An Ecologist’s Day: 12 April 2014—Setting up Wildlife Cameras

On paper today’s task looked quite simple: Drive 200 km north of Edmonton to my home town and set up 5 pairs of wildlife cameras in farmer’s fields. Spring conditions in open fields are great – no bears, no bush and no bugs. In addition, the farmers were all people I know and were very positive about having their fields used as sites for an ecological experiment. To top it off Martin, my husband, was coming along for company (and to help me carry stuff).

We packed the gear we needed into our car: cameras, metal stakes, marker stakes, camera boxes, a metal post pounder and other smaller items. Lastly, I carefully decanted part of the scent lure (a yucky oily substance that smells like skunk) into a small glass jar and wrapped it very well in several layers of bags. Even so our car had a faint aroma of skunk all weekend.

With everything stowed in the car, we headed out for the two hour drive. The first stop was the camera pair on my parent’s farm: one set up in the middle of the hay field and one on the edge. This was a good place to start because we’d figure out how to do things and avoid possible embarrassment in front of the neighbours. We grabbed our gear and quickly hiked the few hundred meters into the middle of the field. So far the job was as easy as desired.

Unfortunately there is nothing easy about pounding a post into frozen ground, even if the post is narrow and has a pointed end. I managed to lift the metal post pounder over my head and onto the post but, given my height and insufficient upper body strength, I had to give up and let Martin take over that task. Spending the day with me wasn’t going to be that much of a holiday for him this way! With much effort we got the first post as far into the ground as it had to go. But there was no way we were getting the plastic marker stake into the ground. That’s where being at my parents farm came in handy. I looked around the equipment shed and found just what we needed: a small smooth pointed metal stake that we could use to make a pilot hole to drive the marker stake into.Photo 1

Once we had the marker in place in view of the camera where we needed it, it was time for the last part of the set up: leaving a bit of scent lure to entice the local wildlife to pose for the camera. I put on some gloves, carefully opened the jar and put a teaspoon of the lure in each end of a black pipe. Even though I held everything a far away from my face as possible, the smell was nauseating. Handling this malodorous goop is not for the faint of stomach or nose.

Photo 2

My dogs, on the other hand, absolutely loved the smell and I had to keep them from trying to perfume themselves with the lure by rolling against it. We did not want skunky-smelling dogs in our car!

Photo 3

Next up was the first fence line camera. That was easier. Firstly, we knew how to get the marker post into the ground and, secondly, the camera was attached to a fence post, so we had one less stake to pound. Before we left each camera, we checked to make sure the camera was on and ready to take photos. Nothing would be more frustrating than doing all that work and getting no data.

Photo 4Now that we had honed our post pounding skills, we were ready to venture onto the neighbours properties and set up their cameras. Because of the long drive and all the time it took to do the first pair, we had only enough daylight left to get one more pair out. We finished the 4th camera just as the sun was setting. That left three pairs for the next day. Now it was time to go home and see what good food my mother had cooked (a welcome change from the usual ending of my field days in the boreal where I’m cooking on a camp stove under a tarp and sleeping in a tent). I went to bed that night very tired but satisfied and kept thinking about how maybe we’d get some really cool wildlife pictures—maybe even a wolf passing through the fields at night.

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Note 1: You can read more about why our lab group is doing this project (and see a few cool photos like the rare shot of 3 eagles flying past a camera which came from a camera we set up that day) in this Wild49 post from August.

Note2: Although the scent lure is smells very strong, it does not attract animals from more than a few hundred meters away. We use a very small amount and it does not increase the number of foxes or coyotes that live in an area. It only entices those that are passing through anyway to come over to the camera so that we can get a good photo of them.

Author: Hedwig Lankau

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