Wildlife camera monitoring is like Christmas morning, if you had to hike up 60-degree slopes in 90-degree weather, plow through fields of ripgut brome and burrs (most certainly ruining your socks), navigate mazes of poison oak and perch on unstable ground to fetch your present — in this case, a cache of wildlife photos in the form of an SD card — from beneath the tree. But I digress. Let me start from the beginning.
Wildlife surveys are a useful tool to help better manage our protected land. By analyzing photo data collected from wildlife camera ‘traps,’ we can identify where animals occur on, and move through, the landscape, and better understand what they need to thrive. The nice thing about this approach? Powered by eight AA batteries, wildlife cameras are designed to be tied securely to trees or posts and left to their own devices for weeks at a time, taking a photo whenever their motion sensors are triggered—no need for anyone to lie in wait to snap a picture of a passing deer or turkey. The not-so-nice thing about wildlife camera surveys? In order to obtain consistent sample sizes across evenly spaced areas, the cameras are placed on a grid with the points 0.71 km away from each other.
This makes the cameras easy to locate — use GPS to find the grid point correlated with that camera — but it also means that, even if that grid point happens to be very inconveniently located, you’ve got to put a camera there. Grid point surrounded by poison oak? Put a camera in it. This, of course, makes each wildlife camera monitoring trip an adventure.
Assistant stewardship project manager Jen and I embarked on one such adventure a few weeks ago, just five weeks after my first day at the Land Trust. I’m a lifelong Seattleite and a biologist by training — thus, the staff have been making efforts to include me on outings to experience the lands and ecology of Sonoma County. Jen’s outing, a routine check of the wildlife cameras in one section of the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, was only the second opportunity I’d had to get out on the land. “Full disclosure,” Jen warned in her email invitation, “poison oak, ticks, thistles, heat — it’s all out there.” I packed a bag full of sunscreen and bug repellent and tucked my pants into my socks. I was ready. And a little dorky-looking. But ready.
We packed up one of SLT’s two trucks with our equipment — namely, batteries, remote programmers for the cameras and a clipboard -- and departed the SLT office bright and early at 7:30am. After a 20-minute drive, we were at the foothills of our first target. We set off uphill at a brisk pace, Jen leading the way and me trying, unsuccessfully, to hide the fact that I was out of shape.
A short and sweaty hike later, we were near our first camera and I stopped to snap a photo of the morning fog, which hadn’t quite burned off yet. Views like this can’t be beat -- only in Sonoma County!
We had just one little hill to climb before reaching camera #1-- a hill covered with ripgut brome and burrs, aka “sock destroyers.” We were still pulling those sharp little plant parts, apparently evolutionarily optimized to burrow into whatever brushes against them, out of our socks hours later.
We finally got to our first camera in a tiny dirt clearing and we went about the procedure that we’d repeat five more times that day:
1) Make sure you know which grid point the camera represents. Write the grid point number down on a whiteboard, as well as the date and time, and wave it slowly in front of the camera until you’re sure it’s picked it up. This step lets you know, when you get around to uploading the photos, which memory card corresponds to which grid point.
2) Plug in a remote programmer. This’ll give you the settings for the camera and tell you the battery level, number of photos taken and other key bits of information.
3) Unplug remote programmer. Untie camera from tree or post. Take out batteries using crochet hook because those batteries will NOT come out of the compartment otherwise. Retrieve memory card as well.
4) Replace batteries with fresh ones and push new memory card into slot. Tie camera back on tree or post.
5) Plug in remote programmer again. Change settings of camera — motion sensitivity level, interval between captures, etc. — and take programmer back out.
6) Update whiteboard with current time and wave in front of lens again.
7) Plug in programmer and read number of photos captured to ensure camera is working properly.
8) Close battery compartment and sneak away.
9) Make sure you’ve recorded all of this on your handy-dandy clipboard.
All in all, this should take about 10 minutes — 15 to 20 if you’re clumsy and unused to a crochet hook like me (thanks for your patience, Jen!).
During the next five hours, we trooped to our remaining five cameras and repeated the procedure for each of them. Our day took us up a dirt road to a steep hillside, back down the road and in the truck to a path leading to a poison oak patch, and to a mountain top a half hour’s drive away absolutely covered in yellow star thistle. For our last camera, we perched on a 60-degree slope with loose soil that threatened to give way each time we took a step.
If all this sounds challenging, it is. It’s a lot of hard work. The fruits of our labor, though, are worth the effort.
At the end of the day, we were tired, covered in dirt, and had walked through a whole lotta poison oak — but we had some amazing photos to show for it and some valuable data to add to our wildlife corridor study. And so it goes with stewardship (and with nearly everything else) — hard work is totally worth it.
Sonoma Land Trust is a local nonprofit based in Santa Rosa, CA, that conserves scenic, natural, agricultural and open lands in Sonoma County for the benefit of the community and future generations. This blog focuses on SLT's stewardship team, whose members do hands-on work to directly protect, restore, and safeguard the land for generations to come.