Interactive Journalism Project by Chris Chester

Tracking The Northern Virginia Camera Trapper

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In The Fox’s Den

In the woods of Claude Moore Park in Sterling, Va., an aspiring park ranger is treading ground that few have trod before.

Leafs crunch beneath his boots as Brian Balik takes a sharp turn off the trail and into a stand of trees in Claude Moore Park in Sterling, Va. It’s a cool, overcast day in early April, and Balik is making his daily rounds.

There’s not a lot to attract the attention of the untrained eye in this quiet stretch of trees. A lone vulture circles overhead, riding the thermal currents of a nearby road. In the branches above, small nondescript song birds flit from tree to tree. On the ground, there doesn’t appear to be much, if any, wildlife.

But Balik, a facility supervisor for the park, knows where to look.

He moves up gingerly, stopping several yards from a small hole, partially covered by leaves and branches and next to a small mound of fresh earth.

“What we’re looking at right now is a fox den,” Balik says, tracing its shape in the air as he points. “It’s been active for about a year or two and is fairly big; it has this main hole right here and an exit hole about 10 to 15 yards farther. I’ve got to be careful not to go up to it too much. If I walk on it, or move around stuff too much, they won’t come back.”

Balik is not, as it may appear in that moment, a fox whisperer. He is a camera trapper, using relatively cheap motion-triggered cameras to keep track of the animal population in the park.

Pulling a trap from his backpack, he threads a thin piece of greenish string through the back and ties it securely to a small tree facing towards the den a couple feet off the ground. When the foxes come or go, the camera will detect their movement and snap a picture, which Balik will later collect and upload to his computer.

“There are seven red foxes in here that I know of and this is a 357 acre park,” Balik says. “But that number could change right now — one could get hit by a car, one could go in and out of the park, and of course, new ones are being born.”

Camera trapping has helped raise awareness about endangered animals around the globe, and as the technology gets cheaper and naturalists like Balik figure out how to use it, camera traps promise to fill a great many gaps in our knowledge about wildlife in Northern Virginia.

Claude Moore Park in Sterling, Virginia, is home to eleven miles of hiking trails, two fishing ponds and plenty of recreation facilities.

Claude Moore Park in Sterling, Virginia, is home to eleven miles of hiking trails, two fishing ponds and plenty of recreation facilities. (Chris Chester)

Brian Balik points to the fox den, which he later discovered was home to some kits, or baby foxes.

‘I don’t want to step up there too much,’ Balik says. ‘The parents will get scared and of the kit foxes — the babies — and they’ll never come back.’ (Chris Chester)

The Equipment

camera trap

Camera trap companies offer Balik equipment for free or at a reduced rate in order to get his feedback. (Chris Chester)

Camera traps, also known as trail cameras, have solved a problem that researchers have faced for decades: how to gather accurate data about populations of wildlife in a way that doesn’t disturb the animals themselves.

The ones that Balik uses are small, about the size of a portable cassette player. A hard green plastic shell makes them waterproof, though Balik often covers them with dark tape to make them harder to spot when placed on a tree trunk. They utilize motion or infrared sensors to trigger the camera to take either stills or short video clips. When an animal walks by, the trap takes photos and stores them on an SD memory card. Balik can then store the photos and use them to gain a better understanding of the health of the animals in the park.

This has the advantage of being virtually invisible to the animals themselves, as well as being easy for researchers, who can come by and collect the data at their leisure.

“It’s very unobtrusive. We’re just putting a camera in the woods, basically,” Balik says. “We’re not harming an animal, taking samples, we’re not touching animals. The most contact we have is just walking on the same trails as they do.”

A Legacy From Scientists, Hunters

Brian Balik climbs a tree

Balik climbed a dead tree to place a camera above eye level. Animals are less likely to notice a camera trap above their head, he explained. (Chris Chester)

Camera trapping wasn’t always quite so simple. Dr. Bill McShea, senior scientist with Smithsonian National Zoo, says the technology has come a long way.

“They were finicky things. Even as recently as 15 years ago, I was carrying around car batteries to power them,” McShea says. “And remember, they ran on film, so they would run out really quickly and you’d have to go and develop the film.”

New developments in camera trap technology have really accelerated in recent years. This is due in part to advances in digital photography, but McShea says it is hunters that have made them mainstream.

“It’s the hunting community that is buying 90 percent of these cameras,” he says. “Whether it’s to track bucks or see if there are turkeys in their backyard or whatever, they have really driven the advance of camera traps, both on the high and low end.”

And as the technology becomes more mainstream, the prices go down and scientists like Balik can afford to put more of them out there.

Balik started with just two camera traps less than a year and a half ago, but his network has grown to encompass more than 60 spread out across five counties in Northern Virginia. He has traps in the parks for which he works as well as some on private land with the permission of friends and acquaintances.

Balik writes about his experiences on his blog, A Case Of Wildlife Fever. He’s collected more than 1.3 million images in total, and no two camera traps ever turn out quite the same.

“I’ve put them in tops of trees, on islands, I’ve put them in old buildings, in streams, above ponds, rivers, lakes,” Balik says. “I have some in Shenandoah County on the very tops of mountains that are privately owned.”

The animals Balik captures on camera are just as diverse: flying squirrels, coyotes, herons, owls, hawks, bears, turkeys, various kinds of reptiles.

A survey of published studies in the journal “Animal Conservation” found that the investigation or use of camera trapping methods was growing 50 percent year to year. The potential use of this technology is exploding across the board.

Camera Trap Photos

A wide variety of animals routinely appear on Brian Balik's camera traps. See galleries of some of the more common critters to end up photographed.

Critters

Critters

Critters
Coyotes

Coyotes

Coyote
Birds

Birds

Birds
Bears

Bears

Bear
Deer

Deer

Deer
Red Foxes

Red Foxes

Red Fox

From Camera Trapping To Big Data

Of course, while the camera trap photos that Balik and other researchers collect offer an unusually candid view into the lives of the wildlife that surround us every day, they haven’t been of much use to anybody outside of the park.

There are signs that is beginning to change. Dr. Bill McShea and his team at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute are spearheading a new camera trapping program called eMammal, which will bring some scientific rigor to the practice of camera trapping.

By establishing protocols for the way cameras traps are set up, he can standardize the data collected and link it all together into a huge database for visualization and analysis.

“I don’t want people just sharing the best bobcat picture they took and calling it a day,” McShea says. “I need to know how the picture was taken, did you use a lure, what kind of sensor. And just as important, all the pictures where you didn’t get a picture of a bobcat, I need to know that too.”

By bringing together a community of camera trappers, the hope is that McShea can tap into peoples’ competitive natures and produce some really good work that can give scientists information on a scale that would have been utterly impossible in the past. And they can use the data to confirm things that we were once left to speculation.

“You may think we know everything about Virginia, but we don’t,” McShea says. “We have 2.6 million camera trap photos and not one was of a cougar. People keep telling me they see cougars, but if there were cougars there, I’d have them in these photographs.”

As for Balik, he’s finishing up in school right now while working for two park systems, but he’s hoping to leverage his experience with this burgeoning field of camera trapping into a job in natural resource management, park management, or something similar.

In the mean time, he’s out there walking the trails every day, using his camera traps to keep an eye on the wildlife, hidden just out of plain sight.

The trap he set up over the foxes’ den? He managed to capture some photos of the parents, but no kits, at least not yet. He did, however, get photos from nearby Great Falls, where a few fuzzy blurs are visible moving outside the den.

Or as Balik describes the process, an “encouraging sign of birth and regrowth.”

two adult foxes

Two adult red foxes walk around the den visited in the beginning of the story. (Brian Balik)

kits

In Great Falls, Virginia, some kits (baby foxes) venture out of the den for probably the first time. (Brian Balik)

About the Author

bio

Chris is a digital journalist and web producer for WAMU 88.5 in Washington D.C. His primary area of interest is in science and technology, but he’s willing to explore just about any topic that seems likely to get readers and listeners talking about important issues.

In his spare time, Chris is an avid reader, an insufferable evangelist for local craft beer, and a compulsive tinkerer, both with electronics and plants. He lives in Arlington, Virginia, with his wife Rachel and their cat Yoshi.

To see Chris’ resume and more of his work, visit Chesterworks.com.

About the Story

When you’re building your multimedia journalism skills, one of the biggest challenges is amending your gut definition about what makes a good story to include a heavy focus on the visual. When you’re forced to work on a given story, you have to stretch your imagination to find ways to tell conventional stories in an unconventional way.

And then you have stories like this one, which emerge from the ether with the eye candy fully-formed, ready to be placed on the page.

Through a routine search on the social aggregator Reddit, I stumbled on Brian’s blog and was immediately taken by the visual nature of his work. As much fun as it was tromping around in the mud in Loudoun County, photographing Brian at-work, I knew that the big sell was ultimately going to be the camera trap shots. So from that point forward, most of my effort was spent tweaking the visual presentation to give the right context for these awesome photographs.

I can’t thank Brian enough for how generous he was with his time, and I highly recommend you check out his blog, if you haven’t already.

– Chris

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