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The Other Homebrewing: Modified Cameras Catch Rare NH Wildlife

In December Fish and Game announced that for the first time they had captured photographs of Canadian Lynxalive in Northern New Hampshire. The photographer that snapped those pictures was an amateur biologist and student at UNH, named Peter Abdu.

When Abdu heads out to check his trail cameras, he gets really fired up.

"I’m so excited!" Abdu bubbles as he walks through the woods of Durham, NH. "It’s been a while, this camera’s going to have some good pictures on it. I know just from this location; the good spots always continue to produce, so I’m really excited. We’ll have some otter, some beaver, some birds. You never know that’s the best part, it’s like Christmas morning every time you walk by!"

Abdu’s camera is what’s known as a homebrew, which means he built it himself. He takes off-the-shelf digital cameras and “hacks” them by adding motion detecting boards, waterproof cases, extra batteries, and external switches.

Basically, he turns them into motion detectors, and he taught himself to do it.

"I've had cameras that have started taking fuzzy pictures and I go online and go 'Hey, why is my camera taking fuzzy pictures?' and someone replies back 'oh, it's the lens motor gears, you need to take it apart," Abdu recounts, "You know, I spend six hours opening the lens up, cleaning six tiny tiny gear

The cameras that homebrewers like don’t have moving parts that might break or freeze up in the cold, they can turn on and take a photo quickly before the subject slips away, and they don’t use much battery. The best homebrew cameras are actually pretty old.

"Some of these cameras were used in the early 2000’s," explains Abdu, "and there’s this whole, like secondary industry because of the homebrew camera market on e-bay, where there are these giant bidding wars where these cameras start off at 34 cents, and these bidding wars just go up, these cameras usually going anywhere from like $30-$50."

 Abdu says there’s a whole homebrewing community where everybody knows everybody, and everybody’s looking at the same old cameras online.

He says people "just don’t know what they have and they say I’m going to sell this old junk camera online, and then they have 52 bids or something."

These cameras are popular with homebrewers because they are reliable. Abdu says he's had cameras running in temperatures of 30 or 40 below zero for months that work flawlessly.

Abdu recently graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in Wildlife and Biology Conservation. He’s been thinking a lot about how he can parlay his love of home-brewing cameras into a job as a biologist. He says he thinks trail cameras are an important and powerful tool for scienctists.

"There’s a lot of pressure I think to develop a non-invasive way to look at animals, and cameras, camera traps specifically, are the best way to do that, because they present a way that is cost effective, is time efficient and is the best for the animal’s welfare," he says.

And Abdu already is making a name himself as a biologist. Last fall, he set about trying to photograph a living Lynx in New Hampshire.

He says he thought to himself, "can I take what I’ve learned from dealing with bobcats and other animals that are elusive and hard to detect and can I detect a species that no-one has really detected here."

He put ten cameras in spots he thought you might find the cats’ favorite prey – the snowshoe hare – and he put out some scents that might attract them. He left the cameras for a few months and then came back to see what had walked by. It took him and a friend two-days of schlepping through the woods from dawn to dusk.

Two of his cameras leaked and were destroyed, but on another they found five photos of a live lynx, the first ever taken in New Hampshire.

He describes the moment he realized he had captured the image he was looking for, saying, "We were ecstatic, we were yelling and we were screaming. And all the sudden all your hard work pays off and all it really takes is one camera and one good picture. That’s all we really need."

Today he’s checking camera that sits on a beaver dam: it’s one of his favorite spots. He takes the camera down and plugs it into his laptop, and Wow! 600 pictures since last time!

For him, it’s Christmas morning.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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