Posted by: James Wapotich | August 4, 2018

Trail Quest: Remote viewing Parma Park

Wildlife cameras are a great way to peak into the hidden lives of the animals around us. They provide a way to view wildlife in their natural state, undisturbed by our presence.

Camera tracking was first pioneered in the late 1890s, and was originally called camera trapping because the camera required the use of a trip-wire for a picture to be taken. In the 1990s, motion detection cameras with infrared sensors became available to the public, opening up a wider range of opportunities to observe and track animals.

Last fall, a friend loaned me one of his wildlife cameras. Recalling the advice of wildlife biologist David Lee, I set the camera up in my backyard. I’d taken a camera tracking class with Mr. Lee earlier in the year, and one of his suggestions was to set the camera up at home to get familiar with it before taking out it into the field.

Where I live in town, there are several oaks and other trees mixed with native and non-native plants. My landlord is a landscaper who appreciates the different animals that frequent the yard and has stashed water dishes around the property, which he fills from time to time.

Outside my window, there’s a dish along a path that leads around the corner of the building. I’ll often hear animals at night scurrying along the path or drinking from the dish, and will occasionally see a skunk or possum when I go outside to investigate.

One of the keys to placing a wildlife camera, is selecting a location with a lot of activity and so I figured this would be a good spot. Nevertheless, I was surprised by just how much traffic passes by my window unnoticed.

Through the images captured by the camera, I learned that there are at least two different skunks and possums in the yard that have a little circuit they follow almost nightly.

This was consistent with what Mr. Lee shared during the class, that smaller animals like skunks and possums have smaller home ranges and one is likely to see them almost nightly, while larger mammals such as bears and mountain lions in the backcountry might only pass a particular spot once a month.

Another surprise was my neighbor’s cat. I might see him once or twice a month in person, but he’s out there 2-3 times a day cruising around the yard, which is clearly part of his territory. Other animals recorded included squirrels and crows who also frequent the water dish.

Encouraged by my results, I purchased several cameras, since they proved relatively easy to set up and use, and started thinking of where else I could place them.

The ideal location would be somewhere with a lot of diverse wildlife activity, that’s also was relatively easy to get to in order to check the camera and swap out the memory card and batteries as needed. At the same time, the location would need to be off the beaten path far enough so as to go unnoticed by other people to prevent the camera from being damaged or stolen.

Eventually, Parma Park came to mind, which is close to where I live and doesn’t see as many visitors as the more popular front country trails.

Parma Park is a 200-acre open space park managed by the City of Santa Barbara in Sycamore Canyon. The park features a mix of riparian, oak woodland, chaparral, and grassland. There are roughly five miles of trails within the park, which is open from sunrise to a half-hour after sunset.

The main entrance to the park is along Stanwood Drive. A short way in from the entrance, near the picnic tables, is an interpretive sign with a map of the different trails.

I set up my first camera in March along one of the tributaries of Sycamore Creek, brilliantly located, I thought, at the confluence of two creeks. The site seemed promising, lots of poison oak to discourage visitors, flowing water, and two watercourses for animals to explore. To clinch the deal, I even found where a mountain lion had killed a deer nearby.

However, when I checked the camera a week later, all I saw was a couple of mice and a very fast squirrel. It seemed the lesson was, just because I thought it was a great place, didn’t mean the animals thought it was a great place. Going over the site in my mind, I had to admit that I hadn’t seen a lot of tracks or scat and decided to find a place with more evidence of wildlife traffic.

On the way back, I spotted a side trail leading away from the creek that looked promising. A short way up the trail, I found relatively fresh deer tracks, as well as older tracks from when the ground was wet during the last rain. But what really caught my attention was a set of mountain lion tracks crossing the deer tracks. The tracks were of different ages, but as I studied the site it looked like it was the intersection of several different animal paths.

I found a nearby tree to strap the camera to and made a series of test shots as I’d done in my backyard, walking through the field of view and fine tuning the height and angle of the camera. Satisfied with the placement, I secured the camera with a lock.

When I went back a week later the results were astounding. According to the time stamp, three days after I set up the camera a pack of five coyotes wandered through around six in the evening one Saturday. Two dashed up the hill, the second one doubled back just as three more arrived. Two of them wandered off, while the other two hung out for a while before disbursing. Other animals recorded by the camera included skunk, rabbit, and deer.

When I went back roughly a week later, the next batch of images contained a couple more coyote, more deer, and this time a bobcat.

Inspired by my success, I set up a second camera further up the hill where I found a trail that went between two bushes. Hoping to capture images of a fox or bobcat, I angled the camera looking out along the trail towards an intersection with another trial that came up the hill. I wasn’t sure how productive the site would be, but it was certainly hidden.

When I returned a week later, according to the time stamp, just an hour and fifteen minutes after I left a deer came through and to my surprise continued past the camera along the trail, which I would’ve thought too small for a deer. Another image showed a buck coming up and sniffing the camera. But the real prize was two different shots of a bobcat coming and going along the trail.

However, when I returned a second time a week later I noticed the results were less dramatic. No bobcat, and although I could see deer at the trail juncture, none of them took the trail leading past the camera. When I checked the first camera, I also noticed a decline in the activity and wondered if I hadn’t “soured” the sites with my regular visits.

In his class, Mr. Lee had cautioned us not to eat food or go the bathroom near where we set up our cameras because it could cause animals to avoid the area. And while I hadn’t done either of those, I had inadvertently sat there reviewing the images on my camera. I resolved to visit the sites less frequently and minimize the amount of time spent there.

Both sites rebounded. At the second site, deer resumed using the path through the brush. And at the first site, there was veritable parade of deer. In fact, in reviewing the images from both sites for the past several months, I was able to recognize some of the deer as regulars, either by their antlers or the nicks and tears in their ears.

Among the deer, four bucks passed through, one after the other, around noon on a Monday, looking like reindeer with their velvet antlers. In last set of images, a fox wondered through at night adding to the variety of animals using that particular route.

There is something satisfying about seeing animals in their natural state, unaware that they’re being observed. When I encounter animals in the wild, their behavior often changes in response to my presence. They either dash off or cautiously continue what they’re doing. But here, through the camera, their natural rhythm is unbroken, and viewing the images brings with it a sense of being in the backcountry and peering into a world that is usually hidden from view.

Article appears in section A of the July 23rd, 2018 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

Odocoileus hemionus californicus California mule deer black-tailed mule deer wildlife camera tracking bucks santa barbara

California mule deer aka black-tailed mule deer

Odocoileus hemionus californicus California mule deer black-tailed mule deer wildlife camera tracking buck santa barbara

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coyote Canis latrans wildlife camera tracking santa barbara

Coyote

coyote Canis latrans wildlife camera tracking santa barbara

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coyotes Canis latrans wildlife camera tracking parma park santa barbara

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bobcat Lynx rufus wildlife camera tracking parma park santa barbara

Bobcat

bobcat Lynx rufus wildlife camera tracking parma park santa barbara

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bobcat Lynx rufus wildlife camera tracking parma park santa barbara

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Odocoileus hemionus californicus California mule deer black-tailed mule deer wildlife camera tracking buck

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Odocoileus hemionus californicus California mule deer black-tailed mule deer wildlife camera tracking buck

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Odocoileus hemionus californicus California mule deer black-tailed mule deer wildlife camera tracking buck

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Odocoileus hemionus californicus California mule deer black-tailed mule deer wildlife camera tracking buck

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Odocoileus hemionus californicus California mule deer black-tailed mule deer wildlife camera tracking buck

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Odocoileus hemionus californicus California mule deer black-tailed mule deer wildlife camera tracking buck

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Odocoileus hemionus californicus California mule deer black-tailed mule deer wildlife camera tracking buck

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Odocoileus hemionus californicus California mule deer black-tailed mule deer wildlife camera tracking buck

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Odocoileus hemionus californicus California mule deer black-tailed mule deer wildlife camera tracking does

Does

skunk wildlife camera tracking santa barbara

Skunk

grey fox Urocyon cinereoargenteus wildlife camera tracking parma park santa barbara

Grey fox

Below are some images from the nearby second site.

Odocoileus hemionus californicus California mule deer black-tailed mule deer wildlife camera tracking buck santa barbara

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bobcat Lynx rufus wildlife camera tracking parma park santa barbara

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bobcat Lynx rufus wildlife camera tracking parma park santa barbara

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mouse wildlife camera tracking parma park santa barbara

Mouse

Flicker Colaptes auratus wildlife camera tracking santa barbara

Flicker

grey fox Urocyon cinereoargenteus wildlife camera tracking parma park santa barbara

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Responses

  1. Hi James,

    It was very interesting to read about your experience with wildlife cameras. My colleague James lives up at the end of Mission canyon and has sent me a few nice shots taken in his driveway including bears, mountain lion and bobcats. He is actually quite sure that the mountain lion lives in that area as he and some of his neighbors have seen it a few times. Also some of of their pets got killed and neighbors tend to have more dogs around… Let me see if I find a a few from his pictures and I will send them in an email.

    Sebastian


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