Friday, August 25, 2017
A Brief History of (My) Trailcams
I’ve been dabbling with trail cameras since 2009 so I thought it was time to mark them in my database so I could have a custom web page. I thought it would be a big project but I actually did it in about an hour. One thing that surprised me is I had only posted 147 images in eight years. I would have guessed a lot more.
All but a couple are from Wind Cave National Park near Highland Ridge Road, with elk the primary subject. I had seen some elk in the area and tried to pick a spot where they were likely to pass. I started with a location west of the road at the bottom of a hill. Then due to elk activity I had observed on a hillside to the east, in 2012 I moved across the road and have been in the same general area since.
My first camera was a bulky Bushnell that used big “D” batteries. NiMh rechargeables only lasted a few weeks so I tried to augment with a solar panel. One of the elk decided to chew on the solar panel cord and put an end to that configuration. I went looking for a better camera and in 2011 settled on my current #1 camera, a Reconyx PC900 (no glow). The Bushnell sat for a couple years before being revived briefly in 2014 when I got some cheap “D” cells on clearance at Target, but after I used those up it went into permanent retirement.
Reconyx is the premier name in trail cameras and prices its products accordingly. Battery life is impressive, sometimes 18-24 months. But even with a high-end camera, image quality usually doesn’t measure up to what you can get from a cheap consumer point-and-shoot or even a cell phone. I suppose there are reasons for that, such as the use of fixed focus. That allows for quick response when triggered and holds down the cost, I suppose. Also, I don't fall into the usual demographic for purchasers of trail cameras. I think most customers just want to know that there is a big buck out there for them to harvest and don't care about image quality.
One crazy factoid is that of the 147 images, 20 of them were obtained within 2-3 hours of my first deployment of the Reconyx on July 2, 2011. The 20 were the best of a sequence of 500 images of two elk shot in quick succession in less than 15 minutes. They lingered in front of the camera, seemed to pose, then a couple times acted like they wanted to take a bite out of it. If only they were always so cooperative. I could have posted 300 good images out of that sequence, but it would have been a bit repetitive. But I have gone back six years later and added nine more images to the posted sequence.
In 2014 I acquired my current #2 camera, a Moultrie M-880 Low Glow. The Moultrie images are easy to spot on the thumbnail page as they have a wide aspect ratio consistent with HD video. The Reconyx does not have a video mode and I have not experimented with it on the Moultrie. Moultrie images also have more of a reddish cast while the Reconyx images are greenish. I've figured out a couple of Photoshop Elements adjustments that bring the color closer to reality, but there will always be differences between the cameras.
In 2016 I went cheap and put a Primos Proof Cam 02 (low glow) into service as camera #3 and had nothing but trouble with it. Bottom line is daytime images are almost always washed out (overexposed) and this camera is much more susceptible to false triggers than the other two. First time I checked the camera it had 60,000 images of waving grass. I tried it at a couple locations in Custer State Park that I thought would be more sheltered, but it didn’t get much better. Even though there are five images from the Primos in the gallery (as of today, the last five images), I just don’t think it is worthwhile to keep feeding it batteries to get yellow-cast, overexposed crap. The Primos is currently under my deck at home trying to get images of bunny rabbits. It's like being sent down from the majors to rookie ball. In that application I was hoping to use rechargeable batteries rather than expensive lithiums, but my rechargeables don't work in the Primos.
So today I ordered a new camera #3, a Browning Strike Force HD Pro. I had considered getting another Reconyx, but the price difference is astounding ($660 vs $160). I would probably go with the premium product if I had assurance some dirtbag wouldn't steal it. Considering I leave these things out in the woods for six months at a time, theft is a consideration. The Reconyx is secured with a Masterlock Python cable, but a couple years ago I had to cut through one of those using just my Leatherman so I know that only discourages casual thieves. Although the cameras have recorded a couple of instances where people walked by, the biggest risk to the cameras so far has been the elk. Besides the elk chewing on the Bushnell solar panel, there have been at least two instances where elk jostled the Reconyx (2011 and 2017) and one in 2014 where an elk nearly ripped the Moutrie off the tree and somehow loosened the cable lock. The Moultrie hung crooked for the next five months but some of the crooked images were actually good and I posted 10 of them in the October 2014 update.
A few times the elk fogged the lens with their breath. In a strange way, that's maybe what I like about trailcams. They allow you to get close to the animals without spooking them. I have found some national parks (Yellowstone, Grand Canyon) where fat elk lounge around near the visitor center, but that is not the case at Wind Cave. I have found elk in the Black Hills to be very skittish so I feel more of a reward when I get something good.
What is next? I would like to get images of mountain lions. I have a location picked out in Custer State Park where I was planning to put the Primos, but since it didn't measure up it will be a few months before I can get the new Browning out there. I've also thought about some sort of remote solution for imaging burrowing owls in the central South Dakota grasslands. A trailcam might work, but I've also thought about setting an SLR with a tripod close to the burrow and remotely triggering it from my truck 100 yards away. Either solution has advantages and disadvantages.
Click here to bring up the web page with the 156 thumbnails, including the nine "new" ones. I don't have the images set up in a slide show, so to see the next image you may have to return to the thumbnail page.
Tuesday, August 22, 2017
Multitasking during Eclipse Trip
Since I drove through the Black Hills on the eclipse trip, I took care of my three trail cameras. Camera #1, the Reconyx, is in a new location for the first time in five years, a few hundred yards to the south of its former location. I posted six of the better images in the slide show, including the one below of an elk getting up close and personal. The strap on Camera #2, the Moultrie, was rotting away so I had to put it on a smaller tree last April. I fitted it with a new strap yesterday and was able to move it to a larger tree in what I hope is a better location. I got some images in the four months since last check but nothing worth posting.
Camera #3, the Primos, is officially a disappointment and will be relegated to taking pictures of bunnies under my deck. When it worked properly, image quality was actually decent although a bit oversharpened. But it rarely worked properly. Almost all daytime images were extremely overexposed, and even the usable ones required more adjustment than those from the other cameras. Nighttime images were better but still not great. Although I included five images from #3 in the slide show, I'm tired of it being an Odell Beckham drama queen. (It's an NFL reference.) I'm in the market for a new trailcam #3 and probably will go with a Bushnell. The Reconyx has been very reliable, but it costs 3x what other trailcams cost. Bushnell seems to be the best option now in my target price range.
On the way home I wanted to follow up on my burrowing owls quest in May. I just discovered I never actually posted any images from that quest. So to finish off the slide show are an image from May shot at a location south of Pierre west of the river, and a more distant shot from today at a location east of the river. Burrowing owls are my current white whale and I'm trying to figure out what to do about it. I'm thinking about planting a trailcam at another location south of Pierre I found today. I didn't get any DSLR photos there but I'm thinking there may be some trailcam potential.
Click on the image to start the slide show.
Monday, August 21, 2017
I've been planning to see the Aug. 21, 2017 total eclipse since at least 2003 when I saw an annular eclipse in Iceland. I was planning to stay overnight in Columbus, NE and drive either south or west to the zone of totality. However, the cloud situation over Nebraska looked iffy so I switched at the last minute to overnighting in Custer and driving down through Lusk to Jay Em, WY.
I was not disappointed in Jay Em. Skies were clear except some irrelevant haze on the horizon. Of course, since it was Wyoming, there was a stiff wind. I staked out a spot just south of town along US 85 about an hour before the partial phase started, and leading up to the event all I could hear was the wind and the traffic. As the eclipse progressed and the light dimmed, the wind also began to abate. Coincidence, I don't know. When totality began, I could hear the people in town for the first time as the cheers went up. After taking my totality pictures, I made sure to leave a few seconds just to look around at the landscape and the sky. I noticed a few stars and an extremely bright spot to the right of the sun that I later learned was Venus. Duh, should have known that. I included some technical details on the images that some may find interesting. With the totality shots, different shutter speeds revealed different details.
Not to bury the lead, the image below is the best of the bunch. It shows three prominences rising from the surface of the sun at 12:00, 1:00 and 3:00. Click on the image to start the slide show of larger images at the beginning.
Depending on your monitor, you may notice that the filtered shots have a totally black background while the unfiltered totality shots have a lot of "noise" in them. The filtered shots were processed in Photoshop with all the adjustments I usually make for levels, contrast, color saturation and sharpening. I chose to present the first three totality images "as is" with no processing. A lot of the eclipse pictures you see are composites or manipulated in some way. But often there is a legitimate reason to invoke Photoshop, so the fourth totality image in the slide show has been cropped and processed a bit to emphasize the prominences.
With wildlife photography, I have equipment that professionals would use, I have a certain amount of technical proficiency with it, and I have the patience and inclination to look for the animals. I'm not much of an astrophotographer because it usually requires fumbling around in the dark long after everyone else has gone to bed, I don't really see that well at night, and even low-level equipment is fairly expensive. High-end equipment costs millions or billions of dollars and requires either a plot of land in the Chilean Andes or a launch vehicle. So I don't go after planets, stars or other distant objects, but the sun and moon are easy enough to do with what I have, and often can be done during the day. Here are some sun/moon events that I have photographed with varying degrees of success over the years. Unfortunately there are no more Venus transits until 2117 but there are other things coming up. The next major event is a transit of Mercury Nov. 11, 2019. It will be visible from my house and will be in progress at dawn, so I should be able to get some better images than 2016 assuming clear skies. After that there is an annular "Ring of Fire" eclipse Oct. 14, 2023 (I plan to be in Albuquerque) and a total eclipse Apr. 8, 2024 (I probably will be near Austin, TX).
Annular Eclipse 2003
Venus Transit 2004
Venus Transit 2012
Partial Eclipse 2014
Full Moon 2015
Mercury Transit 2016
Saturday, August 19, 2017
South Dakota's Top 10 in 10 after 10
To a coastal resident, voluntarily moving from the Boston area to South Dakota must seem like lunacy, but 10 years ago I made such a move. I had a decent-paying job in Massachusetts, but when my employer offered early retirement and even though I wasn't yet age 51, I decided to take it and move back to the Heartland. It's hard to make a "coastal" understand, and I'm not going to try. I don't want a bunch of people moving here and spoiling the solitude.
In commemoration of the 10 years, I decided to put together my 10 favorite South Dakota images in each of 10 categories. I'm proud that of the 100 images, none are what the typical tourist might get. You'll have to go elsewhere to find the Corn Palace, Reptile Gardens, the still-incomplete-after-all-these-years-but-still-charging-to-see-it Crazy Horse, or even Mt. Rushmore. The fact that there are two elk categories and two bighorn sheep categories shows where my head is at. I only have one eagle category, but that's because most of my favorite eagle pictures are from the Mississippi River on the border of Iowa and Illinois and aren't eligible for this tribute to my home state.
I consider myself a photographer of wildlife, not scenics. However, many of these images incorporate the landscape to show the wildlife in its natural setting. The final category is a catch-all for scenics and other images, and even there six of the 10 incorporate wildlife. Seven of the 10 if you count the T-Rex. Locations include Custer State Park (31 images), Wind Cave National Park (26), Badlands National Park (12), Newton Hills State Park (6), my yard in Sioux Falls (6), elsewhere in Sioux Falls/Brandon (6), Ft. Randall dam (5), Cleghorn Springs State Fish Hatchery (4), central South Dakota grasslands (3), and Hill City (1). No doubt there are other great photography locations in South Dakota, but for my subject matter, Custer, Wind Cave and the Badlands are the obvious destinations. For a day trip, Newton Hills can be hit-or-miss but sometimes offers up something interesting (oriole, sphinx moth).
Here are the 10 categories. Click on an image to start the slide show in that category. If you keep clicking, you will see all 100 images.
Trailcam images of elk. I've been playing around with trailcams since 2009, and most of that time I've had the cameras deployed in Wind Cave National Park in areas known to be frequented by elk. There are national parks where some of the elk are more tame (Yellowstone, Grand Canyon), but Black Hills elk have always been elusive when I've gone looking (as shown by the next category), so I resorted to trailcams to get closeups.
SLR images of elk. Most of these are distant shots of the hillsides near my trailcam location, but I got a few in 2016 in other parts of Wind Cave National Park.
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep in the Black Hills. The first time I saw a flock of bighorns in Custer State Park in 2008, I nearly drove off the road. The snowfall pictures from later on 2008 and 2009 are some of my favorite. I also found out about a flock that hung around in and near Cleghorn Springs State Fish Hatchery in western Rapid City. However, in recent years I haven't come across the sheep as often in these locations. But I found another hot spot....
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep in the Badlands. Since 2012, I've found that Badlands National Park is a fairly reliable spot to find bighorns. This is a great place to incorporate the landscape into the images.
Bison and pronghorns. It is easy to find these big animals in Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park and take the standard photo. I selected images that show the animals as part of the landscape, or interacting with each other as rivals or family members.
Eagles. I couldn't neglect eagles entirely. In addition to bald eagles in the Black Hills and near the Ft. Randall dam on the Missouri, I also found a golden eagle's nest near the tiny town of Quinn.
Other mammals. From various locations around the state, coyotes, deer, prairie dogs, bunny rabbits, a ground squirrel, a marmot, and a woodchuck.
Big Birds. Other than eagles, these include burrowing owls, various hawks, turkey, sandpiper, robins nesting under my desk, and some ducks.
Little Birds and Butterflies. The headliners are the Mountain Bluebirds in Custer State Park. But there also are orioles, woodpeckers and flying insects in Newton Hills State Park in the eastern part of the state.
Scenics and other. Mostly scenics incorporating wildlife, and a few other things.
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Johnson Space Center
I made an unexpected trip to Houston this week, so the only camera I had on a side trip to Johnson Space Center was my phone. I usually carry at least a Canon S95 point-and-shoot if I expect to take photos, but like I said this trip was unexpected. Some of the inside photos are a bit blurry or noisy, but cameras have been dumbed down to fit inside phones so what can you do? I'm not used to taking pictures with my phone, so my finger made it into one of them. See if you can spot it.
It has probably been 25 years since I have been to the space center, and I seem to recall that the Saturn V was sitting outside at that time. Now it has its own huge building separate from the visitor center. Click on image to bring up the thumbnail page.
Tuesday, July 04, 2017
4th of July in Red Lodge
I spent the 4th of July with family in Red Lodge, MT. There was a parade for each of the three days of the rodeo, and fireworks the night of the 4th.
It has been a while since I've tried to shoot fireworks, and my equipment for this attempt was my Canon S95 point-and-shoot, a pop bottle, and a little tripod device that attached the camera to the bottle. I think this would have turned out OK except I had the bottle sitting on a deck post, and the movement of the 20 or so people on the deck introduced some vibration into the images. You can see these as squiggles in some of the shots. The shots are still worth looking at, but next time I should try it with my big camera on an actual tripod sitting on actual ground. Click on the image to bring up the thumbnail page.
Saturday, April 22, 2017
This is my twice-yearly trailcam update, but I posted only five images from the last six months. I'll get back to the trailcams later, but the best images from the trip were SLR shots of bighorn sheep in the Badlands. I also got some interesting images from Custer State Park of bison babies, bluebirds and meadowlarks.
I hit the Badlands on both legs of the round trip to the Black Hills. On Wednesday I saw 20 bighorn ewes but didn't see any rams. It was rainy and foggy so I didn't make the turn down Sage Creek Road. On Friday, I did take that road and found nine rams and eight ewes, including a group of four rams that I followed for more than an hour. At first they were grazing near the rim, and eventually three went down into the rough country. They provided hundreds of photo ops as they roamed around. The fourth ram, who appeared to be old and a bit beaten up, found a resting spot on the rim to take in the view. That is the last image in the gallery. Click on images to start slide show.
Regarding the trailcams, in an effort to shake things up I've been trying to figure out how to redeploy them:
Camera #1: I have moved the Reconyx from where it has been for five years to an area further south. Despite some good shots over the years, it can go for a month without seeing anything. I'm hoping for higher traffic in the new location.
Camera #2: The Moultrie has probably given me the best images since I deployed it three years ago. I had a bit of a scare this time as I could not find the camera. I had already concluded it was stolen or lost and had started hiking back up the hill when I finally stumbled across it. Last November, the strap broke, and I had to move it to a smaller tree. For some reason I didn't mark the new location on my GPS. Anyway, I left it in the same location this time and carefully marked it. It is a little bit north of the Reconyx.
Camera #3: The Primos is very tempermental and I would not buy it again. Last time, positioned near cameras #1 and #2, it fired off 70,000 images of waving grass before the batteries gave out. So I moved it to a more sheltered location 12 miles away in Custer State Park, which sort of worked except most of the exposures looked washed out. And except for one sequence of elk, most of the images were of deer. I moved it to a slightly different location in CSP and have no great expectations. But if a mountain lion strolls past, cameras #1 and #2 will be moving.
In summary, the Reconyx is an excellent trailcam but I probably won't buy another one because it is expensive and I don't think they've really upgraded them in recent years. I can buy four Moultries for the cost of a Reconyx, so my next camera probably will be another Moultrie or perhaps a Bushnell. Every once in a while the Primos takes a good shot, but the false triggers and the confused exposures lead me to conclude it wasn't worth it to save a few bucks on this cheapo brand. Generally speaking, I'm not happy with trailcam image quality, even with the high-end Reconyx, but I understand I'm not in the usual demographic for these devices.
Even though it is necessary to travel to wildlife hot spots to see the most spectacular displays, every once in a while there is the reminder that some wildlife tries to make the best of the urban landscape. When I got home last night, I put my rosemary plant out on the deck where it will spend the summer. This morning I was startled to find a duck sitting on my rosemary plant! Before I could finalize dinner plans, she flew away.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
30 seconds of fame
I found an old MP3 player that I thought might be useful at the gym because, compared to my current phone, it is tiny. On there I found a download of the Tony Kornheiser show from February 2013. I sent an email to the show telling what I found, and that email was read on the show today. For me, this is the equivalent of mugging for the camera after spotting myself on the Jumbotron at a sporting event (which I would never do).
Follow this link, download the show from 1/18/17 "The Socialite is in the house" and fast forward to 1:12:04. The clip lasts for about 30 seconds.
This is the email:
"I was cleaning up an old MP3 player and found a copy of the Podcast in its former incarnation from February 2013. Feeling nostalgic about a bygone era, I listened to it, and it happened to feature the first in-studio appearance of one Mr. Chris Cillizza. The topic was whether the abrasive Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel would run for President in 2016 if Hillary decided not to, and Mr. Cillizza offered this insightful peek into the soul of America that we have come to except:
"Gary: Can you think of a President that has had that sort of an edge to him?
"Chris: His reputation is he loves to swear and is very confrontational. I'm not sure that's what people are looking for in a President."
Today the response to this was,
Chris: Nailed it!
Chris: Is Rahm president? Thank you. You're welcome.
Validation for life.
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Photo of the Year 2016
I have posted lots of elk images over the years, but most of these either were of semi-tame residents of wildlife parks or trailcam images. This image is notable in that is a free-ranging elk in the Black Hills that I snapped with my DSLR. I came around a corner and spotted this guy drinking from a stream near the road. He stuck around long enough for me to get a few shots.
Here are my POY selections for 2002-2015.
Junior I 2002
Gentoo Penguins 2003
Little Brothers 2004
Bald Eagle 2005
Blue Jay 2006
Eagle with fish 2007
Great Horned Owls 2008
Custer SP Bighorn 2009
Keokuk Eagle 2010
|Sertoma Butterfly 2011||Dark Morph 2012||Night heron 2013|
|Elk Frame 2014|| |
Squaw Creek Geese 2015
Saturday, November 12, 2016
Past the Shoulder
There are some national parks, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon included, where the elk are so tame that they lounge around in well-trafficked areas without a concern. I've never found that to be the case in Wind Cave National Park. That's why I've had trail cameras set up in the park for the past five years to get elk closeups that were very difficult to get with an SLR. Sometimes when I go down to check my cameras, I see elk on the far hillside and I can get a shot like this with the 400mm lens on my SLR.
On this trip, I saw elk right along SD 87, which I had heard of but had never seen before. On the morning of the 10th I had a distant view of seven bulls grazing in a field near the highway. Then that afternoon, I stumbled across this guy getting a drink in the stream right next to the highway.
I haven't seen bighorns in the Black Hills recently, but I've seen them in the Badlands the last three times I've been through there. On Nov. 11th I saw two groups, one with a ram, five ewes and a lamb, and the other with a ram and two ewes. I got some good images of the rather lazy first group, then drove on and found the second group. I set up the tripod and big lens, and after a while through the viewfinder saw the ram heading in my direction with a wild look in his eye. I was debating whether to flee until I saw what he was actually headed toward. It's that time of year. I guess I wasn't in danger, but I retreated a few yards just in case. Nothing happened while I was there, but here's hoping that his companions have little ones next spring.
Friday, October 14, 2016
Elk and Parks, and a few Olympians
Early October took us to five national parks, a couple of wildlife viewing hotspots, and the U.S. Olympic Training Complex in Park City, Utah. I split the trip into five photo galleries in chronological order: Tame Elk, National Park Landscapes, Olympic Skiers, Wild Elk on Trailcam, and Badlands Bighorn.
Tame Elk: The Omaha Zoo has a wildlife park west of the city, the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari, which features North American animals including elk, bison, bears, wolves, raptors, and other birds. For me, the highlight is the elk, which are huge and very easy to photograph in their drive-through enclosure. I previously visited the park in 2008.
National Park Landscapes: I never claimed to be a landscape photographer, and only posted a few images from the parks that don't have wildlife in them. But I think one image from Bryce Canyon is more than just the usual snapshot.
Olympic Skiers: We happened to hit Park City while the aerial skiers were practicing. They jump off a ramp to do their twisting routines, then land in a pool. I snapped a bunch of images.
Wild Elk: Even though I can easily get images of huge placid elk near Omaha, I still like to stalk the wild elk in the Black Hills. During the recent six-month period I had three trailcams deployed in Wind Cave National Park. The Reconyx got a few decent images in the location where it has been for the past four years, but the best shots were on the Moultrie located a few hundred feet further south. The new Primos camera takes a decent image, but is far too sensitive. It fired off more than 60,000 shots in a month before the batteries died, and so far I've only found a handful that were anything other than wind-blown grass. I took the Primos out of service while I figure out how to work around the problem. I did post one image from the Primos. Because it was mounted on the same tree as the Moultrie, they both captured a shot of a cow elk at about the same time. One problem I have with trailcam JPGs is adjusting the color to look natural in various lighting conditions. The images from the two cameras illustrate this problem.
Badlands Bighorn: We knew from a previous side trip to the Badlands that there are a few bighorns in the park. We were not disappointed as we saw a bighorn working his way down steep cliffs from a peak to the vegetation below. I posted 25 images just of that sequence, because I can. Click on any of the images below to start the 87-image slide show.
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