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Trail-Cameras Expose Secret Lives of Wildlife

Mitch Petrie of Plymouth, Minnesota, glanced at a text message on his smartphone while watching a basketball game last winter, and learned that a photo had just arrived from a trail-camera in a nearby wetlands.


Automatically triggered photos and texts aren’t exactly groundbreaking technology, given recent advances in cellular phone and trail-cam capabilities. These devices let landowners monitor trespassers in real-time, and let deer hunters see when and where bucks visit scrapes or cross trails.


Most such photos aren’t exceptional. Petrie’s seen tons of them, including close-ups of the ears, eyes and noses of deer; and glimpses of deer, coyotes and feral cats. Therefore, when he skimmed his photos that night during a break in the game, he didn’t think twice about a passing patch of fur in one shot. But another photo arrived 20 minutes later from the same camera, and then another four minutes after that.


Petrie looked more closely because the scene had changed. The first picture had been shot from about 3 to 4 feet above the snow, slush and marsh grass. The subsequent photos, however, seemed to be taken from the ground, and fur on the passing animal looked more like a beaver than a deer.


His curiosity piqued, Petrie arranged a post-game ride home for his son, notified his wife of his change in plans, and drove to the property to check on his trail-cam’s well-being. When he arrived, he didn’t park at a distance and walk in. He drove straight to the tree where he had attached the camera several weeks before.


When his headlights illuminated the scene, everything made sense. The tree was lying in slush and marsh grass, its stump gnawed to a giant pencil-point. Beavers had toppled the tree, and already cut and hauled away several branches. Petrie’s camera, meanwhile, was still attached to the trunk, but angling downward. The trail-cam was tilted just far enough off the ground for its sensors and lens to detect and photograph the beaver as it worked.


“I’ve heard of thieves stealing trail-cameras, and bears and vandals destroying them, but I’d never heard of a beaver taking one down,” Petrie said. “That possibility never crossed my mind.”


Petrie’s story reminds us that trail-cameras can teach us much about the secret, everyday happenings of our favorite woods, fields and marshes. In case you don’t know, trail-cams are small, rugged devices mounted inside a protective shell, and then strapped to trees, poles or fence posts to photograph anything that moves. They’ve been popular with deer and bear hunters the past 25 to 30 years, dating back to print film and one-hour processing services.


Petrie’s cameras regularly provide glimpses of otters, mink, opossums, raccoons and whitetails, but that was the first time a critter had “adjusted” one of his setups.


Likewise, half the fun of trail-cams is checking their photos in-person or online, always hoping to see a big buck or other surprises among the images. Austin Wentzlaff of St. Michael, Minnesota, owns a 20-acre parcel about 45 minutes from Minneapolis. He placed his first trail-cam on his land in late December 2018, and soon downloaded photos of deer, otters, skunks, foxes, turkeys, raccoons, coyotes, squirrels and pheasants.


In one sequence, he saw a squirrel tangling with a rooster pheasant.


“My guess is that they were going after the same corn, which led to the battle that showed up on my trail camera,” Wentzlaff wrote. “It seems like it’s every animal for itself in the dead of a brutally cold winter like the one we had last year. I wonder if I captured something rare that seldom happens in nature, of if it’s something that happens all the time, but humans aren’t there to see it.”


Unique trail-cam photos don’t just intrigue the camera owners, of course. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources runs a program called “Snapshot Wisconsin” that relies on volunteers with trail-cams to help monitor wildlife statewide. As of October, Snapshot Wisconsin had nearly 1,700 volunteers maintaining 2,112 trail cameras, which have captured over 35.2 million photos since the program’s launch in spring 2016 (dnr.wi.gov, keyword “Snapshot Wisconsin, or dnr.wi.gov/topic/research/projects/snapshot).


And if you like wildlife photos from beyond Wisconsin, simply sign onto social-media sites like Instagram, and follow accounts like “trailcamsofig,” which is short for “Trail Cams of Instagram.” There you’ll find photos and videos of elk, bears, moose, wolves, mule deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and mountain lions eating, walking, interacting and … well, you get it. The action seldom slows.


Still, it’s the close-to-home photos that hold the most intrigue. A good friend of mine, for example, hunts and fishes on his land near Wautoma. When a friend of his, Jim Michelson, checked his trail cameras late last spring, one photo showed a coyote toting the hindquarters of a white-tailed fawn.


Coyotes are notorious for preying on fawns after they’re born in late May and early June, but there’s little anyone can do about it. Plus, deer drop so many fawns on the landscape simultaneously each year – a process called “predator swamping” – that bears, coyotes and bobcats can’t possibly get them all.


In fact, trail-cams offer proof of that statement. Trail-cam photos of coyotes eating fawns roll into my email in-box every spring, along with dire warnings about the deer herd’s imminent collapse.


But each spring, more trail-cam photos arrive, showing still more coyotes trotting off with the tiny heads, shoulders and hindquarters of more fawns.


Much like beavers cut trees and eat their limbs, coyotes kill fawns and eat their bones, meat and organs. It’s what critters do.


And now we get to see it ourselves on our back 40, thanks to our ever-present trail-cams.

A squirrel tangles with a rooster pheasant, apparently over corn buried in the snow. — Photo by Austin Wentzlaff

A beaver cut down this tree, toppling it along with a trail camera that documented the fall and photographed the culprit at work. — Photo by Mitch Petrie

A coyote trots off with the hindquarters of a white-tailed fawn. — Photo by Jim Michelson

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