American Birding Podcast



A Different Kind of Wildlife Photography

Cougar Cub

A cougar cub (with its mother's tail) caught by remote camera. Noah's backyard fence is visible in the upper left. (Click to enlarge.)

I stumbled into my first camera trap a few years ago while birding on Panama’s famous Barro Colorado Island. As I walked quietly down a jungle trail, listening for bird sounds, a startling flash burst through the undergrowth like a stroke of lightning. I soon discovered that the flash belonged to a motion-sensitive camera, which belonged to a National Geographic photographer working on a story about ocelots. He got a good shot of me.

Not long afterward, news of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s rediscovery broke, and I traveled to a Florida cypress forest to join a search crew from Auburn University. Half a dozen of us camped out for weeks in the swamp, hoping for a glimpse of the near-mythical bird—and for definitive proof of its existence. Someone decided to put up remote-activated cameras aimed at likely trees, effectively adding to the number of searching eyes in the woods. It was my first real experience with using the cameras, which are especially popular with hunters. Though we never snagged any photos of an Ivory-bill, our setup caught lots of other Florida wildlife: deer, squirrels, armadillos, rednecks. My curiosity was piqued.


A bobcat pauses in front of the camera.

I soon found myself using similar remote cameras for a much different research project in the Australian outback. As part of a long-term study on endangered Purple-crowned Fairy-Wrens, my field crew aimed motion-sensitive cameras at a few of the birds’ nests, and discovered that goannas (a type of five-foot-long lizard) were occasionally snacking on hapless young nestlings. The images were fascinating. Not even the most dedicated field tech could sit still long enough to catch the predators in action, so our cameras exposed a dark part of fairy-wren life which would have otherwise remained hidden. One day, for fun, I posted a spare camera at a wallaby carcass just outside our camp, and it recorded a neat video of a dingo scavenging the meat.


A mother black bear with its cub.

But I wasn’t inspired to buy my own trail camera until last winter, when I spent three months at Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Amazonian Ecuador. There, in a huge tract of undisturbed rainforest, scientists maintain a network of remote cameras which, over the past few years, have documented an incredible diversity of secretive jungle fauna: brocket deer, giant anteaters, wild dogs, porcupines, even a type of little-known rabbit. One of their cameras recently caught a Nocturnal Curassow, a species of bird which had never before been photographed in the wild. Many of the photos have been used by National Geographic, which helps sponsor the project. At Tiputini, the cameras are used to estimate population densities of jaguars and other cats, which can be individually identified by patterns of spots on their sides. It is all very cool.


A pair of cougars wanders past.

When I returned home to Oregon, I immediately purchased a remote camera and posted it behind my backyard, which abuts private timber lands. I had no idea what it might capture. Rural Oregon doesn’t exactly boast the wildlife list of Amazonian Ecuador, but there were interesting possibilities—and, even if the camera only photographed deer, it would be fun to download the pictures.

Almost exactly a year later, I am blown away by the results.

It turns out that my property hosts more wildlife than I ever imagined. Last summer, I was astonished to discover that a mother cougar and half-grown cub were regularly visiting my yard, just a hundred feet from my back porch, even walking down my driveway in broad daylight. A solitary bobcat also made several cameo appearances. In the fall, my camera trap caught a mother black bear with twin cubs slipping into the yard after dark to eat fallen apples, along with a coyote, fox, skunk, opossum, and raccoon. Despite living here for 27 years, I had only vague ideas that most of these animals ever visited my yard. The remote camera prompted a revelation: Most wildlife, even in familiar backyards, goes completely undetected. There’s more outside than meets the eye.


Grown, twin fawns nurse from their mother.

Camera traps have become so popular with hunters that a dozen manufacturers compete with each other in an ongoing technological arms race. You can now buy remote cameras with infrared flash, hi-def video, GPS, specialized software, cell-phone access, microsecond reaction times, and the ability to take tens of thousands of images on one set of AA batteries. Top-end units cost nearly $1,000. As with many other gadgets these days, there are almost no limits to what a motion-sensitive camera can do.

Most of these features have already trickled down to mid-range options, so, unless you are dying for the best that money can buy, I’d recommend springing for something in the $150-$200 range. The most important choice is between incandescent flash (which uses more battery power, potentially scares wildlife, and produces color images) and infrared flash (which uses less power, doesn’t disturb wildlife, and results in ghostly black-and-white images). When comparing models, pay more attention to trigger delays and detection zones than megapixels. But don’t get too caught up in fine differences, which might drive you nuts. (I wanted color night photos, and got an incandescent camera: a ScoutGuard 565. It works great.)


A raccoon walks by in the rain.

Of course, you have to know where an animal will be ahead of time, which makes these cameras less suitable for regular birding. My backyard camera has only recorded four species of birds so far (Wild Turkey, Hermit Thrush, Steller’s Jay, and Northern Flicker), and those pictures are terrible; the system wasn’t designed for such small subjects. Still, a few scientific studies have already used remote camera traps specifically for bird research. As the technology improves, these cameras may get better at capturing smaller birds, too.

Meanwhile, I have new respect for the wildlife in my backyard. It’s a jungle out there!