Outdoors / Sports

When using trail cameras, people sometimes see things they weren't really expecting

For as little as $50, landowners and leaseholders can purchase an infrared trail camera that will snap digital pictures around the clock of anything that walks within range on their property.

People use them for everything from monitoring trespassers to learning more about the big deer that might be roaming their land -- and they certainly work well on both fronts.

But with so many cameras hanging on trees and fence posts across the country, people often see pictures of things they really weren't looking for.

From deer fighting with raccoons, to bears, mountain lions and other critters they never knew were there, trail-camera surprises have become a common thing.

"There is actually a study being conducted right now to determine just how much of the country is being monitored by trail cameras," said Mike Whittlin of Nontypical Inc., the company that produces the popular Cuddeback Scouting Camera. "You're talking about millions of cameras taking pictures of everything that moves. It seems kind of inevitable that people are going to get some really interesting shots from time to time."

Those who aren't familiar with the history of trail cameras would likely be surprised to learn the first cameras were invented during the late 1880s. National Geographic magazine actually published the first trail camera photo in 1906, showing deer that had activated the camera by tripping a wire as they entered a baited trap.

The first cameras, which would take only one picture, eventually evolved to make use of motion-sensing technology that eliminated the need for primitive elements like the trip wire. By the middle of the 20th century, cameras were using 35-milimeter film to snap as many as 36 photos without maintenance -- and today, digital trail cameras are available that can take thousands of photos on a single data card.

WILDLIFE BEING WILD

Whittlin said one thing that makes oddball trail-camera photos so common is the cameras' ability to snap shots of unsuspecting animals in their natural environment.

His company invites trail-camera owners to post their best photos online at cuddeback.com, and site visitors are allowed to vote for their favorites each week. The winner usually has a picture of an animal doing something rarely seen with the naked eye.

"Things like a hawk coming down and grabbing a squirrel from a corn pile or a deer standing with one foot on a raccoon -- those are the kinds of things that seem to always win our contest," Whittlin said. "You could sit outside for hours and hours holding a regular camera and probably never get that kind of shot. The trail camera does all of the waiting for you."

Tom Matthews and Allen Hughes, Jr., the co-owners of Memphis-based Avery Outdoors, are also dedicated land managers who use dozens of trail cameras to monitor the deer on their property. They use the cameras to identify mature bucks that are ready for harvest, even going so far as naming the deer and charting their antler growth from one year to the next.

Matthews has sifted through thousands of trail-camera pics, and he has a special file on his laptop for the weird and the wild.

"I don't know which photo is the weirdest, but I have some pretty cool stuff for sure," Matthews said. "I have a coyote with a dead fawn in its mouth walking past several does and yearlings that are only a few yards away. I have a coyote standing right in the middle of a bunch of turkeys at a corn feeder, and several of the turkeys are strutting."

Trail camera photos have also helped Matthews see the most interesting phases of antler evolution.

"I have two photos of the same buck taken 24 hours apart showing his antlers in full velvet in the first photo and no velvet in the second photo," Matthews said. "Those are pretty cool, especially since he is in the exact same place and posture in both photos."

Weird, wild and out of this world

In addition to National Geographic-worthy wildlife photos, trail-camera owners sometimes present pics that range from disturbing to downright ridiculous.

In April, Jackson County, Mississippi, residents Rainer and Edith Shattles shared a trail camera photo with local media that they believed showed a UFO shining its lights toward a deer on their property. But trail-camera experts later revealed it to be nothing more than a distorted photo of a deer with its own glowing eyes floating above its head.

Back in 2010, a Louisiana hunter made national waves with a photo of a creepy-looking figure he labeled "Hillbilly Willi" prowling near his tree stand. But the supposed "swamp monster" was debunked as digital photo manipulation when another of the hunter's photos -- a normal photo of a deer -- was shown to have the exact same snap time, right down to the second.

"You hear and see a lot of weird stuff," Whittlin said. "I had a guy call me a little while back who said he was going to use our cameras to find Bigfoot. You just never know what it's going to be."

Whittlin believes the lack of trail-camera photos actually disproves the existence of certain critters,

For example, thousands of sightings of large, black, predatory cats are reported in Tennessee each year. But despite the multitude of cameras being used in the state, no trail-camera photo of the infamous "black panther" has ever been verified.

"You never say never," Whittlin said. "But you'd think with all of those cameras covering so much ground, if there were many of them running around, a good picture would eventually turn up."

(c)2014 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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