As a member of the Wildlife Society Club, Naomi Haber had been hoping to capture a fisher cat, a large, forest-dwelling weasel she'd glimpsed once before on the trails behind Holyoke Community College.
"Fishers are such elusive animals," said Haber, a 21-year-old liberal arts major from Northampton. "I'd never seen one before last year."
Late last month, Haber finally got her wish. She and the other members of the club not only caught a fisher cat, they also bagged a grey fox, raccoon, opossum, white-tailed deer, short-tailed weasel, squirrels, coyote and a black bear.
This electronic hunting expedition was made possible by eight motion-sensor, infrared cameras club members set up in the 35-acre refuge and trail system on the west side of campus.The cameras and accessories were purchased for the club by the HCC Foundation.
As club members had surmised, the hills and forests around Holyoke Community College are alive with diverse and plentiful wildlife.
Andrew Stein, adjunct professor of biology and the club advisor, said the project has a two-fold purpose: one, field training, to give club members exposure to research and techniques for gathering data; two, to take pictures of animals.
"We have this incredible refuge on campus," said Stein. "It's nice to see what's out there. Everyone has their theories about what's back there. We wanted to gather some concrete evidence."
Club members spent about a week setting up the cameras in spots they believed would have the best chance to capture good shots. They also spread hunting lure -- a smelly, solid paste -- on logs and rocks nearby the cameras to attract animals.
"It's designed for small carnivores, like bobcat, but other species stop and sniff cause they're curious," said Stein.
Stein, as a graduate student at UMass, did his PhD work in Namibia using similar motion-sensor cameras to conduct population estimates on leopards. The beauty of the camera project, he said, is that you often get pictures of other species you don't expect to see that can be useful for population counts and conservation purposes -- in his case, rhinos.
At HCC, Stein said getting a picture of the coyote was most surprising. "It's not shocking," said Stein. "I'm just happy to get some record of their being back there."
Some of the things club members hoped to see but have not yet are bobcat and moose.
"They (moose) are close by but we haven't seen any photos of them," said Stein. "This is the time of year they start moving uphill from wetland areas."
Stein said the cameras will be taken down for the winter. A goal for spring is to do a similar wildlife survey in a nearby state park.
The wildlife camera project dovetails with another the club is conducting in concert with the Environmental Science Club -- cleaning up the trail system around the school and marking them with new trail blazes.
The HCC Refuge and Trail System was formally opened by President David Bartley in 2002. There are several different loops that pass through terrains of different biological interest, according to retired professor of biology Winn Lavallee, who was instrumental in setting up the trail system and spoke at a recent Wildlife Society Club meeting.
"We're very lucky," Lavallee said. "Many schools don't have a place to study nature right next door."
To see a gallery of wildlife photos from the club's cameras, click here.
Photos: (Left) Wildlife Society Club member Naomi Haber and advisor Andrew Stein set up a motion-sensor camera in the forest behind HCC. (Right) A coyote, captured on camera. (Thumbnail) Haber attaches a camera to a tree.