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I didn’t have to go far to make my wildlife observations this week. In fact, most of the fun has occurred while testing a new trail camera that I’d ordered, one specifically designed for cold-weather use with flash-free night and day imaging. Sounds all kinds of technological, I know, but basically the thing takes pictures 24 hours a day and (supposedly) runs for up to three months on one battery charge (which is what I was most interested in testing).
Luckily, these things are made to be idiot-proof, although the instructions are still enough to boggle the sharpest of minds. My camera requires only an SD card (the little square ship that is also used as “memory” in most cameras these days) and a power source. I hooked up the three-month battery after charging it, flipped the “Auto” switch and just let the camera do its thing, taking pictures of anything that moves in front of it every 30 seconds, more often if you want 100 pictures of every bird or animal that wanders by.
Once I got the camera set up I anxiously awaited the results. Figuring that I had the camera aimed at my wildlife grain pile just 15 feet from my office window, I didn’t expect much more than chickadees and squirrels, but I didn’t count on what goes on at night out there!
The first morning I was surprised to see 28 pictures on the screen – must have been a busy night? Hooking the camera to my computer’s USB port, I saw a wide selection of deer feet, fox tails and ears that could have belonged to an opossum, raccoon or house cat. I had set the camera lens too low, giving me a great selection of images of the bird seed and grain but not much else.
After raising the camera a tad and (at last) following the instructions that advise taking a few test shots, I had the camera up and aimed at the appropriate level. It seemed to be too high, but the pictures of my seed bucket were sharp and centered, so I decided to see what happened the next night.
I forgot about the camera till around noon the next day when the local flock of turkeys showed up for their share (meaning all of) the grain and seed. As I studied them with my binoculars I suddenly remembered that they were, or should have been, taking pictures of themselves, and I was excited to see what might be on the camera this time.
It was quite a while before the big birds finished off the food and wandered off down the logging road. I expected to see a bunch of turkey images and there were plenty of time, but this time I had double the images of the night before. The nighttime images are rather dark and ghostly, like black-and-white reversals, but the evidence was clear enough: I had four deer (including a spike-horn buck) and a fat gray fox, centered in the lens and close enough to fill the image space.
The deer had come in separately but fed together for a dozen frames, and behind them glowed the eyes of a third whitetail that did not seem to want to come within camera range. I know there are much bigger bucks out there and hope to get some images of them picking away at the free grain, but mature bucks rarely do anything careless, even on a February night when no one was up and about. Caution things, those big bucks!
It was nice to see that the spike buck and doe were nice and fat, no ribs showing with solid shoulders and hams. It seemed interesting as well that the buck still carried his antlers, but sometimes young bucks like that will keep them well into March – or later. Maybe the weight of the larger antlers make the bigger bucks lose their headgear sooner, although there’s no particular time when all the antlers of the deer world drop at once. It’s a gradual, random process but, sooner or later, they all drop their antlers and begin growing new ones. My buck just isn’t quite ready.
The gray fox images were interesting as well because he came in slowly, creeping from tree to tree and never stopped looking around him, as if he were afraid that something might attack him while he ate. Though the gray fox is not at the top of the food chain in Maine he is up there, certainly above mink and weasels, but too timid to face a raccoon, bobcat or fisher, perhaps even willing to give way to a red fox. Of course coyotes and bears are too intimidating for most animals, and I doubt that a gray fox would stick around if either of these top-end carnivores wandered by. A back-door scavenger by nature, the gray fox isn’t as aggressive or threatening as the bigger predators – I would think a large horned owl would gladly dine on a gray fox if given the chance, so I suppose it makes sense that my back-yard buddy would come in on tip-toes. With that many potential threats around, especially at night, I don’t blame him!
My images showed that the gray fox came in several times, even sat down a few times to eat his fill, but he never stayed long and kept disappearing as some sound or critter scared him off.
All of this activity occurred between sunset and 1 a.m. The rest of the night was uneventful, and the camera sat idle till the first mourning dove of the morning sidled up to the seed pile after landing off-camera, as they usually do.
It’s interesting to see how the night critters take over for the daytime feeders, with trackable lulls just before sunrise and then after sunset. All of them want to stop by for a handout, and I’m glad I’m able to provide them with enough grain and seed to keep them going all winter. I’m sure they would survive without me, but they keep coming back. I like to think we’re bonding, but maybe they just like having their pictures taken!
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