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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Why I Love Camera Trapping!

For a while now, I have wanted to write a post describing what it is about camera traps that make them so enjoyable, so entertaining, so useful and so addicting. I have always hesitated because I have a hard time putting it all into words. Sure, there are some obvious things to say. Pulling the memory cards IS like Christmas morning. Even when there are only a few images, one never knows what one will find! Yes, the excitement of the 'hunt" drives me, however it seems to becoming more than that. I also should say something like "Camera trapping is part art and part science". I am still not sure I am going to form a cohesive post but after my parents visited yesterday, I thought I could finally give it a try...

Black bear
(Wayland, NY 9/2011)
My father owns 80 acres of land in Wayland, NY. He bought it primarily as a place to deer hunt. I was 12 when he bought it and having a place to wander and explore nature was life changing for me. I do not believe I would have chosen the career path I did if he never bought it. Dad has two Cuddeback Capture cameras and sets them out for weeks at a time. My parents came over yesterday and brought one SD card that had been out for about a month (8/26 -9/24, 2011) and contained 349 photos. The camera trap was set facing an old apple tree. As if that were not enough, Dad spread out a bag full of acorns he had collected last fall on the golf course. The results were fantastic! He captured images of seven species of mammals (including a single shot of black bear and five different bucks) and two species of birds. Their were several interesting aspects of natural history documented including shots of particular gaits, interspecies competition as well as cooperation, molt, parasite loads and antler development.

Raccoon eating acorn
(Wayland, NY 9/2011)
It was a rush looking through my Dad's photos, not just to see the animals but to discover what stories the images had to tell. It is this interpreting that I enjoy the most. As a teacher, one of my primary goals is to make natural history accessible and understandable to my students. One way to do that is to teach them to make connections themselves (to paraphrase a parable, it is my version of teaching them to fish rather than giving them a fish). I find that increasingly I am talking about camera trap photos as data and asking students to draw conclusions about them. I am pushing them to consider how the images from, let's say, an entire week fit together to tell a story. We are paying more attention to dates and times to discover patterns. Part of my enjoyment stems from watching my students catch the camera trap bug too.

White-tailed deer, male
(Wayland, NY 9/2011)
Over the next several weeks, I will use my father's photos to tell several stories. You will see how (and when) deer change their color, when fawns lose their spots and watch a pair of antlers go from warm and fuzzy to cold and pointy. I will post the oddest eastern cottontail pose I have yet to see and we will watch raccoons by the handful and a mother deer with her fawn vying for apples. I condensed the 300-odd photos down to a manageable 30-something and wonder what I will find when I go back for a second (or third) look. And as I was looking over so many deer photos, I was struck by the idea that I was evolving in my camera trapping much the way hunters do. I found this website that succinctly describes the five stages: Shooting (success = shooting game), Limiting-out (success = taking as much as the law allows), Selective (success = taking game of a certain quality), Method (success = taking game by more challenging methods), and Philosopher (success = sharing your knowledge, etc). Often, this journey is non-linear and I feel as if I am straddling a few of those stages right now. But the point is that camera trapping is so fascinating to me because of its complexity. I have many students that come to me with camera trapping experience that is limited to only using the cameras to scout for deer. I push them to think of these things as professional tools that can be an important part of their education. For me, this has only added to the value of the photos themselves. Stay tuned for more lessons from this batch of photos, as promised...

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