This could not possibly be the culprit.
Already it had been a long day -- 7 hours of driving for me and 5 or so for my friends.
But there was work to be done, so after a brief rest we struck out to gather the remaining cameras on the range.
Chimineas naturalist Craig had already collected and delivered all but 4 cameras to the lab, but being a responsible spouse he was eager to be present at his wife's baby shower, and couldn't lead us as he usually does.
So we headed NW under the warm sun of the solstice to the hollow oak where set 340 had been sitting for the past month.
And that's where I found the camera's batteries were dead.
Nothing new about that. There's nothing like a month of heavy flash use to drain batteries.
I opened the battery compartment to replace them, and found that they weren't dead -- the batteries were gone!
I know I'm getting old, but setting out a camera trap without batteries is not yet part of my repertoire.
You see, the compulsory "power-on walk test" would have informed me of my blunder when I set the camera.
This was indeed bizarre.
I put fresh batteries in the camera, and yes, the camera had taken pictures -- 100 pictures to be exact, a lot of cows, but no human.
For you oldtimers who remember the dawn of television this was starting to feel like an episode from "The Twilight Zone".
RandomTruth, who packs a physics degree and gobs Silicon Valley experience wasn't convinced that an impostor had meddled with the camera.
He had noticed that the external backup batteries were still in place and wasn't buying my explanation that they were useless in the absence of batteries or proxies in the camera itself.
So we left the matter hanging and drove on to set 349 in a beautiful bend of San Juan Creek.
The creek bed was so choked with vegetation that it didn't look like it did a month ago. We searched for the site, and RandomTruth punched the lat and long from my notebook into his GPS.
"We're within 20 feet of it."
We parted the grass like hungry body lice and searched on hands and knees, and then thoroughly demoralized we gave it up for stolen.
Someone had ripped us off, probably the very same dude who snatched the batteries at set 340.
The bugger could only have done it by following us -- but how without being detected?
The long day was waning as we drove back to the ranch pondering the motives of a thief who would steal one camera and pull the batteries on another.
After a wash and a beer later I was insisting once again that the Sony s600 doesn't work unless there's a proxy battery in place."
"Let's do a test" countered RandomTruth.
I powered the camera's controller and waited . . . the PIR diode switched on for a minute of initialization, blinked 4 times, did the walk test in another minute of so -- the suspense was unbearable -- and then to my utter astonishment the camera fired up and extended the lens!
Surely RandomTruth was now convinced the codger knew zero about electronics, but another gulp of beer refreshed my memory -- I had left the fresh batteries in the camera.
We repeated the test sans batteries and the camera didn't work.
Later that night I fell asleep pondering the day's inscrutable events.
Craig arrived the next morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and listened patiently to our story.
A few minutes later he was assembling a metal detector. Then he read the manual.
We returned to the scenes of the crime, and learned that the trickster had not tossed the batteries into the grass behind the hollow log.
Craig drove blithely past the bend in San Juan Creek where we had searched vainly the day before.
"Where are you going?" we protested.
"That's not where the camera is."
The next bend in creek looked almost identical to the one we had just passed.
And there we found "the stolen camera" with pictures of raccoons -- a new record for our survey.
So many thoughts -- a year of work to photograph raccoons, the value of a good guide (our man Craig), our bumbling search at the wrong bend of the creek, and the unsolved puzzle of the missing batteries.