Smile! You're on Critter Cam!

Who lives in the woods? This spring, Gateway Nature Preserve had the chance to find out, thanks to the North Carolina Candid Critters project. Using a trail camera provided by Candid Critters through the Forsyth County Public Library, we captured the movement of deer, raccoons, red foxes, squirrels, and groundhogs—and one spider!

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NC Candid Critters uses data collected by citizen scientists to map trends in animal populations across the state. It provides motion-activated trail cameras to individuals and groups interested in tracking wildlife. After a brief training, the participants follow standardized guidelines in setting up the cameras for three-week long "deployments." At the end of the three weeks, the data is loaded from the camera's sim card to eMammal, a program managed by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and sent to the NC Candid Critter team at NC State University.

In March, Gateway Nature Preserve volunteers placed the trail camera in the woods over the greenway, and in April set up a second deployment facing the meadow area south of Salem Creek. Each deployment resulted in more than 800 motion-activated photos, capturing color photos during the day and black-and-white at night. The amount of activity was partly luck in camera placement, partly following cues that suggested animal activity—for example, nibbled daylily leaves suggested the presence of wildlife.

None of these species captured on camera was a big surprise. Visitors to the Preserve often see groundhogs and squirrels, with foxes and raccoons sighted more rarely.  The nocturnal deer—a buck with 8 points, a young buck with prongs, and a doe—were a great find, though, especially since we saw them in both locations.  While deer are sometimes spotted at the Gateway Nature Preserve at dawn, where they hide out during the day is a mystery. Do they follow Salem Creek to Salem Lake? Hide in a deeply wooded corner?

This spring’s experiment only scratched the surface of what can be learned about wildlife in the Gateway Nature Preserve. Do the species vary by season? What habitat features do they use? What food sources attract them? What more can we learn?

In addition to the “aw how cute” factor, the critter cam evidence underscores the level of wildlife activity that may go unnoticed but makes up the rich fabric of a habitat. From the shy deer hiding in the twilight, to beetles and worms that live under leaf mold and logs, to wildflowers blooming in remote corners and warblers perched in treetops, there is a rich multitude of species waiting to be discovered.

Educators! Is your class interested in collecting and analyzing trail camera data at the Gateway Nature Preserve? We are planning fall deployments, and welcome your input for developing a research strategy! If you are interested, contact gatewaynaturecenter@gmail.com.

Learn more about Candid Critters at www.nccandidcritters.org .