walkhighlands




I finally bought my own trail camera!

Ben Dolphin

I’m a bit excited when I check my new trail camera for the first time. It’s that same feeling I remember so vividly from Christmas Day in the 1980s – when you finally got to see just how amazing that new toy you’d been craving from the Argos catalogue for the past year actually was.

What hidden garden wonders will be revealed? What new creatures will be discovered? Oh the anticipation! I walk up to it, open the housing, and the display inside reads 4/455. YES! Four new files have been created. Four 20-second snippets of an animal moving in front of the camera. SUCCESS!

Child attack!

I press ‘play’ on the most recent file and immediately find myself staring at my own face as it peers, frowning, at the locking mechanism. The look of concentration on my face surprises me. I had no idea I could be so serious. I look like I’m unlocking a safe!

“Not to worry” I tell myself. “There are three more….”

I press ‘play’ on the next file and….erm…..nothing happens. The image of the lawn doesn’t change. Is it even working? I worry that it has taken a photo rather than a video, so I press ‘play’ again to make sure.

The progress bar steadily moves across the screen to indicate the passage of 20 seconds. 20 loooooong seconds of motionless lawn. Presumably whatever triggered the camera ran past too fast to be captured, and then lacked the decency to hang around or pose for my entertainment.

So, on to the third file and…ugh, more inanimate lawn. I then notice some dead vegetation waving in the breeze in front of the camera. Ah, that was probably responsible for triggering the camera and recording all that inanimate footage. Hmm, I should have known better.

Any hope I have of capturing actual animals is dwindling fast and is ultimately extinguished by the final file. Filmed first, it shows only my legs retreating into the distance a couple of hours earlier, just after I’d set the camera up.

Yes that’s right, a couple of HOURS earlier. I know it’s ridiculous but that’s how excited I am on those first few days. I can’t leave the thing alone. It’s hilarious really, but I think part of me actually imagines that all the creatures in my garden have been hiding in the bushes for years, eagerly awaiting the arrival of a camera just so that they can spontaneously dash out, Dr Dolittle-style, and frolic in front of it. If only!

Another day of camera-trapping yields yet more stunning footage of my legs and face, and I start to wonder whether a) the camera is actually working and b) there is actually anything in my garden other than me. I feel deflated, I’ll admit.

So imagine my astonishment and unbridled joy when I finally get SOMETHING on the camera! A robin on a branch, quickly followed by a dunnock. Honestly, I’m so excited you’d think a condor had landed in the garden. Not because I’m desperate to see robins and dunnocks necessarily, rather because it does at least confirm the camera is working. Even so, those charming wee birds are a little underwhelming. Is that all my garden has to offer?

Clearly I have unrealistic expectations, which I attribute to the phenomenon of selective memory. It’s like using a zoom lens in a mountainous landscape – depth of field brings all the distant ridges together, compressing distance and bringing all the most prominent features into one picture. But in so doing you completely lose any sense of the many miles of empty space in between.

By zooming back into my memory, I see only the many standout encounters with wildlife in the garden over the years. That selective vision gives the impression that my garden is a bustling haven of biodiversity, but looking at it in that way completely does away with all the empty moments in between, likely totalling years, when absolutely nothing whatsoever happened. It gives a false impression of how regularly such creatures visit the garden, or where they go.

I know this, but it doesn’t stop me from vainly putting the camera wherever these past encounters have occurred: the open grass where the hares foraged; the wood pile where the weasel hunted; the shed on top of which I once, incredulously, glimpsed a pine marten; and the fence where, on a balmy evening last summer, a tawny owl landed just metres from me while I was sitting at the front door.

But really, that owl might have been the only owl to perch there in years. And what are the chances that we’ve ever had more than one pine marten visit us, up here in this upland Fife agricultural landscape? I honestly don’t know.

So I abandon the boyish excitement and employ a bit more logic, coming to accept that choosing a sure-fire location and leaving the camera in situ for days, even a week, is going to be more productive in the long run.

Starlings, sparrows, yellowhammers, pied wagtails and pheasants at the motorway services

I start with a semi-permanent puddle behind the house where a natural spring bubbles up. As the only reliable water source it will be like staking-out a watering hole in the desert, and I figure the puddle will be a great leveller in the same way that motorway service stations are. It doesn’t matter how big or important you think you are, when there’s no other option, love them or hate them, everyone has to pull in for refreshment.

The rewards are instantaneous and I am actually surprised at how busy that wee oasis is – a constant buzz of activity from the smallest goldfinches to the biggest pheasants.

Some are using it for bathing, some for drinking, but after watching several days’ activity I notice there are indeed routines. Blackbirds are usually first at the water before the sun even comes up. Then starlings, and then a mix of everything else: yellowhammers, sparrows, blue tits, pied wagtails, chaffinches, linnets, dunnocks, pigeons.

I’m certainly not averse to sitting still to watch wildlife myself, but being able to get a view from just a couple of feet away gives it an intimacy I’ve not experienced before. It’s wonderful to watch this hitherto secret world right behind the house, and I especially enjoy seeing the finer details of the birds’ rituals.

Seen from a distance, their time in the water can look frenzied and uncontrolled, but really it is anything but. The starlings are intriguing, first dipping their heads into the water, then having a shake down before methodically dipping the left wing, then the right, then the left, then the right, into the water. The sound quality on the camera is terrific, so I get to hear every splash and every flutter.

To my shame, till now I don’t think I’ve ever really paid attention to how birds drink, first dipping or skimming their beaks into the water to fill them up, before raising their heads to let the water slip down into their gullets. A smooth, all-in-one scooping motion making best use of gravity because most of them can’t suck water up.

Oddly, seeing the wee sparrows line up at the water’s edge and scoop away like that, with their long necks and long tails, reminds me of dinosaurs drinking at a Jurassic watering hole. It’s an oddly wild and timeless scene, albeit in miniature.

I’m chuffed. The puddle is clearly going to be a prime camera spot as spring progresses, and I wonder what migrants might visit or pass through that I’ve been completely unaware of till now? I’m genuinely excited to find out.

After a few days sussing out the puddle I move the camera into the barn with the same strategy in mind. I strap it to a makeshift tripod and then stand it in a big pile of grain.

Clockwise from top left: lion and giraffes, starling lift off, doggy down time, posing hare

The barn is an instant success too, although my first capture that first day isn’t what I expect.

A feral cat, repeatedly triggering the camera as it prowls about the barn from dusk till dawn. It’s not a welcome discovery to be honest. One of the reasons we’ve always done so well for wildlife up here is because there are no cats, so I worry that this might mean we’re less likely to have leverets in the garden this year.

The threat the cat poses is brought home by an intriguing snippet of its sleek outline stalking two partridges from behind the hay bales. The partridges amble leisurely across the background, blissfully-unaware of their impending doom. It’s like a lion fixing its gaze on two giraffes on the savannah. I don’t know how the story ends but I don’t fancy their chances.

On a more upbeat note, the next day the camera unexpectedly captures two of the farm dogs taking a moment out of their busy work schedule to have some fun chasing one another through and over the bales. It’s spontaneous and joyful. Aww, they look so happy!

Night falls, and the following morning there are a dozen or so new files. A productive night in the darkness! As I click through them I see cat after cat after cat after cat. The same black beast plodding about aimlessly, as though it’s at a loose end and doesn’t know what to do with itself.

I click to the next file but this time nothing happens for almost ten seconds. It’s just an unmoving image of hay bales in blackness. And then, at 1:04am, two bright white eyes come trotting quickly out of the darkness towards the camera. At first I assume it’s the cat but as it moves into the infrared light the distinctive white head stripes are revealed and……OH! A BADGER!

It heads straight for the grain and then actually plonks itself down on top, prostrate, gorging on the abundant free food.

This truly blows me away. In the 11 years I’ve stayed here I’ve never seen a badger, not even signs of them. The only one I have ever seen in the Lomond Hills was a couple of miles away and much lower down the hill, running along the road one evening. But no, never all the way up here. I had absolutely no idea!

Badger bonus! First ever glimpse in top left.

It’s hardly discovering a new species in the Amazon but this is a very personal, joyous discovery on my part. I’ve no idea how long the badger has been visiting, whether there are others, or whether any other badgers have been up here in those 11 years, but this solitary cutie turns out to be a nightly visitor. It comes and goes throughout the night, nipping this way and that via a number of different entrances and exits.

Over the following week or two I try to track its origins by posting the camera at different vantage points – on field edges, by stone walls – but none of them yield results. Well, other than that damned cat, which seems to be everywhere all at once, following the camera wherever it goes and then feigning surprise when the infra-red flash goes off. I’m onto you, Moggy!

Moggy mischief

I can’t for the life of me think where the badger must be holing up, so unless it’s tunnelling in and out, like in The Great Escape, then it miraculously exists only in this barn and nowhere else. I’m fine with the mystery, though. I’m simply content and uplifted to know that a badger is here at all.

During the course of my investigations I also catch two other mammals on camera. A gorgeous brown hare, this time having the decency to at least pose for a while, and a small child attacking the camera with a stick. It’s truly a jungle out there!

Regardless of what antics it captures, with Covid travel restrictions in place the camera has been a soothing distraction from the surreal inertia of the previous few months. True, I could probably have done without yet another device that generates massive numbers of huge files that I’m pathetically poor at whittling down to just the good ones, thus using up even more space than my tens of thousands of photographs already do. And naturally I’m now loath not to keep the camera out every day and night for fear that I might miss out.

More than worth the price of admission

In that regard I’ve probably created something of a monster but I honestly wouldn’t change it. That buzz of anticipation upon walking up to the camera to see what it’s caught keeps me coming back for more because there’s always the chance of being genuinely surprised. You honestly never know what you’re going to get.

I bought a Browning Recon Force Edge from NatureSpy. Excellent picture and sound, and easy to use. No regrets!

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