What’s Out There in My Yard? How to Use Camera “Trapping” for Citizen Science

Have you ever wished you could photograph animals in your yard during the day when you’re not there? Have you wondered which types of animals might be visiting your yard at night? Learn how you can capture images of elusive creatures when you’re not around.

Text and images by Louis Harrell

If you’ve ever scratched you head about which creatures dug holes, made noises, or left strange tracks, a camera trap, also known as a trail or game camera, is useful in capturing photos of wildlife when you are not present. The camera which has a motion or infrared sensor or light beam can collect information remotely with no adverse impact to the animals in the images. Besides providing an interesting record of your nocturnal guests, your photos may also be useful for scientists studying biodiversity.

Camera trap photo from ARMN Member Louis Harrell
Common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) in flight

There are a number of considerations before you venture into this type of photography, but here are a few key factors:

What type of camera should you buy?

Before you purchase a camera trap, you need to establish a budget, decide whether you prefer an incandescent flash or infrared flash for night time photos, and find a camera with good technical performance.

Cameras can be found at a wide range of prices. Deciding how much you want to spend on a camera is essential in narrowing the scope of products you can consider. While an incandescent flash will allow you to get night time color photos, it will likely startle animals. So, a no-glow infrared flash may be preferable for capturing nocturnal images of wildlife. You should also look for the camera with the fastest trigger speed and recovery time. The camera should be able to rapidly take a photo and reset quickly for the next opportunity.

I considered cameras made by Browning and Reconyx and opted for a 2017 Browning “Spec Ops” Extreme Full HD Video model for cost reasons. When I purchased the camera, lithium batteries were supplied by the vendor. I found that they did not last long before needing replacement. Standard AA batteries have been completely satisfactory instead. Your experience may vary from mine! The Browning camera can also record video, which can be interesting but rapidly fills the SD memory card. If you want to use video, be prepared to check the camera frequently. It’s possible that you might end up with a lot of videos showing plants moving in the breeze. I have also used the time-lapse photo feature to capture series of photos showing animals approaching the pond and birds landing and flying away.

Once you find a camera with the best features for the price, you’ll need to consider where to set it up.

Camera trap photo from ARMN Member Louis Harrell
Raccoon (Procyon lotor)

What do you want to see?  

To capture the best variety of critters, locate your camera near a source of water or food. If you have a pond in your yard, creatures will appear at all hours. During the day, primarily birds and squirrels will stop by for a drink. At night, larger animals appear. Some infrared photos from my backyard are shared below. All of these images were taken with the Browning camera that I set up on my patio approximately four feet from the pond. Notice that the camera automatically captures the barometric pressure, temperature, moon phase, date, and time, which can be useful for study.

How can your photos be useful for Citizen Science?

Photos can be uploaded to iNaturalist, a crowd-sourced data collection and identification site that is used by professional and amateur naturalists around the world.


Nighttime photos with infrared flash.

Photo 2
White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)
Photo 3
Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana)
Camera trap photo from ARMN Member Louis Harrell
Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)

Daytime color photos.

Camera trap photo from ARMN Member Louis Harrell
Blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata)
Camera trap photo from ARMN Member Louis Harrell
House sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Camera trap photo from ARMN Member Louis Harrell
Eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

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