MILWAUKEE — The Marinette County game trail had deer tracks on it. That was clear. But what other animals frequented the pine and oak woodlot? And at what time of day?
The wood duck house in Racine County had a half-dozen eggs inside. Would they hatch or be destroyed by a predator? And if they survived, how many downy ducklings would follow the hen out the opening?
Residents of western Wisconsin had seen a large, wild cat. Eyewitness reports varied, though, from a bobcat to a cougar. How could the animal’s identity be confirmed?
In each case, the answer was provided by one of the most popular products in the Wisconsin outdoors — the trail camera.
“You likely have the largest, unofficial network of wildlife documentation in the world in Wisconsin,” said James Halfpenny, a wildlife expert, consultant and author from Gardiner, Mont. “If there’s an animal moving through the state, odds are good it will be captured on a trail camera.”
Halfpenny offers classes in animal tracking, often with a focus on large mammals such as cougars that can cause problems to humans and livestock.
Piecing together bits of scat and other clues on the trail is demanding and often inconclusive. A photograph, well, that’s proof.
When it comes in the form of a candid wildlife portrait taken without human interference, so much the better.
Humans have long been fascinated with wildlife and photography.
But trail cams exploded in use in the last decade as digital technology has made them easier to use, as reliability has improved and as prices have come down.
“There’s a natural interest in trail cams,” said Dan Luebke of Reconyx Inc. in Holmen. “They are not only fun, but they can be used in so many different applications.”
Founded in 2002, Reconyx started by making trail cameras for wildlife researchers. Its products are used to document the lives of peregrine falcons in the Arctic and tigers in southeast Asia.
Luebke said Reconyx was “one of the very few trail cam manufacturers left in the U.S.”
Since flash can scare animals and alter behavior, Reconyx trail cams use infrared light to take photographs after dark. If the camera detects sufficient light, it switches to a normal mode and takes full color photos. The cameras also feature fast triggers, critical to capturing images of wildlife on the move.
In recent years, Reconyx has produced more models for hunters, probably the largest commercial market for the products, Luebke said.
Kurt Dalziel of Wind Lake knew he had a variety of wildlife using a trail on his recreational property in Marinette County. But until he placed a trail camera, there were as many questions as answers.
Within weeks, the list of species captured by Dalziel’s trail cam included black bear, coyote, wild turkey and porcupine.
One of the most arresting images shows an encounter between a doe and porky.
Although modern trail cams are filled with automatic features, high quality images don’t just happen.
It’s important to pay attention to where and how the camera is set up. Among the recommendations from experienced trail cam users:
Set the camera about 4 feet off the ground;
Point the camera away from the sun;
Clear vegetation from around the camera to avoid obstructing the image and to prevent moving foliage from triggering the shutter;
Take a few test images by walking into the frame.
A trail cam helped Howard Wohlgefardt of Yorkville document a rarely seen wildlife encounter in his backyard pond. After a wood duck laid eggs in a nest box, Wohlgefardt monitored the site, curious if the design would deter predators and if the hen would successfully bring off a brood.
He captured a series of images that answered all of the above. In one image of parental tenacity, the hen wood duck is seen nipping at a raccoon that is attempting to climb into the nest box.
The raccoon was turned away. Subsequent images showed the hen returning to the nest after feeding forays; a couple of weeks later, ducklings were photographed jumping out of the nest.
From summer through fall, trail cams take center stage as hunters attempt to record and pattern deer, bear and other game animals. Experienced deer hunters recommend placing the cameras along the edges of clearings and in known travel corridors rather than attempt to get too close to bedding areas.
Trail cams are also placed at cabins and other remote properties to watch for ne’er-do-wells.
And the products are used to solve wildlife mysteries.
In 2009, a large cat was seen in rural Dunn County. But until a trail cam captured the image of a large feline with a long tail — a cougar — the identity was in question.
The animal was photographed several times, including at a cornfield cache of a fawn it killed.
The cougar is now definitively on record as the third confirmed sighting of the species in Wisconsin in 2008 and 2009.
“In God we do trust,” said Halfpenny, the tracking instructor and wildlife consultant. “But in all others we must verify.”
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