Caught on Camera: Our wildlife neighbors

Clockwise from upper left: Wildlife more rarely caught by trail cameras at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies: great blue heron, river otters, a bull moose, presenter and wildlife biologist Michael Fargione, a moose cow, and a barred owl.

Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

Caught on Camera: Our wildlife neighbors

‘You don’t need to go to Africa or Yellowstone to see the real-life world of nature. There are life and death struggles in your wood lot and backyard,” said Michael Fargione, wildlife biologist at Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, during his lecture “Caught on Camera: Our Wildlife Neighbors.”

He showed a video of two bucks recorded them displaying their antlers, then challenging each other with a clash of antlers, which ended with one buck running off. The victor stood and pawed the ground in victory.

In another video, a bear stood on its hind legs eating hickory nuts from a tree. “Bears are omnivores and will eat just about anything that becomes available,” said Fargione.

Bears first showed up on the property in 2004.

Fargione said, “Black bears have relatively poor eyesight but an excellent sense of smell.” In another video, a bear ran away from the camera after catching of whiff of human scent that had been left days before by researchers were setting up cameras.

“They are typically shy and retreat when they encounter humans. Despite their large size, they move across the landscape very quietly.”

Fargione added that black bears are very curious and have chewed the cameras, changed the viewing angles, and even broken a few.

The trail cameras are self-contained and waterproof; they run on batteries or are solar-powered.

Cary Institute first began to use camera traps or trail cameras 10 years ago to study animals, particularly deer, on Cary’s 2,000-acre property. Its researchers hoped to learn about the growth and declines of the deer population, but they got much more than they bargained for.

Fargione said that the videos captured allow researchers to study animal behaviors they are rarely privileged to see.

“Camera placement is crucial,” stressed Fargione. To get different animals recorded, the biologists at Cary had to “think outside the box,” which resulted in placing cameras near an old logging road by a stone wall and then by two log jams on Wappingers Creek, which runs through the Cary Institute property.

At the stone wall, they set up two cameras on either side of the old logging road. They found that “prey species use the wall to move silently through the forest without attracting predators,” while “predators use the wall to move silently along and sneak up on their prey.”

Wildlife using the top of the wall as a walkway and the logging road were deer, bobcats, cottontails, coyotes, turkeys, raccoons, bears and squirrels.

At the log jams on Wappingers Creek, the logs made convenient bridges for wildlife to cross the water. The logs were again used to tread quietly and quickly and evade predators or catch prey.

Those animals using the log jams were deer, bears, bobcats — notably a mother with three of her young — coyotes, turkeys and raccoons along with mallards, mergansers, a great blue heron, a mink, a fisher, a pair of wood ducks, a blue jay, a white-footed mouse and a grackle.

Rarer sightings of animals on the cameras are moose, river otters, barred owls and heron. A bull moose crossed through Cary land for a few days and a moose cow stayed for a few months. Some animals, such as the river otters and owls, aren’t seen because a camera may not be in the correct location to catch their images, which is why Fargione began to “think outside the box” for camera placements.

While they don’t often catch beavers on the cameras at Cary Institute, an opportunity arose when a beaver dam was causing flooding on a public road. The institute asked permission to dismantle the dam and set up cameras to record the rebuilding.

The video that was recorded showed at least two beavers carefully placing branches, jamming them in the bank for stability and “placing leaves collected from the bank and carried to the site along the edge of the dam,” said Fargione.

When leaving the building site, the beavers use their hind and front legs to kick up mud and pebbles from the creek bed into the dam.

Fargione noted that the “sound of running water attracts the beaver as it works back and forth along the edge of the dam.” In this way they add materials to plug places where water is getting through and make the dam more secure. The beavers began building around midnight and finished a little after 3 a.m.

Another rare opportunity came when a mother fox took up residence under one of the Cary outbuildings, which was also occupied by a groundhog. Fargione commented that the groundhog “had to be very fast.” While the cubs were too small to hunt it, the mother was a danger.

The cameras captured the mother fox returning from hunts with food for the cubs. One cub would grab all the food and “would not share.” It also recorded the cubs play fighting and hunting and napping in the sun.

Fargione concluded with cautions on setting up cameras and citizen science opportunities; he noted that no camera should be pointed at a neighbor’s property, to respect privacy, and not to trespass.

He said it is best not to give an exact address of animals’ locations to keep them safe and to “respect wildlife; don’t interfere with what they are trying to do: make a living.”

He mentioned that those who used trail cameras could be Citizen Helpers and contribute their photos to some projects such as iSeeMammals (, which collects data on black bears in New York state, and Snap Shot (, which tracks animal populations and distribution.

On eMammal (, citizen helpers can identify and upload and archive photos for the Smithsonian. Zooniverse ( does not require submitting photos. Helpers would identify wildlife from photos provided by Zooniverse. Both of these platforms allow regular people to contribute to real research.

Fargione commented, “Every time I check a camera, it’s like going downstairs on Christmas morning and opening a present, because you never know exactly what’s going to be under the tree.”

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