Beanblossom Creek Wildlife Camera Project
By Kate Hammel, Communications & Membership Director
If you’ve ever hiked with a young child, you know the struggle of keeping boundless energy pointed in one direction. I never mind hiking slowly but with kids it can get ridiculous if you don’t go in with a plan. Luckily I am a storyteller, and as rough as the going gets, I can keep my daughters on the trail as long as I weave a story that carries them along.
My daughter has forgotten we are hiking and is happily splashing in her muck boots through the shallow water on the gravel trail at Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve. Unlike most hikers, she loves that the trail is now almost constantly under a few inches of water to splash through. But today I am eager to get to the boardwalk, I want to see if the bald eagle family is at their nest. So I begin a story about the beaver family who have flooded the trail.
“Do you know the beavers here are saving the planet?” I ask.
It worked. She stopped trying to wake up the frogs under the ice and ran to catch up. Thanks to Sycamore’s new “Dam Cam,” a wildlife camera we installed at a beaver dam nearby, I have all the inspiration I need to weave a drama that lasts for miles.
We watched this bobcat family grow up on our wildlife cameras after kittens were born last year at the Sam Shine Foundation Preserve.
A WINDOW INTO THEIR WORLD
Last summer, we set up 12 wildlife cameras in the Beanblossom Creek flood plain north of Bloomington in areas we know are frequented by animals. This includes game trails, creeks, and a beaver dam that creates a natural bridge across a wetland area at Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve. The footage these cameras capture is helping us get to know the wildlife communities that rely on the land we protect.
After consulting with land trusts across the nation and wildlife camera expert Sally Nasser, we chose Browning Recon Force Advantage cameras with night vision that capture 20-second videos when animals pass within range. Without negatively impacting or disturbing wildlife, our cameras give us a window into their world. The data we collect helps us decide which habitat restoration efforts will be most beneficial to the wildlife living in that area. The needs of each of our properties are as unique as the biological communities they protect.
As we review the thousands of hours of footage we’ve captured, we are transported into their world. We feel joy as a deer dances in the rain, dizzy as two mice chase each other’s tails, and wonder at one Virginia opossum constantly dragging a large bundle of leaves. Has her prehensile tail gathered the bundles to build a den for the night, or is something wrong? As we watch these animals and their busy lives, our cameras help us piece together their stories.
We can recognize individuals by their markings and have identified coyote, bobcat, and deer families that travel from camera to camera. Two individuals are particularly easy to recognize—a Virginia opossum and raccoon who are missing their tails, though they appear to be doing just fine (I reassured my daughter).
Our cameras picked up the quiet sounds of animals communicating with each other, including turkeys talking back and forth in the shade, chatter between a doe and her fawn, and a mother bobcat calling to her kittens. We captured far more bird species than we expected, some by their call alone.
One of our favorite clips begins when the camera is triggered by a raccoon climbing a vine. Many animals climbed this vine on camera (we called it our “Vine Cam”) but this time, an owl in a nearby tree flutters her wings just as the clip begins. The racoon is startled, falling from the vine with arms outstretched and a surprised and almost comical look in his glowing eyes. The owl’s silhouette is still visible up in the tree, now leaning forward to watch the commotion. Then she bobs her head, making two clearly visible circles. As this glimpse into their world comes to a close, the raccoon appears out of the bushes shaking his head and walks off camera. Did the raccoon startle the owl or vice versa? Piecing together the story is part of the fun.
A raccoon falls from a vine while an owl watches from the tree branch.
WATCHING THE SEASONS TURN
This winter, a crow walked slowly across a patch of ice, its black outline a stark contrast against the white snow. It stepped carefully, making slow but steady progress on the slippery surface as it passed our camera.
It reminded us of a teaching by Lao Tzu: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” As hectic as our lives become, settling into the rhythms of nature can teach us valuable lessons. A good reminder for my busy family.
As the seasons turn on our preserves, our cameras have allowed us to observe seasonal changes in animal life. We watch appearances change, like the deer antlers that grow to large velvety racks, turning increasingly shiny as the itchy velvet is scraped off on a favorite tree branch.
Our “Squirrel Log Cam” was a frenzy of activity leading up to winter. Pointed at a popular log used by dozens of species to cross a forest clearing, squirrels triggered the camera so many times last fall that we named the cam after them, though we recorded bobcats, coyotes, weasels, minks, turkeys, mice, and more at this busy animal intersection.
A coyote crosses the log on our “Squirrel Log Cam.”
BUSY AS A BEAVER
Back at the beaver dam, our “Dam Cam” has captured dozens of species crossing the natural bridge it creates. As winter approached, we began seeing the family of beavers almost constantly hard at work to build and repair their dam, swimming and slogging mud and once stopping to touch noses.
“One thing these cameras have reinforced, and something I’m still blown away by, is how big of a deal beavers are in this landscape,” our Land Stewardship Director Chris Fox said. “You can see on these cameras that where there is beaver activity, there is an abundance of animals. Everything needs water.” We’ve been watching the beaver family’s lodge this winter, heat rising from the hole in its roof like a chimney. They have certainly earned their winter rest.
A beaver hard at work building and repairing the dam.
A NEW RESOURCE FOR TEACHERS
My daughters love the precious moments we captured between animal babies and their parents, like a doe and her fawn nuzzling each other in the dark. We also recorded a turkey hen crossing a creek bed with thirteen baby poults trailing behind, two bobcat kittens following their mother across the dam, coyote pups playing tag at night with the exuberance of my toddler, and more. When viewed from this perspective, wildlife families don’t feel so different from our own.
Sycamore is creating a new educational resource called The Beanblossom Creek Wildlife Camera Project, which aims to help local schools connect thousands of children to nature here in southern Indiana. In January, we sought the help of dozens of local teachers to better understand how our wildlife camera footage can be used in classrooms to foster an appreciation of the outdoors and spark an interest in conservation.
Ms. April Waxler usually takes her kindergarten class on weekly nature hikes to observe and document nature in their neighborhood. But on a day when it was too cold to go outside, she gathered them around to watch Sycamore’s wildlife camera footage instead. She agreed to gather feedback to help us create a new educational tool to enhance her beautiful Montessori science curriculum. The students watched carefully, discussed what they saw, drew an animal they observed, and used an encyclopedia to learn a new fact about them. “Thank you for sharing this excellent resource,” she said.
A kindergarten student at Bloomington Montessori School draws a bobcat after watching Sycamore’s wildlife camera footage. April Waxler
“Seeing wildlife in their natural environments and witnessing their behaviors allows us to make stronger connections to wildlife and nature,” said Mrs. Jennifer A. Lewis, Kindergarten/1st Grade Teacher at Marlin Elementary School. “This footage can be used to enhance our teaching for students to see wildlife up close and is even more meaningful when this wildlife is living in our area.”
Ms. Chelsea Blanchard’s art students at Clear Creek Elementary School made a wetlands collaborative mural for a school display case and used Sycamore’s wildlife footage to identify animals to collage for the art piece.
With local teachers to guide us, the Beanblossom Creek Wildlife Camera Project will feature themed chapters including “Animal Families” (animal parents with babies), “Slowing Down” (fast animals like weasels, hawks, and mice in slow motion), “Busy Beavers” (and their magnificent beaver dam) and more. We’ll set the scene by looking around the animals’ world, including wading with our stewardship team through a wetland to check the cameras. An accompanying study guide will help teachers and parents share these animals’ stories and bring children closer to the nature that surrounds us.
It is our hope that these stories will inspire future generations of young conservationists to follow in our footsteps. It certainly works for my family.
Sycamore’s Beanblossom Creek Wildlife Camera Project will be available for free in fall 2022. To learn more about the work that goes into our Wildlife Camera Project and to watch footage from our “Dam Cam,” “Squirrel Log Cam,” “Creek Cam,” “Vine Cam,” and many more, visit sycamorelandtrust.org/wildlife.
This article was published in the Winter-Spring 2022 edition of The Twig “The Wildlife Issue.” Read the issue here.