November 10, 2012

Cameras, apps useful way to record wildlife data


---- — It’s hard to leave the North Country in the fall but in October I attended the 2012 Northeast Wildlife Trackers Conference in Leominster, Mass. The conference includes a full day of presentations from professionals who study wildlife for scientific purposes as well as for population management, conservation efforts and the love of nature.

The keynote speaker of the conference this year was Roland Kays, former Curator of Mammals at the New York State Museum, who spoke about using new technologies to study free-ranging animals. Kays called his presentation “Camera Traps as Binoculars for Mammal Watchers”. He began with some historical perspective, citing early camera work by Frank Chapman, the National Geographic photographer and ornithologist who was one of the initiators of the Christmas Bird Count over 100 years ago.

In some studies, Kays has placed up to 20 cameras per acre, leaving them out for periods between one week and one month. The amount of data recorded from these studies has driven the development of increasingly sophisticated software. Programs are being designed to recognize animals that appear on digital images without the need for human input. At the Smithsonian’s website Kays’ eMammal project allows viewers to browse over 200,000 wildlife images collected from remote cameras at research sights around the world.

In addition to Kays, the list of presenters included Danielle Garneau, Professor of Ecology at SUNY Plattsburgh. Prof. Garneau has recently released two phone apps to collect data on roadkill and live animal sightings on the free EpiCollect platform. Her work at SUNY Plattsburgh includes teaching Wildlife Ecology and Management and her students have used the phone apps (RoadkillGarneau and WildlifeBlitzGarneau) to submit data on over 35 species killed on North Country roadsides.

Although the dataset is still relatively small for the North Country, students in Garneau’s classes have begun to query the species most commonly hit by cars, the stretches of road most dangerous for animals to cross and how precipitation and speed limit affect rates of roadkill. Because DEC divides roadkill data into two basic categories — white-tailed deer and all other species — this new tool allows local drivers and wildlife monitors to get more detailed information.

But like other citizen science initiatives, RoadKillGarneaut relies on citizen participation. In order to include as many citizen data collectors as possible, Garneau also has made available a Google form on her website to merge data submitted from a computer rather than a phone. As an important note: Garneau urges data collectors to “use good judgment when stopping roadside to take pictures and collect data. DO NOT stop along major highways and only stop when safe to do so. Be sure you do not input data into your phone while driving.”

Prof. Garneau is among a group of wildlife trackers working in the Champlain Valley under a program supported by the Northeast Wilderness Trust. Camera traps and access to live databases will make analysis easier of this survey data and improve the validity of informal observations—whether it’s the presence of mountain lions or the population of grouse. But even with new tools there’s no substitute for dirt time. And photos of coyotes with noses up against the lens of remote cameras reinforce the point that wildlife has their own say in what they share with humans in their habitat.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at