A Brief History of Trail Cameras

Blog_Cam3The invention of trail cameras occurred further back in history than some might think. George Shiras III was a politician and lawyer from Pennsylvania who had an interest in using cameras to capture the first photos of wildlife in the 1880s. Most of Shiras’s photos took place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Since cameras at this time were bulky and cumbersome, carrying a camera out to the woods to take photos of elusive wildlife was not an idea that crossed most people’s minds. Shiras, however, had a brilliant idea for baiting a site and using a series of trip wires to trigger an automatic flash bulb and capture photos of animals at night.

A bull elk

A bull elk captured at night at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. July 1913. Photograph by George Shiras.

Another method Shiras used to capture photos of wildlife was a hunting technique he learned from members of the Ojibwe tribe referred to as jacklighting. Jacklighting is the practice of sitting out on a lake in a canoe at night and using a small fire to catch an animal’s attention without scaring them away. As the animals stood still and peered curiously towards the flames, Shiras would take his shot – with his camera that is.

Shiras’s photos were one-of-a-kind at the time, and National Geographic soon began publishing them in 1906. His collection of over 2,000 photos remains in their archives today. Click here to see some of George Shiras’s amazing camera trap photos.

A hundred years later, camera trap technology had evolved considerably. By the 1980s, camera traps were mostly being used by deer hunters, but wildlife researchers were starting to use these tools as well. These cameras worked using an infrared beam that, when broken, would open the shutter on a 35mm camera and snap a picture. The 35mm film resulted in crisp and sharply contrasted images, but the film was also costly and had to be replaced often.  

The advantages of today’s digital cameras show just how far we’ve come in film technology. Cameras are light, portable, self-triggering, hold thousands of images, and can snap photos in 0.2 seconds. The use of trail cameras by hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts make them a great tool for citizen science programs such as Snapshot Wisconsin because many people already have a familiarity with using them.

A volunteer checking his trail camera

A Snapshot Wisconsin volunteer checks his camera.

The Snapshot Wisconsin program currently has over 2,100 active trail cameras in all 72 counties of Wisconsin. We’ve certainly come a long way from George Shiras’s trip wires and flash bulbs. What remains unchanged is people’s enthusiasm for capturing wildlife in a single passing moment.

A red fox

A red fox captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin camera.

What is a Group of Elk Called?

Snapshot Saturdays are a weekly feature on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s Facebook page. Give them a Like to keep up with recent DNR news and to view the weekly Snapshot Saturdays. 

What is a group of elk called?

While the common terminology for a group of elk is a herd, another answer may surprise you. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a group of elk may also be referred to as a “gang” of elk.

Regardless of what you want to call them, check out this herd (or gang) of elk captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera in Sawyer County!

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Interested in hosting your own Snapshot Wisconsin camera? Visit our webpage to find out how to get involved: https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/research/projects/snapshot/.

Rare Species of Wisconsin

Let’s take a dive into the rare mammals of Wisconsin! Although we do not expect to see many of these species captured on Snapshot Wisconsin trail cameras, having the option available to volunteers provides an excellent opportunity to identify their occurrences in the state. Each month, Snapshot Wisconsin staff members review any images classified as one of the following species to determine the validity of the identification. Volunteers have already accurately identified multiple moose, a marten and even a whooping crane on camera! Read below to find out more and prepare yourself for spotting even more rare species hiding in the massive Snapshot Wisconsin dataset.

Somewhat unlikely:

Whooping crane (Grus americana) – Whooping cranes are extremely rare, but there is a small introduced population in Wisconsin. These towering birds are snowy white with red crowns and black-tipped wings that can be seen in flight. The species declined to around 20 birds in the 1940’s but number about 600 today.

More likely: sandhill crane. Sandhill cranes have slate gray to rusty brown bodies, white cheeks and red crowns. Depending on the iron content of the soil in the area, sandhill cranes can appear lighter or whiter in color.

WhoopingCrane

Marten (Martes americana) – The American pine marten was extirpated from Wisconsin in the early 1900’s but has since been reintroduced to certain parts of the state. The fur of a marten varies from dark brown to tan and may contain yellow tones. Marten usually have a paler head and dark legs (though color is difficult to tell in nighttime photos when marten are most active). Marten also have a whitish cream to orange throat and relatively large rounded ears.

More likely: mink, weasel or fisher. Mink are a small, long-bodied animal that is typically found near water. The fur of a mink is dark brown and they sometimes have white patches on the chin and chest. Compared to marten, mink are more uniformly colored and have smaller ears. All weasels are small and have long, thin bodies with short legs. In the summer, weasels are light to dark brown with white markings on the chin, throat, chest and/or stomach, during the winter the coat of weasels turns to white. Weasel are smaller than marten, and have less bushy tails. Fisher are a long-bodied species with very long tails and have dark brown fur all year long. The feet and tail are generally darker than the body and head, and some fisher have a cream-colored patch on the chest.

Marten

Moose (Alces alces) – Moose were extirpated from Wisconsin in the late 1800’s, but visitors from farther north are occasionally spotted in upper parts of the state. They are one of the largest land mammals in North America and have a blackish brown body with a long nose. Males have large palmate antlers and the young are reddish brown. Because they are such a tall animal, it is often that only the legs and feet are visible in Snapshot Wisconsin photos.

More likely: elk or deer. Elk have a large, thick body with long slender legs. They have a dark brown head and neck, lighter body and a cream-colored rump. Males have antlers which fork off a main branch and a dark shaggy mane that hangs from the neck to the chest. The young have white spots. Deer are lightly built, and grayish brown to reddish brown in color. The underside of their short tail is white. Males have antlers which fork off a main branch and the young are reddish brown in color with white spots.

Moose

Feral pig – Feral pigs are non-native, domestic pigs that have become feral after living in the wild. Sightings are more common in the southern U.S. but are occasionally reported in Wisconsin. They are stocky animals and can vary greatly in size and color. Compared to domestic swine, they have longer snouts, longer course hair, a straight tail, and may have tusks.

More likely: deer, black bear or other large mammal. Due to their large stature, a feral pig can be misidentified as other more common large animals, such as deer or bear. Deer are lightly built, and grayish brown to reddish brown in color. Black bear are large, round animals with dark brown or black coats.

Feral Pig

Highly unlikely:

Lynx (Lynx canadensis) – There are no known breeding populations of lynx in Wisconsin, though an occasional visitor from Canada will pass through. The coat of this cat varies from gray to grayish brown with spots on the legs and belly. The lynx has long black tuffs on the ears, short black-tipped tails, long legs, and very large furry feet.

More likely: bobcat. Bobcat coats vary from gray to reddish brown, typically with spots, especially on the belly. Bobcats have stripes on the insides of the legs, and telltale white markings on the backs of the ears. They have short tails that, on the tip, are black above with white below.

Lynx

Cougar (Puma concolor) – There are no known breeding populations of cougars in Wisconsin, though there have been several recent sightings of wandering young males from out west. The coat of this large slender cat varies from yellowish brown to grayish brown with a lighter color belly and throat. Their head is relatively small and the area behind the ears is black. Cougars have a long black-tipped tail.

More likely: bobcat. Bobcat coats vary from gray to reddish brown, typically with spots, especially on the belly. Bobcats have stripes on the insides of the legs, and telltale white markings on the backs of the ears. They have short tails that, on the tip, are black above with white below.

Cougar

EXTREMELY unlikely:

Jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii) – Though formerly abundant in Wisconsin, this species is now extremely scarce. Jackrabbits’ upper side is grayish brown in color with gray or white on the underside, and in the winter, the fur is white. The tail is white year-round. Jackrabbits have ears which are longer than the head.

More likely: cottontail rabbit or snowshoe hare. The fur of the cottontail rabbit is brown in color with longer gray and black guard hairs, giving it a grizzled appearance. Their fur does not typically vary with seasons, and their ears are often shorter than the hind feet and are small in proportion to the body. A snowshoe hare is slightly larger than a cottontail, and their coat varies with the seasons turning from dark brown/reddish to white during winter months. Hare have long feet and black tipped ears are large in proportion to the body.

Jackrabbit

Spotted skunk (Spilogale putoris) – The spotted skunk hasn’t been seen in Wisconsin in 30+ years, and only in the southwestern part of the state. They have the same black fur as striped skunks, but instead have white blotches all over. The spotted skunk’s bushy tail is white underneath and at the tip.

More likely: striped skunk. Striped skunks bear a white stripe that runs down the center of their face, usually have two white stripes going down the back, and a long/fluffy black tail.

SpottedSkunk

Wolverine (Gulo gulo) – Wolverines are considered extirpated from Wisconsin. They have thick, coarse, dark brown fur with light brown stripes starting at the shoulders and traveling along the body to the base of the tail. Wolverines have a fluffy tail and often have a light-brown face.

More likely: porcupine, skunk or badger. The body of a porcupine is stout with an arched back and covered in quills. Porcupines appear dark brown in color and have small round ears and tiny dark eyes. Striped skunks bear a white stripe that runs down the center of their face, usually have two white stripes going down the back, and a long/fluffy black tail (though the pattern of striped skunks is often distorted during nighttime images). Badgers have low, wide bodies with short legs. The fur of a badger ranges from grayish to reddish along the back with a buff colored underside. Badgers have distinctive black patches on their face and a white stripe extending from nose, down the back.

Wolverine

Snowy Wisconsin Turkey

Snapshot Saturdays are a weekly feature on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s Facebook page. Give them a Like to keep up with recent DNR news and to view the weekly Snapshot Saturdays. 

As we trudge into the depths of Wisconsin winter, are you prepared?

While turkeys aren’t our most graceful bird, we can all take lessons from them when it comes to bundling up to stay warm amongst the snowy cold!

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Did you know you can view and classify photos collected from Snapshot Wisconsin cameras across the state at www.SnapshotWisconsin.org?

December #SuperSnap

This month’s #SuperSnap features six sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) from Waupaca County. Did you know there are many different titles for a group of cranes? This group could be referred to as a “dance,” a “construction,” or a “swoop”. Sandhill cranes migrate across our state every year and can often be spotted in open prairies and marshes.

Thank you to Zooniverse volunteer Swamp-eye for nominating this photo!

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Continue classifying photos on Zooniverse and hashtagging your favorites for a chance to be featured in the next #SuperSnap blog post. Check out all of the nominations by searching “#SuperSnap” on the Snapshot Wisconsin Talk boards.

Striking White Buck Captured on Camera

Snapshot Saturdays are a weekly feature on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s Facebook page. Give them a Like to keep up with recent DNR news and to view the weekly Snapshot Saturdays. 

Dennis has been watching this white buck move through the property where he monitors one of his trail cameras for the Snapshot Wisconsin project. Over the course of the year he has witnessed hundreds of pictures of this deer, including several nights of bedding in front of the camera.

During Dennis’s most recent batch of photos he managed to capture this incredible image, he couldn’t wait until he finished reviewing his photos before sending this one to the Snapshot Wisconsin staff. Check it out below!

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Interested in hosting your own Snapshot Wisconsin camera? Visit our webpage to find out how to get involved: https://dnr.wi.gov/topic/research/projects/snapshot/.

Happy Holidays

We hope you take some time to chill with those who are deer to you. Warm wishes from all of us at the Snapshot Wisconsin team!

Photo submitted by Snapshot Wisconsin volunteer Chris Yahnke and his students at UW – Stevens Point.

Wisconsin’s Smallest Weasel Fosters Big Connections

The following piece was written by OAS Communications Assistant Claire VanValkenburg for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link

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Shifty colleagues, dishonest enemies and slimy adversaries are often referred to as “weasels,” but is this little mammal truly worthy of such a harsh reputation?

In truth, weasels are sprightly balls of energy and elusive hunters. The least weasel is both the smallest species of weasel in Wisconsin and the smallest carnivore in the world. It evades detection so well that they have been identified as a Species with Information Needs in the Wisconsin DNR’s Wildlife Action Plan.

According to Richard Staffen, Zoologist and Conservation Biologist at the Natural Heritage Conservation (NHC), we don’t know much about least weasels because they are not sought after as a furbearer. They are captured infrequently, and their small size exhibits low commercial fur value.

“There is little population data being collected, so not much is known on how they are doing,” Staffen says.

In an effort to bolster our understanding of the least weasel, Snapshot Wisconsin and the NHC have enlisted the help of a few University of Wisconsin-Madison students to tackle a collaborative classification project.

“You’d be surprised how well weasels can camouflage into their environment!” says Elizabeth Cleaveland, who recently completed a work-study position with the Wisconsin DNR as a graduate student with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

Cleaveland worked with Staffen last year to classify roughly 400 Snapshot Wisconsin triggers categorized as weasels by citizen scientists. Cleaveland’s successor is Mace Drumright, who says that while differentiating between species can be challenging, the work is important to better understand rare species like the least weasel.

“Weasels, and mustelids in general to a degree, have a tendency to escape notice and live relatively secretive lives, so any further insight into their behaviors and habitats is useful,” says Drumright.

Of the ~400 triggers students have worked to classify, Staffen says roughly 300 triggers are identifiable enough to assign a species. The least weasel shows up most infrequently on Snapshot cameras. Cleaveland recounts feeling surprised to see a least weasel on the Snapshot Wisconsin database, noting her excitement to learn that the species was still in the state.

“There are a couple of goals tied to this project, the first one being identifying small mammals in the area and the habitats they are utilizing. This is helpful in determining if the species is still present in the area, what types of habitat(s) they are utilizing, and if any wildlife management decisions need to be addressed,” Cleaveland says.

Drumright suspects that, other than martens, the least weasel could be the least photographed Mustelid species on Snapshot Wisconsin cameras.

“Hopefully this project will give better insight into the population and how they’re interacting with their environment,” says Drumright.

Staffen and the NHC are still working on analyzing the data to determine what percentage of the population the least weasel represents compared to other Mustelidae. But he says the information gathered from Snapshot Wisconsin data can be used in conjunction with trap data from Wisconsin fur trappers and small mammal surveys to make informed decisions on the species’ status.

“I think it is one useful tool, of only a couple, to assess the current population status of these infrequently encountered or under-reported species,” Staffen says.

Staffen and the Snapshot Wisconsin team hope to expand the collaboration, moving to chipmunk and squirrels next, which is another group of triggers that are not classified to the species-level.

“I just think it is a win-win project. The students really enjoy working on the project, they learn more about identification of these animals and their biology, we get some information on status and distribution and the Snapshot project gets a more refined classification.”

Keep an eye out for our shy woodland friend. Rather than impish, consider him tactful yet discrete. However you choose to view him, here at Snapshot Wisconsin we believe that while he may be little, he is not least.

Vernon County Red Fox

Snapshot Saturdays are a weekly feature on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s Facebook page. Give them a Like to keep up with recent DNR news and to view the weekly Snapshot Saturdays. 

Red fox can often be identified as the black booted, speedy blur zooming past your trail camera at night (at speeds of up to 45 mph!). These primarily nocturnal animals don’t frequently appear during the daylight on cameras, but when they do it can produce a pretty unforgettable image.

Have a look at this striking red fox captured on a Vernon County Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera!

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Did you know you can view and classify photos collected from Snapshot Wisconsin cameras across the state at www.SnapshotWisconsin.org?

Wily Weasels: The Math Behind Mustelid Identification

The following piece was written by OAS Communications Coordinator AnnaKathryn Kruger for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link

Weasels are the most commonly misidentified animal in the entire Snapshot Wisconsin dataset. What might make them so tricky to identify, and just how do they differ from the other members of their family for whom they are often mistaken, like marten or mink?

As far as their phylogenic standing, weasels belong to the superfamily Musteloidea. Contained within Musteloidea are the families Mephitidae, which includes skunks; Mustelidae, including weasels, otters, ferrets and kin; and Procyonidae, with raccoons and their neotropical brethren. In examining the dataset of Snapshot Wisconsin photos that have received an expert classification, researchers have determined that weasels and mink are the two most difficult species for volunteers to classify.

Phylogenetic_Tree

The two avenues for classification available to volunteers through Snapshot Wisconsin are MySnapshot and Zooniverse. MySnapshot is the outlet available to those who monitor trail cameras, where they can classify the animals in the photos captured on their own camera. Zooniverse is a public forum where volunteers classify photos that are served up at random from Snapshot Wisconsin cameras across the state. Photos are captured in sets of three, called “triggers”, and volunteers classify the entire set at once.

recall_precision4When evaluating accuracy in classification, researchers focus on two variables: recall and precision. Both variables provide measures of accuracy for a group of volunteer classifiers, either from MySnapshot or Zooniverse, compared to expert classification. Recall addresses the question: out of all the weasel triggers in our dataset, how many did volunteers classify as weasels? Whereas precision addresses the question: how many triggers classified as weasels by volunteers were actually weasels?

Between both MySnapshot and Zooniverse, volunteers generally demonstrate high recall and precision when classifying animals that belong to the whole superfamily Musteloidea. When it comes to classifying individual species, we can see that animals like skunks, otters and raccoons are easier to classify correctly on account of their distinctive traits, but weasels are quite similar in physical appearance to the species with whom they share a family, namely mink. This makes weasels particularly easy to misidentify.

Triggers containing weasels and mink are most often missed completely on Zooniverse, with a recall value for these species of 41%. Out of an expertly classified sample size of 15 weasels, only 10 of the 15 were identified correctly by volunteers and 4 additional triggers classified as weasels on Zooniverse were not weasels. This puts recall and precision for weasel classification at a measly 67% and 71%, respectively.

For mink, Zooniverse and MySnapshot share low recall, with approximately 65% of mink photos missed completely on Zooniverse, and 39% missed on MySnapshot. However, the triggers that were classified were largely classified correctly, with perfect precision on Zooniverse and 87% precision on MySnapshot.

So how can we successfully identify a weasel versus some other mustelid, and vice versa? There are three types of weasels in Wisconsin. The long-tailed weasel is the largest of the three. They are typically 13-18 inches in length with a 4-6 inch black-tipped tail. Their coats are brown and their bellies and throats are cream-colored, though they transition completely to white in the winter. The short-tailed weasel is Wisconsin’s most common weasel. Smaller than the long-tailed weasel, the two share their coloring, which makes them more difficult to differentiate. The only discernible difference is the tail length. The third type of weasel is the least weasel, aptly named as it is the smallest of the three at roughly 6 inches. Though this weasel has coloring similar to the others, the least weasel has a short tail without the black tip.

Weasels look rather similar to mink, though mink are dark-colored and larger than weasels with long tails and glossy coats. They weigh between 1.5-2 lbs. Another mustelid closely resembling the weasel is the American pine marten, an endangered furbearer with a penchant for climbing. They have large rounded ears and a bushy tail, and their fur varies in shades of brown from almost yellow to almost black. Snapshot Wisconsin has only one confirmed photo of a marten, as the species is incredibly rare in Wisconsin.

Badgers seem like a no-brainer, with their characteristic striped heads and wide bodies. They are significantly larger than weasels and have long claws well-suited to digging. Despite their distinctive appearance, badgers are subject to misidentification as well. 22% of the triggers classified as badgers on MySnapshot were not badgers. The same goes for the fisher, another sizeable mustelid weighing in at an average of 15 pounds, with dark brown fur and a bushy tail.

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Classification is a tricky business, especially when it comes down to mustelids. Snapshot Wisconsin relies on thousands of volunteers to classify the nearly 34 million photos in our dataset, which they generally do with tremendous success. Though the weasel is a trickster, their phylogenic camouflage can be discerned with a trained eye – the same can be said for their Mustelidae cousins. Each accurately classified photo, mustelid or no, brings Snapshot Wisconsin closer to a complete representation of Wisconsin wildlife, and better informs our management of these species.