Hollie Sutherland followed hyenas in South Africa and helped curb invasive mammal populations in the UK, but she came to conclude that the images captured on the trail camera in the backyard of her Western Massachusetts were every bit as interesting.
“[My camera] got everything from huge bull moose, to bears, to bobcats, to fisher, to courting porcupines. It feels like Christmas every time you go out and check your camera and see what you might have been sharing your yard with,” said Sutherland of her home in Wendell.
Now, Sutherland, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, studies biodiversity monitoring. She wants people in Massachusetts to install their own trail cameras and report wildlife sightings to the state.
“This data could be used to detect the presence of certain species, to estimate the abundance of species with individually identifiable markings, and to record animal behavior,” Sutherland said.
Trail cameras are triggered by motion detectors and can patiently monitor wild animal sightings in the woods — or in one’s backyard — where animals that once nearly disappeared from Massachusetts have returned in large numbers. Coyotes, foxes, bald eagles, fishers, and deer are now found in Boston and across the state.
The cameras can even help people see which of the resurgent species is digging through their trash. A fisher? A raccoon? A coyote? The camera may provide the answer.
“When an animal walks past the camera, it triggers the sensor, which then tells the camera to take a photo or a video. The cameras are usually battery operated and can monitor wildlife remotely,” Sutherland said.
The cameras are usually slightly bigger than a large smartphone. The devices are surging in popularity as the cost of its technology drops, said Marion Larson, the chief of information and education at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
“Not very long ago, trail cameras were not terribly available or as inexpensive as they are now. So people are discovering wildlife in their backyard they didn’t realize was there, but now you have photographic evidence. It’s kind of a way to find out who your wild neighbors are,” Larson said.
MassWildlife accepts animal sighting reports and pictures by e-mail, phone, or post. People can submit photos for scientists to identify what species they saw, said Troy Gipps, a publications manager and editor of MassWildlife’s magazine. This information helps the state improve its conservation efforts.
Hunters were some of the first to use trail cameras for monitoring game, Sutherland said. The cameras went mainstream in the 1980s as manufacturers started mass-producing the devices, Sutherland said. Scientists began monitoring animals with trail cameras in the 1990s, and wildlife enthusiasts today are adopting the cameras to track animals in their yards.
One camera fan is the The Trustees of Reservations, a 128-year-old state conservation organization. Sally Naser, a conservation restriction program manager for the organization, shared a few tips from her years running a trail camera Facebook page.
She said trail camera buyers should pay attention to trigger speed and recovery time. But they should know that high megapixels don’t always translate to superior image quality, Naser said. She suggested buying a camera box to protect the device from bears. Animal watchers can even make their own trail cameras.
“Some people ask me for feedback and say they’ll get crappy photos. If you spend $50, you’ll get a $50 camera. If you spend $100 or $150, you’ll get a better camera,” Naser said.
Naser has two favorite trail cameras: the Reconyx UltraFire, which costs about $600, and the Bushnell Essential E3 for $100 to $150.
A dedicated community of trail camera fans shares photos on social media. Users post animal photos and videos from their cameras. Videos of bears playing in a creek and a bobcat giving birth on a roof rack up thousands of views. Naser’s picture of a bear with its face pressed up against a camera was shared a lot in 2016.
Sutherland also has learned more about her environment by studying not just the images, but when they were taken.
“Because images are time-stamped, you can be surprised by how close you were to an animal,” Sutherland said. “I used to walk my dog past my camera and I would be surprised to see images and videos of me and my dog — and then shortly afterwards a deer or a fox would be captured on the camera.”