Posted by: James Wapotich | February 1, 2017

Trail Quest: Wildlife camera tracking with David Lee

One of the joys of being out in nature is seeing wildlife. However, animals tend to have their own interests and priorities, which don’t necessarily include being seen by us. This is particularly true of mammals such as bears, mountain lions, foxes, bobcats, and coyotes, which either avoid people or generally don’t stick around once they’re spotted.

Learning to recognize the tracks and signs of different animals is one way to get a sense of who’s out there and what they’re up to. Tracking can provide a connection to the animals in their natural environment, but does require the ability to interpret what you’re seeing.

Another technique that is becoming more popular is the use of wildlife cameras, or camera tracking, which provides a way to photograph animals in their natural state, particularly when humans aren’t around. 

Grey Fox David Lee wildlife camera tracking trapping Ventura River Preserve Ojai Valley Land Conservancy

Grey fox photographed at Ventura River Preserve, image courtesy David Lee

Also known as camera trapping, because the camera captures images of the animal, the technique was first pioneered in the late 1890s by George Shiras. His original cameras used trip-wires and flash bulbs to capture images on film. His photos were later published in National Geographic. 

It wasn’t until the 1990s that cameras became available with infrared detection and no longer required the use of a trip-wire. With the advent of digital cameras, wildlife cameras have become easier to use and more affordable, creating new opportunities for not only scientific research but also amateur photography.

As an avid backpacker, I always thought it’d be fun to take wildlife cameras with me into the backcountry. Recently, I joined a class offered by local wildlife biologist David Lee. The class was hosted by Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, which manages preserves in the Ojai Valley and along the Ventura River.

Mr. Lee’s first introduction to camera tracking was in Bozeman, Montana. After finishing graduate school in the early 2000s, he participated in a field survey of rare carnivores. The presence-absence study used both tracking and wildlife cameras to verify and estimate the number of wolverine and lynx in the study area.

Currently, Mr. Lee lives in Ventura and works as a senior biologist for Davey Resource Group. His job often takes him out into the field for environmental surveys, where he gets to see a fair amount of wildlife. However, about four years ago, he realized that he was missing a sense of connection to the larger mammals in our area, which are seen less frequently, and decided to get back into camera tracking.   

David Lee ventura wildlife guru camera trapping tracking

David Lee demonstrating how to set up a wildlife camera

“I started putting cameras up in the Ventura Hills area just to have a view into the lives of these animals.” Mr. Lee told the News-Press. “Many of them only come out at night and are hard to see any other way than with a camera.” Some of the animals he’s photographed include coyote, skunk, grey fox, bobcat, mountain lion, and deer.

Next he began working with local preserve managers to do volunteer wildlife monitoring. At Ventura River Preserve, he placed a camera along Sycamore Creek, selecting a spot next to a reliable water source, and eventually captured an image of a ringtail. Although common to our area, ringtails are generally nocturnal and often go unnoticed.

Another technique he uses to select a camera location is to “fly over the site” using Google Earth and study the landscape looking for likely animal corridors. For example, in looking at a canyon in Ventura River Preserve, he noticed what appeared to be a route through the brush, leading from a meadow to a stream. He then went out to the site and found bear scat, antler rubs, and other tracks along the route. Hoping to get pictures of black bears or mountains lions, when he checked the camera several weeks later, he was surprised that one of the best shots was of a grey fox.

Mr. Lee recommends selecting sites that don’t see many visitors, so that the camera can be left out for an extended period. “Generally, the rule is the larger the animal, the less frequently you’ll see them, because they have larger home ranges. A smaller animal like a skunk or opossum might pass your camera on a nightly basis, while a mountain lion, especially a male, might only pass through the area once a month.”

“Wildlife cameras can also help identify wildlife corridors and favored habitat, providing data that can help focus conservation efforts.” Mr. Lee added, “Once you start getting some good photos, it’s worth sharing them online at, which contributes to the collective knowledge of that species.”

While it can take time to get a great photo, he admits sometimes you get lucky. One night, while visiting his family’s rural property in Lompoc he set up a camera in the rain on their driveway. The next morning, he had an image of a mountain lion passing by.

Prices for wildlife cameras range from $100-$1,000. Most are lightweight, battery-operated, and can take a combination of color videos and still photographs. They use motion and infrared detection to trigger the camera and the images are stored on a memory card. There’s even a model that will email you pictures if there’s cell reception and let you remotely change settings.

ringtail cat david lee wildlife camera tracking trapping ventura river preserve Ojai Valley land conservancy

Ringtail photographed at Ventura River Preserve, image courtesy David Lee

In terms of nighttime photography, the three basic camera types are no glow infrared, low glow infrared, and white flash. Each has its pluses and minuses. White flash cameras let you take color photos at night, but can be seen by other people, which can be a problem in unsecured locations. Low glow cameras emit a red light that can also be seen. The light does not seem to disturb most animals. No glow cameras are virtually unnoticeable. Both low glow and no glow cameras only produce black and white images at night.

Selecting a site can be a bit of an art form. Being able to recognize the tracks and scats of the animals you want to photograph can be helpful in identifying a good location. Animals will often leave scat at trail junctures which can indicate whether or not a trail is used frequently. Water sources are also good locations, particularly during the summer or when there’s a drought, as they can help draw in and concentrate wildlife activity. Lastly, being able to imagine how an animal might travel through an area and see the landscape from its perspective can be helpful in determining the best placement for the camera. 

Once you’ve selected a site, you’ll want to find a tree on which to mount your camera. Place the camera 8-10 feet from the target area and about three feet above the ground, which is the right height and distance for most of our local wildlife.

Mr. Lee recommends using a mounting bracket instead of strapping the camera directly to the tree; this allows you to freely angle the camera as needed. You’ll also want to secure the camera with a cable lock to protect your investment.

Next do a series of test shots walking past the camera. Here’s where having a camera with a view finder makes things easier, otherwise you’ll need to find a way to view the images in the field. There are adapters that let you connect the memory card to your smartphone, or you can sometimes put the card in your digital camera and view the images there.  

After it’s completely set up, Mr. Lee suggests taking a picture of the camera and its location and writing down the settings. This will help you later when reviewing pictures to improve on your results.

Even before you head out to the field, you’ll want to set the camera up in your garage or backyard, and test it at night, to get familiar with the settings and placement.

After that, it’s a combination of skill and luck as to what you’ll find. “That’s one of the things that makes it fun.” Mr. Lee reflected, “You never know what you’re going to get until you put a camera out there. You might get nothing, or you might get a really amazing shot.” 

Mr. Lee’s next presentation on wildlife camera tracking is March 2nd, at Carpinteria Public Library. 

This article originally appeared in Section A of the January 30th, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

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