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‘Ding’ Darling Refuge captures wildlife in their natural state

By Staff | Jul 15, 2015

“Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” That’s the old saying when someone captured another on camera by surprise, which originates from one of television’s first reality shows.

But the animals of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge are living in their own reality television series of sorts, with the many different game cams placed throughout the preserve to capture photos of the animals in their most natural state.

Although “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge does employ a live cam on top of the tower on the driving/hiking trail, it’s the many different game cams which capture the animals who reside in the preserve, without the threat of human interference.

The game/trail cams have been an integral tool in researching the wildlife on the preserve and throughout the islands, with the joint efforts from the City of Sanibel and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF), which also have placed cams around the area.

“These were the result of the biology staff coming to the Society (friends’ group of Ding Darling) expressing their need for cameras for purposes of research and tracking who/what species visited several areas,” said “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge Supervisory Refuge Ranger Toni Westland. “These cameras happened because of amazing people stepping forward to purchase the cameras, in addition to donating some trail cams they weren’t using, which resulted in the Refuge being able to put them in more places.”

The donors of the cams ranged from a grandmother making a gift in honor of her two granddaughters, to a volunteer and a fan of unique photos which can be taken by the cameras.

The trail/game cams are set off by motion sensors and are also night-vision equipped with infrared static capability. The cams are placed in different areas of the refuge, such as a wildlife trail, and when an animal walks or flies by, it sets off the motion detector and a picture is automatically taken.

“We move them around every other month to about seven or eight different location,” said Refuge biologist Jeremy Conrad. “We put them along trails or corridors which are trafficked by wildlife. We do get some birds and egrets, but the fair number of photos are of mammals, like bobcats and coyotes.”

With many of the animals which live in the refuge being nocturnal, many of the pics captured are in the evening hours.

“We get most of our photos at night or early in the morning or at dusk, when there is less of a human presence,” Conrad said.

The game cams also act as an extra set of eyes for Refuge officials, which have been cut back in recent years due to cuts in the federal funding.

“With the cut in federal funding, the size of the entire refuge staff has dropped from 22 to 12 in the last 10 years, and yet there is more conserved land and more people visiting,” Westland said. “It takes creative and collaborative thinking to get the kind of research and work done by the Refuge staff in protecting and preserving our wildlife and habitat.”

The cams are excellent for researching and tracking wildlife, predicting some of their behaviors and habitat preference, as well as allowing Refuge biologists, such as Conrad, to see if new species are visiting the island.

That was such the case a couple of years ago, when reports of a black bear being seen on Sanibel, which is of the rarest occurrence.

“I didn’t believe it, until I saw it,” Westland said. “We were able to see the black bear after one of the trail cams took a picture of it. I would never have believed it, until I saw the picture of it.”

The bear was later captured near the Point Ybel lighthouse and released in another part of the state.

“That prompted us to put up more cams,” Conrad said.

Another instance came with recent reports of people seeing a panther on the island. But as Westland points out, the sightings could easily be that of a bobcat, which have been captured on more than several occasions by trail cams.

“Bobcat sightings can be deceiving, because they do look like a panther at times,” Westland added.

Other animals caught on cam include raccoons, gopher tortoises and alligators, as well as many homo sapiens sightings.

“We get a lot of human interactions on them, like people making faces at it and such,” laughed Westland.

Conrad and his interns make trips out in the refuge to find places to strap the cams to trees or posts, then collect the SD cards a week or so later. It takes several hours to go through the footage on the cams.

Not only are the cams good for capturing photos of animals, they can also be used as security purposes, in case there are some after-hour shenanigans going on.

“We haven’t had any problems with people taking the cams, but we are still careful, though,” Conrad included.

Photos from the trail/game cams can be found at dingdarlingsociety.org.

“There is a lot of interest in the photos, it usually is a big hit when I post them on Facebook,” Conrad said.