Secret Eyes in the Woods: Trail Cameras

Mule deer
Mule deer caught by a trail camera with a flash. Photo: Ken Bevis.

Do you sometimes wish you could be invisible out in the woods and just watch what goes by? Maybe at night too? It would be so great to be able to patiently wait for hours, days, even seasons and see the often mysterious wildlife. Hunters who sit on game stands for hours on end know this feeling. Patience is more than a virtue; sometimes it is excruciating, with hours of boredom punctuated by the thrill of a momentary wildlife sighting.

Now, we can do this without suffering the cold, heat, wind, bugs, etc. An array of amazing tools called “trail” or “game” cameras are designed to operate independently, using sensors (usually motion sensors) to automatically trigger a photo or even video. I am no expert on these devices, but I enjoy using one and seeing images gathered by others. Here, I will offer a few thoughts for forest landowners on use of these fantastic devices. Whenever I offer a class to forest landowners, I always ask who has a trail camera, and many do. The stories of the variety of species recorded are impressive.

Camera set up along a deer trai
Camera set-up along a deer trail on a burned area of author’s property. Photo: Ken Bevis.

The first generation of trail cameras used film and became great tools for wildlife biologists trying to capture images of elusive species. They were clunky, however, and required frequent visits to collect and replace the film. Today’s devices are digital and offer multiple capabilities. Here are seven key basics to consider when selecting a camera.

  1. Trigger speed – You want a fast sensor-to-shutter time. If the delay is too long, you will get many empty frames.
  2. Different options for flash – Low glow, infrared and visible. A visible flash can scare wary animals.
  3. Video and still options (some even record sound )
  4. Recovery time – How fast can the camera get the next image after taking a shot? Look also for its “burst mode” — how many photos can be taken in a row. Many cameras allow you to set the burst mode; I recommend a setting of 3 shots.
  5. Ease of mounting the camera on a tree or a frame of some sort.
  6. Battery type and life.
  7. How does it download? Remotely or with a memory card?

Recent generations of trail cameras have all of these features, but it is worth checking the specifications of any brand you consider. Higher end models have more bells and whistles, but often aren’t that different from the “standard” model. Do your homework when shopping the device for there are many out there now.


Where Do I Place the Camera?

Know what distance your needs to get good pictures. Most seem to be designed to photograph larger animals, as opposed to small reptiles and such. Some won’t focus on animal that get extremely close to the lens; however, the camera may have a wide-angle lens that will capture its clearest shots at 10 to 20 feet. Before deploying your camera in the field, practice with it in a known setting and walk in front of it at different distances.

Be sure to check the angle of placement; a camera tipped too far back will give you only shots of the tips of your target’s ears while tilting downward too steeply will produce nice shots of feet only! Point the camera into an open area so you can capture pictures of your target without a lot of obstructions. Place the camera along a game trail or above a small opening in the forest. Make sure you clear away any overhanging branches or tall grass from in front of the camera’s motion sensor, unless you want to look at hundreds of images of a branch or blade of grass moving in the wind (I have done this.). Attaching it to a tree is often the easiest, but using a stand (mine is homemade out of re-bar) allows you to set the camera for the best angles.

To capture animals as they approach and move through the frame, place the camera at an angle to the trail, or directly in the line of the trail. A setup that is perpendicular to a trail will have a lesser chance of getting the whole animal as it walks by. If you have a choice, face the camera northward to prevent harsh light angles in early morning or late afternoon shots. Positioning it to capture images a strategic opening is always a good tactic. Placing a salt or a deer block in the center of the frame can work wonders to attract wildlife (bait is legal in Washington for deer and elk as long it doesn’t exceed 10 gallons).

Here is an interesting testimonial from my friend, Wally Soroka, of Colville, Washington, who provided some of the attached photos:

“Some, if not most, cameras do take pretty decent close-ups. I had a little competition a few years ago with an urban, East Coast relative (where big game was scarce) to see who could get the best mouse shots. In Colville I got a lot of flying squirrel close-ups in my chicken coop at night. And many newer cameras record sound. It’s not high quality audio but does offer a new dimension, like the sound of a drumming grouse to go along with the 10 second video or a curious deer sniffing the camera itself.”

Soroka placed a camera along an old logging road and tied a duck wing (from the previous hunting season) to a bush in the field of view. This drew the curiosity of the cat, and he got the attached shot of a cougar (see photo of Soroka with inset of his cougar photo).

trailside use of trail cam to photograph a cougar
Soroka shows where he tied a duck wing (from a harvested animal) to a shrub alongside a trail. Later, his trail camera photographed a cougar (inset) looking up at the wing. Photo: Ken Bevis.

I once placed a camera over a rotting deer carcass I found in the forest, and got a fascinating series of pictures of ravens, vultures, magpies, coyote and even a golden eagle working the carcass (see photo). Over the next few weeks my photos showed the carcass disappearing a little bit at a time.

Golden eagle on deer carcass
Golden eagle on deer carcass. Photo: Ken Bevis.

A friendly forest landowner from the Blue Mountains shared with me a series of amazing pictures of deer, elk, cougar and bear all from the same small junction of old logging roads on his property. It was a natural crossroads through which it seems every wild thing in the area passed and he had strategically placed a camera to catch the action.

A trail camera can do more than grab candid shots of animals. It can help you read your landscape. What animals are out there and where are they moving? Consider also what will be your target species? Deer are the easiest as they are generally common and use easily identified trails. Less common are the predator species such as cougar, bobcat, coyote or bear. Sometimes a raccoon, skunk or weasel makes an appearance too, and even birds. These are the prizes for trail camera users.

Many Choices and Uses

There are many brands of trail cameras out there now, with prices ranging from $70 to $500. Most are just over $100. I have heard varying reports on brands, and no complaints for any of the newer generation cameras. Most are self-contained with a small digital card that can be removed and viewed on a computer, and there are image review functions too. There are even some now that will let you look at your images remotely on a smart phone. I am sure some are better than others, and I will defer that discussion for real experts. I have an older camera that I need to replace, so please send me feedback as to what has worked best for you.

Cougar near Winthrop, WA,
Cougar near Winthrop, WA, caught by a camera placed on active winter trail. Photo: Scott Fitkin.

Trail cameras are now a favorite tool for wildlife biologists, hunters, naturalists and landowners for seeing things we otherwise would seldom know occur. There is a vast data set out there of wildlife information that was never available before. They can also be useful for security, too, by placing them along roads or overlooking a property to photograph whoever happens to come by.

And if you don’t have one yet, well, birthdays and Christmas are coming up.

Send me some of your best Trail Cam shots and permission to use them in your email and I’ll do a future article featuring “The Best of Small Forest Landowner Trail Camera Photos,” with a photo credit. You can be published!

(Thanks to Ed Styskel for his excellent article in the Spring 2017 issue of Northwest Woodlands magazine).

By Ken Bevis, DNR Stewardship Wildlife Biologist,