Network of North Coast wildlife cameras aiding science and conservation
Improvements in camera technology are bringing to life the formerly unseen world of wild animals that populate the hills and valleys of the North Coast.
Scores of motion-activated wildlife cameras, strategically positioned to capture movement 24 hours a day, are capturing images of the elusive creatures that live on the margins of civilization, what researchers refer to as the “rural-urban interface.”
From the Mayacmas Mountains northeast of Healdsburg to the sprawling Pepperwood Preserve west of Calistoga, from a relatively narrow corridor in Sonoma Valley to the flanks of Sonoma Mountain, the fairly low-cost cameras are producing remarkable stills and videos of mountain lions, bobcats and black bears, along with more mundane shots of deer, rabbits and the occasional wood rat.
“We have a healthy community of wildlife,” said Michelle Halbur, an ecologist at the 3,120-acre Pepperwood Preserve northeast of Santa Rosa, which has 21 high-definition cameras set up. “It’s really exciting to see how much is here and how prevalent they are on the landscape.”
The cameras, most of them placed by scientists, cost around $150. They not only help document the type of animals out there and their relative numbers, but also are important in pinpointing wildlife corridors considered essential to large carnivores and smaller critters.
Some of the videos and images can be seen online at places like the Audubon Canyon Ranch’s website, which shows the furtive animals that traverse its Modini Mayacamas Preserves, totaling about 3,000 acres off Pine Flat Road. The preserves use an alternate spelling of the Indian name of the mountain range.
Recordings are posted on the organization’s website, www.egret.org/trailcam/Modini. Some of the videos show:
In the dead of night, a mountain lion prowls a trail, its eyes eerily lit by a camera’s infrared beam. The spectral apparition quickly vanishes into the dark.
In another moment caught in the morning light by the same camera, a good-sized, healthy-looking black bear lumbers down the path, flinches and pivots, apparently startled by some birds taking flight. Then it placidly continues on.
On another day, the trail transforms into a racetrack as three jackrabbits fly around the bend, one after the other, in what looks like competition, play, or perhaps escape from a potential threat.
The cameras, which are placed on public lands, preserves and private property, are “a chance to get this eye, this view in - more than you could ever see yourself. It’s a noninvasive method,” said Sherry Adams, biologist and preserve manager at the Modini Mayacamas Preserves.
She said the 20 or so cameras at the preserves provide the equivalent of “virtual access” to a hitherto unobserved world.
“People look at these pictures, and they get this visceral appreciation for what it means to have protected, wild places here in Sonoma County,” she said.
Her organization, Audubon Canyon Ranch, which also has preserves in Bolinas and Glen Ellen, has sought to connect people to wild places for more than 50 years. “With the camera technology getting so good, here’s another way to do it,” she said.
Besides Pepperwood and the Modini Mayacamas Preserves, there are other networks of wildlife cameras, including 50 operated by Sonoma Land Trust in Sonoma Valley, between Kenwood and Agua Caliente.
The Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District also contracts with Pepperwood to operate more than 30 of the “critter cams” on the sides of Sonoma Mountain.
And Pepperwood has assisted with setting up about 100 wildlife cameras in neighboring Marin County on open space, water district and park lands.
Researchers are reluctant to get too specific about the location of the cameras because of occasional thefts and tampering.
A number of the devices are set up in segments over a swath of territory running from the Marin coast to the Blue Ridge Berryessa Natural Area. They’re helping to test assumptions about a wildlife corridor that some scientists and conservationists say stretches from Point Reyes over the Mayacmas Mountains and into Lake and Napa counties.
The linkage of parcels is part of a project by the Bay Area Open Space Council to ensure the animals move unimpeded through the developed North Bay. Such corridors also are now thought to be vital for wildlife that will need to adapt to climate change.
“There’s not a lot of data. We wanted to see if it’s working as a corridor. That’s why we started a camera study,” said Tony Nelson, the Sonoma Land Trust manager overseeing the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor project.
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