveying in a systematic way through trail cameras you will need to structure the sampling and analyse the results in methodical ways. It is here that a recent book from Pelagic Publishing, Camera Trapping for Wildlife Research, provides much use. With a scholarly approach and abundant references, the book has detailed advice on camera trapping for faunal inventories, occupancy studies, capture-recapture methods, and behavioural studies. The book excels in its detail on survey design, sampling design, and data management. There is an extended case study of Eurasian lynx abundance and density estimation in the  NW Swiss Alps, while the behavioural studies section looks at Eurasian lynx scent marking as well as the tree rubbing behaviour of brown bears. Elsewhere the book devotes much space to explaining the Wildlife Insights camera trap data network, which is a sharing platform for wildlife camera trap images. Given the tribal nature of conservation sectors in different parts of the world, perhaps other systems for data sharing will emerge with their own niche interests, but hopefully there will be collaboration.  

The book concentrates on sound survey methods and data analysis, but it ends with a thoughtful chapter on camera trapping for public engagement. I particularly applaud this message: “… the social benefits of using image data to elicit cultural change towards species and their management is still undervalued by scientists”. The role of trail cameras in helping people actually see and appreciate local wildlife has much potential in any part of the world, for any community and culture. I have discussed leopards and their behaviour with school children in a poorer community in South Africa – they lived around leopard terrain but most had never seen one until the neighbouring camera trapping project showed them some results. The cameras brought the iconic shy carnivore to life.  

Trail cameras are helping pinpoint animals beyond their previously documented range. Such examples in the book include the Amur leopard now filmed in China and the golden jackal now filmed in the Swiss Alps. It also notes how trail cameras have helped discover new species such as the elephant shrew in Tanzania in 2005 and rediscovered the assumed extinct hairy-nosed otter in north Borneo.

Camera traps can also be deployed to catch poachers. In one example The Zoological Society of London set trail cameras in Tsavo National Park, Kenya to help stop the daily massacre of rhinos and elephant.

The sense of discovery through camera trapping goes beyond the exotic. Here in Britain the Shropshire Wildlife Trust persevered with trail cameras to locate pine martens in the county , while in 2017, the social enterprise body Nature Spy, working with the Forestry Commission, caught pine marten on camera for the first time in North Yorkshire .

Wise use of trail cameras can advance our understanding of both common and rarer wildlife. Camera Trapping for Wildlife Research shows the rigour required for sound data capture and analysis, and that new technologies bring their own requirements for data systems, support, advice and training. Meanwhile, try discovering the secrets of your own garden…

ECOS 38 (5): Contents

Inheritors of the Earth by Chris Thomas
Review by Peter Shirley

The Nature Fix by Florence Williams
Review by Andrew Blewett

Rewild by Nick Baker
Review by Peter Taylor

Re-enchanting the Forest by William Ayot
Review by Peter Taylor

Woodland Development by George Peterken and Edward Mountford
Review by Simon Leadbeater

The Red Squirrel by Neil McIntyre & Polly Pullar
Review by John Savory

Camera Trapping for Wildlife Research by Francesco Rovero and Fridolin Zimmermann (eds.)
Review by Rick Minter

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Minter, Rick “ECOS 38 (5): Book Reviews: Camera Trapping” ECOS vol. 38(5), 2017, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

2 thoughts on “ECOS 38 (5): Book Reviews: Camera Trapping

  1. Nicholas Horne says:

    Since I’m only interested in completely wild footage of wild animals, I don’t use unnatural lures of any kind, no scents, no audio lures, no visual lures. This requires a lot more work to get
    the footage I’m after but I like the challenge.

    This footage of three mountain lions was based on over 200 hours of research, noting wind patterns, deer and elk use of a nearby meadow, etc.

    Thanks, David Neils

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