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F8 and Not There
Dick Budnik

January 15, 1999 - The day the frustration began. It snowed. The first significant snow Westchester had seen in two years. The first flakes found me working my way up a steep ravine. The going was rough. I was dressed in full camouflage, wearing a utility belt / fanny pack weighing almost twenty pounds plus a fifteen pound knapsack. Over my left shoulder I carried my Olympus OM4Ti fitted with an Olympus f2.8 / 350mm lens and a 1.4x matched teleconverter, all mounted on a Bogen 3221 tripod with a huge Bogen ballhead. My plan was to sneak up on a large white tailed buck bedded down in a dense woodlot at the top of the ravine. He still had a magnificent set of antlers and I guessed this might be my last chance for a good portrait this season.

I heard movement above me. Through my fogged up glasses, I was amazed to see the buck leaping over rocks and coming down the ravine towards me at full speed. I had to step aside to avoid being run over. What on earth would make a buck flee for his life, downhill in a confined space, towards a well armed, huffing and puffing photographer? Confused, I kissed my photo opportunity goodbye, climbed the ravine, saw nothing and went home through the falling snow.

Over night four inches of snow had fallen. I returned to the area to search for the buck. The snow had the perfect consistency for tracks. I crisscrossed the nearby meadows and searched the hilltops finding tracks for seven deer. Most of the tracks were does. The rear tracks were wider than the front tracks. In one set, the rear tracks were narrower than the front indicating a buck. On a hillside next to a meadow, I found a set of large cat tracks. Round track, four toes, no claw points, tracks were registered (back paw is placed exactly in the print of the front paw), has to be a member of the cat family. But these were very large paw prints. My first thought was bobcat. The only other two choices are lynx and cougar. The nearest lynx are in southern Canada and maybe the northern Adironacks and, of course, there is officially no such thing as an eastern cougar.

I backtracked the paw prints across a hillside meadow and into the deep woods on the hilltop near the ravine where I had seen the buck the day before. In the deep woods the cat had come across a set of deer tracks, turned and followed the doe through the woods into the open. The cat even jumped up and sat on a boulder at the top of the meadow before walking diagonally across the meadow. I lost the trail in a swamp beyond the meadow.

The next day I went back with a ruler, a tape measure and Tom Brown's book on animal tracking. I carefully measured the length and width of dozens of tracks. I also measured the stride (the distance from the tip of the left track to the tip of the right track) and the straddle (the distance from the outside of the left track to the outside of the right track). The data was a perfect fit for a cougar. A cougar in Westchester! A cougar forty miles north of Manhattan! I reported my findings to the local game warden, local naturalists and fellow hikers where they were received with as much believability as a UFO landing in Brooklyn. The game warden wanted a dead animal or at least a great photo. More frustration.

The snow cover melted in a few days and didn't reappear for the next two winters so more tracks were out of the question. I'm in the woods a couple of hours a day. The odds of my seeing and photographing a cougar are equivalent to winning Lotto. I've seen one bobcat for a total of about two seconds in 35 years of roaming the local woods. My only hope for a cougar sighting was to install a remote camera on a deer trail and wait for my alter ego to photograph a cougar sauntering by.

In the words of my remote. Yeah, he's used me on and off for several years. I started my life as a simple TrailTimer Game Monitor. Life was comfortable. I spent a summer tied to trees on the edge of a meadow enjoying the fresh air and the peaceful woods. My passive infrared sensors can detect sudden changes in temperature at a distance of sixty feet away. The big guy has used me to log in the times that deer pass on the game trails. He checked me every few days. If I hadn't recorded much activity he would move me all around the hilltop passes and in and out of three swamps. I got to sleep most of the day and much of the night. Dawn and dusk were my active periods. Life was good until winter came. Then the deer were even more active, keeping me up at all hours of the day and night. And the cold. He left me out in the woods all through the winter until I froze my batteries off.

Eventually he gave up and used me only from April to November. I was very happy until this damn cougar came along. Now the big guy's obsessed. He gave me an optical eye by connecting me to a TrailTimer Camera System. When I detect a hot object (normally a deer) moving through my sensor field, I send a signal to a solenoid switch which pushes the shutter button on one of his cameras taking a photo. My first camera was a disaster. The camera went into its sleep mode for several hours and then needed to be mechanically turned back on. In frustration, the big guy threw away the camera and replaced it with his Olympus OM2N with an attached 135mm f2.8 lens. He leaves the camera turned off and the motor drive turned on. When I activate the shutter button, the camera instantly comes to life, turns on its automatic mode and take a photo in aperture priority mode. The camera works great in daylight and low light but it needs an external flash at night.

However, leaving the flash on kills the camera's batteries in about six hours. The big guy has not been happy. Twice animals have chewed through the connecting phone cord, A spider set up housekeeping in the hood of the lens. Ticks find their way into every crevice in the system. Solar chargers don't get enough sunlight in the woods to charge the batteries. I have been detecting an animal walking down the trail around 2 AM about once every two weeks. The big guy tells me it not a deer. I just laugh and say prove it.

After two seasons of equipment failures due mostly to weak batteries, flashes that fail to fire and motor drive problems, the big guy finally replaced the OM2N with a $40 Canon Sure Shot Owl, a point and shoot camera. Optically, it's a piece of junk. It rips the film on rewinding, The date stamping on the negative only works intermittently. However, it's one of the few cameras left on earth that can wake itself out of a two week sleep mode and take an auto exposure, auto focus with fill flash, the instant the shutter is depressed. The camera batteries last a month in below freezing weather.

The only weak link left in the system is the firing of the solenoid switch. After sitting several hours in cold weather, the solenoid fires too weakly to trigger the camera. From a minute to four hours later the solenoid triggers the camera successfully. The big guy constantly threatens to rewire me directly to the camera to get rid of the solenoid switch.

Most of my photos are just snaps of the big guy walking down the trail to check out the equipment. Sometimes, I sense a heat source but nothing shows up in the photo. One time the big guy moved me to a beautiful location where a deer trail ran along the edge of a cliff. I took four photos every day around noon for five days. The big guy was excited until he discovered that I was detecting sunlight being bounced off a nearby cliff. I've also had my mishaps. A kid, collecting dead wood to build a shelter, unknowingly tripped over and ripped out the phone cord connecting me to the camera. A raccoon yanked me off my tree and carried me up a nearby tree. You should have seen the look on the big guy's face when realize he had to climb up the tree to retrieve me.

So for five years I've been taking fuzzy, poorly composed photos of blurred animals walking down a trial. Have I seen anything to excite me? Well, I won my bet with the big guy. On October 27, 2002 at 2:08 AM, I photographed two young bucks sparing right in front of my lens. Hey, it's not great art but it's great action. So the film tore on rewinding and the film was light struck when the big guy opened the camera back. At least, he had the good sense or desperation to process the film anyway. Most people would have just tossed out the ruined film.

As for that cougar. It's frustrating. I still don't have a photo for the big guy. However, since spotting the tracks in Jan, 1999, he's been finding deer carcases in this area. A herd of nearly forty deer in 1999 has been reduced to six deer in Jan, 2003 and the winters have been mild. Several of the carcases were found with the back of their skulls crushed in. Dogs and coyotes kill by grabbing a leg and going for the intestines. Only large cats kill deer by going for the back of the neck. Does the big guy know what is killing all these deer? Well, he certainly knows it can't possibly be an extinct eastern cougar. Not unless UFOs have landed in Brooklyn.

A nature photographer by avocation, trained as a research scientist, Dick operates Dick Budnik Photography in Mt. Kisco, NY where he offers a range of custom photographic, digital imaging and consulting services. He offers fine art prints, custom digital printing, computer imaging and retouching services, commercial and industrial photography and computer consulting. His photographic services and stock photos have been utilized by a variety of clients from major corporations to small businesses, nature publications, nature centers and individual artists. His photographs have appeared in nature publications, calendars, text books, posters, newsletters and numerous web sites. Dick has exhibited in group and individual shows in the greater New York area. He is a frequent camera club judge and lecturer at schools, libraries, clubs, nature centers and state parks in the area. Dick has taught Wildlife Photography at the Westchester Art Workshop. He privately tutors in PhotoShop, web page design, and computer basics. He has been very active in the Westchester Photographic Society as a Salon competitor, Board Chairman, President, Corporate Secretary, Executive VP and its current Webmaster. He is also a Board Member and the Webmaster for the Central Westchester Audubon Society.

Dedicated to the observation of wildlife in its natural environment, Dick is usually found in his element stalking the swamps, meadows and forests of wild Westchester.

email: DickBudnik@verizon.net

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