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.

Sunday, February 18, 2018


As I have stated in other posts, my Moultrie M-880 trailcam is missing. It was last seen in Custer State Park in the Badger Clark Road area in November 2017, an area subsequently burned by the Legion Lake Fire a month later.

Since the area is easier to get to than my Wind Cave site 9.5 miles away, I checked the Moultrie on Nov. 18 on a drive back from Denver. This is one of the last images it got:

Last image from Moultrie?

Earlier this month I spent quite a while digging through the snow trying to find it, to no avail. I will return when the snow is gone. Best case is I find it, it may or may not be functional, but the memory card is intact and I have some more images of the fire. Medium case is I find it but the memory card is useless. Worst case is some a-hole stole it.

That's one of the risks of putting out trailcams, and one which I haven't had to deal with at my location in Wind Cave NP, which was at the bottom of a fairly steep hill. In fact, one of the problems I had there more than once was ME finding the cameras. Last year when the Moultrie was still there, I had to move it to a smaller tree when the strap broke. Even though it was only maybe 25 yards away, I had trouble finding it the next time because I didn't mark the new location on GPS accurately. Despite the remote location, hikers showed up in the shots twice in seven years at that site. I think the location in Custer SP is much more susceptible to foot traffic so maybe some mouth breather found it before the fire.

My plan going forward is to always mark the exact location with GPS, take a picture of the camera on the tree, and take a picture of the camera's field of view. Lately I haven't been securing my cameras with locking cables except for the Reconyx, but I'll probably start doing that again. It will discourage casual thieves and prevent the camera from falling off the tree in a fire.

A word about Masterlock cable locks: My first one had a 3/16ths-inch cable. After being outside for a few years, the lock seized up and would not turn and I ended up breaking off the key in the lock. In about 20 minutes I was able to cut the cable with a Leatherman tool using the file and wire cutter. I then bought a thicker 5/16ths-inch Masterlock to secure the Reconyx. I was able to unlock it after the recent fire, but I couldn't pull the cable through the lock because the fire had charred and melted the insulation. After not making much progress cutting through the cable with the Leatherman and a small hacksaw, I whittled the charred insulation off the cable with a knife and was able to pull it through. So in my experience the thicker cable is much better. But some jerk with a bolt cutter would make short work of either. Update: Just bought a $12 bolt cutter with 18-inch handles. It didn't cut through the 5/16ths-inch cable on the first try. But I repositioned and popped it easily on the 2nd try. Like I said, it may discourage casual thieves.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Joy and Frustration

I have decided to split off much of my trailcam material from my main web site and blog. I fear my friends and relatives get a bit bored if I dive too deep into the details of my trailcam hobby/obsession.

I've been experimenting with trailcams since 2009 but it really got serious in 2011 when I got a Reconyx PC900. One of the very first sequences I captured with the Reconyx within hours of deploying it was elk in Wind Cave National Park in western South Dakota.


The "Joy" in the headline is getting an image like this. The "Frustration" is contending with the design limitations of trail cameras which are marketed primarily to hunters, not photographers. I am an amateur wildlife photographer, not a hunter, so image quality is my primary concern. While image quality has improved during the past decade, it is still crap when compared to a point-and-shoot from the previous decade. For example, I still have a Canon G6, which is a 7.1 megapixel P&S introduced in 2004. Here are the reasons why every commercial trailcam has worse image quality than a 14-year-old G6:

  • Trailcams do not autofocus.
  • Trailcam lenses aren't nearly as good.
  • Trailcam megapixel ratings are intentionally deceitful. The manual for the supposed 12 MP Bushnell Natureview HD Essential says the sensor size is 5 MP. Bushnell discloses this in the tech specs; most manufacturers do not disclose actual sensor size at all as they claim resolution as high as 28 MP. The truth is closer to 4 MP. Reconyx is an exception as they give the resolution for my PC900, considered a high-end camera, as only 3.1 MP.
  • Trailcam images are saved as JPG, leaving you almost completely at the mercy of the manufacturer in regard to white balance, sharpening and exposure. Once again Reconyx as a high-end brand allows some adjustments to in-camera settings, but not to the degree provided by the G6. The G6 can shoot RAW images which allows 100% control over white balance and sharpening and much more latitude when making adjustments to contrast and lighting In Photoshop.

So why put up with this frustration? The advantages of trailcams versus my relatively modern Canon 5D Mark III DSLR and 500MM F4 lens are:

  • Trailcams allow a close view of the wild critters without spooking them.
  • Trailcams are on duty 24 hours a day for months at a time.
  • Trailcams don't worry about getting caught in the rain, snow, or even a forest fire.

Legion Lake Fire, 2017

For the current status of all of my trail cameras, see the page in the right-hand menu.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Trailcam Inferno

Since 2011 my trailcam updates tended to follow a pattern. Every six months in the spring and fall I would post pictures of elk and other critters my trailcams had captured. Going into this update I had already decided to pull my cameras out of the Highland Ridge area of Wind Cave National Park where they had been for most of the past six years, but nature decided to put an exclamation point on it.

As I pulled into the Black Hills the afternoon of the 13th, the air was heavy with smoke from burning slash piles. The recent snow made it a safe time to burn the piles. However, the smoke was an unwelcome reminder to residents of a very unsafe fire about two months before, the Legion Lake fire which burned 54,000 acres of Custer State Park, Wind Cave NP, and private land east of the parks. The fire, the third-largest in the Black Hills since the arrival of non-natives, was started by a tree falling on a Black Hills Corp power line.

(In the 15 years my Dad, Jerry O'Neil, was the Black Hills Corp Forester and in charge of keeping trees out of power lines, the company was not blamed for any massive forest fires. Nor in the five years he was Assistant State Forester for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks overseeing Custer State Park did he let half of the park burn. Just thought I would point that out.)

Thanks to my transition to a 4WD vehicle in mid-2017, I was able to navigate through the snowdrifts on Highland Ridge Road to my usual parking area. There were plenty of bare spots among the snow to make the hike down only slightly more challenging than usual. On the way down and as I approached the location of the new Browning camera, it was obvious that the fire had gotten down this far. There was no camera on the tree where it was supposed to be, but I quickly spotted it sticking out of the snow. There was only a small charred remain of the nylon strap that had held the camera to the tree. The camera case was melted in a couple of spots. I was able to open it, turn the switch to off, and stick it in my pack.

Then I went in search of my Reconyx further down the hill. I found it where it was supposed to be, secured to the tree by a MasterLock cable. However, I couldn't get the camera off the tree because some of the plastic sheath on the metal cable had been charred and distorted. It looked as though the fire charred the south side of the tree, but not the north side where the camera was mounted. Weird. I whittled the sheath off the cable with my handy Leatherman and eventually was able to pull the cable through the locking mechanism and free it from the tree. I hiked back up the hill in the hour before sunset and headed to the hotel in Custer.

The Reconyx camera and memory card seem to have survived without significant damage in the fire. (Update: There was some bubbling on the plastic over the infrared sensor. Since that might affect the detection sensitivity, and because Reconyx seems to be the only trailcam company that actually services its products, I sent it in for repair.) The images in the slide show (link below) are from that camera. The Browning was more severely damaged. After a few anxious moments I was able to recover the images from the memory card, but the card filled up with a bunch of false triggers and contained no images of the fire. There was one usable sequence of an elk, and that was it. (Another Update: The Browning's case is warped, so the battery compartment and SD slot are tight while the latch is very loose. I tested the batteries, replacing two of the six, and the camera detected motion and took pictures. It looked as though the seal across the top was compromised so I covered it with electrical tape. It's ugly but, for now, it works. I'm going to change the camera name to Quasimodo.)

Today I headed to the location of my third camera, the Moultrie, in Custer State Park. The location was 9.5 miles north of the other two but close to where the fire started. When I got to the area near the Badger Clark Memorial, it was obvious that the fire had been through there. There were a lot of trees down in the area where the camera was and it took a while to figure out from my GPS where I should be looking. I didn't find anything. Like the Browning, the Moultrie was secured only by a nylon strap and I'm guessing it burned away. The ground was covered with snow and I dug through it for some distance from the marked location, finding no melted hunks of green plastic. In a few months when the snow is gone I will look again. I'm sure the camera was trashed but I would be happy to be able to get something off that memory card.

I'm not sure what my next trailcam project is. As of now my only operational cameras are the idle Reconyx and another Browning at my brother's cabin in Montana. I've been trying to figure out ways to use trailcams in Conata Basin prairie dog towns to get burrowing owls, badgers and ferrets, but with no handy trees I have to decide on a mounting system. And I have to figure out what replacement cameras to get. In my short time with the Browning Strike Force HD Pro, I was underwhelmed by the oversharpened images and weird aspect ratio of 9:5, which is too wide IMO. I prefer to make my own sharpening decisions and try to stick with a 3:2 aspect ratio for DSLR images. The Reconyx images are even more square at 4:3. Lately I've been sizing all horizontal images at 1,800 pixels wide, so this means the Browning images are 1,000 pixels high, my standard images are 1,200 pixels high, and the Reconyx images are 1,350 pixels high. I don't crop trailcam images so the aspect ratio makes a noticeable difference.

Here is the link to the fire images from the Reconyx, the elk images salvaged from the Browning, and some miscellaneous images from my trip through northern Nebraska and western South Dakota. As you go through the fire slides, note the time stamp and how quickly the fire is spreading. Winds of 35 mph were responsible for the quick advance of the fire.

Legion Lake Fire

Since I won't be using this location again any time soon, I can now reveal that since 2012 my cameras were at the bottom of this hill in Wind Cave National Park, latitude 43.609558, longitude -103.397058. In 2011-12, the Reconyx was located across the road, which would be to the right in this image. Notice most of the trees are still standing, but some of them have turned brown from the fire and probably will die. Hopefully next spring or summer these slopes will be green with new grasses.

My (former) trailcam site