A Watch on the Wild Side

A trail cam – or several – is an ideal way to delight in the diverse wildlife that visits your country property.

March 16, 2024 | | Country Living 101

You like wildlife. You love wildlife, and the fact that animals share your Headwaters property is a source of joy.

But if you want more than a fleeting glimpse of a bounding deer’s white tail, the titillating mystery of tracks in the snow, or a too-late “Oh, look!” as a retreating coyote – or was it a wolf? – slips into cover, a trail camera might be just the thing.

Originally conceived to help hunters track game, cameras are where affordable technology meets love of nature. Trail cams are portable, clock radio-sized, waterproof, battery-powered, motion-activated cameras enclosed in an earth-toned or camouflage plastic shell, mounted outdoors and aimed where animals might travel or congregate. They operate remotely, night and day, year-round.

Images, up to several thousand, or short videos are captured in a postage stamp-sized SD card, which you retrieve and plug into your computer to view the images. And some trail cams offer Wi-Fi connectivity, eliminating the need to physically harvest the card.

Illustrated by Ruth Ann Pearce

Your day could be terrible – the CRA badgering, dinner burned, binge TV series ending – but all will be forgotten with your first look at a curious doe’s wet nose pressed to the camera, up very close and personal.

Krystal Lomas, an aquatic restoration technician at Credit Valley Conservation, monitors trail cams to document returning wildlife. “It’s fun,” she says. “The cameras do all the work. We collect the chips. Sometimes it is long hours grinding through nothing (waving grasses), but then you find something special (a curious heron’s eyeball right in the lens) and that makes your day!”

What kind of trail cam to choose?

Online, trail cam prices range from about $40 to more than 10 times that. Some higher-end models allow you to send images and videos to your smartphone, tablet or computer via a local cellular network. Downloadable apps enable you to livestream images and even make technical adjustments remotely.

Trail cam SD cards tend to be more expensive than regular cards because they’re designed to withstand outdoor weather. They start at about $25 each, but are cheaper in bulk. And you’ll go through many batteries – four to eight AA batteries – which drain faster with night and winter use. Alkaline batteries are cheapest, rechargeables are more eco-friendly, and lithiums last longer (three to 12 months) and are best for tolerating temperature extremes.

And consider the flash. A white flash allows for nighttime photos in colour, but can startle animals. Red-glow, low-glow and no-glow infrared flashes don’t, but night pictures are black and white. And a shutter speed of half a second or faster will increase your odds of capturing animals on the move.

In the case of trail cams, a warranty may be wise. Their working life is about two to five years, operating in all elements, but they can break, malfunction (water seepage, leaking batteries) or get stolen.

Where to install your trail cam?

Choose an accessible area with open views, free of tall grasses or leafy bushes whose motion might trigger the shutter. Mount the cam waist-high on an adjustable metal stand planted firmly in the ground (a three-pronged model is best), or bind or screw it onto a post or tree. A tree makes better camouflage.

Set up camera sightlines through its small LED screen – a distance of 20 to 100 feet, aimed for the height of the species whose images you want to capture. Tinker with locations over time to find the ideal site – on your property only. No snooping on neighbours!

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  • Harvest the SD cards on your own schedule and replace them with new ones. They are tiny, so keep them in a baggie, and if you’re collecting from multiple cams, label each card and its replacement so you know what animal appeared where.

    Jon Clayton uses trail cams both professionally (as an aquatic ecologist with Credit Valley Conservation) and personally.

    He is regularly surprised by just how many animals are actually out there. “Way more than you think.” He particularly values trail cam videos. “You get to understand patterns, get insight into behaviours, more so in a 30-second video than in a still photo.”

    What you’ll see

    Creatures you might expect to see include deer and their fawns, bears, foxes, martens, weasels, fishers, skunks, raccoons, groundhogs, muskrats, porcupines, coyotes, wolves, coywolves, opossums, river otters, hares, rabbits, herons, turkeys, pheasants, owls and, much less likely, bobcats, badgers – or Elvis.

    About the Author More by Anthony Jenkins

    Anthony Jenkins is a freelance writer and illustrator who lives in Brockville.

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