Meeting the natives

Camera trapping in your back garden

Hello everyone. My name is Kirstin and I am the Reserve Assistant for Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve, nestled in the North East of the Cairngorm’s National Park.

I am quite simply obsessed with spying on wildlife! I am not ashamed to admit it and its not become a problem – yet.

I discovered the joy of trail cameras with the Wildcat Project in Angus over three winters.

We set up over 70 cameras across the glens to help in the research and monitoring of wildcats and feral cats and identify the routes that they use and the size of their territories. And we found them!

But it was not just the cats – we also uncovered the whole other world of the animals that live out their lives there.

Since then, I have become a raving advocate of this wildlife friendly technology and own three cameras myself.

What is a Camera Trap?

A camera trap is simply a digital camera connected to an infrared sensor which can “see” warm objects that are moving, like animals.

When an animal moves past the sensor it causes the camera to fire, recording an image or video to a memory card. The beauty of camera traps is that they can be left in the field to watch an area of habitat for weeks or even months.

The Browning Special Ops is the camera I own now and it is one of the best camera’s I have ever handled – and I have handled quite a few. The excellent sound recording makes this a completely immersive experience.

I am a little bit guilty of going after our shyer and more elusive species – particularly mammals and often nocturnal mammals.

This is where camera traps come into their own.

They are wildlife friendly – in that the animals don’t know they are even there apart from your residual scent – so they can capture shy and skittish species. As most of you will have seen in wildlife documentaries they have been used to record some of the rarest species in the world and some fascinating animal behaviour.

They operate at night when we don’t so are perfect for nocturnal species.

Renegade Pine marten at Muir Dinnet out and about at 4 in the afternoon.

Renegade Pine marten at Muir Dinnet out and about at 4 in the afternoon.

But during lock down I have turned my attention to my garden and my feathered neighbours.

I have to admit it has been challenging – but really rewarding. I hadn’t realised birds have so much personality!.

So to avoid all of the pitfalls that I fell into repeatedly here is my How To Guide.

First Step: Choosing a Camera

My go-to place to help me choose my camera was NatureSpy. They are a not-for-profit organisation who tap into conservation camera trapping across the UK to get the low down on makes and models. They have a excellent choosing a camera section – https://shop.naturespy.org/camera-trap-chooser/

Second Step: Identify where the action is.

A camera is only as good as the person wielding it!

Start watching your garden to identify any hot spots.

Feeding stations are great areas for birds to congregate. Though the middle of my garden is abit of a desert for wildlife and mown within an inch of its life we leave the edges wild to act as wildlife corridors and this is where we have placed our bird feeders.

Other brilliant areas for action are watering holes – so garden ponds or fountains. If you are lucky enough to get visiting mammals to your garden try and identify where they come in – a gap in the fence or a well used run in the grass.

Please be respectful of the your wildlife. It is bird nesting season. While an obvious place for a camera is on nest boxes or nest sites it might not be the wisest place. I have Blue tits on eggs in a nestbox and pied wagtails on eggs in my woodshed and have opted not to camera trap these just now and leave them undisturbed to raise their young.

Pre-camera trap baiting can be a great way to get passing wildlife used to stopping for a few minutes so you can get images when the time comes. The bait has to be targeted to the species and never in excessive amounts. I put a small dish of cat food out every night for any passing hedgehogs, foxes or badgers.

 

Step 3 – Really get to know your camera and its settings.

All cameras will need AA batteries and an SD card . Its a good idea to have 2 SD cards per camera so you can switch out and let the camera keep going.

Lots of camera models have a hybrid setting that lets you take a mix of photo’s and video. You can set the number of photos it takes and the length of video. Be aware though that the camera takes the photos 1st and then begins to video – so you could miss the animal in motion by the time the video catches up.

Also with video don’t always think the longer the better. Most wildlife passes through pretty quickly and when it comes to going through your footage a 30 second clip that is mostly empty can mean the difference between you staying interested and getting bored and giving up – and missing some really good stuff!

I have opted for 10 second video with an instant delay – so if it gets interesting the camera will instantly create another video. I personally value video more. I camera trap for behaviour mainly so its animals in motion and sound that I target.

Check the date and time are correct!!!!

Don’t be scared of the camera! I have seen the fear many times – Experiment on all settings in your living room and see what works best for you.

Step 4 Setting up and Camera placement

This is the single most important factor standing between success and failure. Be instinctive and place your camera in a place that feels positive to you. A camera should ideally be placed about 2 metres from your target on a diagonal so you can capture an animals approach.

After several years I am now firmly of the opinion go as low as you can go when placing a camera. Most animals are much smaller than we are and navigate the world at a much lower level. So don’t go for an animals head height – go for feet height.

I rather smugly thought I would place my camera opposite a feeder and catch amazing footage. Not so. I think I have moved my camera about 15 times this weeks due to false triggers caused by swaying vegetation.

Necessity being the mother of invention I decided to try ground feeding the birds. Certain species actually prefer to feed from the ground, such as the blackbird, chaffinch and Robin. And it worked -phew.

Meet the Natives

The Greater Spotted Woodpeckers – Mr and Mrs

Greater spotted woodpeckers will happily come to peanut feeders and bird tables. It’s easy to tell the sexes apart, as only the male has the patch of scarlet on the back of the neck. Did you know an unpaired male may drum as many as 600 times a day; a paired male just 200 times.

Carrion Crow – Aka greedy guts in my garden.

The all-black carrion crow is one of our cleverest, most adaptable birds. This crow was the first bird to cotton on to the food on the ground and is the first there in the morning. This is a well known character trait – although often cautious at first, they soon learn when it is safe, and return repeatedly to take advantage of whatever is on offer.

Shameless behaviour – Not content to just eat his fill this crow crams more seed into a special pouch in his mouth. He will cache it for later.

Jay

Jays are one of the most photogenic birds in my garden and are a wonder to watch. Look at those colours, the moustache , the streaky head, the eyes. Although they are the most colourful members of the crow family, jays are actually quite difficult to see alot of the time. They are shy woodland birds, rarely moving far from cover.

This Jay is an early morning visitor and is always watchful

A Goldfinch and Yellowhammer

Male yellowhammers are unmistakeable with a bright yellow head and belly and a brown back streaked with black. A bird of farmland they are often seen perched on top of a hedge or bush, singing.
Its recent population decline make it a Red List species.
This was the one and only visit from a Goldfinch this week. The striking red crown, golden back, and bright yellow wings of the goldfinch make it one of our prettiest garden birds.

The female yellowhammer is much browner with more a more streaky belly. She also has less yellow on her head.

Pied Wagtail

This nesting pair return year after year to nest in the woodshed and they are surprisingly quiet neighbours. Filmed when they were in the industrious nest building mode back in April and left alone now for the egg sitting, chick rearing stage. I love their constant tail wagging.

Robin

Each robin has a unique breast pattern, and can (with great difficulty) be recognised individually.
Given a choice of any food, most robins like mealworms best of all.

Chaffinch

Chaffinches have regional accents, with slight differences in song depending on where in the country the bird lives. The one essential for chaffinches to thrive in gardens is plenty of trees.
Did you know: Introduced to New Zealand in 1862 the Chaffinch is now the most numerous bird in the country.

Blackbird

The blackbird is the most abundant bird in the British Isles, with a population of around 6 million pairs. The song of the blackbird is arguably the most beautiful and well known of any British bird. Did you know: They like to sing after the rain.

Dunnock

A small retiring bird of garden fringes and under bushes with a flamboyant love life. Though they do form strong pair bonds the female will still mate with another male, so neither male knows who the father is and both supply her chicks with food.
This can lead to pretty animated male territorial behaviour with calling and wing-flicking.

Great Tit

Most Great Tits rarely move far from where they hatched and the most successful and dominant cocks tend to have the thickest black stripes down the center of their chests. This Great Tit has been slowed down slightly in Windows photo Editor.

And finally a Blue Tit peck-by

Though this is pretty bad footage of a blue-tit having a go at my camera I absolutely love it. It sums up a blue-tits personality perfectly – feisty. Gotta respect that!

So these are my neighbours and a diverse bunch they are too. Happy camera trapping everyone and be aware – this is a highly addictive activity!

Blog Film Native Species Virtual
Location: Cairngorms National Park Wide Date: May 22, 2020 Time: 9:00 am - 11:59 pm