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Wednesday
Jun262013

Trail cameras give you a new window on the woods

By Joe Rankin

Forests for Maine’s Future Writer

Everyone who walks in the Maine woods has a story about wildlife -- the deer that bounded through the clearing; the moose high-stepping onto the trail; the mother turkey leading a batch of poults through shafts of sunlight; pileated woodpeckers dancing on a downed log.

But they’ve probably also wondered about the animals they didn’t see. The ones that saw or heard or smelled them first and vacated the scene, silently and completely. What happens in the forest when there are no humans there . . .

A lot, says Bryan Wells of Old Town. 

Wells has deployed motion-activated still and video cameras at strategic spots on the 1,000-acres of forestlandBryan Wells with one of his homemade trail cameras (Photo: The Rankin File)he and his wife, wildlife photographer and web designer Pam Wells, own near the Sunkhaze National Wildlife Refuge and they’ve afforded him a unique and different perspective on the woods.

Over the years Wells has shot hundreds of hours of video using game cameras. He’s photographed bobcats, moose, deer, bears, pine marten, beaver, fox, coyote, raccoons . . . humans. Most of the bigger mammals found in the state. No lynx yet. Or mountain lion -- yes, he’s convinced they’re out there and he keeps hoping. You can check out his videos here.

Wells builds his own trail cams using parts bought over the internet. It takes 20 to 30 hours to put each one together, requiring more than a passing acquaintance with the workings of electronic components and how to solder connections to circuit boards. If you’re the sort of DIYer who’s willing to experiment with that, Wells recommends Hag’s House, an internet site devoted to home-built trail cams.

Fortunately for the less tech-minded, the revolutions in digital photography and data storage have made it easy  and affordable for the average homeowner or landowner to deploy trail cams. For $100 to $200 you get a sophisticated motion-activated camera with either regular or infrared flash. There are many brands of trail cameras and they are carried by most outdoor shops -- Dick’s Sporting Goods, L.L. Bean, Cabela’s, and Kittery Trading Post among them.

The cameras provide a different view of your woodland, and something of a surprise every time you remove the data card. You never know what you’re going to see. Sometimes nothing, sometimes something really eye-opening.

Wells started putting trail cams out more than 10 years ago. He has had as many as 14 out at one time, though the number varies. He brings most of them in for the winter. Cold really drains the batteries. And the cameras do need to be checked. Batteries run down, the camera may need adjustment and things occasionally go wrong. If you’re not getting any good photographs you may need to relocate it.

Checking them is kind of like running a trapline -- a photo trapline. “It’s a nice excuse for getting out in the woods,” said Wells, who likes to think of the cameras as a “bridge to living in their space.” The “their” referring to the forest wildlife.

Sometimes interesting things happen just when you go to check the cameras. Wells had set out a camera over bait hoping to get video of the reclusive American marten. He got to the site and was preparing to check the camera when he heard something overhead. Looking up he saw a marten leaping through the branches above him. And, “I had really good video of him” on the game camera, too, he said.

Terrific tom turkey trio (Trailcam photo: Brewster Staples)Wells sometimes puts out butchered deer carcasses donated by hunter friends to serve as bait at his camera sites. He’s also figured out that fishers like beef suet, skunks and coyotes like pelletized cat food and raccoons like anything. He once put out 100 pounds of frozen fish, which drew bald eagles and vultures.

One highly entertaining video shows an ermine going after a piece of meat dangling from a line. In another a flock of ravens is gorging on a dead deer when a mature bald eagle swoops down, putting the ravens to flight and laying claim to the carcass. In another, a bobcat notices the camera and slowly pads closer to check it out. One video shows a black bear bathing in a stream, and appearing to enjoy it immensely.

Wells edited the videos from one camera into a short feature he titled “After You Walked By . . .” that showcases the immense variety of “wildlife” that flowed past the lens during one week:  moose with their calves, bears and their cubs, berry pickers, fishermen, dog walkers, hikers, deer.

Everyone who has a game camera has stories about the great shots they’ve gotten. 

Brewster Staples got a game camera for Christmas a couple of years ago. He attached it to apple tree outside his house on 17 acres of woods and fields in Pownal. The camera has recorded the nocturnal visits of a big whitetail buck. He’s got shots of a fox with kits, coyotes, and three tom turkeys strutting across the grass, tail feathers spread.

For Staples, the camera has opened a window into another dimension and provided endless enjoyment, not to mention anticipation when he goes out every few days to remove the card and check out the photos. 

“It’s been kind of fun to watch, not only the animals, but the same ones,” he said. One whitetail doe, he said was photographed just before she gave birth, then with the fawns a few weeks later. Perhaps the most interesting photo was one of two coyotes and a fox under the apple tree, he said. “It kind of surprised me. They’re both predators, but the coyotes didn’t want to go after the fox or may it was just that the apples were more interesting. It’s kind of like a watering hole for enemies.”

Trail cameras have come a long way.

Chris Henson remembers their earliest predecessors, simple string-tripped devices used by hunters on   game trails to record the time and date the device was triggered. 

“Shortly after that in the early ‘90s we started to see the early versions of game cameras hit the market. 

Back then they were all film-based 35 millimeter cameras,” said Henson, the product linemanager for L.L.Bean’s hunting and fishing department.“Over the years they evolved into the game cameras we have today. The quality of the product has improved dramatically, the user friendliness has improved.”

in the early years most sales were to hunters who put them to work scouting for game in advance of hunting season. But they since have been embraced by non-hunters, said Henson. Backyard wildlife enthusiasts, camp owners wanting to keep tabs on their cottages, scientists and wildlife biologists are all employing trail cams. One indicator of the popularity of the cameras is the burgeoning number of photo contests devoted to them. Just run a Google search and you’ll find plenty to enter. 

Henson is an avid hunter, but he said he spends more time using trail cams for non-hunting purposes. “I have an eight-year-old son. He and I put out cameras year round” -- sometimes they might have as many as a dozen out at once. The number of super images they’ve gotten is astounding,” he said. 

“The thing I love about it is that even during what you would consider the off-season for hunting it has kept us outdoors and in the woods, enjoying time together. It’s an absolute blast for us to out and collect those cards and bring them home and put them on the computer and see images of bear, bobcat, fisher -- animals we would not have expected to get images of right near home. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Today’s trail cams are remarkably easy to use. Most will do video or still photos and audio as well. These days the trend is toward infrared flash. When you’re shopping for one consider things like trigger speed, which determines how fast the camera shoots after the detector is activated, and megapixel count, which determines image quality.

When you are setting it out, consider:

  •  The camera’s perspective (this is where it is helpful to read the owner’s manual). Putting it at knee height or so will ensure it gets triggered by a wide variety of wildlife, including built-low-to-the-ground animals like skunks and raccoons as well as deer and moose, said Henson. 
  •  The location:  it’s helpful to locate it near a food source -- apple trees are a standout -- or where the terrain acts as a funnel to move animals through an area. An obvious game trail is a good spot. Watching for tracks in snow or mud can help lead you to a good location.
  • Vegetation. You don’t want to come back to find 800 photos of branches swaying in the breeze. These cameras are motion-activated. 
  • Camouflage. Trail cams are still a valuable item and do get stolen. Some come with camouflage, but it’s relatively easy to use markers or camo fabric and disguise yours yourself. 

Of all the images Henson and his son have taken using trail cams, he said his favorite is “a video of a fisher cat coming up to the camera and investigating it. The  fisher is a low stocky little animal, crossing back and forth Big buck. (Trailcam photo: Brewster Staples)and discovering the camera. It gets right up and puts its front legs up on the camera and is making these little grumbling noises.”

That behavior is not unusual. Wells has one video that seems to consist mainly of a black bear’s nose and the inside of its mouth as the bear tries to gnaw the camera off the tree.

Wells said his favorite videos include one of a bobcat working to exhume a frozen goose carcass buried in the snow and the one of the pine marten. “That one was really exciting because he was there when I got there and I hadn’t ever seen one before. That was a brand new species for me. And the camera happened to be positioned just the right way with just the right amount of light. Everything was crystal clear, sharp and well focused and the color was good.”

Even after more than 10 years of fielding trail cams and more than 500 hours of video, Bryan Wells says he’s still gets a thrill when he heads out into the woods to check his cameras. “That doesn’t change. Even if I only have one camera out the anticipation is still pretty intense.” These days, it is rare that he captures video of an animal he hasn’t seen before. Then Interior of Bryan's homemade videocam. (Photo: The Rankin File)again, you never know. He put out deer remains hoping to lure bobcat. The bobcat came, but so did flying squirrels. It was flying squirrels night after night after . . . then . . . a barred owl swooped down and nailed one of the flying squirrels. “I got a whole new recharge of excitement because I hadn’t seen that before,” Wells said.

His next remote cam project will be a little different: a digital camera on Sunkhaze Stream set to take a photo every half hour or so during daylight hours for 12 months. The resulting edited time-lapse sequence would show the grand sweep of the seasons, the ice forming and melting on the stream.

Joe Rankin is a forestry writer, beekeeper, market gardener and orchardist. He lives in New Sharon and is shopping for a trail cam.