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Trail Cameras and Ecological Monitoring

Trail Camera

Trail cameras are valuable tools for ecological monitoring. They have a number of benefits, not least the fact they cause minimal disturbance to wildlife. And with World Curlew Day coming up on April 21st, we thought we’d highlight just how useful trail cameras are by sharing some footage we captured of this increasingly threatened species last year.

Curlews on Camera

Having seen a pair of curlews on likely breeding territory at one of our sites, we needed to find out if they were nesting. With all nesting birds protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, if they were, we needed to mark out an exclusion zone to prevent disturbance and risk of damage to the nest. Curlews typically hide their nests by pulling grass and other vegetation around a simple nest cup on the ground. This means they can be quite difficult to find. By watching the adults coming and going, though, we could be reasonably sure these birds were focused on one particular area and so we then moved in to check. Once we had located the nest, we needed to monitor it to see when the chicks had fledged and breeding had concluded so the exclusion zone could be removed.

Curlew eggs
Curlew nests can be extremely well hidden

Lights, Camera, Action!

This is where trail cameras come into their own. The most obvious benefit in a situation like this is that, as long as your camera has a remote viewing facility, apart from an initial visit to find the nest and place a camera, the study subjects can then be left free of disturbance. With all monitoring done remotely, this is much less invasive than if an ecologist has to regularly physically attend the site. Avoiding disturbance is especially important when it comes to the breeding season and vulnerable species.

Sometimes it’s not just your study subject caught on camera…

Another key benefit of trail cameras is the fact they provide constant coverage. Ecologists often have multiple monitoring sites or projects on the go, especially during the spring and summer months. Trail camera installation means that a wealth of material can be obtained without hours of constant effort watches at a site. This frees ecologists up to monitor more sites effectively and gather meaningful data. They can also be placed in remote and fairly inaccessible sites that might be difficult to make numerous visits to.

Trail cameras can reveal interesting behaviour, such as this incubation shift change

It also means that nothing is missed both spatially and temporally. In large areas, by using multiple cameras, you can see how species use a range of locations. By relying on site visits alone, you might only get to see what is happening in one small area. You also get to see what is happening all the time, rather than during the one small window of a site visit. Additionally, the ecologist’s presence might be influencing behaviour, however careful they are to reduce disturbance. Constant, unobtrusive monitoring, though, can reveal much more natural behaviour and give insights into things that might otherwise be missed.

Trail camera monitoring helped show that all our eggs successfully hatched

This might include important behaviours that can help inform conservation efforts. It also means not missing any night activity that might otherwise need thermal imaging equipment to record. At our site, we got a lovely insight into the cooperation involved in incubation, with lots of footage of the pair swapping shifts. We also got conclusive footage showing that all the eggs successfully hatched and, later on, that the nest had been left with the birds moved on.

Conservation on Camera

This kind of monitoring is just one area in which trail cameras are extremely beneficial. They are perhaps more commonly used to establish presence or absence of certain target species, aiding conservation efforts. Here, the same benefits apply; minimal disturbance to potentially vulnerable and sensitive species, constant monitoring round the clock and over a large area with multiple cameras, and the ability to reduce site visits. Cameras with remote viewing capabilities are less important in this kind of situation, too, as they are frequently just left out for a set period of time before collection, with the data checked after retrieval. With so much coverage provided compared to bodies in the field, conservationists have seen new behaviours they were previously completely unaware of. They can also reveal the presence of new populations, such as the recent confirmation of pine martens in the New Forest.

Trail cameras can give incredible insights into animal behaviour

Trail cameras are wonderful tools for wildlife monitoring. Not only do they help record wildlife in a non-intrusive way, they enable researchers and ecologists to gather much more data than via physical site visits alone. Both these factors help wildlife. By reducing disturbance as well as giving us vital information, we have more tools in our armoury to protect vulnerable and endangered species like the curlew.