Nature trail cams capture fascinating candid wildlife

Published: January 10, 2019

A camera filming trees. Photo by MP_P.

Our trail pops out of a small valley into a spot high in the sunshine, from where we can see just how stunning an autumn day it is in the foothills. The sky clear and blue, the wind fresh, and only a light dusting of snow in the shade under the tree cover. I am hiking the eastern slopes of the Rockies with Viv and Mark Klingbeil, and even though we are only about 60 kilometres from downtown Calgary as the crow flies, it might as well be 600, so dense is the forest in spots.

It’s the kind of forest where you might find, and expect to find, bears. Viv Klingbeil has always been scared of them, which seems entirely sensible. Of course, if you had such a fear, it would normally follow that you’d do your best to avoid places you might run into a bear.

But not Viv. She and her husband, Mark, have been hiking pretty much smack in the middle of prime bear habitat for the last four decades or so. Doubling down, they decided about thirty years ago to buy a quarter section of land in the Rocky Mountain foothills, halfway between Calgary and Banff, and eventually build a cabin on it. “I know, it’s crazy,” says Viv, laughing. “I worried about bears every single time we went on a hike. And then we got this place and I was nervous here too,” she continues. “I admit it, I’m wimpy! But it’s changed now, that fear. At least a bit.”

Courtesy of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, this video compiles a number of wildlife videos from British Columbia.

What changed Viv’s gnawing dread of a bear behind every bush waiting to lumber out and chew her leg off was their trail camera hobby, which started almost 15 years ago. “Okay, maybe it started as a hobby, but it became an obsession,” she says, her engaging laughter emerging again.

To show me where it all began, we’ve set out for a hike, meandering through the network of a dozen kilometres of trails criss-crossing the property. Viv points out the motion-activated cameras they have stationed along the way.

When we come to an intersection of trails running to all four corners of the compass, out near the southwest edge of their land, we stop and Viv tells me about the Saturday before, when they had been out checking their line of cameras and saw fresh grizzly tracks on one of the trails. Eagerly, they slipped out the memory card of the nearest one, and put it into a camera that Viv had around her neck, so they could look at what they’d captured, right where they stood on the trail.

“And it turned out,” says Viv, her voice rising as we now stand on the same spot, “Mark had been out on the trails the previous day but had left around four in the afternoon and the grizzly was wandering down our trail at six p.m. on the Friday. Which means he was on the trail just a couple hours before the grizzly wandered by!”

It is wilderness out here, there is no mistake about that. The Klingbeil’s quarter covers rolling foothills, with beaver dams, marshes, tiny streams, and is cross-hatched by animal and man-made trails. Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce, and lodgepole pines grope a hundred feet into the sky. Deep in the trees, breathing in the crisp but still mossy air, Viv notes that “it’s easy to see why cultures have adopted what they call forest bathing, you know, going for a hike not just to exercise your body, but all your senses, too.”

The trails we are on are easily walkable and wide, and even though it seems pastoral at times, there are occasional cues as to where we really are. We stop by a section of barbed wire fence along the southeast border of their property. “Look at this,” says Viv, gesturing for me to come closer. She pulls a wisp of coarse blond fur from a barb and holds it up for me to see. “Black bear. A white one,” she says. “Our ‘spirit’ bear.”

Viv first noticed the bear a few years back when it ambled past one of their cameras. She knows it isn’t a true Kermode bear, since true Kermodes are a subspecies of black bear with a recessive gene and are found only in B.C. The light fur in this case is a normal variation in coat colour—black bears can also be brown or red. As we walk along the trails, essentially circumnavigating the property—a hike that takes a couple of hours—Viv and Mark point out the trail cameras along the way. They have about 30 of them, and are all attached to trees roughly a couple feet off the ground and oriented either up or down the trail, rather than straight across. This lets them capture a longer view instead of the equivalent of a car crossing a finish line. I would not notice the cameras if Viv and Mark did not point them out.

Their weekly routine is to take a quad up and down the trail system to swap out the memory cards of all thirty cameras (it takes about an hour). Given that each camera is triggered by any movement, Viv and Mark figure they have to sort through about 3,000 pictures a week, of which they will select 30 or 40 really good ones. Of those, Viv will post maybe ten on Twitter and five or six on Instagram. She has roughly 1,850 followers on Twitter and 2,600 on Instagram, including some scientists and naturalists who study wildlife patterns in the area. After 15 years of recording trail activity on their land, they have seen evidence of such an abundance of wildlife that it now takes something extraordinary for them to even keep the photo. The sightings of deer, elk, and moose are so common, they don’t share the vast majority of those images.

Some of their best shots are ones that have taken them completely off guard. Once, they uploaded footage from their weekly batch to find a fox and a skunk having a showdown on a trail. Viv showed me a photo of the skirmish. The fox was snarling but looked highly unsure of itself and appeared to already be backing up. The skunk, on the other hand, had its tail in the air and was firmly standing its ground. You could almost smell the spray coming off the photo, it was so vivid. Maybe the fox could smell it too, because it backed off and the skunk emerged victorious. “Some years the skunks are so aggressive,” says Viv, laughing. “They just wander around the forest like they own it!”

Viv’s trail camera passion emerged over time. It certainly wasn’t a hobby she brought with her when they bought the property. In fact, when Viv and Mark (who now have four grown children) arrived, not only was there was no water, no power, and no utilities, there was no dwelling (save an abandoned bus the previous owner had retrofitted into a kind of RV). There was just a lot of bush, a lot of trees, and a lot of deadfall.

And a lot of animals. Once they’d cleared a few existing trails and created many new ones (mostly for hiking and cross-country skiing), they started seeing animal tracks—deer, cougar, fox, moose—on a regular basis across all four seasons. One year they did some selective logging, which created just the right mix of cover and openness in the forest off the trails, since it allowed for easier animal passage without being seen. That first winter after they logged, says Mark, there were tracks everywhere. “We educated ourselves,” adds Viv. “We used to joke with the kids to not go off into the long grass, that we’d never see them again, but once we started seeing all those tracks, we didn’t quite joke as much. I mean, we almost never saw the animals, but we sure knew they were there just because we saw so many tracks. But never the actual animals. Or at least, almost never.”

It was at Christmas of 2004 that Mark bought Viv her first trail camera. “We had talked about it,” recalls Viv. “I’m a very curious person. It was driving me crazy that I couldn’t see anything.” Neither had any plans to take the project further than the initial $200 investment. “It was  just a way to confirm what we thought was happening,” says Viv.

They installed it a month later and were soon getting a variety of shots, but it wasn’t until the following the December that the camera captured a stunningly clear shot of a wolf wandering down the trail. Viv was hooked. “That is absolutely what started it all for me,” she says. “It was then I think that we really realized that our place was home to so many amazing animals.”

Then came the first cougar. Then a cougar with her cubs. Then they saw black bears. They added more cameras—“A camera would go on sale, and we’d pick one up,” says Viv—and capture more photos. Owls, foxes, skunks, moose, elk, grizzly bears. It just kept getting better and better. And more addictive. “Every single time we looked at the new shots, it was amazing,” says Viv. “It was like Christmas every single week!”

They now have photographed so much wildlife over so many years that they are actually starting to notice patterns through the photos. They’ve captured foxes, coyotes, and wolves in the same area at the same time, says Viv. “Seeing all three, I’m told that it could be indication that there is a lot of prey. It means they can coexist.” Cougars and grizzlies, meanwhile, seem to come through every three or four weeks, says Viv, while black bear visitors are more frequent.

Not surprising, says John Paczkowski, a park ecologist with Alberta Environment and Parks. Cougars, for example, are known for doing “circuits” of areas. And while many wildlife species are usually pretty wary around humans—and do everything they can to avoid them—bears and some ungulates do like forest openings and forest edges, says Paczkowski. This is why Viv and Mark’s trail clearing efforts not only revealed more animal tracks, but drew more animals to the area. “Forest openings are attractive,” says Paczkowski. “They’re typically a more productive place for food compared to dense, mature forest.”

Following the fates of the animals around them sometimes creates a wistfulness in Viv. Case in point was her favourite animal from recent years, a three-legged wolf, one that she suspected had been caught in a trap and had probably chewed off part of its leg to escape. That wolf—Viv thought of her as a female, though she wasn’t sure—showed up on their trails for three years in a row, but now hasn’t been seen since March of 2016. “I just wonder where she went and if she’s okay,” she says. “I get attached to some of the animals. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. Not that I necessarily want to see them in person! But when you see them year after year, the same animals, like the three-legged wolf, and then they don’t show up the following year, well, you worry.”

For all the joy and fascination the trail cameras bring them, there are, Viv notes, minor downsides. They have found out in recent years that hunters have started following the Instagram feed, as a way of trying to determine what game are inhabiting particular areas. Mark has encouraged Viv to be vague about where they’re located when she posts.

“I guess I always thought everyone was as innocent as me,” says Viv. “I had no idea. But we’ve learned not to post photos of these big antlered animals around hunting season.”

Another surprise? When they learned that many of the wildlife shots that get social media attention are “baited,” meaning that a photographer will, for instance, buy live mice and bait a certain area with them in the hopes of attracting an owl or a raptor.

“The most I do is put out food for the whiskey jacks—and Mark gives me a hard time for doing even that,” says Viv. “I say, ‘Mark, they’re whiskey jacks.’”

Their experience has taught them a few fundamental lessons, the first being that their land, and therefore most of the land around them between Calgary and Banff, is teeming with wildlife. But it is, again, wildlife that does not generally want to be seen.

“It absolutely never ceases to amaze me,” says Viv, “how many times we’ll walk down a trail and see nothing, I mean, nothing, only to look at a camera the next day and find out that an animal was walking down that same trail fifteen minutes before us or fifteen minutes after us. It’s incredible. They know we’re here, and if they wanted us to see them, we would.” Which leads Viv to the most fundamental insight that her trail camera passion has given her—that we can co-habit. “Just as long as we never forget,” she says, “what a privilege it is to see these animals and share this land with them.”

Even the bears.

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