Whether you’re camping or have a cabin, a wildlife camera can help you get a look at creatures that visit while nobody’s looking.

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Jeff Layton’s Stealth Cam wildlife camera, with camouflage coloring, is mounted to a stump just off a popular game trail. One lesson learned through use: Mount the camera low to get eye-level animal photos. In winter, account for snow or your camera can get buried. (Jeff Layton photo)
Jeff Layton’s Stealth Cam wildlife camera, with camouflage coloring, is mounted to a stump just off a popular game trail. One lesson learned through use: Mount the camera low to get eye-level animal photos. In winter, account for snow or your camera can get buried. (Jeff Layton photo)

It was just after 6 a.m. when a large cinnamon-colored bear decided to visit my house in rural Chelan County.

I was fast asleep inside when he strolled down our driveway and sniffed around the stump where I’d left some dead mice the night before.

That’s when I caught him — not in a trap, but on a wildlife camera. They’re also called game cameras, trail cameras or just plain critter cams.

Five photos in the series are spine-tingling. You can see fur, fur, a close-up of his face, a giant paw as he takes a swipe at the camera and more fur as he wanders away.

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My wife knows I’m passionate about seeing animals in the wild, so she knew that a trail camera from Costco would be a terrific Father’s Day gift last year.

There was a time when the use of game cameras was limited to park rangers and pro photographers, but in recent years dozens of affordable motion-activated models have hit the consumer market.

Using one has added a new layer of interest to my wildlife spotting, not only allowing me to look for animals at night but helping me to understand more about their behavior and how active creatures are when no one is looking.

What’s lurking outside?

Maybe you’re an avid camper who has always wondered what visits your campsite after dark. Maybe you spotted tracks in the snow and were curious about what passed by. Perhaps you own some land in the country and want to know what (or who) drops by when you’re away.

Once you start playing with one of these cameras, you realize how much potential they have.

When Will Radecki, of Van Zandt, Whatcom County, discovered loose insulation under his house, he used his camera to learn that rabbits were pulling it down. When he saw signs of animals rooting through his compost pile, he captured a shot of a black bear poking around just minutes after he threw out some vegetable scraps.

Recently, he bought a hard-wired Nest model that alerts him with a text or email when something passes by, allowing him to track what he, with tongue in cheek, calls the most threatening predator of all: his daughter’s boyfriend.

Another critter-cam photo: This black bear had two cubs close behind. (Jeff Layton photo)
Another critter-cam photo: This black bear had two cubs close behind. (Jeff Layton photo)

A gift of experience

A creature camera is the gift that keeps giving. Every few weeks, I pull out the SD card and check the latest round of photos. As the images transfer to my computer I feel the anticipation build.

My Stealth Cam is set to record five photos in five seconds. It’s triggered by movement, so most of the shots are just trees blowing in the wind or a neighbor’s dog.

But as the slideshow progresses suddenly — pow! There’s a huge coyote staring right into the lens.

A few shots later, a family of wild turkeys wanders past. A day later, the fuzzy rump of a deer is a few feet from the camera.

Checking the footage creates an eager thrill: This might be the time I capture something rare like a bobcat or a moose. Many months later, my excitement is just as fresh as the first time I used the camera.

Reviewing the footage is only part of the joy. Almost as much fun is learning where to place the camera. An unexpected byproduct has been learning to see my environment through the eyes of animals.

Now I don’t just see a hill, but I imagine how a cougar might use that faint trail to reach water. A log across a river isn’t just a fallen tree, but might be a natural bridge for a mink to cross.

I try to choose terrain features such as ridgelines that will funnel animals into my camera trap, then I see if my theory is correct with photo evidence, and a time and date stamp that reveals exactly when animals are the most active.

Tracking apex predators

Using wildlife cameras can be more than just a fun backyard hobby. In some cases they play an important role in studying the recovery and movement of rare animals.

Drew and Cathy Gaylord, of Wenatchee, are citizen-scientist volunteers with Conservation Northwest. Every winter they set cameras above the snowline in the Central Cascades to help track wolverines and search for wolves.

They backcountry ski to remote locations and rig meat and scent lures that attract a host of wildlife.

Little is known about wolverine movements in Washington, but biologists use their unique chest blazes to identify individuals. Last year the Gaylords captured photos of two wolverines in the Stevens Pass area that had never been studied before.

They’ve also recorded dozens of other creatures including bears, bobcat, cougar, pine martens and even flying squirrels.

About once a month they ski to the cameras to check the footage. “It’s so exciting. It’s like Christmas,” says Drew.

“I know our target species is wolverine and that’s really cool, but we love seeing everything we get. The bears, the elk, the deer, it’s just such a treat to think about the site that you put up and invited these animals to come in, then you get to go see who came to our spot. It’s very fun.”

As documented by a wildlife camera, wild turkeys are frequent visitors to outdoors writer Jeff Layton’s home in rural Chelan County. (Jeff Layton photo)
As documented by a wildlife camera, wild turkeys are frequent visitors to outdoors writer Jeff Layton’s home in rural Chelan County. (Jeff Layton photo)

Learn more

About the cameras

Wildlife- and trail-camera manufacturers include Reconyx, Bushnell, Cuddeback, Moultrie, Browning, Stealth Cam and Wildgame Innovations. Basic models start around $60.

Almost all are battery-powered and water- resistant, allowing you to set and forget the camera for months at a time, even in winter. Cameras use infrared to take somewhat grainy photos at night, and many models allow you to adjust the burst frequency or take short video clips.

Have a laugh

To see entertaining creature-camera footage, see boredpanda.com/funny-trail-cam-photos-secret-animal-life.

Note: I can’t speak for the authenticity of these photos. I can only speak for how entertaining they are to view.

Help monitor wildlife

To learn more about Conservation Northwest’s wildlife monitoring program, see conservationnw.org/our-work/wildlife/wildlife-monitoring.

If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer citizen-scientist contact Laurel Baum: lbaum@conservationnw.org