Wildlife Cams: It’s a Snap to Get Started!

By Catherine Bartlett, Education Program Manager  

At the Desert Museum, we use wildlife cameras (also known as trail cams or camera traps) in exhibits (to track health and activity of animals), in student research projects, and in partnership with the Sky Island Alliance’s FotoFauna Project. You too can capture backyard biodiversity with these devices. Give it a shot!  

A curious canyon wren checks out a camera in a Desert Museum exhibit. Credit: Keeper Allison 

Step 1: Determine How You Want to Use the Camera 

Do you want to use a wildlife camera near your home and check it regularly? If so, you don’t need Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or cellular capabilities– a simple model with an SD memory card will suffice. Next, decide if you want photos, videos, or both (called hybrid models) and search for one with your media preference. Other features to consider: time lapse, low-glow night shots, viewing window on the device, and audio enabled.  

Step 2: Scout a Place to Put your Camera 

Your own property is the best place to begin your camera trapping adventure, but if you want to put it (or point it) elsewhere you’ll need permission from the landowner or agency responsible for that land.  

Previous Junior Docents set up their trail cams and analyze the results (pictures taken pre-COVID 19) 

Step 3: Set a Budget and Shop Around 

As with any purchase, do your research and read the reviews. Devices can run anywhere from $40 dollars to a couple hundred. At the Desert Museum we use brands such as Browning and Bushnell which have proven quality over the years. Check out TrailCamPro.com for extensive reviews and helpful buying guides.  

Don’t forget to get reusable batteries and an SD card. Helpful hint: Some cameras can only use SD cards up to a certain GB (gigabyte) capacity so check that your SD card is compatible with the camera you want.  

Earth Camper Luna Powell captured a coati and a cougar for her Biodiversity Project. 

Step 4: Unbox that Beauty and Set it Up 

It really is a thrill to set up your camera (go step by step through its user manual) and get it outside. For best photos, pick a location that is free of tall grass or branches to ensure you aren’t getting hundreds of images of vegetation on a windy day. Set the camera near a known wildlife trail, a water dish, or anywhere you’ve noticed tracks or scat. Keep it low to the ground and use test mode to ensure activity is being picked up. Hint: most cameras have difficulty focusing at close range. Place your camera 4 or more feet away from the activity spot. Now, and this is crucial, turn on your camera before walking away. Many biologists (myself included) have learned this the hard way!  

Tucson is known for its wildcats! Submit your sightings to the Bobcats in Tucson Research Project

Step 5: Check Your Camera’s Memory Card 

This is the real fun—discovering what nature lives in and around your area! If you’re in Tucson you might see bobcats, hawks, javelina, roadrunners, and coyotes in addition to all the quail and doves. You might be surprised to learn that a skunk or a raccoon lives in your area, too!

 Not sure exactly what species you have? Check out Saguaro National Park’s Guide to Identifying Difficult to Distinguish Mammals

Variation in hooded skunks by Meagan Bethel 

Step 6: Share Your Pics 

This amusing at-home STEM activity is fun for everyone and a great way to inspire your family to take notice of the biodiversity in their surroundings. Then, add your photos to community science projects such as Bobcats in Tucson and FotoFauna. Once you have a location you like, keep your camera there for an extended amount of time. It’s fascinating to see seasonal variations, migratory species, or see those chicks, cubs, or pups grow up. Keep a running list of all species sighted—your area might be a lot wilder than you expected! 

Watch a squadron of peccaries and their reds grow up over time. Remember: leave out water for wildlife if you wish, but do not feed. 

Do you have an amazing wildlife camera picture? Share it on social media and tag us (#desertmuseum and @desertmuseum). Your picture could be featured on our social media feeds!

A deer is spotted near the Desert Museum. This data is compiled in the Sky Island Alliance’s FotoFauna Project.

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