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Trail cams capture unseen magic of wildlife in Maine’s woods

A black bear captured by a one of Matt Steiner's game cameras in May of 2016. (Courtesy of Matt Steiner via BDN)

TROY, Maine (BDN) -- Cresting the wooded hill, Matt Steiner set down his heavy duffel bag and looked around, assessing his surroundings — a stump, a thick clump of firs and a break in the trees where the morning sun shone through, lighting the forest floor.

“This is where I captured my first bear,” he said, crouching to unzip the bag.

By capture Steiner meant photograph. From the duffel bag, he pulled out a towel bundle and unfolded it to reveal a trail camera, commonly known as a trail cam or game cam. Covered in a camouflage pattern, the tiny camera could be fired remotely to send photos to Steiner’s phone.

Using a handmade mount, Steiner positioned the camera low on the slender trunk of a fir tree. Then, to obtain better reception, he shimmied up trunk, using a neighboring tree for leverage, and balanced 8 feet up as he clipped away branches with hedge shears and secured the camera’s antenna to the tree.

“I can be real particular,” Steiner said, adding that it can take him half a day to set up all of his 13 trail cams. “I get yelled at because the lawn doesn’t get done. I kind of forget everything else.”

While he carries his cameras in a duffel bag, he carries the necessary AA batteries, about 150 of them, in a pack on his back.

“It’s a good workout,” he said with a chuckle.

The property where he places the trail cams — a 50-acre lot of mixed forest and fields — belongs to his friend and neighbor in Troy. Following narrow trails established by deer and other woodland animals, he roamed the property May 4, placing his cameras where he thought they’d most likely to see wildlife traffic.

“In the springtime, it’s really hit or miss. There are a lot of food sources available to them,” he said. “But being out this time of year, you get to see the woods come to life.”

Most recently, Steiner has been watching a fox den with a trail cam, and the resulting series of images show six playful pups, fuzzy and gray, catered to by a busy mother. His photographs show the pups wrestling and biting each others tails near the den’s dirt entrance, and greeting their sleek, red-coated mother, when she returns from hunting.

The obsession

For Steiner, an avid deer hunter who works at The Furniture Gallery in Augusta, photographing wildlife with trail cams started as a way to track the movements of deer leading up to hunting season in the fall. He set out his first trail cam in 2013, and he quickly became addicted.

“It’s been downhill ever since,” Steiner said. “I’m kind of obsessed.”

What started as a pursuit for deer has turned into much more. Bobcats, beavers, hares and bald eagles — Steiner has captured images of them all. And one of the neatest aspects of these wildlife photos is that, in many cases, the subjects aren’t aware they’re being photographed. The wildlife is acting naturally, and it isn’t being disturbed.

When it comes to this particular obsession, Steiner isn’t alone.

Steiner often posts his best photographs on various Facebook pages and groups, which prove just how popular trail camera photography is in Maine and throughout the country. For example, the Facebook group “Maine Trail Cam Pictures..!..” has nearly 5,000 members, and the Facebook page “Maine Food Plots & Trail Cam Pictures” has more than 7,500 followers. Both of the popular pages were created by Seth Raven, 50, of Waldo, a hunter who started using trail cameras in 2011, after retiring from race car driving.

“It’s just getting to be a bigger thing as time goes on,” Raven said about the hobby. “Some people [who use them] hunt, and some don’t. It’s not just a deal for hunters anymore. If I had a choice and had to give up one, I’d probably give up hunting and keep trail camera-ing because I can do the trail cam thing every day.”

Raven, who owns 18 trail cams, usually sets half of them to take photographs and the other half to take videos. He posts the results on his Facebook pages daily.

“I had one lady get ahold of me from a nursing home and say that the older folks there get to look at my pictures every day and it brings a smile to their faces,” Raven said. “So that makes it worthwhile.”

Tricks of the trail

Steiner took out a compass and held it flat in the palm of his hand, then looked up at the surrounding trees. He sets up his trail cams so they face north, so the sun rises and sets slightly behind their lenses, reducing glare.

Crouching, he screwed metal mount into a tree trunk about a foot above the forest floor. When he first started using trail cams, he set them up at about chest height, but then he missed smaller animals walking close by, beneath its view.

“I find a lower setup gives a much nicer picture,” he said.

He also has learned to keep the camera away from vegetation, which moves in the wind, triggering the camera to go off when no animals are around.

Each trail cam user has their tricks, methods they use to capture good photos.

“I think probably the favorite part is the setting up the camera, trying to be clever about it so that nothing is going to detect the camera and shy away from it,” said Skip Churchill, 68, of Windsor, who like Steiner, works with about a dozen trail cams year round.

“Sometimes you walk quite a ways to set up your cameras,” Churchill said. “But it’s well spent time out in the woods. And if you get pictures afterward, you’re rewarded for your efforts.”

Churchill uses trail cams made by a number of different brands — Moultrie, Bushnell, Browning and Covert — and all of them have their pros and cons, he said. Some take excellent quality color photographs but produce flashrd that spook animals. Others are more secretive, but since they don’t produce a flash, they take grainy photos in the dark.

With his trail cam photos, Churchill makes calendars each year to give to family and friends. His favorite captures feature a large cow moose that had been visiting his vegetable garden, a black bear on its hind legs, a fawn feeding from its mother and a close-up of a thieving fox.

“I was trying to capture critters behind the house here in the early spring, and one morning, I went out to the camera … and there was a red fox facing the camera and it had a great big chicken in its mouth,” Churchill said, laughing. “It wasn’t mine. I had no idea whose it was, but he was busted.”

To attract wildlife, many trail cam users look first at food and water sources. In fact, some trail cam users plant food plots and provide feed for deer and other animals during certain times of year. In one winter, Steiner went through 6,000 pounds of feed for local deer. But feeding the animals isn’t necessary to get good photos, he said. And this past winter, he didn’t bother.

As Steiner set up his trail cams on May 4, he was constantly stepping over piles of deer skat, and throughout the woods he pointed out dozens of “runs,” which are paths deer create by using the same route over and over again. He also found several “rubs,” where deer rub their antlers against trees, and “scrapes,” where deer scrape the ground with their hooves, marking their territory. He used these signs to decide where to place each camera.

He also looks for changes in terrain, whether it’s the border of a field, the edge of a hill or the transition between hardwood and softwood stands.

“Edges — they just seem to stick to them,” Steiner said of wildlife in general.

After fitting a dozen AA batteries into the camera, Steiner pressed a button to format the memory card, then snapped it closed and fit the camera into the mount. Satisfied with the placement, he shouldered his backpack and picked up his duffel bag.

“It gets lighter as you go,” he said, then continued on his way, walking on no obvious trail as he weaved through the trees.


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