Three William Paterson students used hidden trail cams to document the mammals of this rugged 1,260-acre natural area.
By Jim Wright on May 08, 2017
Observing wildlife in Passaic County’s High Mountain Park Preserve is a sometime thing. Chances are you’ll see the usual suspects: deer, squirrels and an occasional chipmunks as you hike the rocky trails. But what about the shy critters that avoid humans or only come out at night? Who knows what lurks in the 1,260-acre preserve?
William Paterson University students Laura Botero-Antia, Samantha Craig and Dan Hansen decided to find out. At the suggestion of Biology Professor Lance Risley, they used hidden trail cams to conduct their own mammal survey last summer and fall -- with some nifty results.
The digital cameras, which have shutters that are triggered by motion, were placed at several points along the rugged terrain. The cams typically recorded the usual suspects -- white-tailed deer and gray tree squirrels, with raccoons a distant third. But they also revealed several surprises: red foxes, chipmunks, mice, skunks, coyotes and even a flying squirrel.
For Laura, a senior from Rutherford, the study was a bit of an eye-opener. “This project taught me that there’s always more than meets the eye. I would have never imagined that the forest right behind our university would have such diverse wildlife.”
The study turned out to be far more labor-intensive than the three expected, requiring lots of legwork to gather the data, and then hours at the computer sifting through the thousands of images for a few gems among all the shots of deer, squirrels and empty frames of just trees and bushes.
There was also the question of camera placement -- positioning the cameras so they be out of reach and out of sight from other hikers, but also placing them at perfect angles to capture good images of the animals.
The biggest surprise was captured with a cellphone.
Dan, a Rutherford resident who graduated from William Paterson last fall and is now applying to medical schools, explains: “We had been working on the project for about a month, and we were in a bit of a slump with only a handful of good pictures from the previous two weeks. We were feeling a bit demoralized, and the rain on this particular day didn’t help our waning motivation to hit the trail. Sam and I hiked out about a mile to large swampy area where we had the cameras set.”
That’s when he noticed an animal on the tree trunk directly to the right of him.
“Sam, who was standing about 20 feet away, exclaimed that she watched the animal glide down onto the trunk,” Dan recalls. “That’s when I saw a small flying squirrel clinging to the trunk of the tree about 6 feet above the ground. I took a few pictures of the animal with my cell phone and was able to get about 6 feet away from the trunk before retreating.”
Sam, a senior from Morristown, also got a kick out of recording the coyotes toward the end of the survey. “I remember Dr. Risley took Dan and me to the forest before starting our project, and he talked about coyotes being in the forest. I had been waiting and waiting to catch the coyotes on our cameras, and to finally capture images of them was very satisfying to me.”
One finding of concern: feral cats. “While it appears to only be a minor issue at this time, but we did capture pictures of a handful of cats in the preserve,” says Dan. “In one picture, the cat had what looked like a bird hanging in its mouth. Stray cats invading parks can be very bad for certain bird and small mammal species. We hope that people know that releasing cats at High Mountain can have serious consequences for the ecological balance of the preserve as a whole.”
Overall, the trio’s trail cams recorded thousands of images to create a valuable snapshot of wildlife in the mountainous Passaic County natural area. They captured the most activity and the largest diversity of animals around dusk, followed by more activity in the evening. (They also came across an owl and a few wild turkeys.)
Their study’s conclusions: “High Mountain Park Preserve proves to be a valuable location for ecological research. The identification of a number of unique species of animals, including certain animals like the rarely seen flying squirrel, make the park an attractive area for future ecological research.
“Our findings, in conjunction with the identification of threatened bat species residing in the park, illustrate the importance of High Mountain Park Preserve in sustaining the ecological diversity of northern New Jersey.”
Jim Wright is a nature writer, blogger and a trustee for The Nature Conservancy in New Jersey -- and a big fan of High Mountain.
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