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Trail cams: silent observers

January 08, 2011 at 11:03 PM

The State Journal-Register

Caution: Trail cameras can be addictive.

For those who love hunting, wildlife and the outdoors, checking the trail camera can extend the hunting season or give a walk in the woods a destination and a purpose.

And it can be amazing to see what’s going on when you are not around.

Right after a snowfall can be a good time to observe tracks and see what routes animals are using.

Those crossroads in the wild can be good places for a novice to set up his or her first camera.

Whether your camera is set up at the backyard bird feeder or near a creek crossing in the woods, it’s a great way to observe and learn more about wildlife.

Here are a few tips for those new to trail cameras.


Most cameras range in price from about $90 up to about $600.

Picking a camera depends upon how much you want to spend and what features you desire.

Image quality is a big consideration for those who are interested in more than simple documentation of a big buck’s presence.

Consider whether video capture is needed.

Video has the advantage of allowing you to observe wildlife behaviors.
Talk to hunters and others who use trail cameras extensively.

Check out online reviews and product trials.

Don’t overdo it

Hang the trail camera and leave it alone.

Don’t check it constantly, because you can beat a new path through the woods and you likely will leave enough human scent behind to ward off wary bucks and the most interesting critters.

“These deer live there 365 days a year and they are aware if a major predator such as a human being comes into their area,” says Ron Bice, communications director with Wildlife Research Center of Ramsey, Minn.

Bice’s company makes all manner of scent products to attract deer, and scent elimination products to help a hunter mask his or her presence.

Hunters take great pains to avoid detection during hunting season, paying close attention to wind direction and often treating clothing and equipment in an attempt to stay invisible.
It’s a ritual they sometimes forget the rest of the year.

“I don’t think they think about it as much as they should,” Bice says. “By all means if you are going to go out in the woods, taking steps to eliminate human scent is going work in your favor.”

Backyard wilderness

“I have cameras on my backyard bird feeders and wood duck boxes,” Bice says. “I’ve captured turkeys and deer in my backyard, too.”

The cameras on his duck boxes were intended to monitor the comings and goings of resident wood ducks, but Bice learned a few other things, too.

“I had pictures of raccoons on top of the wood duck box, which led me to make my boxes more secure,” he says. “I didn’t know I had predators harassing the wood ducks.”

Who picks the moment?

Point-and-shoot camera users complain about the momentary delay from when the shutter is depressed until the picture is taken. Most mid-price trail cameras take even longer to take the picture.

To avoid missing the shot, point it down the trail so the animal is walking toward the camera instead of across its field of view.

Be aware of conservation laws

While trail cameras are familiar to hunters, those just discovering them could inadvertently run afoul of conservation laws.

Providing food or a salt block to attract wildlife into camera range sounds like a sure bet, but Illinois law prohibits feeding wild deer.

The idea behind the rule is that unnaturally concentrating deer in one place could facilitate the spread of diseases like chronic wasting disease.

Bird and squirrel feeders near a private residence are an exception. Any other feeders for wildlife must have a fence to keep deer out.

Food plots planted for wildlife or agricultural fields don’t count, either, so long as grain is not scattered on the ground deliberately to attract wildlife.

While some states may allow hunting over bait, Illinois does not.

When in doubt, consult the digest of hunting and trapping regulations available in pdf format.

Don’t trespass

Just as trail cameras can be used to catch trespassers, don’t hang your camera on land other than your own without permission.

Illinois hunting and fishing


Trail cameras see more than deer

There’s hardly a square inch of Earth that isn’t monitored by a security camera these days — and that’s not even taking satellites into account.

But one might think the woods would still be a place for solitude and privacy.

Don’t be so certain.

Trail cameras, those popular boxy cameras that hunters strap to trees to monitor movements of deer, can capture much more than a hunter’s potential trophy.

These days, wildlife researchers, property owners and construction site foremen are just as likely as hunters to employ the silent observers.

“Security is a huge thing these days,” says Rich Howell, owner of of Springfield, Mo. His company sells various makes and models of trail cameras.

He says using trail cameras to monitor theft or to catch vandals is becoming more popular.

“We sell units that have a cell phone in them, so when something walks in front of them, within 60 seconds a picture is sent to the owner,” he says. “So even if the trail cam is taken or disabled, there will be at least one picture of the perpetrator.”

Job site monitoring also is taking off.

Trail cameras can document when deliveries were made and can verify or discredit a tardy driver’s story.

“For deliveries that are super important, there can be penalties if the driver wasn’t there by the appointed time,” Howell says.

He tells the story of an instance where a truck driver insisted he had waited for more than an hour to make a delivery before giving up.

“The driver said, ‘I showed up, waited for over an hour and left because no one was there,’” Howell says. “The camera showed he was there for 10 minutes, smoked a cigarette and then left.”

Landowners use trail cameras to monitor vacation cabins and to catch trespassers.

Researchers also are using them, employing “camera traps” to document the presence of rare and endangered animals.

Howell says efforts to document tigers at relatively high altitudes in the Himalayas relied on up to 60 cameras placed in strategic locations.

Most scientists prefer cameras with a video capture option, because a still photo may not show identifying marks or characteristics needed.

“Some of our researchers still prefer video over still photos,” he says. “A lot of times — depending upon how they have the camera set — the animal may have the part of their body turned away from the camera that would be vital to identifying that particular species.”

Ron Bice, communications director with Wildlife Research Center in Ramsey, Minn., says his company uses trail cameras to see how deer interact with the company’s products.

Wildlife Research Center markets scents to attract deer and scent elimination products for hunters trying to go undetected in the woods.

Bice says he has tried all types of trail cameras, but uses a high-end Reconyx model for his work.

“It is without a doubt the best out there,” he said.

Howell says those who buy trail cameras are split into two camps. About half are content with mid-range cameras, while the other half prefers the high-end models.

“Our market’s really split in two,” he says. “A couple of the $200 cameras are popular that have the quality and durability that you need but they are not as expensive.

“Our researchers, though, they almost always buy the nicer cameras.”

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