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The Secret Life of Wildlife

Motion-triggered scouting cameras let you take a peek into another world.

By Russell A. Graves

Although my fingers are numb, I try my best to fumble with the locking screw on the front of the camera. For the past week, this camera stood as a silent sentry and recorded a digital image each time an animal passed in front of its lens. Equipped with a motion-detecting sensor, a flash, and a memory card with a generous amount of space, this scouting camera never takes a break - even for weeks at a time. Right now, though, I am giving my scouting camera a rest. My curiosity is simply too much and I have to see what's been visiting the deer carcass.

Just a week before, in the dead of winter, I found a freshly deceased deer on a patch of red-dirt property south of Childress. Like others across Texas, I have always heard rumors of mountain lions roaming the brush. So with fresh bait at hand and thousands of acres of rural wilderness before me, I set up a game camera to record what animals stop and feed.

With my laptop computer in tow, I briskly march to the scouting camera I placed about 10 yards from the deer. I am surprised that the deer is gone - dragged away by something unknown. However, once I plug the card into the card reader and fire up my laptop, the mystery is over.

My take on this day includes pictures of coyotes and bobcats eating the carcass. Those scavengers were predictable. What did surprise me was when I saw the images of a big wild boar eating on the deer carcass as well. In the final few pictures I see a coyote carrying off what was left of the deer.

Scouting cameras are the ultimate utilitarian tools for the outdoor enthusiast because they are your set of eyes when you can't or won't be afield. Weather resistant and capable of storing thousands of images, scouting cameras aren't just for hunters anymore. If you love wildlife and are an amateur naturalist like me, you have to add a scouting camera to your list of "must have" equipment.

Nature study

While used commonly by hunters, game cameras have plenty of non-hunting applications as well. I often put them next to water sources to pre-scout an area for wildlife photography. Since water is a universal attractant, I can get a feel for how many species of wildlife are common on a property. Last fall, on one water trough alone, during the course of a week I recorded whitetails and mule deer, badgers, bobcats, coyotes, turkeys and raccoons. Since most scouting cameras imprint date and time information on the image, I was able to predict animals' movements and visit the water trough when animals were most likely to visit.

For wildlife photography and wildlife watching, I'll also monitor game feeders. When deer season isn't in swing, I'll still keep feeders full of corn. I monitor the feeder to predict what kinds of photo opportunities I'll have in the near future. Once feeding patterns develop, it's easy to set up in a blind and watch whatever wanders past.

Tip: When scouting a feeding or watering area, set the camera low to the ground in order to pick up short animals like quail or badgers. Be sure to clip vegetation in front of the camera. If your camera is motion activated, weeds swaying in the wind will trip the camera.

Wildlife management

Game cameras are a valuable tool for natural resource management as well. One of the chief uses of game cameras in a wildlife management program is determining deer populations, sex ratios and buck quality.

Research shows that one camera deployed for every 100 acres will do a good job of photographing most of the deer on a piece of property. By placing the camera near key food sources and running a census for 10 days, the camera captures up to 95 percent of the deer on the property. With the photographic data, a manager can delineate the population of bucks versus does (also known as the sex ratio). Additionally, using photos you can break a deer population into age classes.

It is possible to determine antler quality using game camera photographs. Visual estimation is one way to appraise antlers, but with software products like Trophy Score (www.tro physcore.net), you can actually measure bucks on your computer screen and produce a plausible Boone & Crockett score estimation.

Tip: If you are interested in doing a census using scouting cameras but you don't want to buy six or eight cameras, be sure to check with your local outdoor store. Many outdoor retailers offer rental units for a nominal fee.

Game scouting

Cameras placed along travel corridors or feeding locations like agricultural fields or around deer feeders may record bucks that you will never see in person. In the thousands of scouting camera images I've taken of deer, only a small percentage recorded trophy quality bucks around corn feeders. When the big bucks did come to the feeders, it was almost exclusively at night. So as I plan my hunts, I realize that it is futile to hunt for trophy bucks in my area over corn feeders. Therefore, using my "eyes in the field," I look for other opportunities that maximize my time in the field.

I like to place cameras near rubs and scrapes and other spots where I know deer frequent - like trails that lead from bedding to feeding areas. I analyze deer movements based on time information and then cross-reference the movement patterns to the moon phases. In my opinion, the more I know about how the moon influences animal movement, the better outdoorsman I'll become.

Tip: When setting up a camera along a trail or other deer sign, try to place it facing north or south for higher quality images. Facing the camera east or west can result in lens flare as the sun rises or sets.

Birdwatching

Birdwatchers also benefit from scouting cameras. I love watching birds feeding in my backyard, and my scouting cameras record every species that stops in for a snack. Since most of the newer cameras are digital, you can take thousands of images at backyard feeders over the span of several days. The great thing about scouting cameras is that their small size and natural coloration make them inconspicuous to even the most skittish songbirds.

Tip: If you are using a scouting camera for birdwatching, place the camera about 10 feet away from the feeder. Placing the camera close to the feeder ensures that even the smallest bird will trip the camera's sensor. Additionally, the closer perspective increases the chances that the subject will be large enough in the image to positively identify it.

Making videos

Most digital scouting cameras on the market today give you the option of shooting video. The video captured is usually low quality and in short bursts of just a few seconds. Furthermore, video consumes lots of memory. However, small video clips are a great way for you to analyze and share the things you'll capture in the outdoors.

You can also create video by being creative with still images. With your camera delay set to one minute, deploy the camera low without trimming the weeds around the camera. Each time the winds blow the weeds the camera records an image. Over a couple weeks time, you may have a few thousand images that you can splice together to make a stop-action movie.

I use Windows Movie Maker to make my stop-action movies. The program comes pre-installed on Microsoft Windows operating systems and is easy to use. The trick to making stop action movies is to set the software to play each frame for just a tenth of a second or so. The technique is like flip-page animation. Each subsequent frame is a tad different than the one before, so when spliced together and sped up, you can see the clouds billowing and animals coming and going from a feeder.

Tip: When making a stop-action movie, go all out and add cool opening titles and closing credits. Find one of your favorite fast songs to add excitement and flair to your presentation.

Choosing a scouting camera

So you've made up your mind and you think a scouting camera is for you. Take a look at any outdoor catalog and you'll see that there are plenty of options. I use a Moultrie Game Spy I-60 because of its ease of use and a generous amount of features that suit what I need for the field. However, a feature-rich camera isn't a necessity for great scouting camera pictures. With prices ranging from around $100 to over $400, there is a scouting camera that fits nearly every need and every budget.

Megapixels

Most scouting cameras range from one megapixel to six megapixels. While megapixel counts are only part of the puzzle when predicting a digital camera's image quality, it is a good place to start. Generally speaking, the higher the count, the better image quality you'll have.

If your goal is just to digitally archive photos, low megapixel cameras will work fine. For prints and enlargements, choose a scouting camera that has more megapixels. Remember that the higher a camera's megapixel count, each image recorded on the camera consumes more memory. Therefore, for more in-field longevity without running the risk of filling up a card, causing the camera to be non-responsive for days at a time, select a memory card with one to two gigabytes of storage space.

Flash or no flash

Search Internet forums and you are liable to see plenty of debate over the topic of whether or not scouting cameras that incorporate a flash spook animals. In my experience, I say that they don't. Using cameras with a flash I have taken multiple images of the same animal in front of the camera. Common sense tells me that if a flash did spook animals, then all I would have is one shot of a particular animal.

Nonetheless, for those who'd prefer not to take any chances with flashes, manufacturers like Moultrie and Cuddeback offer no-flash versions of their cameras that utilize infrared light to illuminate the animals at night.

Other extras

Camera features don't end at video capture. Movement trips some cameras while others use heat detection to initiate image capture.

Some scouting cameras go further than simply recording the date and time on an image. Moon phase and barometric pressure recorded on each frame help even the most ardent researcher or wildlife enthusiast capture the data they need to make wise and informed decisions about their outdoor adventures.

I can honestly say that using a scouting camera is a bit addictive. I often find myself wanting to go to the brush more often to check the camera or scout for a new place to put one. Some addictions can be a good thing.

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