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.

Best image from west of the road

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.

Winter scene at the "new" location

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.

One of the best from the Moultrie

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.

Elk getting too close

Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipse 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.

Prominences on the Sun

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 Iceland 2003
Annular Eclipse 2003
Transit of Venus 2004
Venus Transit 2004
Transit of Venus 2012
Venus Transit 2012
Partial Eclipse 2014
Partial Eclipse 2014
Full Moon 2015
Full Moon 2015
Transit of Mercury 2016
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.

Trailcam Elk

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....

Bighorn in the Black Hills

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.

Bighorn in the Badlands

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.

Bald Eagle

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.

Burrowing Owl

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.

Mountain Bluebird

Scenics and other. Mostly scenics incorporating wildlife, and a few other things.

Bison in Wind Cave National Park