How to Use a Motion-Sensor Wildlife Camera

March 16, 2016
How to Use Wildlife Cameras: Allison Bell


Hoof prints in the mud, scat beside the trail, hoots and howls from deep in the woods. Signs of wildlife are so intriguing, they leave us wishing we could see more of the actual animals that share our world.

Wild creatures prefer—wisely—to avoid us, and since many are active after dark, animal sightings are frequently limited to a flash of fur or feathers in rapid retreat. But by using wildlife cameras, we can “see” wild creatures at ease and learn more about their lives. It’s fun, fascinating, and full of surprises.

Wildlife cameras, also called trail or game cameras, are designed for rugged outdoor conditions. Weatherproof and easy to use, these battery-powered devices are available in many styles, ranging from $60 to $400 and up for sophisticated models. At a basic level, they combine a motion-activated digital camera with a wide-angle lens and a flash to capture images in daylight and dark. Systems are available that take still shots or video, with or without sound.

These cameras have obvious hunting and security applications, but they’re also widely used for scientific research. AMC caretakers and naturalists monitor wildlife cameras in remote areas near Greenleaf, Lonesome Lake, and Zealand Falls huts to help biologists study lynx and marten populations in northern New Hampshire. AMC researchers also use plant cams to take timed photos of alpine species on White Mountain summits, tracking the plants’ growth stages through the summer.

Want to try this at home? You don’t need to live in the country. The average suburban yard or city lot hosts interesting animal visitors. Below are tips for setting up your own wildlife camera.

1. Location, location, location. The more varied your terrain, the more choices you’ll have for setting up shots. Animal trails, stream crossings, and gaps in fencerows are promising locations. So are sites with seasonal food sources, such as acorns, wild berries, or your vegetable garden. And just to state the obvious: Make sure the camera is on your own property, not that of your neighbors or public land.

2. It’s a bird! It’s a UFO! Nope, it’s just wind. Avoid pointing your camera south, directly into the sun, which will overexpose images. Remember that a motion detector doesn’t discriminate between blowing branches and a passing bear. A thousand shots of waving grass can be tedious—and disappointing—to sort through.

3. Patience pays. Very much like fishing, there will be times when nothing seems to be happening. And then—snap!—the great shot of the doe and her fawns, the midnight coyote, the raider raccoon. With some trial and error, you’ll begin to build a record of wildlife activity.

4. Surprises happen. Because your camera is motion-triggered, the shots will be candid. You’ll catch plenty of partially cropped critters: a striped tail, a grey wing. Knowing what animals are possible in your area will help you identify these “mystery” photos. Be aware that you may also see plenty of your neighbor’s dog—or your neighbors—where you didn’t expect them.

5. Manage your files. Images are recorded on a small memory card that you can swap out or download on the spot, without relocating the camera. As with your other digital photos, it will be useful to regularly sort, label, and file your growing collection. Most wildlife cameras have helpful time- and date-stamp functions, and some will imprint temperature, barometric pressure, and moon phase readings, as well.

For examples of these pointers in action, check out the author’s own slideshow of wildlife-camera photos by clicking the image at the top of the page.


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Allison W. Bell

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.