A glimpse. That's all you get of most animals while walking through the forest. A flash of tail here, a glimmer of movement there and a cracking stick in the distance are as close as we get to seeing most of the animals that share the trails at Audubon.
Most animals hunker down and wait for the big loud humans to walk past, or slip away before anyone knows they are there. Even when we believe we are walking quietly, we are often louder than we think.
A trail camera is a wonderful way to discover what is lurking on the trails when humans are absent. I set up a trail camera, generously donated by the Chautauqua County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs. A special thank you to Paul Higby, whose backyard trail camera photos of black bears and gray foxes inspired this project at Audubon.
From above: This giant buck took a nap in front of Audubon’s Game Camera; this Red Fox was photographed visiting a deer carcass; a coyote captured on trail camera visiting a deer carcass; and a Fisher makes a surprise visit to Audubons Trail Camera.
The first spot I set up the camera was near the building, where it could be checked easily and quickly. I'm technology impaired, so I wasn't sure if everything would work as easily as the directions said they would.
I set the camera out and threw some leftover apples on the ground. I quickly got photos of deer, squirrels, raccoons and opossums. The camera was even sensitive enough to sense a mouse in front of it and snap a photo.
The trail camera uses a "heat in motion" sensor to only take photos of warm, moving things. This works great to take photos of living things, at least warm living things, like birds and mammals. It also takes photos of the unexpected. Cars, for example, are a hot thing in motion. We got dozens of shots of cars coming in at all hours before we realized the camera angle needed to be adjusted.
There are several experiments that can be done with trail cameras. The first is to use it as intended. The camera was set out on a deer trail, where it leaves the woods and enters a field. I hoped the animals would pause a moment before entering a new habitat and end up posing for a photo.
This worked for the deer. The deer paused and the camera took their picture. The location was so nice that one big buck even laid down and took a nap in front of the camera. The "heat in motion" sensor only took his picture occasionally because he wasn't in motion very often as he dozed.
Other animals, like raccoons and opossums, had their photos taken as they scurried past.
My dream was that coyotes and bobcats used these same trails and would have their pictures taken, too, but I was sadly mistaken.
The second and still ongoing experiment has been to put out some deceased deer that had been hit by cars. (Audubon has a state salvage permit. You are not supposed to just go out and grab dead animals.) I set the camera up on the deer to get pictures of the animals that wanted to munch on already dead deer.
My first location was a dense spruce woods. To my surprise, the main visitors to the deer carcass were an opossum trio and a wild house cat. The expected big carnivores, such as coyotes, never found the deer.
Soon after, I noticed a big brown blob on the ice of big pond from the third floor. As I focused the spotting scope on it, a bald eagle landed nearby and began to walk with this prehistoric gait over to the blob. The blob turned out to be a recently deceased goose, and two eagles ended up feeding on it.
Ooooh. Maybe animals would find my dead deer if it was in the open. We hauled the deer out in the bucket of the tractor and dumped it in the field. Within a couple days, I had photos of coyotes and foxes visiting the deer in the wee hours of the morning. There were also hundreds of photos of hungry crows stopping in for a snack. Moving the deer had been a good idea.
It took a few more days, but the house cat soon found the deer in its new location. The opossums started to show up again, too. A giant raccoon also began to visit regularly. While browsing through the dozens of photos the camera had taken one weekend, I found an animal that couldn't be identified at a glance.
It was a large weasel, slightly larger than the house cat that was visiting regularly. It was too big to be a mink and too small to be an otter. Most people's gut reaction was, "Is that a fisher?" Never having seen one, I wasn't sure and didn't want to make the call.
I e-mailed the photo to Tom Serfass, a biologist from Frostburg University who headed projects to reintroduce fishers and river otters into Pennsylvania. His reply was clear. It was definitely a fisher, an animal that is only "occasionally seen" in Western New York, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation Web site. In Pennsylvania, they disappeared entirely in the early 1900s. There were 190 fishers released in the 1990s as part of the reintroduction project.
If you asked me a month ago if it was likely that a fisher was at Audubon, I would have said no. With the game camera, we have the opportunity to see animals that hide from us or only come out at night. It is a window into a world that few people get a chance to visit. The pictures show us a wild world is only glimpsed on any walk through the woods. It shows us that there is a lot more going on out there than we would ever expect and that nature always has new surprises and adventures to share.
I have several other experiments in mind for the trail camera. I want to use it high in the trees and in some other odd places to see what birds and other animals are out there. There will probably be other trail camera articles in the future, but a good selection of photos are on exhibit at Audubon if you would like to see some more photos of the animals at Audubon.
The Audubon Center and Sanctuary is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. Jeff Tome is a senior naturalist at the Audubon Center. A special thank you goes to the Chautauqua County Federation of Sportsmen Clubs for donating the trail camera.