I knew that the short brown creature was a huge deal the second the image flashed on my screen. I’d been flipping through photos on my trail camera — trees, a mouse, trees — and then BAM! Suddenly there was an incredibly rare mammal filling the frame.
I screamed so loud my voice cracked. My hands trembled as I scrolled through seven frames showing an endangered fisher wandering past my camera.
Fishers are large, shy weasels, and seeing one is a big deal because they aren’t supposed to be in the central Cascades. At least they haven’t been seen here since the 1950s, when they disappeared from Washington state due to over-trapping. But these photos were proof that fishers had returned.
As a backyard naturalist living in the woods near Leavenworth, it was like hitting the Powerball jackpot.
An addictive pursuit
For the past three years, I’ve been pursuing photos of rarely seen wildlife, stashing cameras in the backcountry and leaving them out for weeks or months at a stretch.
The vast majority of the time, the results are benign — a neighbor’s dog or a deer. But, like a compulsive gambler winning just enough to keep his addiction thriving, I occasionally nab an exciting image that fuels my passion.
Every time I flip through the footage, there’s a nervous anticipation followed by exhilaration when a bobcat walks by at close range or a cougar is seen hunting at night.
The fisher sighting proved to me that trail cameras can be more than just a fun hobby. If you get really lucky and spot something rare, it can actually help local scientists with their recovery efforts.
Washington is at the vanguard of some large mammal recovery efforts. Local non-profit Conservation Northwest manages camera “traps” throughout the state, using volunteer camera teams who look for grey wolves, wolverines, grizzlies, fishers, lynx and Cascade red fox.
Owning a trail camera means you could be a citizen scientist and potentially help document the presence of rare animals.
Pictures or it didn’t happen
Inexpensive trail cameras were popularized in the consumer market by hunters who wanted to scout an area. But what works for a hunter also works for animal lovers or rural property owners wanting extra security.
With photos or video you get hard proof, with a time and date stamp, to show exactly when creatures are on the move.
As they say on social media: “Pictures or it didn’t happen.”
After spending three years experimenting with trail cameras, my big takeaway is that there is way more happening than I imagined (spoiler alert: Most of the big stuff moves at night).
Critter cameras have taught me to see the outdoors through a new lens. It has forced me to think like an animal. What path is a cougar most likely to take? If a bear is going to walk through a drainage area, what’s the route she’ll probably use?
Merging trails become honey holes for cameras, and you begin to recognize that a darkened tree stump is a place where animals have marked their scent. Before you know it, landscapes come alive.
Pro tips for camera placement
Three feet high is optimal. A rookie mistake is to mount a camera at eye level, but most animals are closer to the ground.
Choose your target species. Three feet off the ground is usually ideal, but also experiment with low-angle or wide-angle shots to tally everything that’s on the move.
Account for snow. If you’re placing cameras in the mountains during winter, plan for several feet of snow or your camera will get buried.
Follow the game trails. The most active areas seem to be natural game trails used by a variety of animals. Mount to a nearby tree and angle your camera about 45 degrees. I’ve also had success pointing cameras directly down trails, but it’s a gamble. If animals are walking in the wrong direction, you see lots of rear ends.
Look for where two trails merge. For the best odds, look for two game trails crossing. For example, seek out the spine of a ridge with a low saddle where something might also cross at a right angle.
Aim away from the sun. Position your camera so the sun is behind you or the shots will be washed out. For best results avoid dappled light.
Remove grass and brush. Cut wispy plants away from your field of view or the wind will trigger hundreds of empty shots.
Consider your foreground and background. Aim at a foreground object (like a stump where chipmunks groom themselves) and a good background (like a game trail that an elk might use). A panoramic background can add drama, but a cluttered background like a house may distract from the subject.
Funnel animals. Most animals won’t push through brush if there’s an easier path. You can increase your chances of a good shot by using branches and bramble to guide animals to your camera.
The bait debate
You could set up your cameras and hope for the best. Or you can draw animals closer with the help of scent lures.
I’ve wrestled with the ethics of this question. I don’t want to habituate animals with food rewards, and I don’t want them expending valuable energy on fruitless detours.
After talking with biologists, I’ve decided that, in the name of science, I’m OK with using a scent lure.
Inexpensive scent lures are typically paste with a strong, skunky odor that animals adore. Some scents are designed to attract certain animals, such as felines or mustelids (weasels).
Always place bait far away from populated areas so you don’t train animals to approach people. Food lures should not be used because they can habituate animals to foraging in garbage or eating poisoned bait. However, if you find a carcass or bones in the wild, it’s a good place to set up a camera!
Writer and photographer Jeff Layton lives in the central Cascades near Leavenworth and is a volunteer with Conservation Northwest. He showcases his trail camera photos on his blog MarriedToAdventure.com.