CAMERA TRAPPING URBAN COYOTES WITH COGNISYS
Are you curious about how we capture some of our more up-close images of coyotes? Camera traps are essential tools, but they also provide their fair share of tribulations from tricky technology! Cognisys has developed a new trigger, the Scout, that we are using in the field with great success, and it's helping relieve some of the headache that comes with camera trapping. Dive in to Ivan's experience setting up one of his New York City-based traps utilizing this latest triggering system for our collaboration with Gotham Coyote Project .
by Ivan Kuraev
As I walked the shore of Westchester Creek, I thought to myself, “this isn’t the New York City I’m used to.”
I live in Washington Heights, at the North end of Manhattan, just three blocks from the George Washington Bridge. It’s a residential neighborhood, but still feels very much like a part of the City – the subway station is just around the corner, and when the trains are running on time, a twenty minute train ride gets me to Columbus Circle or the Theater District. Last Spring, I started making a twenty-minute drive from my neighborhood in the opposite direction, to the East Bronx, in search of urban coyotes.
There’s no traffic at sunrise, and when I arrived at Ferry Point Park, I felt transported to a very different world than my neighborhood, only seven miles away. I parked in the empty gravel lot and walked through the Park, over a vast lawn and baseball field, to get to the shore of Westchester Creek, a tidal inlet that branches off the East River and dead ends about two miles inland. I scanned the sand along the shore and quickly spotted what I was looking for – coyote tracks.
Coyotes that den somewhere near Ferry Point Park have been using Westchester Creek as a corridor to travel between multiple green spaces that offer them shelter and foraging grounds. As I followed the tracks, I understood why it’s a perfect path for coyotes. The sandy beach follows a turn in the creek and transforms into a salt marsh, overgrown with phragmites and spartina grass, and is sheltered from the adjacent Hutchinson Parkway by a band of trees and thick undergrowth. This is a secure coyote passageway.
As I followed the Creek and left Ferry Point Park it all started to feel very wild, until I noticed that the animal tracks in the sand were weaving between pools of broken glass, rusted bits of metal, an overturned dinghy and other human detritus that hinted at what lies beneath Westchester Creek. The Creek is known locally as a toxic backwater, forgotten behind industrial lots and warehouses, and used for years as an illegal dumping ground. It’s a kind of habitat that’s become familiar to me after tracking coyotes through New York City; a liminal space that’s left behind by people and gradually reclaimed by nature.
The trash is striking, but so are the Yellow-Crowned Night Herons that hunt crabs along the shore, warblers that swarm in the trees on Spring mornings, and coyotes that walk the beach as they navigate the perimeter of their territory. This is a hidden wild highway through a busy human city.
After many unsuccessful sunrise hours spent stalking the marsh with my camera and telephoto lens, I realized that the only way I was likely to get images of the local coyotes was by using a camera trap, because the coyotes seem to travel at night. I have used a setup that’s familiar to many wildlife photographers – DSLR camera, Nikon SB-28 flashes (these flashes cycle into a sleep mode that conserves batteries, and can come out of sleep mode as soon as the shutter is tripped) and a Trailmaster Trigger. The Trailmaster is an infrared motion sensor and camera trigger that’s been a mainstay of the wildlife photographer’s arsenal since the 1990s, and their design has remained largely unchanged. Trailmaster triggers have produced many iconic wildlife images and proved themselves to be reliable in the field, but also a bit dated.
The Trailmaster build is straightforward. They run off C-type batteries, which makes installing and troubleshooting in the field very easy, and those C-type batteries can last for months. Unfortunately, the Trailmaster menu is displayed on a small LCD using shortcuts and abbreviations, and all selections are restored to factory settings when you swap batteries. I never memorized the menu abbreviations or how to change specific settings using the “time set,” “set up” and “adv” keys, so I would always need to dive into the user manual to set up my trigger. The Trailmaster units are not waterproof, and I reinforced the battery compartment seams with duct tape during installation. This usually kept the units fairly weather resistant, but in April, Westchester Creek retired my Trailmaster when tidal waters rose during a spring storm and flooded my setup. My camera was sealed in a Pelican case and survived, as did one of my flashes. Unfortunately, the Trailmaster was completely waterlogged, having been submerged for several hours. It was time to find a replacement.
Cognisys was on my radar for some time, but their triggers never seemed appropriate for the kind of camera trap photography I practice. The Sabre, one of the first triggers Cognisys produced, uses an internal rechargeable battery (which makes swapping batteries in the field impossible), and a very sensitive motion sensor that acts a bit like sonar. According to Cognisys, “the sensor emits a very short pulse of IR light and determines the distance to the subject by measuring how long the light pulse takes to be reflected back to the sensor.” This is great for using the trigger to photograph small and fast subjects – hummingbirds, dragonflies, bats – but didn’t work for my photography. If I pointed the Sabre at a patch of grass, every time the grass moved, my camera would fire. It’s possible to change the sensitivity settings on the Sabre, but I never seemed to find optimal settings for photographing large animals in dynamic environments. I checked back with Cognisys after my Trailmaster flooded, and discovered that they debuted a new sensor system designed for the very kind of photography I’m doing!
Rather than using pulses of infrared light projected out of the sensor and onto the environment, the new Cognisys Scout system consists of separate transmitter and receiver units that are linked by an infrared beam. This is exactly how Trailmaster triggers work, and the Scout feels like a logical, modern update to the classic Trailmaster.
When I took my new Scout Trigger and receiver out of the box and opened the battery compartments (they are closed with four screws), I noticed the recessed gasket seals. I can’t say with certainty that the Scout would’ve survived the storm that killed my Trailmaster, but I bet the Cognisys unit would have done just fine. (On the Cognisys website, you can find a testimonial from a photographer in the Yukon Territory whose Scout froze in a stream, then was defrosted and found to be dry inside.) The three-pin cable that connects the Scout receiver to the camera has a twist-lock, and seems to be watertight as well.
The day after receiving the Scout, I went back to Westchester Creek to set up my camera trap again. My DSLR is contained in a Pelican case that’s routed for a UV filter, and attached to a small tripod, which makes it easy to adjust the height and angle of the camera. I use metal stakes pounded into the ground with a mallet to mount my flashes, the Scout transmitter and receiver. This brings me to another perk of the scout system: 1/4-20 mounting threads, which allow me to attach quick-release plates to the transmitter and receiver, and mount them to the stakes using inexpensive ball heads. (The steel stakes have headless threads welded on.) Using ball heads makes aligning the transmitter and receiver a breeze, and once they are aligned, I can tighten the ball heads and remove the Scouts using the quick-release plates when I need to change batteries. The receiver and transmitter can each be powered with six AA batteries, which is great for swapping in the field. Cognisys states that rechargeable Eneloops will last 100 days, but I change mine every two months so the units never power down and miss photographs.
The menu system on the Cognisys is a big improvement over other triggers. There are no abbreviations or codes; everything is written out in complete words and navigating through the options is easy using the up, down and return keys. After mounting every component of my camera trap and connecting the three-pin cable from the Scout receiver to my DSLR, I navigate to the “LED alignment” tab in the menu to fine tune the alignment of my transmitter and receiver. When the units are aligned, they connect with an invisible infrared beam, and the receiver flashes red to indicate proper calibration. The camera should fire when that beam is broken. I have found that some tuning of the position is often required, and even though the LED will flash a confirmation, true alignment hasn’t been established. It seems like the “beam” is actually a little wider than I first imagined, and ambient light or reflective surfaces like sand or water can sometimes interfere with the triggering mechanism. My routine when setting up a camera trap is to act as a stand-in for the animal and make multiple passes in front of my camera to trigger the system. This is another reason why using ball heads is helpful, as you can make fine adjustments, then set them with no slop.
The receiver has no LCD menu, but does have three buttons: power, transmit rate, and transmit power. I use the highest available transmit rate. The downside of this is that the camera can sometimes be triggered by birds or leaves blowing in the wind. However, I’ve found that the highest transmit rate eliminates most lag from the triggering sequence, which is important for capturing fast-moving animals that don’t come around often! I have had the most consistent results using the high transmit rate. The transmit power has two levels – low and high. High power is suggested when the trigger and receiver are more than forty feet apart; I set mine about fifteen feet apart. Resist the urge to think that more power is better – using the high setting when the transmitter is close to the receiver will often result in errors and misfires, and it seems like the “beam” is harder to break.
My final step when setting up the camera trap is going into “Time Settings” in the Scout receiver menu, and choosing a limited time window during which the system will be active. This is useful for conserving batteries in the field when photographing animals that are only active during part of the day; New York coyotes are largely nocturnal.
The feature is especially important to me because, working in an urban setting, I don’t want the flashes firing during the day and attracting attention. My camera traps have been raided and vandalized, and minimizing camera activity makes the setup less conspicuous.
Since buying the Cognisys scout in April, I have moved my camera trap setup to several locations and taken many photographs of New York City’s animals – cats, mourning doves, skunks, dogs and coyotes. Of course, whenever I set up my trap in a new spot, my first visitors are always raccoons. I don’t know how they figure out there’s a camera in the area, but I can tell you that raccoons immediately arrive to take multiple selfies and drain my flash batteries.
When I first set up the Scout, I did have to troubleshoot the system a bit and figure out its quirks – dealing with reflective surfaces, fine-tuning alignment and setting appropriate transmission power. Matt over at Cognisys was very helpful, and stayed on the phone with me while I acted the part of the coyote and tried to trigger the Scout over and over again. He also mentioned that they have some triggers permanently set up and connected to cameras at the Cognisys headquarters, so if you call with a specific issue, they may be able to reproduce your settings, test your unique trapping scenario and offer a solution.
Having used competitive systems, I can sincerely recommend the Scout to any camera trap photographer. These are reliable, weather-resistant triggers that offer the same functionality and much better usability than any other products on the market. Now, if only they offered a raccoon-proof setting.
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Cognisys did not request, pay for, or in anyway influence this review. It is based entirely on our honest experience with their products.