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Discovering Nature and Wildlife With a Trail Camera

Cardinal in Snow

The trail camera is used by sportsmen for learning the what, where and when about game animals. These relatively new devices started in their infancy as security cameras about three decades ago. Wildlife biologists quickly repurposed the standalone cameras as game management tools. Hunting equipment companies jumped on the bandwagon and began marketing them to outdoorsmen to promote success. Today the trail camera market is flooded with varying makes and models and prices.

Millions of these spy-eyes are sold at hunting equipment retailers each year. Surprisingly, more than half are purchased by individuals and businesses for security measures or by nature lovers for wildlife viewing. Trespassing, theft, harassment and other misconducts caught on camera have made a case for offended citizens. Just the warning that a security camera is on duty can discourage crime and mischief. For animal observation, the possibilities are limitless.

Have you ever wondered what goes on in your backyard or barn lot when you’re not home or at night? A trail camera offers users a detailed report that sometimes explains the unexplainable. For instance, your bird feeder, filled with thistle seed, literally had multitudes of gold finches visiting it, but now its void of the cheery yellow-black callers. A location-placed camera could reveal that a predator bird, such as a kestrel or falcon, may be using the feeder as its focal hunting ground.

Our farm has a small creek that became backed up by a beaver dam. Small trees that inhibited bank erosion were steadily disappearing, chewed down and converted to dam material. I dismantled the obstruction multiple times with a tractor to discourage these industrious tree-eaters from using the area. Each deconstruction was met with a reconstruction, and—unbelievably—almost overnight. The immediate assumption was that these elaborate rebuilds required the efforts of several adult beavers. Rocks, some the size of a basketball, were moved a quarter the length of a football field to reinforce the dam’s structure.

After placing a trail camera at the dam site, I was astonished to learn that only a single, 25-pound beaver was the culprit; it had moved into the area from a larger creek and was determined to set up house. Since the tractor deconstructed much quicker than the beaver reconstructed, the lone animal finally got the hint  after a couple of weeks and moved back to the larger stream. A beaver can live two to three decades, and though a large one might weigh 60 pounds, I’ve personally seen trapped specimens that tip the scale at nearly 100 pounds.

Eagles and HawksThough a hunter, I gain equal delight from observation of non-game animals as tracking the activity of open-season prey. It never ceases to amaze me what shows up at a road-killed carcass before it is completely consumed: owls, hawks, eagles, turkey vultures, crows, coyotes, foxes, opossums, raccoons, bobcats and even curious members of the deceased animal’s family. My favorite camera location is on a winter bird feeder. My wife Connie and I live between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. Migrating birds captured on film in this fly zone offer us the unattended viewing of nearly a hundred different species.

As an independent tester of trail cameras, I would advise buyers to “Beware!” Only two trail cameras are built in the USA where on-site quality can be maintained: ReConyx of Holmen, WI and Buckeye of Athens, Ohio. Though these camera manufacturers are quality-proven marketers, their units are at the top of the price scale. A standalone unit may run $450-$750. Wireless or satellite units reporting to computers or cellphones can cost substantially more depending on optional bells and whistles.

Most trail cameras today—no matter the major brand name marketer—are made in China at just a few factories. Depending on features, these cameras can cost from $50-$500. Don’t be fooled by the two-year warrantee of a foreign-built camera. Many of these do not work straight out of the box, and some only function a few weeks or months. The American marketer, through their Chinese supplier, will keep replacing your camera until your two years is up, or until you simply go away. You’ll often be stuck with the cost of shipping the unit to the supplier.

There are a few respectable Chinese cameras in the $200-plus range. Your best bet to finding one that has some degree of quality and longevity is to get online and read the reviews of independent trail camera testers. One of the better testers is The three most desired features on a camera are long battery life, quick trigger speed (for catching birds in flight), and ease of use/setup.

Please feel free to ask me even the simplest of questions about trial cameras. We all have to start somewhere.

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