In the last years, motion detecting cameras have gained quite a status in the wildlife conservation world. Examples of uncovering species previously thought to be extinct, providing exclusive insights into never before seen animal behaviour and supporting targeted pest management actions are numerous and varied. They are also great ways to investigate the effectiveness of wildlife overpasses, introduced animal species management outcomes, habitat improvement initiatives and habitat corridors. Apart from wildlife conservation, the cameras are also used for security surveillance and paranormal investigations.
Due to the camera’s size and various features, conservationists can now set-up and leave them running for a number of months. This allows continuous monitoring of animal populations in remote locations increasing the chance of detecting rare and elusive species.
Using motion detecting cameras to survey or monitor wildlife populations is one of the many techniques in the field of conservation. But it is definitely one of the more accessible survey techniques which may enable more people to be involved in conservation initiatives. The cameras have also become more affordable with numerous models to choose from to suit every one’s budget. Hence, it is quite possible that we may see an increase of camera use in citizen science initiatives.
During my Master course, I was taught the basics of how to use a motion detecting camera to carry out wildlife surveys (aka camera trapping). I can tell you, the results were not that great. We worked in a team of four or six and despite our best effort, we only managed to get an extremely blur shot of a Wombat’s bum. At least I think it was. At that time, this frustrated me very much. I kept asking myself if I could have done something better. This sparked my interest about using these cameras for wildlife surveys. I was constantly on the lookout for news or reports about the use of motion detecting cameras in the conservation field to better understand the different uses it may have.
I was over the moon when I landed my first project to work with these cameras. I was given the task to develop a citizen science project named ‘Who’s living on my land?’ (WLOML) from an earlier pilot program which ran for six months. In the pilot phase, landholders in New South Wales (in Australia) who owned private land with remnant bushland or shared borders with National Parks were mailed a camera and a two page instruction sheet on how to set a camera up to carry out a wildlife survey.
Learn More About WLOML Project
In Australia, the National Parks and Wildlife Services (a government agency) survey protected areas such as national parks and nature reserves for the presence/absence of native and pest animal species. However, the many privately owned land or properties (with varying portions of extant bushland) that existed in rural or semi-rural areas were usually not surveyed. Thus, there was an information gap on the use of private land by native and pest species. This information was particularly vital for designing habitat corridors or stepping stones to connect the ever increasing habitat fragmentation issues due to developments and land clearings.
The WLOML project was to address this information gap. With phase two, I designed a workshop that provided camera training to the landholders and further enhanced their confidence in carrying out their own wildlife surveys. Due to the high volume of privately owned land in New South Wales, surveying all of them would require a significant amount of manpower, costs and time. By training the landholders to carry out their own surveys increases the outreach capacity and allow more properties to be surveyed. You can imagine how great this is given the diminishing conservation funding and grants out there!
Learn more about the WLOML Project
How Do The Cameras Work? The Basics
The external design of each camera is quite similar. They each have the infrared flash zone, a motion detecting sensor also known as ‘Passive Infrared Sensor’ (PIR) lens, and red LED indicator lights. The indicator lights serve a variety of purpose. They flash when you activate the camera, flash when the battery is depleting or flash when it detects movement during a walk test. The term ‘walk test’ is used to describe the process of setting up the camera and walking around in front of it to test if it is effectively detecting your movements. This is very helpful in ensuring a successful camera set-up.
I have included a list of common terms and set-up features:
- Trigger: when the camera detects a motion and captures an image.
- Camera or Video mode: cameras can be set to take images or record short videos each time it triggers. There are settings to select the resolution, video format and length of video.
- Images per trigger: the number of images that the camera will capture each time it triggers. Three images per trigger is often a common setting for wildlife surveys in Australia.
- Trigger interval: time between each trigger. This determines how often the camera captures an image when an animal continues to linger in front of the camera. If no interval had been set, the constant triggering can quickly fill up the SD card which can pose problems in long-term surveys.
When you first decide to look into using or buying your own camera, it can be pretty daunting. It is quite likely that one will be met with many words and terms that can be confusing at times. Well, it was for me when I started. For example, wildlife cameras are also known as motion cameras, remote sensor cameras, infra-red cameras, wildlife cameras, trail cameras, game cameras or camera traps. Perhaps they are even more terms out there. Then you have the different types of LED flashes: semi-covert, infra-red, low-glow infrared, no-glow infrared, covert, black flash and white flash. Covert or black flash cameras are believed to create lesser disturbance to wildlife as it is harder to detect the LED flash illumination when triggered at night. During the day, almost all the camera models utilise sunlight for illuminating the day shots. Day shots are mostly in colour and night shots are black and white, unless you are using a white flash camera. White flash cameras function the same way as your everyday cameras.
Other features which differ between camera models are trigger speed, image resolution, and other additional functions (e.g. SD card capacity, video mode). If you are thinking about getting your own camera, spend some time to do your research. Read up and develop a basic understanding about the different features, brands and find a reliable vendor.
Here are some useful websites with more information/resources about motion detecting cameras:
- Using trail cameras
- Knowledge and advice: Trail cameras and camera traps
- First time trailcam buyers guide
- Trail camera checklist:
- Camera trapping for wildlife surveys
- The lure of the camera trap
- Thermal Imagers are the New Way to Watch Wildlife
Which Camera to Get?
I get this question a lot during the WLOML workshops. There are so many brands out there. Within each brand, there are numerous models and different price range.
The WLOML project uses two different camera models. Keepguard KG-680V and Reconyx HC-500. I have also used Bushnell and UOVision cameras.
To be honest, it is hard for me to answer this question without any biases. I am a big fan of Reconyx cameras. They do tend to be dearer than other models. I love their sturdy built and incredible night time images. This is useful given many of our Australian critters are nocturnal. In saying that, Keepguard cameras capture great day time images. Due to my extensive involvement with these two models, naturally they are promoted to people who want to get their own cameras (without dissing the other models of course).
Useful Camera Reviews and Buyers Guide:
- First time trailcam buyers guide
- Best Trail Camera Reviews Buying Guide
- Best Trail Camera Reviews 2016 – Comprehensive Guide
Finally…Responsible Camera Use
One of the best features of using a motion detecting camera to observe wildlife or investigate their presence is their non-intrusive nature. They are also relatively not as labour intensive as compared to other wildlife survey methods such as small mammal trapping using Elliot traps.
Despite their non-intrusive nature, it is still important to use them responsibly. For example, not to disturb nesting mammals or birds unless you have set the camera up before they had their young. Can you imagine someone climbing up the tree with this camera and fumbling about to install it near a nest full of newly hatched chicks? You may look like a massive predator out to get them. This can distress the animals and perhaps alter their behaviours in how they care for their young.
Some wildlife surveys, including ‘Who’s living on my land?’, use non-toxic lures (secured to the ground) or attractants to attract animals to the camera station. It is important that the leftovers or unused lures are properly discarded and not thrown away on site. I am sure you will agree that the animals can do without unnecessary litter.
If you have neighbours or live near accessible routes, be mindful about the potential privacy and security issues. Paying extra attention to where you set the camera up can save you a lot of headache in the future.
These cameras are easy targets for theft too. Hence setting it up in areas where it can be easily spotted might increase the chances of it going missing. This is particularly annoying if you have been monitoring something for a very long time. Imagine losing all that data and your camera of course!
Examples of Cameras Uncovering Nature’s Gems
Below is a list of stories I have gathered with examples of motion detecting cameras in conservation and the remarkable outcomes. Hope you enjoy exploring the stories!
Photo Credit: All images used have been kindly contributed by landholders Phil Diacono and Nigel Thomson from the WLOML workshop in Quorrobolong NSW.