Monday, July 9, 2018

Trailcam Update

The previous three posts have given some examples of what I got from the Browning camera deployed in Montana for the past year. This is the "official" trailcam update with the 13 best images dating back to last summer. For the record, the Montana camera (#5) collected images from July to November before the memory card filled up with false triggers. I also included one image each from the old Reconyx (#2) and the damaged Browning (#6) which were deployed near Jewel Cave, South Dakota in June 2018. Current deployment is old Reconyx (#2) and new Reconyx (#7) in Montana and the two Brownings (#5 and #6) sitting in a box on my dining room table awaiting orders.


Montana Moose

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Browning Review

Last year I bought two Browning Strike Force HD Pro trailcams. This particular model is favorably reviewed on Trailcampro and Amazon, but I just can't go along with the crowd on this one. It will be a while before I buy another Browning. Specific deficiencies are:

  • Both cameras produce hundreds of false triggers for each usable image. There is no way to adjust the sensitivity.
  • Images are horrendously oversharpened. There is no way to adjust sharpening.
  • The camera I had in Montana has a weird color vignetting where the left and right edges have a blue cast and the center has a brown cast. I can deal with a color cast if it is consistent across the image, but this is ridiculous. The other Browning that I had in the Black Hills doesn't exhibit this problem.
  • Night images are motion blurred, even on the setting that supposedly compensates for motion.
  • Personal preference, I don't like the wide aspect ratio which is more suited to video than still images.

On a positive note, the camera I had in the Black Hills survived a forest fire. The case is warped in some spots but the camera still works. However, because the camera had thousands of false triggers in the days before the fire, the memory card was full and it got no images of the fire. As of now both Brownings are undeployed while the two Reconyx do Montana duty. I'll probably be putting the Brownings out in the Badlands or Black Hills within the next month, hopefully finding spots where there isn't waving grass to set off the false triggers.

I will be posting 11 images from the Montana camera separately, but for review purposes here are some images that illustrate my points. Click on an image to see a larger version.

This shows the color vignetting. On the moose images I photoshopped, I desaturated the color on the edges to reduce the blue. On this one the moose was too close to the edge of the image.

One benefit of having thousands of false triggers is you get something that you might not get otherwise.

This illustrates (a) deer are leapers and (b) the Browning's nighttime blur reduction is not very effective.

The Black Hills Browning, despite being damaged in the fire, can still take a good image (mixed in among the hundreds of false triggers).

This one is my fault. When strapping a camera to a tree, make sure you secure the loose ends of the strap.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Burying the Lead

At the moment I have two functional Reconyx cameras with which I am mostly pleased and two Browning Strike Force HD Pro cameras with which I am usually frustrated. I just placed the two Reconyx at my brother's cabin in Montana near where the undamaged Browning had been located since last 4th of July, and I have the two Brownings in hand trying to decide where to place them in Montana or South Dakota.

I'll start with three moose images from Montana. I'll do a more complete posting when I get home. The undamaged Browning, as I've determined is standard for this model, takes thousands of pictures of waving grass and you just have to hope you get a few good ones before the memory card fills up or the batteries die. The camera took 9,218 images before the card filled up Nov. 23. Compared to what I've gotten from the other Browning, this is actually good.

Next is a test of the damaged Browning from the Jewel Cave area in the Black Hills. This is from a sequence just after deployment, followed by a bunch of false triggers.

The old Reconyx got its first time in the field since coming back from repairs. Also from the Jewel Cave area, this was the best I got in the month the camera was there. I experienced NO false triggers with the Reconyx, which is infinitely more adjustable than the Browning. Except for a greenish cast (which I have not adjusted for here), I am pleased with the results. I'm eager to see what the new Reconyx can do.

And finally, this is from my brother's Cuddeback camera near his cabin. I have posted hundreds of images of elk and now a few of moose, but if I could get cougar images on my cameras I would be unreasonably happy.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

First Light: More Info

I have two Browning cameras purchased 2017. The moose image is from the "good" one, the other one having sustained damage in the Legion Lake Fire in the Black Hills last year. This is a highly-regarded camera with good reviews, but so far both of them have suffered from the same problem: The trigger is too sensitive and can't be adjusted. The Black Hills camera survived the fire, but had already filled up the memory card in two months with images of wind-blown grass and unlike my old Reconyx didn't get any pictures of the fire. My brother tells me the Montana camera took 70,000 images in 11 months. My other complaint is a personal preference: I've decided I don't like the wide aspect ratio for still images. Since I usually take stills rather than video, I prefer something less wide.


Montana Moose

I am waiting for Reconyx to send me an HP2X Hyperfire 2 Professional Covert IR Camera this week. This is a new model that is backordered, but I called yesterday and they told me it would be shipped soon. This camera, at a price point ($460) high compared to most trail cameras but low for Reconyx, should address the two issues I have with the $160 Brownings: The aspect ratio is 4:3 rather than 16:9 and the sensitivity is adjustable. It only takes 720P video, but I'm not buying it to take video.

I'm headed to Montana for the Fourth of July. The current plan is to drive through the Black Hills to scoop up the old Reconyx and "bad" Browning to see if they've gotten any decent images since I planted them just west of Jewel Cave National Monument a month ago. In Montana, I'm planning to plant one Reconyx and one Browning in the Beartooth Mountains. Then on the way back through the Black Hills I will redeploy the other Reconyx and other Browning, with the location dependent on success so far.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

CSI: South Dakota

In December, the Legion Lake Fire in the Black Hills scorched 54,000 acres including the sites where I had three trailcams deployed. As previously reported, in February I found the Reconyx and Browning cameras in Wind Cave National Park, damaged but still functional, but was unable to find the Moultrie camera 9 miles away in Custer State Park.

Due to the need to wait for the snow to melt and various family situations, I was unable to get back to the Moultrie location until today. I was certain I had pinpointed the right tree but digging through the snow in February revealed nothing. Today with the snow gone I still didn't see anything. I expanded the search area but kept coming back to the same tree. I finally decided to look specifically for the buckle on the strap that held the camera to the tree, and finally had some success. When I found the buckle, I also noticed an electronic-looking black lump next to it. It was the Moultrie.

The Reconyx was locked to its tree with a cable so it never fell into the fire. But the Browning and the Moultrie were just held with straps, so those cameras fell to the ground when the straps burned through. The Browning must have landed on a relatively cool spot, and the Moultrie must have landed on a hot cinder.

Back in the hotel room, I started forensics on the Moultrie to see if I could recover the memory card. After peeling away several layers of char, I found what I believe to be the remains of the memory card. It's the little rectangle in the lower right. What are the chances any images survived? Seems unlikely but I'll do more investigating.

The tourist season in the Black Hills is getting underway and the folks who run Custer State Park no doubt have had a challenging time getting the park ready. The fire did not kill a lot of big trees, but it did kill the little ones. They are still standing with brown needles, more of a fire hazard now than they were before the fire. It's apparent crews have been working to clear the fuel in some areas, but 54,000 acres is a huge area. The park will have scars from this fire for a long time. I took this image of a bison herd today during a downpour. The water at the bottom is actually a flash flood. But you can also see the brown trees, generally the smaller ones, intermixed with the larger green trees.

Since recovering my cameras in February, I have not had any deployed in the Black Hills. I was hoping to find some burrowing owls in the Badlands area today and allocate the Browning for long-term surveillance, but I didn't find any owls today. Part of the problem was I was unable to get to one of my preferred location due to a muddy "road" which is really just a two-track across a field. Although I have a 4WD F150 now, I'm still cautious about getting stuck in the mud 50 miles from the nearest town. So now I'm planning to put both the Reconyx and the Browning in the national forest somewhere west of Custer tomorrow, but I need to find good locations.

May 30 Update: Last week, the old Reconyx and the damaged Browning were deployed on the edge of the Jasper Burn (2000) just west of Jewel Cave National Monument. I ordered a Reconyx HyperFire 2 Professional Covert IR today. This is a new model for 2018 and features a lower price point for Reconyx and claims incredible battery life of 2 years. I've routinely gotten 1.5 years on the old Reconyx so I can believe it. I have a trip planned to Red Lodge, MT for the 4th of July and this is the plan that is forming in my head: Retrieve the two Jasper Burn cameras and the other Browning currently near my brother's cabin in Montana. That would give me four cameras in hand, two Reconyx and two Brownings. The Brownings probably get 6-8 months of battery life, so I'm guessing the one at the cabin only lasted until mid-winter. I might place the new long-life Reconyx near the cabin, and depending on what sort of images I got from that area, put the a Browning there also. Then return to the Black Hills and place the old Reconyx and the other Browning either back in the Jasper Burn or in a new area if necessary. I've still got this idea of putting one of the Brownings in a prairie dog down near the Badlands, but that won't happen this trip.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Reconyx is the best

About seven years ago after an elk chewed the cord off the solar panel powering my first trailcam, a D-cell powered Bushnell, I was looking around for a camera with better image quality and more reasonable power requirements. I was attracted to Reconyx because of its superior reputation and decided it was worth it to pay four times as much for a PC900 versus what it would cost for a mainstream camera.

The Reconyx stood the test of time, capturing elk images efficiently in Wind Cave National Park for those seven years. However, fire damaged the exterior of the camera in December and although it still seemed operational I decided to send it in for servicing. From what I can tell, Reconyx is the only trailcam company that even tries to service its cameras. Including shipping both ways, it cost me $81 to get it repaired.

When I got the camera back, I was astounded. According to the service description, they replaced the case, LCD screen, battery harness, and illumination package. What else is there, the lens and image sensor? It looks like a brand new camera. My only complaint is the color is now a solid dark green rather than camo. We'll see how it performs when I get it back out in the field sometime this spring. They also included a Reconyx hat, which I will wear proudly out in the woods when I'm searching for a new tree on which to mount it.

So for $81 I could either buy a cheap piece of crap like a Primos, or get my wonderful Reconyx repaired. No brainer. I think in 2025 I'll send it in again whether it needs it or not.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Where are we today?

For the first time in seven years, I do not have a trail camera deployed in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The massive Legion Lake fire of December 2017 put a damper on things, although even before the fire I was planning to pull my three cameras from their locations in Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park and move them elsewhere, probably in the Jewel Cave National Monument area west of Custer. I also am trying to figure out the best way to deploy cameras in Conata Basin prairie dog towns south of the Badlands to capture burrowing owls, black-footed ferrets, and badgers.


Conata Basin Badger

When I did my trailcam check in February, I discovered that the Reconyx PC900 and Browning Strike Force HD Pro were damaged in the fire and the Moultrie M-880 was missing. The Reconyx still seemed fully operational and I considered putting it in the new location, but there was too much snow on the National Forest Service roads even for a 4WD F150. When I got home and did a more thorough inspection of the Reconyx, I saw that the plastic over the PIR sensor was bubbled so I decided to send it in for servicing. As far as I know, Reconyx is the only trailcam company that actually services its products. I believe all the others give you a replacement if covered by warranty or "SOL" if not. The Browning case was more severely melted and warped than the Reconyx, but all I'm going to do with that is use electrical tape to try to keep the water out of the gaps that the fire created. When I searched for the Moultrie earlier this month, the ground was covered with snow and I couldn't find it. I'm presuming the fire burned through the strap and somehow deposited it some distance from the tree. The other possibility is it was stolen. BTW this really was a massive fire, 54,000 acres. The Moultrie was located 9.5 miles away from the other two, but all three were in the burn area.

Since the Conata Basin doesn't have many trees, I need some sort of mounting solution. A recent purchase includes a Fourth Arrow Stake, a trailcam support that drives into the ground like a stake and extends to 40 inches. One thing I'm wondering about this is whether it is designed to be left out for six months at a time. If that doesn't work I still have the T-post attachment that I bought at Cabela's. I even bought a T-post at Home Depot in case there isn't a fence in the appropriate location. Update: After some testing with my crappy Primos, I think my impression of the Arrow Stake is correct. It seems to be a good short-term solution but I wouldn't put it out for months at a time.

This is the current plan, a three-day trip sometime in April or May after the snow is long gone and the ground has firmed up a bit:

  • Day 1: Drive through Badlands NP to the location of the Conata Basin badger image. Deploy the patched-up Browning on the Fourth Arrow Stake. Drive to another prairie dog town further west and temporarily deploy the Primos Proof Cam HD 02 on my small tripod. Drive through the Badlands looking for bighorn sheep. Overnight in the Black Hills.
  • Day 2: Deploy the Reconyx somewhere west of Jewel Cave National Monument. Search for the Moultrie M-880 at its last known location in Custer State Park. Look for bluebirds and other interesting stuff along the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park. Drive back to the first location in the Conata Basin. Identify a prairie dog burrow being used by burrowing owls and quickly set up a DSLR with a 300mm lens at very close range, perhaps 20 feet. I have a remote trigger with a 300-foot range, so hopefully after I back off the owls will resume their normal activities. My primary DSLR is a Canon 5D Mark III, but I still have a 1D Mark II that I might pull out of retirement for this job. If so, I need to buy a battery for it and clean the sensor. Overnight in Wall.
  • Day 3: Depending on the success of the day before, perhaps do some more remote triggering. Do a final check of the Browning and the Stake. Retrieve the Primos. Try to find a few more bighorns in the Badlands before heading home. (Or extend for another day if things are going really well.)

The Primos only gets short-term deployments because it has horrendous problems with false triggers and daytime image quality. I don't want to waste lithium batteries on it. With a two-day deployment on rechargeable batteries, my hope is to get some good nighttime images or videos of badgers or ferrets. If that works, I'll put a camera at that location, either a new camera or my 2nd Browning Strike Force HD Pro which is currently at my brother's cabin in Montana.

As far a new camera for the Conata Basin, I am still extremely undecided. For $500+ I can get a 2nd Reconyx, but in the open space of the basin versus the sheltered forest of Wind Cave NP, theft is a real concern. A third Browning is out of the question as I'm underwhelmed by the image quality. There is no user control over sharpening as there is with the Reconyx, and despite Trailcampro's glowing review I think the images are oversharpened. To me the images look like something from 1999 when I was just learning to use an image editor and thought that the more sharpening, the better.

An intriguing trailcam I came across recently is the Exodus Lift II from a small company in Ohio. Its warranty is unique, 5 years with a 50% credit toward purchase of a new camera if it is stolen or gets caught in a forest fire. Customer support seems to be very good. Image quality seems to be quite good, although it is difficult to find full-size samples. If anything, the images seem to be a bit dark much of the time. After seeing the blown-out crap that the cheap Primos produces, that's not the worst thing. The other downside is the price, which at $229 is 50% higher than the mainstream cameras from the big manufacturers. The question is whether the personalized support, good warranty and the supposed high quality are worth it.

Another option which I have considered but haven't pursued is a camera trap using a "real" camera in a case, a PIR trigger, and probably an external flash. If you see a color image in National Geographic of a leopard at night, that was probably taken with a DSLR in a box. The problem with that is I live 300-400 miles away from my target areas and only check the cameras every six months. Batteries for a DSLR camera and external flash would not last that long without some sort of solar setup, and the possibility of theft would be even higher.

As far as mainstream trailcams go, I seem to be coming back around to Bushnell. The simplest solution would be to decide on a model in the $150 range and go with it.