A Walk on the Wild Side: Critter cam captures

A bobcat in Hospital Canyon. Image capture courtesy of Tyler Priest

My journey into the secret lives of wildlife began a little over two-and-a-half years ago. Having no formal education in wildlife or natural resources, I was receiving a lot of questions from visitors at Davis Mountain State Park about our wildlife that I couldn’t always answer with confidence. And I realized I needed to see for myself exactly what species called this park home. After some thought, I dusted off a couple of trail cameras that had been sitting on the shelf in my office, and I set out on foot to find the best spots to place them.

What I like to call a critter cam is also known as a wildlife camera, a trail camera or a camera trap. These all-weather cameras are triggered by movement, and they are equipped to take photos even at night with an invisible infrared flash. The images and videos are stored and can later be downloaded and viewed on a computer. And that’s the fun part –– seeing just who’s walked by. Although I only checked the cameras as time allowed once every few weeks, it quickly became one of the things I looked forward to the most.

And it didn’t take me long to figure out the best places to put these cameras: at water holes. While different critters have different sources of food and can occupy different habitats, water is the great universal. While some desert-adapted critters can go days without water, at some point almost every sizable critter needs a drink. But in the Chihuahuan Desert, reliable sources of water for wildlife are sparse, all the more so during times of drought. This means that what water holes do exist can become hubs of activity for wildlife.

So after rambling around the park and mapping out its water resources, I came across a few livestock troughs from bygone ranching days still maintained with well water. I also found a few important tinajas, which are naturally formed rock basins in creek beds that can hold rainwater for substantial amounts of time. I also stumbled upon a spring seeping out of the side of a steep canyon wall, where ranchers long ago had piped the steady drip into a cement trough. Down in the creek I found a lone water hole dug out by early ranchers, allowing the water table to surface year round. Each of these water holes would turn out to provide an abundance of critter activity.

Over the past few years I’ve seen some pretty interesting things appear on the critter cams: a pair of territorial mockingbirds dive bombing coyotes, grey foxes, and even a red-tailed hawk. An unlikely friendship between a skunk and a raccoon seen together on multiple nights. Two juvenile aoudad rams engaged in “hooking,” a form of fighting where the sharp tips of their horns are stabbed into each opponent’s back at the same time. Another aoudad ram with numerous scars on its side that appear to have been from a mountain lion attack (one of my park host volunteers would name it “Claw-dad”). The first documented western spotted skunk in the park’s history, which happened to be seen walking across a frozen tinaja on a cold winter night. Two javelinas having a heated dispute with mouths almost as wide open as hippos, their sharp canine tusks on full display. A spry baby ringtail bouncing all around the banks of a water hole on multiple nights in a row. A turkey vulture up close, hissing at the camera (perhaps my most terrifying image). A grey fox that seemed to strike a graceful pose sitting at the end of a water trough. And a beautiful bobcat in Hospital Canyon with its winter coat on display.

Setting out my critter cams has been a learning journey of trial and error. I’d argue that a good placement of a critter cam is, like traditional photography, an art form that requires thoughtful intentionality. While it’s not something I’m able to dedicate a lot of time to, it’s exciting and rewarding to get a great image of a beautiful critter.

When setting up a camera trap in a new location, I try to take into account a variety of factors, most of which revolve around perspective. I find myself drawn to more scenic water holes that showcase the natural beauty of the park. There I consider the angle that the sun will be hitting the critters by day. I also factor in the angle at which the critter will likely approach the camera. And I try to find that sweet spot so that the subject is not too far away, nor too close up, and still captures the context of the landscape. And of course, I try to place the camera out of sight of branches and tall grasses that could trigger the camera every time the wind blows, which would leave me with drained batteries and a lot of useless photos.

Over time, I found a deeper connection with wildlife began to form. I’ve seen that a variety of wildlife, much like us, are creatures of habit. Many can be seen visiting water holes around the same time every night, almost like clockwork. It’s also interesting to identify some of the more unique characters, like a pitiable raccoon that’s tailless, but nevertheless seems to be getting along just fine. There’s something touching about witnessing wildlife going about their business with no knowledge that they’re being watched. When I come around with my laptop and see some of the usual suspects still hanging around and living their lives, I find myself cheering them on, happy to see them thriving in a protected place.

I’ve found that my best critter cam images have made for great educational tools. On the park’s social media, the best images have garnered a lot of attention and appreciation. And before the pandemic, one of my favorite public programs was dubbed, “The Critter Cam Captures.” As a wildlife photo would slowly begin to appear on the screen, teams with whiteboards and dry erase markers would try to be the first to write down the correct name of the critter in question. It was a fun entry point to learning more about the animals that reside in the park.

But you don’t need to have a state park or a private ranch to have fun with a critter cam. While these cameras aren’t cheap, the initial cost could be worth the journey into learning more about the fauna in your own neighborhood –– especially those that are active at night. If you have even a small backyard with no loose pets, something as simple as a filled water bucket (with no food set out, of course) could attract a surprising amount of wildlife, providing them with a precious resource in dry times, and providing you with an up-close glimpse into their world. Those of us in the Big Bend region live amid a vast high desert wilderness where our neighbors can include a surprising diversity of wildlife.

So perhaps your own journey into exploring the secret lives of wildlife could begin in your own backyard. Meanwhile in the park, my two critter cams are still waiting to capture an elusive mountain lion passing by, or a rare black bear that’s wandered down from the higher elevations of the Davis Mountains. For either of those species to grace a critter cam, I insist that it’s not a matter of if, but when. And when that happens, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Tyler Priest is a park ranger and outdoor adventurer in Far West Texas. When he’s not at work he can be found hiking, climbing, running, paddling or cycling his way across the Big Bend. He landed in Fort Davis in 2018 where he hangs out with his cat Chico while plotting his next adventure.