by Whit Gibbons

February 16, 2014

I watched two fat beavers sitting side by side and eating from a pile of corn while three raccoons walked around them eating kernels off to either side. None of the five seemed to be paying attention to the others, but clearly the beavers had the prime spot in the center of the corn. They probably held the dominant role not because they are cute butterballs but because they have much bigger teeth. I was watching this supper scene on my computer after downloading photos from a wildlife camera. I had put the corn out on the ground as bait two days before.

Both video and still frame wildlife cameras have been used by hunters and wildlife ecologists for many years. The former want to determine when and where the best hunting opportunities are for game species. Wildlife researchers, on the other hand, assess what animals inhabit an area in order to make management recommendations or simply to better understand the biodynamics of a habitat. My kids gave me a wildlife camera a couple of years ago and I have developed a new appreciation for what lives in our woods and along our stream that we seldom encounter in person. Revealing wildlife's hidden biodiversity brings a greater appreciation for natural habitats in a region.

Our list of wildlife residents has grown significantly since we began capturing videos and still shots of nocturnal visitors to our cabin in the woods. We had seen several deer as well as their trails and other signs. But catching them on camera almost every time we put out corn has revealed they are much more abundant than is readily apparent. One reason is that most deer are active at night, and the wildlife cameras are equipped with infrared night vision. Likewise with armadillos. We find their diggings numerous places around the woods but only occasionally spot an active one. The wildlife cameras make it clear that we seldom see them because they come out primarily at night.

Raccoons amaze me with their ubiquity and abundance while demonstrating their ability to stay out of sight during the day. We have night photos at one corn pile of six coons together. They were joined by deer and a possum, though there was no interaction among the animals. They simply ignored each other. The next day we were unable to spot any of the night visitors. Where do they all go?

Among our favorite surprises have been a bobcat walking across a beaver dam, an eastern flying squirrel landing on a tree trunk, and a red-shouldered hawk standing alongside the creek. One of the best action shots was of a barred owl that landed on a stump the camera was pointed at. In the owl's talons was a salamander known as a siren.

Your own yard might reveal unsuspected guests. A few weeks ago, my grandson got a wildlife camera for his birthday. He currently has it set up facing a small, active beaver dam, and next week we'll find out who came to visit. But he tested it first in our backyard. Among the expected inhabitants were a neighbor's house cat at night and a dog during the day. The surprises were a pair of raccoons one night and a possum the next.

Finding out that seldom-seen native animals are actually present in your area can be exciting. Admittedly, some animals may be more spectacular than others, but I am not intimidated by what has been discovered by friends and colleagues who use wildlife cameras in their field studies in southern Florida, Arizona, and Alaska. Sure, mountain lions, bears, and coyotes are impressive. But I am content to enjoy capturing a sighting of whatever we have lurking around that we rarely see. And think about it: how often are you likely to see beavers sharing a smorgasbord with raccoons? Probably never if mountain lions, bears, and coyotes are around to join them for supper.

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