While I’ve managed to camera trap many a bear, fox, and moose during my years in Alaska, there’s one critter that remains conspicuously absent from my portfolio. When I first began camera trapping, I hardly realized that his animal existed, and I had no idea that it roamed the watersheds where I conducted my field work. Then a couple years ago my collaborator and former PhD adviser Daniel Schindler began leaving research trail cameras out overwinter. He sent me an email with an image of something we’d never seen during our summer camera trap surveys.
A wolverine. Latin name: Gulo meaning glutton.
Many camera trappers, including myself, dream of getting a wolverine, but few succeed. I only know one DSLR camera trapper, Arthur Veitch, who has managed to capture this elusive critter. Unfortunately this low success rate is largely due to the dwindling numbers of wolverine in the Southern portion of their range, where most camera trappers have the chance to target them. I have a very fortunate advantage of spending time in coastal Alaska, where wolverine populations are healthy.
While I still know rather little about this giant weasel, I was able to get a sense of how to camera trap them by picking the brains of wildlife biologists and local fur trappers. One of my main sources for wolverine info was Pat Walsh, the lead biologist for the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. I asked Pat what sort of landscape features I might look for to funnel wolverine movements; he told me they basically go wherever they want and if you track them, their movements make little sense–they’ll go straight up a mountain, then turn around and go right back down, they don’t follow ridges or valley bottoms, they just go where they want, when they want. That sounded daunting, but luckily I’m irrationally optimistic when it comes to camera trapping and Pat assured me that while wolverine were unpredictable and wide ranging, they were relatively abundant in the area where I visit each summer in Bristol Bay.
This summer I had about ten days to try my luck at wolverine while visiting the Alaska Salmon Program field camps in the Wood River watershed. Ten days is a short set for any critter, especially a wolverine. However, I had reasons to be hopeful: I knew I could get within the home range of at least one individual and from what I’d heard wolverines were fairly easy to camera trap—they’re curious and not especially skittish in response to gear or human scent. I decided I’d put one camera trap along a stream where I’d seen wolverine prints the prior summer. Like fur trappers often do, I set on a log and placed a dab of scent lure at the uphill end, hoping to pique the curiosity of a wolverine as it traveled down the stream. The log also allowed me to compose an eye-level shot that included the sky and kept my camera off the ground, which is always good when you’re on a floodplain. Here’s a test shot midway through the setup with (L to R) me, Schindler, Jon Ohlberger, and Mike Dombeck, father of the Roadless Act.
I made a second set on the lake that the stream flows into. Near the stream mouth, the hillside along the lake turned to cliffs and left only the shore as a travel route. I figured that if any landscape feature was going to funnel wolverine movements, this was probably it. I set the camera in aperture priority so that it would choose its own shutter speed and not overexpose the scene during midday. The trade-off was that my flashes would only be able to synch with the camera during low light periods, when the shutter speed became slower than 1/200s.
Shortly after setting the camera an Arctic ground squirrel dropped by, once when it was dark enough for the flashes to function and again during bright conditions when the shutter speed jumped to 1/640s and exceeded the camera’s “x-synch”.
Unfortunately that was all the action I got. Shortly after I set the cameras we had unusually warm weather. I suspect the wolverine headed up to the high country and cooled off.
While the wolverine sets were unsuccessfully ticking along, I hobbled together another camera trap from the body I usually reserve for handheld work (a 5D III), some ziplock bags, and an active IR sensor. I couldn’t use flash cause all my speedlights were out in the field. My goal was to capture a red fox that strolled the lake shore as it made forays between its den and nearby foraging areas.
I had a lot of near misses because the fox had a habit of disabling my camera trap on it’s way out to feed. It would neatly detach the cable between the sensor and the camera, run down the beach with it, and then chew it into multiple pieces. Then it’d return later with prey in its mouth, but the IR sensor wouldn’t trigger the camera. While it was frustrating to miss pictures, it’s always a joy to camera trap animals that still show their intrinsic curiosity and boldness. Canids in the lower-48 are often so skittish that they’d never get within 100 meters of my camera trap, let alone play with it. When you consider that these Alaskan foxes are bold despite a long history of being hunted and trapped, it gives you an idea of how hard we must have hammered carnivores in the lower-48 to get today’s ultra wary coyote.
The fox shot was a bit tricky because it often traveled back from feeding in the evening, with the sun at its back. I should have used a flash or reflector but I had neither so I had to rely on pushing the shadows in post. After a week or so I finally got a shot of the fox with a mouthful of prey, in this case a large Arctic ground squirrel. A lot of nature photographers hate it when the animal looks at the camera, but I like it in this shot. Maybe the fox was looking over to tell me that it was giving me my one good photo of the trip.