Guest blog by NRCM member Bryan Wells of Old Town, Maine
My wife Pam and I own 1,100 acres of forested Maine property adjacent to Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. There are many mammals that call our property home. In winter, we see dozens of animal tracks from snowshoe hare to moose and bobcat. There are always signs of bear in the warm months, and we don’t want to forget porcupines that come down from the tops of trees for a bathroom break in the winter. After observing this large quantity of animal sign, I began to think about how cool it would be to locate motion-activated, infrared illuminated cameras in the woods so that I could actually see these critters rather than just their tracks.
So began my adventure down the path of building the “best” motion-activated camera system to collect near theater-quality video of these critters to share with my family and friends.
There are several forums on the Internet to learn about building what are called “homebrew” camera systems. There are online stores where you can buy the parts necessary, and there are downloads with detailed instructions about how you modify off-the-shelf cameras such as Sony or Canon so they can work in one of these “homebrew” systems to ensure you get the very best video quality possible. For 10 years, I have explored many options. It’s amazing to think back to where I started, and to think about how technology has changed so much over these 10 years. In the very beginning, I was actually using Kodak film cameras. Nowadays, I can use DXG point-and-shoot cameras that record digital 720p HD video.
Earlier this year, I was asked to field test a new camera system one of the forum members built by using the “GoPro Hero II” HD video camera. It would only record in the daytime, which is a limitation. It also did not have audio recording enabled and that is a big detractor since the audio often makes the difference for the very best videos. But even with these limitations, I was excited to give this camera a try. In general, it’s very hard to predict when and where any given animal is going to be. They choose their own paths and all you can do is make an informed guess and hope for the best. However, animals reuse certain trails, so you can look for these animals’ trails and place cameras in those areas.
With this in mind, I searched for the best location for this new Hero camera system. I decided to accompany this new camera with one of my old DXG systems so that I could confirm with a backup homebrew system what animal actually passed the site. And with the DXG, I was able to record audio and nighttime video. By summer 2012, I had dozens of video clips on my DXG of critters passing the sites at night, but nothing was coming in the daytime. Occasionally, a Gray Jay would stop by the site, providing a brief glimpse at the quality of the daytime video, but overall, I was disappointed because I could not test the camera system to truly determine how well it performed.
During deer hunting season, a friend of mine who hunts provided me with a deer carcass. Suddenly my enthusiasm was reignited, because when using deer as bait, I can radically improve the odds of critters visiting the site in the day and night. A month went by, and I was not getting anything too exciting except for an occasional weasel or flying squirrel—and all at night. Then after 5 weeks, I checked my cameras and was overjoyed to see that in one week, I had daytime visitors that included a coyote, red fox, even a fisher!
With this video in hand, I raced home and started the process of editing, sharpening, and generally improving the video so that I can share with others. The challenge was that I had more than an hour of video from all of these daytime visitors! I typically only share video clips that are 3 minutes long, to keep the viewer from getting bored. This time, I decided to keep all seven minutes of video, which is a lot of video. It was just so hard to decide what to discard. I was also able to use the DXG system to provide me with audio that I can overlay and synchronize with the GoPro video.
One thing viewers will notice right off when comparing the DXG video to the GoPro video is the amazing quality of the GoPro video. The other thing the viewer will notice is the obvious presence of full-color in the Hero video and the very wide-angle lens on the GoPro.
There are many settings on the GoPro I have yet to try out, but by using the deer carcass as bait, I am most assured of more opportunities in the future of critters visiting the site. Most likely, I will see a bobcat before it’s all said and done. Once the deer bait becomes snow-covered and iced-in, it will take more and more determination for hungry critters to find and feed on the bait. It’s really amazing to think about what the struggle must be like for these carnivores to survive in the Maine wilderness through the winter. Since the snow was so late to arrive in the Milford area this year, I suspect most of these critters have had it pretty easy with plenty of grouse, turkey, and snowshoe hare to catch and eat. But in another month or so, the pickings are slim, and it’s at these times that carnivores find and feed on whatever they can.
My wife Pam has a photo blind directly behind my cameras, and this allows us to monitor the site for activity, at which time she can climb into her photo blind and wait to get the lucky opportunity to see, up close and personal, the life of Maine’s carnivores.
• For a look at the new video comparing the older DXG camera with the newer GoPro Hero camera, you can watch this video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfytPdVx0pc