Volunteer Highlight- River Bend Nature Center in Racine County
The following piece was written by OAS Communications Coordinator Ryan Bower for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.
Snapshot Wisconsin volunteers have been asking to hear about unique ways others engage with the program. Today, the Snapshot Wisconsin team highlights, not an individual, but a group that manages one of the longer-running Snapshot trail cameras – River Bend Nature Center (RBNC) in Racine County.
RBNC is an outdoor environmental education center that leases and manages about 80 acres of upland and lowland forest, as well as a six-acre prairie, from the county. River Bend’s primary mission is environmental education, conservation and sustainability with a variety of programs for all ages, ranging from little tikes to seniors.
Christa Trushinsky, Naturalist and Director of Education at RBNC, has worked at the nature center since 2016 and oversees their Snapshot trail camera. “I went to grad school for Environmental Conservation, so I’m very interested in exactly what Snapshot Wisconsin does, looking at the dynamics of land and the species that use it,” said Trushinsky. Trushinsky first heard about the program from a Snapshot Wisconsin team member she went to graduate school with and got in touch with her to learn more.
Little did Trushinsky know, that connection would later play a role in developing many of the nature center’s programs.
A Good Fit for River Bend Nature Center
River Bend has been hosting a trail camera for four years now and has found some intriguing ways to incorporate Snapshot photos into their teaching. “Snapshot Wisconsin is such a crucial tool for what we are trying to do here, especially for species that are elusive or nocturnal,” said Trushinsky.
Trushinsky said they often use Snapshot photos in their Skulls, Skins, and Scat program to help kids identify species that they wouldn’t normally be able to see. “Since some animals are nocturnal or very elusive, we can use the images to prove that these animals are out there [in the forest] and using the landscape,” explained Trushinsky. “Seeing proof of these animals in the neighboring forest makes them real to the kids in a special way. The animals are more than
something they see on TV – they are real and nearby.”
The trail camera pictures also act as a segue to the hands-on portion of the program, where participants look for animals and signs of animals (e.g. nests, burrows and tracks). “If we find an animal that can be handled, we talk to the kids about how to do so gently and appropriately,” said Trushinsky. Sometimes the children interact with an animal for the first time, such as feeling a slug’s sliminess or a snake’s scaliness. “That’s all part of it, showing them how to handle wildlife appropriately, as well as which to respect and stay away from.”
RBNC incorporates Snapshot pictures in other ways as well. Staff have introduced the concept of predator-prey relationships to children by showing time-lapse photos of predators tracking their prey. Trushinsky recalled an example of a doe walking by the camera, and a minute later, a coyote followed closely behind. Trushinsky uses Snapshot photos to start discussions about different relationship dynamics between the species seen on the camera.
Trushinsky has also taken Snapshot images off-site and given presentations at schools and colleges. To highlight examples of camouflage, she shows participants sets of pictures from the trail camera and asks them if they can figure out where the animal is and identify it. “Basically, I introduce it as, ‘Hey, this is Snapshot Wisconsin. You guys could be doing this on your property!’ I talk about what [species] we see at River Bend and take them through the process of classifying photos. Kids especially seem to get a kick out of it,” said Trushinsky.
Learning Lessons Themselves
While most of what RBNC does is focused on educating others, they have also learned more about he land they manage by hosting a Snapshot trail camera. Their trail camera has confirmed which species inhabit their land, as well as how the species use the land at different times of the year.
The RBNC trail camera is in a unique location, tucked away in a floodplain area of the lowland forest. During the spring season, the Root River surges, spilling over into a nearby pond, flooding the lowland forest. The flooding dramatically changes the landscape around the camera. Herons, wood ducks, mallards, and other birds can be found wading and swimming in the forest around the camera. Since RBNC’s camera looks out over the flooded area, they capture some great images that have excited birders who visit the nature center. “These are species you typically don’t see using a forest habitat. You might also see swimming muskrats or mink [while the area is still covered in water],” added Trushinsky. “It’s offered a great place to raise early season ducklings — with lots of cover.”
As the season shifts towards summer, the water drains, and a new batch of animals begins to use the area. Tall grass soon fills everything the camera sees, and species like deer move in. Does raise their fawns in the tall grass, and other little land creatures start to emerge.
Trushinsky said the trail camera pictures tell such a different story every season, with different animals showing up and using the land in their own unique ways. “The Snapshot camera helps us see what species are out there and if there are any novel or threatened species we need to be aware of. The presence of these species may even impact our land use plans,” said Trushinsky.
To date, RBNC’s camera has seen deer, opossums, raccoons, mink, muskrats, coyotes, mallards and great blue herons at this single camera location, just to name a few. They have also been able to identify certain butterfly and bird species (like the golden warbler) from the images, even though Snapshot doesn’t currently classify these species. The RBNC staff are hoping to see a river otter this year, but they haven’t seen one at this location yet.
Trushinsky shared her thoughts on joining Snapshot Wisconsin and the center’s unique camera location. Check out the video to hear her describe the camera in her own words.
Advice for Others
Trushinsky had some parting advice for other nature centers and groups who are considering hosting a Snapshot trail camera. “Snapshot is something very easy to get into and do. There isn’t that much of a time commitment needed. You can leave the camera out there and check it every three months. The biggest time commitment is just getting to the camera and classifying the photos.”
Trushinsky also shared some of the little tricks that she has discovered over the years.
- Make sure the camera is in a place where you already see signs of wildlife. You won’t capture many photos of animals if wildlife aren’t using that area.
- Put the camera in a location that is harder for people to get to, especially if you have people who visit your land. Whenever you go out there, you leave a scent, which can impact how animals use the area. It’s good to use the same route to the camera with each visit.
- Be ready to thaw a frozen lock in the winter. Trushinsky learned that one the hard way.
- Be prepared—wear mosquito repellent or longer layers in the summer and burr-resistant clothing in the fall. If you go through tall grass to get to your camera, always check for ticks in the spring!
- Be aware that there may be a lot of little bugs that like to make their home inside of the camera case. Bring a tool or rag to remove them if you don’t like insects.
- If you are using a tree to mount your camera, don’t forget to loosen the cable lock or strap on it – that allows the tree to continue to grow.
If you are thinking about hosting your own Snapshot trail camera, check out the Snapshot Wisconsin website or visit the Apply to Host a Trail Camera page! You never know what you might find in your area.
Connections Across Volunteer Opportunities: An Interview with Al
The following piece was written for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.
Like many of our state’s residents, Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera host, Al from Marinette County, wears many hats when it comes to his involvement in Wisconsin wildlife. “I’ve been interested in wildlife since childhood, and I’ve been deer hunting for 50 years.” Al shared in an interview with the Snapshot Wisconsin staff, “[Volunteering with Wisconsin DNR] is one way for me to give back a little something, by being on committees or participating in research projects.” Al’s background meant that he was no stranger to trail cameras when he enrolled in the project, which holds true for many of Snapshot Wisconsin’s volunteers.
Back when the Snapshot Wisconsin project was only enrolling volunteers in a subset of counties, Al signed on to the waitlist for Marinette County and received one of the very first cameras deployed in northeastern Wisconsin. Al joked that if you can think of a species, it has passed in front of his trail camera. His site is frequented by many deer and bear but also joined by a larger variety including bobcats, skunks, porcupines, and more. In fact, one of his favorite memories involved spotting a sow and her two cubs as he approached his camera for a routine check.
In addition to monitoring a trail camera in Marinette County, Al has served on his local County Deer Advisory Council since the program’s inception in 2014, where he is currently the hunt/conservation club representative. Al’s history as a co-chair for the Northeastern Wisconsin Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation made him a perfect selection for this seat. In the same year that Al joined the Marinette County CDAC, he also decided to enroll his 400 acres of land in the Deer Management Assistance Program.
Just as wildlife serves as a connection between Wisconsin residents, Al is able to see the connection between the different programs that he volunteers his time for. Monitoring both a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera and being a member of his local CDAC means that his data is making a full circle back to him, especially regarding fawn-to-doe ratios. Al shared, “Our CDAC pays close attention to all the deer metrics and is especially interested in fawn-to-doe ratios.”
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.
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.
Snowy Spotting: Wisconsin’s White Deer
The following piece was written by OAS Communications Assistant Claire VanValkenburg for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.
Although white-tailed deer are common in Wisconsin woods, we never seem to grow tired of pointing them out along the highway, watching them traverse our backyards and observing them on hikes. But as temperatures drop and snow falls, certain members of our herd will become harder to spot.
Al, a Vilas County trail camera host, recounts seeing one of these alabaster animals in 1994: “As we were sitting on the deck, a white deer appeared in the bright sunshine on the far side of the lake. It appeared to not only be white but glowing with a light from within, surrounded by the light green spring vegetation,” Al says.
Although seeing one can be striking, white deer are just like normal deer except for their fair coats. DNR researchers sampled the entire Snapshot Wisconsin dataset to piece together this map of where white deer were flagged using comments on MySnapshot and tagged photos on Zooniverse. They found that sightings occurred in 12 counties across the state, but were most frequent in central and northern Wisconsin.
A white deer’s coloring is caused by a lack of melanin in the deer’s skin, but they aren’t necessarily always albino. True albinism is extremely rare, and an albino deer would have pink eyes, ears, hooves, all-white fur and poor eyesight. It’s more likely that Wisconsin’s white deer population is mostly leucistic, which is caused by a recessive genetic trait found in about 1% of all white-tails.
Leucistic deer (commonly referred to as “piebald deer”) can have a variety of white, brown or black markings. Some leucistic deer are akin to pinto horses, while others may have a completely bleached coat with black hooves and noses. The trick to identifying a leucistic deer from an albino is in the eyes. Deer with pink eyes are most likely true albinos, whereas piebalds have gray, blue or black eyes because albinism affects eyes whereas leucism does not.
While differentiating the two may be tricky, the law is clear. According to page 21 of the 2019 Wisconsin DNR Deer Hunting Regulations, it is illegal to “possess albino or all-white deer which are entirely white except for the hooves, tarsal glands, head and parts of the head unless special written authorization is obtained from the department.” Currently, this is true in all areas of Wisconsin.
Nature photographer Jeff Richter came eye-to-eye with a white deer nearly two decades ago, and he’s been dedicated to capturing their beauty on camera ever since. Richter is the photographer of the book “White Deer: Ghosts of the Forests” by John Bates and told In Wisconsin Reporter Jo Garrett that despite the photographs, some people still believe they’re made up.
“We’ve actually had a couple of stores where clerks overheard people that’ve picked up the book and were looking at it and said, ‘Boy this is really neat, if only they were real,’” Richter said.
They’re real, alright. The one Al spotted all those years ago left a palpable impression on Al and his wife who, at the time, were looking to buy a house. They spotted the white deer across the lake when they were considering the purchase of what is now their current home.
“It actually may have had a small influence on the purchase of our home!” Al says.
Whether they’re common in your neck of the woods or not, white deer are striking animals. The stark contrast of their coats against Wisconsin woodlands makes them a pearly find among the herd. Keep your eyes peeled and your camera ready now, before they blend into a blanket of snow, perfectly hidden throughout the winter months.
Lakeshore Nature Preserve Feature
As long-term Snapshot Wisconsin team member, Vivek Malleshappa, transitions to his new role in California with Esri, we wanted to share a newsletter article that he wrote for the Lakeshore Nature Preserve where he hosted his own Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera. Thank you, Vivek!
The Lakeshore Nature Preserve has been a sanctuary for me since I started my master’s degree in Environmental Science at UW-Madison. Living ‘next door’ in Eagle Heights Apartments, whenever I needed a break from schoolwork, I hopped out to the Preserve with my binoculars. Watching a downy woodpecker chip away at a tree was enough to unwind. I still live here with my wife and we are grateful for the easy access to a natural area as beautiful as the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. I wanted to volunteer for the Preserve and decided to host a trail camera with Snapshot Wisconsin, where I work. Before I talk about all the cool wildlife we are seeing from the trail camera, I want to introduce you to Snapshot Wisconsin.
Snapshot Wisconsin is a volunteer-based trail camera project managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Volunteers across the state of Wisconsin participate in the project by hosting a trail camera on their private land or public lands to collect data, which is used in wildlife management decision support.
I have been operating the camera at the Lakeshore Nature Preserve since December 2018 and it has already captured some amazing pictures. From commonly seen raccoons and opossums, to the somewhat secretive red fox and the less common deer, there is a variety of wildlife passing by the camera.
While deriving wildlife population insights from this one camera is difficult, at a minimum it tells us about what species occupy this landscape. And, all the cameras across the state of Wisconsin together are helping us paint a picture of wildlife presence and populations. To find out more about the statewide project and possibly get involved, at the Snapshot Wisconsin website.
I look forward to seeing many more interesting pictures from the camera at the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. Here are some of my favorites so far and I hope you like them as much as I do.
How It Feels to Discover a Rare Species on Camera
On Friday, April 12th, Snapshot Wisconsin volunteer John came across something extraordinary. After making routine checks of his elk cameras in Black River Falls, he headed home to upload his photos. During the standard process of review and classification, one photo in particular stood out amongst the sea of deer and turkeys. John recognized it immediately. “That’s a big white crane with a red head!” he exclaimed. “Woah, this is a whooping crane!”
John knew how rare they are, having only seen them at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo. That was 30 years ago, when his kids were young. John wanted to verify his discovery before sharing his excitement with the Snapshot team. “I went to my smartphone to verify that I was seeing the correct animal, and I said, ‘Yup, that’s a whooping crane!’” Sure enough, not only had John captured a rare species, but he had photographed the first whooping crane in the history of Snapshot Wisconsin.
He couldn’t believe how spectacular the image was. “It was a beautiful photo! It was at 8 in the morning, and it must have just landed. It had its wings up – it looked like it was dancing in front of the camera! I thought wow, what a perfect picture.”
John has been involved in the project for one and a half years, and currently maintains five cameras in the Black River Falls elk reintroduction area. John’s passion for the outdoors and interest in Wisconsin elk motivated him to become a Snapshot Wisconsin volunteer after retirement. “I like to get out into new locations and explore. It’s kind of a spiritual experience for me to be in the outdoors.” He also appreciates the opportunity to stay active. “I get a little exercise. I don’t like to be on a treadmill, I would rather be walking in the woods and seeing things. [Snapshot Wisconsin] is a good fit for me.”
When asked about his favorite part of participating in Snapshot Wisconsin, John shared that he enjoys being in the woods, seeing the wildlife and exploring new areas. He also welcomes the challenge of finding his camera sites. “Navigation is challenging,” he explained, “finding a camera based on a certain grid coordinate is kind of exciting.”
Capturing the memorable photo of the whooping crane has only added to John’s experience as a volunteer. “I’m glad I got an animal that was interesting. I have gotten bear, wolves, and bobcats [and] of course a lot of deer and turkey. But the whooping crane was kind of the icing on the cake. I am looking forward to getting other interesting animals.”
John also recognizes how this whooping crane sighting is significant in terms of the conservation of this endangered species. When asked what it means to him to be a part of this crane’s story, John said, “It’s kind of interesting. I think my job is kind of small but sometimes it ends up being a big production. It shows how small the world is and how everybody can make a difference no matter what they do.”
June Volunteer of the Month
June’s Volunteer of the Month is
Ralph from Sauk County!
June’s Volunteer of the Month is Ralph from Sauk County! Ralph has been a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera host for over two years. Growing up on a farm Ralph enjoyed rambling around the fields and forests, and although he spent his career as a machinist, his love for the forest endured. His motivation for joining Snapshot Wisconsin and hosting a trail camera was to examine several questions he had about his woods, including what predator-prey relationships existed and how many deer were on the landscape.
In addition to volunteering with Snapshot Wisconsin, Ralph is also the chair of the Chippewa Valley Chapter of the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association (WWOA). As an active member of WWOA, Ralph enjoys helping other woodland owners learn how to sustainably manage and preserve their woodlands for present and future generations.
Thank you, Ralph! Thank you to all of our trail camera hosts and Zooniverse volunteers for helping us discover our wildlife together.
May Volunteer of the Month
May’s Volunteer of the Month is
Chris from Portage County!
May’s Volunteer of the Month goes to Chris from Portage County! Chris is a Professor of Biology at UW-Stevens Point. Chris was first introduced to citizen science around 10 years ago through the Wisconsin Bat Program. In collaboration with the Urban Ecology Center and Milwaukee area high school teachers, Chris has since developed a bat curriculum that incorporates citizen science, or as it is known in Milwaukee, community science.
Chris first discovered the Zooniverse platform about two years ago, which led him to learn about Snapshot Wisconsin. After he began hosting his own trail camera, Chris stated that he was initially annoyed by a fawn that rested in front of his camera resulting in hundreds of photos (which we are sure many volunteer have experienced!) Chris’s “aha moment” was then realizing how interesting the data collected about that fawn was – time alert, sleeping, stretching, foraging.
When asked about his advice for potential volunteers, Chris shared, “There are lots of citizen science projects, but Snapshot Wisconsin does a great job of motivating its volunteers. Start with Zooniverse. Snapshot Wisconsin was a pioneer project on this global platform and will connect you immediately to Wisconsin wildlife. If you are hooked by Snapshot like I was, you can consider hosting your own camera and become a small part of a big thing.”
Thank you, Chris! Thank you to all our trail camera hosts and Zooniverse volunteers for helping us discover our wildlife together.