Trail cameras transform wildlife viewing

cougar in northeast Washington
A trail camera equipped with an infrared sensor captured this image of a cougar in northeast Washington. Photo: Wally Soroka.

Do you sometimes wish you could be invisible out in the woods and just watch what goes by when people aren’t around? It would be great to be able to patiently wait hours, days, weeks, even seasons, to catch a glimpse or take a photo of often-mysterious wildlife. Now, we can do that without suffering the cold, heat, wind, bugs, etc., thanks to an array of amazing tools: digital “trail” or “game” cameras that can operate independently using sensors to automatically snap photos or even take video with sound.

The first generation of trail cameras used film and became great tools for wildlife biologists trying to capture images of elusive species. They were clunky, however, and required frequent visits to collect and replace the film. Today’s devices are digital and offer multiple capabilities. Here are seven key basics to consider when selecting a camera.

  • Trigger speed – Look for a camera with a short sensor-to-shutter interval. If the delay is too long — more than a second and a half — you are likely get many empty frames.
  • Recovery time – How fast can the camera get the next image after taking a shot? Look also for its “burst mode” — how many photos can be taken in a row. Many cameras allow you to set the burst mode; I recommend a setting of three shots.
  • Different options for flash – Low glow, infrared and visible. A visible flash will take color image but also can scare away animals.
  • Option to take stills or video (some cameras also record sound).
  • Ease of mounting the camera on a tree or a frame of some sort.
  • Battery type and life.
  • How does it download? Remotely or with a memory card?

Do your homework when shopping for there are many cameras out there now.

For more tips, including how to place trail cameras for the best shots, check out the article by Ken Bevis, DNR’s wildlife biologist for northeastern Washington, in the latest issue of Small Forest Landowner News, one of several free e-newsletters published by DNR.

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