Game camera hobbyists and conservationists reveal the hidden lives of animals in Southern Arizona
by Eric Aldrich
This story was reported and written as part of BorderLore’s Culture and Climate in Community program, with funding from the Southwestern Foundation for Education and Historical Preservation.
On a warm Friday morning in June, I follow Greg Joder into Tucson’s Catalina Mountains to check his game cameras. We head toward a valley where pools of water collect in a seasonal drainage—good attractions for wildlife. Gazing across the scrub oak and acacia, I imagine mountain lions and coatimundi roaming these the “sky island” mountains of the Sonoran Desert. We’re not likely to spot these shy and elusive creatures today in real time, but Greg’s cameras might show them to us anyway.
Greg stops on the ridgeline and scans the hillsides for other people. Several of his cameras have been tampered with or stolen over the years, including one a US Border Patrol officer returned to him after it had been taken by a drug smuggler. But no one else is around this morning, and we cut through the catclaw unnoticed.
When we arrive at the first camera, Greg unlocks its protective case, pops it open, and enters a security code on the camera’s screen. Reviewing the images, we enter the non-human desert. Here puffed-up doves bathe in dust, troops of coati congregate—tails up, heads down—to drink from the pools, coyotes sniff for urine memos and leave their own. We meet a wide range of creatures and behaviors, just not in real time.
A doe appears on the camera screen, her cervine neck bending gracefully toward the water.
“I think deer are under-rated,” Greg says. “I don’t post many deer videos online because they’re common, but with the desert sounds, the rippling water, and the foliage behind them, it’s such a tranquil scene.”
Through the camera, we glimpse what life is like for the animals living in this canyon. They appear, and we disappear. Ralph Waldo Emerson could have never imagined his “transparent eye-ball” equipped with AA batteries and a memory card.
I purchased my first game camera, a 35mm film model, almost ten years ago after noticing unfamiliar scat and strange tracks—like little hands—in my yard. The cam was a bust—I paid to develop lots of prints of swaying creosote branches. I replaced it with a digital cam and met someone unexpected—a racoon! I hadn’t seen one since I moved to Tucson from New England and didn’t know they lived in the desert. It was like a meeting an old friend.
Soon, my camera was capturing foraging racoons, rabbits sipping from the small water trough I set up, and even a bobcat with a quail in its jaws. I was hooked.
Game cameras, also called trail cameras, are motion-activated. The cameras project a “cone” of infrared light, which is measured by two sensors. When an animal passes through the light field, the camera registers a difference in how much light reaches each sensor, triggering a snapshot or a video and audio recording. Originally used by hunters and scientists tracking populations, game cameras are used more and more by conservationists and hobbyists.
For me, a diurnal animal often stuck indoors, game cameras allow for a gentle, non-invasive surveillance that connects me to the other animals with whom I share the desert. They also link me to a wider community of people with a deep curiosity for wildlife. Sharing our footage on social media and through conservation projects expands our ranges, so to speak, letting us see more of the wild, learn technical tricks and techniques, and connect to wider audiences.
I publish my most interesting clips on YouTube and Instagram and follow others who do the same, like Greg, who posts high-quality video and audio footage from his backyard and from the Catalina and Chiricahua Mountains, and Jarir Maani, who shares incredible shots of gray foxes and nest cams on baby birds from cameras near his desert home.
“Trail cameras have enabled me to follow wildlife over many years, in all seasons, and under different conditions,” Jarir told me over email. “I am always amazed by how seemingly fragile wildlife can brave the elements (heat, freeze, drought, rain, snow, gale). In September of 2021, a fierce monsoon storm damaged parts of my roof, yet a bird nest with two chicks survived intact!”
Just how much observation we game camera hobbyists do depends mostly on budget and time. I have two cameras in my yard, which gives me a good look at my co-habitants.
But Greg says he always wants more. “I think it would be fun to have two hundred cameras and live in an RV and just drive around and check them all.”
Place and placement matter
Greg and I leave the pool and continue walking along the sandy drainage of the canyon floor, where large trees shade the path and green vines hang from branches. Near a fallen log, Greg shows me a mountain lion rub—a scraped-up patch of earth along with a pile of cat feces.
“I’ve used this spot before and got ringtails and coatis running over this log,” he says, pulling a cam from his pack. He writes his name and phone number on it, hoping others will leave it alone. Just in case, he attaches the cam to a nearby tree with rope then runs a thick cable around the trunk, cinches the ends tightly shut with fence pliers, and locks the whole thing with padlocks.
Greg has set up game cams professionally for Arizona Fish and Game, to support a pronghorn reintroduction project near the US-Mexico border, and for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as part of a study of seabirds on Midway Atoll. These days he’s mostly an enthusiastic hobbyist, but less no serious about the work.
We discuss the placement of the camera, the height and angle of the shot. Everything about a cam’s set up is intentional, but figuring out where a cam should go can be a process of trial and error. When windblown foliage sets off the cam, the memory card can quickly fill up with “blanks,” shots with no animals.
“It takes time to learn wildlife behavior and patterns and thus good places to set a trail cam,” Greg says. “Well-used wildlife trails and water sources like springs or ponds are usually a good bet. Be prepared to move the camera based on the seasonality of resources.”
There are also aesthetic considerations—composition, background, and lighting can all affect what ultimately ends up being visible in an image. Greg tells me, “In any given trail cam set up, I try to frame the secondary subject such as a water source, fallen snag, or bear marking tree in a way that is pleasing to the eye and also captures the anticipated movement or behavior of the animals in and out of the scene.”
Like any photographer, Jarir always considers lighting. “If you target animals active during the day, keep the sun behind the camera, or at least to the side,” he says. “This prevents glare and harsh shadows in your photos.”
My method involves placing cams very close to the ground, about at snout level for coyotes and javelinas, which also helps me capture interesting behavior from small animals like cottontails, quail, or antelope squirrels.
Placing cameras at water sources or dens often ensures good footage. I used to monitor a trough, but now I look for heavily used animal paths and open spaces in undergrowth where animals may rest. This means I get fewer images, but I’m more likely to capture play and exploration.
Greg’s camera once caught a mountain lioness frolicking with two cubs, but the shot was obscured by grass. So now Greg frames the space where an animal will likely appear and even trims away any grass or shrubs that might interfere. He never modifies anything else on location.
Cameras for conservation
Last January, my camera recorded a bobcat in black-and-white night mode. The large cat strolled between my fence and a saguaro, a bulky leather radio collar fastened around its neck with a small antenna sprouting from the side. I posted the footage online and Greg commented that it was likely collared as part of the Bobcats in Tucson Research Project, which gathers footage from hobbyists as part of a research study.
Greg also told me about FotoFauna, another program crowdsourcing game camera footage. Managed by Sky Island Alliance (SIA), a conservation organization focused on preserving and protecting ecosystems in the border region, FotoFauna uses cams to track species’ ranges and migratory routes.
In April 2023, I joined several dozen people at the La Posada Community Center, a 55+ community in Green Valley, Arizona, to learn more about FotoFauna. Eamon Harrity, SIA’s wildlife projects manager presented a slide show of porcupines, coyotes, quail caught on game cameras. The images represented just a sampling from the program’s 280 local game cameras, which are managed by hobbyists in southern Arizona and northern Sonora.
FotoFauna offers a low bar to entry: one needs only a game camera and a computer to contribute, Eamon explained. Once per month, participants review a checklist of local species and upload one image of each species their cameras have captured to SIA’s database. Since the program started, some 450 checklists have been submitted.
“It’s about getting people engaged in community science and also about having a record through time of the species on the landscape,” Eamon said.
Most of the attendees were retirees, some already Fotofauna participants–dispelling any idea that a tech-focused appreciation for nature skews toward younger generations. It wasn’t not long before one man recognized a photo from his own camera in Eamon’s presentation—a tufted Gambel’s quail taking flight.
Though a fine shot by more than game cam standards, it wasn’t enough to keep the cam operator in the game, who admitted to letting the hobby go. “I just get so many photos of moving twigs and doves,” he said.
Eamon sympathized and offered suggestions for altering the cam’s settings to cut down on the wind-caused blank shots. Still, doves just rack up a lot of pics, he said, to several nodding heads.
Later, Eamon told me consistency is critical.
“The hardest part of the study is keeping people consistently submitting information,” Eamon said. “That’s the greatest amount of value – having that long-term record of something going on.”
To keep hobbyists involved and incentivize ongoing participation, SIA sends bimonthly updates on species documented and notable observations—an elusive ocelot, for instance. An annual contest lets participants vote on the best photos. And making the project data accessible through the Fotofauna Results Dashboard online helps people see how their images contribute to the study and understand how the animals they’ve identified fit into broader populations and migratory patterns in the area.
To help reduce financial barriers to participation—an adequate game cam costs between $100 and $600 dollars, depending on quality and function—SIA partners with libraries on both sides of the border to lend game cameras and provide instruction for how to participate in Fotofauna.
Expanding our human range
For conservationists, game cameras do more than just offer data. They make it easier to “see” what’s happening in remote or contested areas. They expand what can feel like very limited human senses.
“With cameras, suddenly I feel a little bit more omnipresent,” Eamon says. “I get to be in these landscapes, and I have a better sense of what’s present. I know there is a mountain lion that is a resident on this camera or we know there’s some porcupine on this camera. It just makes it feel like we’ve got eyes on the ground throughout our study area all the time. You go home, you can do your other work, but know that, in a sense, you’re still out there watching.”
That constant vigilance on behalf of animals is part of what motivates a conservationist’s work. But it also offers a visual reminder of the beauty and abundance of this place. “I feel like I have a special insight into this landscape and the animals that inhabit it,” says SIA wildlife specialist, Meagan Bethel. “I watch the seasons pass and animals come and go like a fly and the wall, and it’s a constant reminder that this border region is not a barren wasteland but is full of life.”
Full of life and now full of photos. To date, Meagan has reviewed over five million photos for SIA’s Border Wildlife Study, 99 percent of which showed no animals at all. Of the 90,000 images or so in which animals appear, most showed common and ubiquitous species, such as doves. Still, the small percentage revealing mammals, less common birds, and other animals offers valuable data, nonetheless.
“Going through the photos to sort out the false positives is almost addictive. Like playing the lottery, you never know what might appear,” Meagan said. “And when you do get something really cool like a bear, mountain lion, or just a really cool photo you can ride on that high for a long time while you continue to look for the next one.”
Indeed, getting “something really cool” was what kept Emily Burns, SIA program director, in the game of game cams long enough to inspire SIA’s game camera programs. When the pandemic sent Emily to work from home, she set up a camera to try to capture a badger, whose tracks she’d spotted near her house in the desert outskirts of Tucson. One camera became two, then three. Eventually Emily caught the badger visiting the water basin she’d set out, and finally put a face to the creature she only knew from footprints.
The badger was a mother of two, it turned out. “She would bring them both by the cameras and come to the water, and then on her own she would come and bathe, paws up!” Emily says.
At the time, maintaining the cameras helped Emily deal with the stress and isolation brought on by the pandemic. “Checking the cameras … became the thing that got me up each morning during those grueling first few months of the pandemic. It gave me so much hope to see that wildlife seemed to still be thriving all around the house, even when that hot and dry summer of 2020 came, and Catalinas caught fire.”
Emily sees the cameras as an extension of herself, giving her access to the desert during nighttime hours when she might otherwise not be outside. “Instead of the narrow window that I’m outside and looking, or the bias toward the daytime environment when most humans are active, we get a perspective of how much is actually happening at night.”
Aside from its impact on Emily personally (and on those she shared it with on her Instagram account), the badger footage catalyzed both the Fotofauna program and the Border Wildlife Study. As both a hobbyist and a conservationist, Emily sees wildlife cameras as integral to our understanding of life in the Sonoran Desert.
“These cameras that we leave out in the environment, that we leave down on the border … they’re part of our research team,” she said. So, it’s just dramatically expanded our reach across the landscape.”
A different kind of border surveillance
In partnership with the Universidad de Sonora and the Universidad de la Sierra in Mexico, SIA’s Border Wildlife Study uses game cameras to track the impacts of the border wall on wildlife, hoping the data will help influence new border policies that consider the significance of and protect animals and their migratory corridors.
The study monitors 110 cameras along a thirty-mile stretch of the border. So far, the cameras have documented over 40,000 wildlife sightings throughout the San Rafael Valley, the Huachuca Mountains, and the Patagonia Mountains of southern Arizona.
In particular, images of animal interaction with the border wall draw Emily’s attention. “What are they doing? Are they scared of the wall? Are they drawn to it? Do they look sad?” she wonders.
And, more directly, how does the wall impact animals’ movements?
Game cameras have revealed large declines in coyote populations in all the mountain ranges along the border. Especially in the Huachuca Mountains, which saw a 68 percent drop since April 2020. Though the exact cause for this decline is yet unknown, human activity along the border is suspected, Eamon said.
In 2022 when Governor Doug Ducey illegally placed shipping containers along the border within the Coronado National Forest, project camera data indicated a 30 percent decrease in mammal activity there. SIA also observed a period of recovery once the containers were removed as cameras captured more images of animals over time. Such data helps SIA illustrate the impacts of human activity on animals at the border and supports conservation efforts to inform local and national policy related to the border and the border wall.
“It’s a pretty simple policy fix to choose the leave the gates open, which is what we’re asking them to do, so large animals like mountain lions can go through,” Emily says.
As if to prove her point, a camera captured a mountain lion crossing open floodgates during a monsoon storm in San Bernadino last year.
Feeling closer to animals
Using a game camera to observe wildlife has deeply altered how I think about desert animals. When I pull into my driveway and spook a bobcat or come upon a deer in the desert, I see one behavior – avoidance. Bobcats slink away, javelinas clump together, deer flee through the creosote. On the cam footage, I see so many other behaviors. Bobcats hunt, javelina wrestle, deer peacefully munch creosote blooms, and jackrabbits groom their enormous, veiny ears.
As Greg says, “Animals are individuals. They have individual personalities.” Once, he saw two bears at the same waterhole. The first took a drink and left, but the second lingered to play in the water.
“Sometimes you can get to know individuals from their photographs if they’re distinctive,” Emily says, recalling the badger who repeatedly came to bathe near her desert home.
And viewing animals from a safe, behind-the-lens distance, means witnessing more than just their fear. Jarir remembers being surprised by what he calls “the saga of an orphaned white-tailed deer,” which showed a startling example of aggression. “One day, an adult female deer approached [the fawn], smelled it, and then kicked it away.”
Last April, my cams caught a mother javelina with two small babies. The mother’s rear legs were injured, and she limped badly. When I shared the footage, followers on social media expressed concern and were later relieved when she returned in May, her babies now bigger and her limp less pronounced.
It might be that much of technology alienates people from nature, but this form—a quiet, solar-operated camera mounted to a tree—does the opposite. It provides a lens onto a world teeming with animals, each as vitally alive as any human.
A coyote pauses to wait for its mate. An injured javelina struggles through pain to care for her young. A pair of quail leads their brood in perpetual parade through midday sun. I record digital snippets of these lives, and as I witness them, I become more invested in protecting them.
My game cams bring me closer to the animals with whom I share this ecosystem. And when I share what my cameras capture with others—on social media, in meeting halls, in the desert and the mountains—my human neighbors feel closer, too.
Back on the mountain, Greg and I come to a small pool teeming with tadpoles to check another camera. In the soft sand, we see large, mysterious tracks. Greg reviews the footage, and I hear him gasp
“What’s that look like?” he says, showing me the camera.
On the screen is a long, tawny tail. Definitely mountain lion.
“Yes!” Greg pumps a fist and smiles. With only 1200 to 1700 estimated mountain lions in the entire state of Arizona, seeing one on a game camera feels like brushing shoulders with a celebrity.
We replay the video again. The cat—large, lithe, imposing—hunches down in the lower right corner of the frame, its lapping tongue making ripples across the small pool. We are standing right where it once stood, a near-impossible encounter in real time. Instinctively, I scan the canyon, just in case the big cat is there, watching us.
Here are some recommendations for game cameras if readers are interested in starting their own hobby of watching wildlife:
- SIA’s recommended camera, the Browning Strikeforce HD Pro
- Voopeak Solar Game Camera (what Eric and Jarir use)
- Reconyx Game Cameras (what Greg uses)
Eric Aldrich lives in Tucson, AZ and is a member of BorderLore’s 2023 Culture & Climate in Community cohort. His recent writing appears in Deep Wild, Terrain.org, and Full Stop. You can follow his game camera footage on his YouTube channel, Lo Fi Outdoors.