The Snapshot Wisconsin team recently completed a second round of elk camera fieldwork in the Flambeau River State Forest. Below, Michael Kamp describes his field work experience along with his Snapshot teammate, Jamie Bugel.
The late morning sun was beginning to peek out as the Flambeau River glided serenely by. I watched downed maple leaves, their edges curled up, drifting down the river to unknown destinations. No boats traveled by this early fall morning. Taking one last look at the silent flow, Jamie and I walked back to our separate vehicles. Field work could not wait forever.
After coasting down County Highway M, all the while on alert for crossing elk, we pulled off onto a gravel road. Shortly down the gravel road we parked in front of a gate to a walking trail. Stepping out of my vehicle, I gazed down the corridor of stunning fall colors. Auburn, golden, and rosy hues led the way to the site of our trail camera deployment. We strode down the path, following our GPS, towards the specific coordinates. A raven flew overhead cawing loudly – much throatier than its cousin the crow. Once we were within 20 meters, we veered off the treeless path to work our way through downed branches and a cluster of aspen trees. We selected a paper birch tree within a couple meters of the GPS point and positioned the trail camera facing north.
Next on the schedule was checking a trail camera down Lost Mile Road – a fitting name for such a lane far removed from town streets and city blocks. The sun now shone high above as the Subaru took the bumps and puddles of Lost Mile Road in rhythm. Once again, a metal gate impeded any vehicles hoping to pass, so Jamie and I continued on foot. This trail camera was further from the walking path, through swaying sandy brown grass and over the occasional muddy spot. A couple of eastern hemlocks, seemingly out of place in this open area, stood sentinel as we checked the trail camera. The batteries replaced and SD card in hand, we trekked back to our vehicles.
Using the bed of Jamie’s pickup truck as an impromptu table, we ate a pleasant lunch before heading to the following trail camera. We drove a short way as a light breeze swirled fallen leaves on and off the road. The trail camera lay a couple hundred meters south of this gravel way. We headed into the woods, ducking under dense shrubbery and paused to marvel at a towering yellow birch tree. Maybe elk wandered beneath that tree’s branches in the late 1800’s before they were extirpated from the state. After reintroduction efforts and over 100 years later, the same tree might experience elk again. Moving on, we found the trail camera without much difficulty, lying just above a small marsh. Another trail camera checked.
Checking the last trail camera for the day passed in much the same manner – hiking quietly through the forest undisturbed by anyone else. Walking back from the trail camera, we lingered on the crest of a hill to observe the late afternoon sun. The brilliant rays pierced a forest opening and illuminated our surroundings in a golden glow. A photo could simply not do the scene justice. However, I can still picture that scene. Rather than a digital likeness, it is instead an enduring image etched in my mind’s eye.
When I think back to that sunny Friday during the tail end of September, I do not solely think about the trail cameras checked and data collected. I think about a day where Jamie and I had no cell service. There were no pings from our phones regarding news alerts or social media posts. There were no interruptions from the outside world. There was only a radio to call for help if needed. The gift of that day was we were truly present in the moment. That was the experience of fall in the Flambeau.
On our way up north for a recent outreach event, Taylor_Peltier and I swung through Black River Falls to check two Snapshot Wisconsin cameras deployed for the elk reintroduction project. Black River Falls, located in central Wisconsin, is one of the three locations where Snapshot Wisconsin has a dense network of trail cameras to monitor the reintroduced elk populations. Trail cameras support data needed to make management decisions at the WDNR, all while capturing captivating photos of local wildlife.
Being relatively new to the project, this was my first time doing fieldwork – and I couldn’t have been more excited! While our amazing Snapshot volunteers do the majority of fieldwork, we never shy away from an opportunity to get out in the woods as well. We suited up and grabbed our gear: a handheld GPS with coordinates entered for each camera site, swamp boots, bug nets, and camera equipment. We replaced one camera at the previously utilized camera site and moved the other to a better location, free of tall ferns and at the intersection of three wildlife trails. This was great opportunity for me to gain experience in the field and I look forward to future fieldwork opportunities!
After two days of meticulous searching in the rain, a crew of about ten people (including two Snapshot team members) dejectedly walked out of the forest. We were searching for elk (Cervus canadensis) calves in the Clam Lake and Flambeau River State Forest regions of Wisconsin, and had not had any luck thus far. Just as we were leaving, a biologist on the crew softly yelled “elk!”. Nestled into the side of a tree was a small brown creature perfectly camouflaged with the surrounding dead leaves. We estimated that we had walked by the little calf three times without noticing her!
The elk biologists put a blindfold over the elk calf to keep her calm. With hushed voices, they took measurements, applied ear tags, fitted her with a VHF (very high frequency) collar for location tracking and then moved away. Collars provide information on mortality, movement and herd interactions throughout the calves’ lifetimes. Collectively, this data can be used to help inform management decisions for Wisconsin’s elk herds.
For more information about Wisconsin’s elk herds, check out this link.
While up north recently, the Snapshot Wisconsin Team had the opportunity to go out and check cameras in the Flambeau River elk monitoring grid. The weather was a balmy 27 °F, and the fresh air was much needed after long hours of travel. We split up into two groups of two, and headed out in separate directions to check cameras in different areas of the grid. Flambeau River State Park is a known dead zone for cell service, so we chose a time to reconvene before we split up. Both teams took two full hours longer than expected to complete their camera checks – which at least brought us back to the van at the same time! During the morning adventures, the team was reminded of some of the challenges unique to winter camera checks:
Waterproof boots will always be your friend. Melted snow, recent rainfall, or areas that are naturally wet may “dampen” your overall camera checking experience. If you have a pair of waterproof boots, or thick socks, you may want to consider bringing these along! Soggy shoes are never fun, especially in below freezing temperatures.
Tall waterproof boots (or waders) will always be your friend. No matter how waterproof your boots may be, they will only protect you for as high up as they cover. Also, what appears to be a puddle may actually be more like a miniature lake.
If you have a padlock for your camera, it may be frozen. If moisture gets inside the padlock and freezes, spinning the numbers can be difficult or impossible with fingers alone. To be on the safe side, bring an appropriate tool along to help thaw your padlock such as lock deicer, windshield deicer, or hand warmers.
Budget your time appropriately. Even if you think that your hike to your camera will only take thirty minutes, budget some wiggle room for inclement conditions. If you know you won’t have cell phone service in the woods, tell a friend or family member of your plans – this may include where you are parking your car, your intended route, what time you expect to be back, and what time to take further measures if you don’t return by. It’s easy to underestimate how long a camera check may take if you are comparing to previous checks during nicer weather.
Double check your GPS coordinates. Sometimes your phone and your personal GPS will tell you to go opposite directions, and you will find yourself circling around a swamp for thirty minutes. Sometimes it may be a technological glitch, but likely it will be human error. It never hurts to double check your GPS coordinates before venturing into the woods, especially if you know you won’t have good cell phone service, and especially if it’s cold outside.
Getting outside to check cameras was an overall great experience – and makes us even more appreciative of our volunteers and all their efforts they put forth for the project. Whether classifying photos online or hosting trail cameras, we couldn’t do this without all of you! Thank you!