When Allen Daniels checked his backwoods trail camera and found what biologists believe to be the sole public image of Oregon's most famous wolf, readers on several continents marveled aloud this week at the great luck that finally led to a photograph of OR-7.
But it's almost as remarkable that it didn't happen sooner. Lower prices, improved technology and widespread appeal among hunters and others means more lenses are focused in the wild than ever before.
This phenomenon sometimes transforms people like Daniels into citizen journalists, providing everyone from biologists to just plain curious people with a heretofore unseen view of what's happening in the forest.
From elusive Pacific fishers ripping up woodrat nests and proof of wolverines in Wallowa County to a chance encounter between a spotted skunk and a gray fox, trail cameras are raising the curtain on wildlife behavior, in some cases turning rumors into facts. A new wolf pack in the Snake River area, for example, was discovered and confirmed earlier this year thanks largely to a hunter's trail-cam shot.
With so many cameras hanging from trees these days, it's hard to imagine anything going undetected in the woods.
"We're hesitant to say that the hunter photos confirmed the Snake River (wolf) pack," says Michelle Dennehy, Wildlife Division spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "But the hunter's trail cameras definitely assisted us in getting to the right place to make that confirmation."
Trail cams run the gamut from $100 black-and-white cameras to sophisticated video-recording machines that can send instant images and recordings of animals via satellite to a laptop computer.
They have infrared sensors that trigger still images or video whenever something walks by and trips the sensor. Trail cameras have been used for 15 years by local ODFW biologists to track black-tailed deer migration patterns.
Likewise, hunters train them on game trails to see the big bucks or bulls they plan to target in hunting season.
That was Daniels' plan in November when he set his trail cam in a public forest south of Willow Lake. But his camera turned up the now-famous image of what biologists believe is OR-7, the 2-year-old male wolf whose sojourn to Southern Oregon and Northern California has gone viral.
Quite the coup for a dude looking for deer.
"Trail cams are pretty neat," says Mark Vargas, an ODFW biologist in Central Point. "Sometimes you're out doing work on a target animal and you end up with information on a non-target animal."
ODFW biologists in April put out cameras in Wallowa County to see whether rumors of wolverines there were true. They snapped photos and video of the first confirmed Oregon wolverine since 1992.
Sometimes, the finds are accidental.
ODFW biologist Steve Niemela found a deer's tracking radio collar up a tree near a woodrat nest in Josephine County two years ago. He retrieved the collar and set up a trail cam aimed at the nest. When he retrieved it several months later, he discovered video of an elusive Pacific fisher tearing the nest to shreds.
Sometimes, the videos are just odd. One cam captured a close and humorous encounter between a fox and a spotted skunk. Another shows a fox up a tree, chowing on a bear bait set out for an annual black-bear survey. Still another recorded outside of Gold Beach shows a big black bear scratching his back like something out of "The Jungle Book."
"When you get video, you get to see behaviors, not just animals," Vargas says. "People don't think foxes climb trees, but they do. You can watch them on the video."
Trail cams have become so common they are getting misused. Hunters complain that people once caught off-guard by cams in the woods are stealing them now. Others use Photoshop or other digital editing systems to create bogus images of huge herds of elk on roadways or cougars and other predators in the same frames as their prey.
"I've seen crazy stuff people say were taken on their trail camera," says Duane Dungannon of Talent. "We once got a picture of a black bear almost as big as a Volkswagen.
"I'm surprised nobody's ever walked by, saw the camera and mooned it," he says.