Just Trackin’ Along!
There was frost on the ground as we started out in the foggy chill and the road to the Preserve was deep in fog as the sun rose this morning.
The Preserve’s Visitor Center has a ‘Caution slippery walkway’ sign out in this kind of weather to remind us all to tread carefully on the frosty boards of the walkway up to the building.
Today was longer than usual because one crew checked some outlying cameras for another project but we got to see more cameras and wild sign as our other crew checked eight cameras and covered more territory than one route usually covers.
In the Field
We drove out to the low flow dam on the Cosumnes River and the water is flowing fast and high. We’ll hopefully get more rain this winter and the river will run higher still. The huge deadfall trunk that’s still resting on the concrete dam will remain there until the water level rises high enough to lift it and carry it off the dam and downstream to rest on the river’s sandy bed below the low flow.
Even though wildlife passage is now limited by the swift water, there were still many tracks down the south bank on our side of the river, including raccoon, coyote, Great blue heron, deer and bobcat.
We got a clear image of an interesting track on the sandy substrate there. At first glance, one might think the track shown below is a canine track because there are clear claw imprints. However, feline tracks can register claw marks depending on the type of substrate they’re traversing – Muddy? Sandy? Moving on an incline? How fast was the animal moving?
It’s true the shape of the track is rounder, but domestic dog can have broader looking tracks than coyote. Looking at the heel pad for clues in this case can be the key. The heel pad of a canine – domestic dog, coyote or fox – will have one lobe at the top and two lobes at the bottom. Also, there’s a distinctive ‘X’ visible between the front toes and the heel pad.
The heel pad of a feline – mountain lion or bobcat – is wider and won’t have that ‘X’ signature between the front toes and the heel pad. The tracks will register two lobes at the top of the heel pad and three lobes at the bottom. These distinctions are easy to see in clear, well-laid tracks but that’s not always how we find them!
While nails generally don’t register on bobcat or mountain lion tracks, exceptions can be slippery surfaces, when climbing and when chasing prey. Their nails are thin and wouldn’t register as decidedly as the larger, chunky nail register of coyotes or domestic dogs. It looks like what we have below is a bobcat track with some nail showing. This track was found in wet, sandy substrate on an incline on the south bank of the Cosumnes River.
We found some other interesting tracks at another camera that had us briefly hopeful there might be a lion in our midst! The tracks were large in size and many of them didn’t have nail register. The heel pads generally registered the one lobe in front and two lobes in back, indicating canine. But the tracks were larger and rounder, as a mountain lion’s would be. In the end though, based on what we were seeing, we surmised that we’d see canine on the trail cameras and when we checked the SD cards we weren’t disappointed about THAT, anyway.
It’s good to remember that there are many variables when reading tracks including the physical surroundings, the weather, the age and health of the individual animal and what they were doing when they made the tracks. Sometimes canine toenails don’t register and sometimes feline toenails do! It just depends on the variables. That’s why it’s so important to always keep eyes wide open and head on a swivel. While laser focus and observation are vital for track and sign reading, the ability to be able to look up regularly and take in the bigger picture of what’s happening around you is essential for seeing the whole track, scat or sign story.
At our next stop, we found that the camera on the scratching post telephone was in fact set too high on the tree where we’d mounted it so we brought along the drill and some other tools and lowered that camera by about 2 feet. We remounted it on the same tree but at a different height and angle. We tested and re-tested the camera height and angle by letting the camera arm to take photos and then walking in front of it to see what the image range would be until we were satisfied with the camera position. We’ll be able to check again next week and see how our handiwork paid off!
As we walked in to the next camera, we reviewed what to keep in mind when deciding where to set a trail camera. As with most things, there are many variables and it’s important to consider as many of them as you can when deciding where to put a trail camera. And the good news is adjustments can always be made! So the important thing is to get that camera out there, either mounted securely to a large tree or a standing post but once we start getting images, we have information and we move forward from there!
At our next camera we enjoyed the brilliant blue sky and the beautiful oaks and winter colors as cranes and geese called from the sky. This camera regularly gets deer, raccoons and river otters and has been known to capture bobcats, too. The corridor where the camera sits on a giant oak tree runs between the public hiking trails of the Preserve where a mountain lion may have been spotted last summer 2017 and the more remote old growth oak forests to the northeast that have great habitat for mountain lions and for mountain lion food – deer!
We ended a long but productive day back at the Visitor Center checking SD cards. No lions but we got some answers about our interesting tracks and there were some great wildlife photos to boot! We’ll be out again next week, stay tuned!
Meet the crew
Our amazing crew is out in the field looking for mountain lions and other wildlife rain or shine!
Meet Rick Hicks, CRP Volunteer Naturalist, Citizen Scientist and Sacramento County Park Ranger Assistant
We asked Rick: What do you like best about being on the Mountain lion camera project?
“I enjoy working on the mountain lion study team in an effort to contribute to the overall protection and preservation of this important ‘keystone’ species. It is always fun to go places on the Preserve where most cannot visit except volunteers. Along these various routes to check game cameras the various wildlife we see is an added bonus.”
Things to keep in mind for mounting a trail camera
We encourage folks to buy a trail camera with a secure casing and a lock and then mount it somewhere on your property where you think you may be getting wildlife movement. Suitable cameras are pretty reasonably priced, around $120 to $170 or so and there are a number of good brands. On the Preserve, we use Browning Recon Force trail cameras and they’ve been pretty good! With the infrared firing, especially at night, we find that animals do startle as the infrared is detectable. Deer and coyote will often run while raccoons seem to be curious and will even approach the camera so you may get some bewhiskered closeup selfies! We do wonder if the resident animals become habituated to the infrared light but we don’t have enough information about their populations to say. Once you’ve got your camera there are a few things to consider when you’re deciding where to set it up.
Location: Somewhere where wildlife will probably pass by – a game trail, a location where you’ve seen track or sign, travel corridors like dirt roads, pathways and river and stream beds.
Camera set: Aim the camera at a 45-degree angle to the trail or corridor you’re trying to observe. Don’t set the camera looking directly up or down the trail or directly perpendicular to it.
Lighting: Look to see how lighting might affect photo exposure. We’ve found that shifting tree shadows and changes in light can trigger the cameras repeatedly. Aiming the camera to shoot in a north-south direction or angled to the northwest can bring best results because there tends to be less direct sun exposure.
Visual triggers and obstructions: You’ll want a clear area where the camera’s view isn’t obstructed by branches, leaves, hanging vegetation or shrubs. Bring loppers or clippers with you to be able to trim back wayward vegetation that may cause the camera to trigger. Wind and changing shadows can activate any branches or leaves that move and shift throughout the day. You’ll want to monitor this through the seasons as well.
Mounting Your Camera: You can attach the camera to a tree or a post, securing it with a casing (you can buy one when you purchase the camera) and a padlock. Or you can use a cable to secure the camera. Mount at about chest height (4 feet or so) and angle the camera slightly downward. You’ll want to be able to capture smaller animals like raccoons and rabbits and larger animals like deer and mountain lion within the range of your mount. A pointer is that folks often mount cameras too high. In fact we just did this with the scratching post camera! Aim about for a mountain lion’s shoulder as he or she walks by and then adjust as necessary.
Image settings: We use a 3-shot rapid fire mode with a 5-second delay. This means when an animal walks by, three images are triggered, the camera delays 5 seconds and fires again. You can vary these settings and also use the video function or time lapse function. Experiment with the settings to find the ones that suit your needs best. We do find that sometimes a running animal won’t trigger the camera until they’re almost all the way out of the screen. We balance this with the size of our SD cards. If we set the camera to take more images more frequently, the cards may fill up out in the field and we’d miss several days worth of data and possibly the mountain lion.
Test, Test, Test!: You can never spend too much testing out your camera angle and position to be sure you’re getting the best window on the image possible. If your trail camera has a test mode function, follow the directions and use that. Have someone walk in front of the camera after it’s armed (the countdown time may be adjustable, we use 30 seconds). Test the range of the camera by walking back and forth several times. If you purchase a camera that has an image display screen, you’ll be able to look at the images right on that screen or you can bring a small digital camera and put the SD card into that to be able to view the test images in the field and adjust the camera as necessary.
Camera check frequency: Checking cameras every week is a good collection habit. You can check cameras more frequently if you know you have wildlife movement happening in the area but going longer than one week makes the data less current and means that any camera malfunctions will go unchecked for longer. Keeping in mind that mountain lions can move many miles within a 24-hour period, any wild animal could be long gone by the time you see their images on your SD cards if check times are much longer than one week or so.
Critter Camera Captures