About Me

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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Kids and camera traps

Question: How do you make it fun for kids to learn about ecology and  modern technology, and develop respect for nature?

Answer: Give them lessons in camera trapping.

That's what’s happening at Afton-Lakeland Elementary School near Minnesota's twin cities.

Dawn Tanner is developing a trail camera curriculum there for school kids.

Dawn is a University of Minnesota PhD candidate. Her baptism in wildlife research was in the Galapagos Islands and Malaysian Borneo.

She loved fieldwork, but decided that she wanted to get elementary school kids turned on to science, biodiversity, and conservation.

And how did that happen?

Well, she got an NSF fellowship that sent graduate students in ecology and conservation biology to Minnesota's metropolitan schools. Their mission there was to work with the teachers to improve science lessons and incorporate science more broadly into the school curriculum.

[Coyote at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve]

Many Minnesota kids have formed positive attitudes about the environment by the time they reach the fifth grade.

"The kids' attitudes and their receptivity to environmentally responsible behavior is right on track. They score very high with respect to their attitudes about the environment, but they don't know what to do with it yet.”

"The problem is that city kids in particular are short on environmental experiences. The temptation to play with high tech toys in front of a TV screen is powerful. Enter trail cameras!"

Unlike many computer games that cultivate couch potatoes, trail cameras are an alternative "techie gadget" that is fun to use outdoors.

Trail cams can lure kids into the field, teach them how to monitor wildlife, and give them an exhilarating outdoor learning experience. They can even imbue them with a love of nature.

[Fisher at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve]

At the moment, Dawn is testing the curriculum.

She and the kids have been using 8 trail cams at Afton State Park and Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.

The word is out and teachers are interested.

“Quite a number of teachers have contacted me already because they've heard about the testing we're doing at Afton-Lakeland Elementary. They want to get involved right now." 

"I wish I could have the curriculum ready sooner. There’s a strong desire to teach with remote cameras and get kids out there doing biodiversity science.”

To date Dawn and the kids have photographed 12 species of mammals and birds.

"I'll monitor these two sites again this spring and add 2-3 new sites over the summer. We are aiming for about 140 trapnights per site".

"The folks at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve have been so supportive to have me doing cameras there that they have volunteered to host a teacher training workshop in May, 2009."

"By summer we hope to have a web presence through the MN Project WILD website, so teachers can access data collected in protected areas around the state. This way they can compare monitoring results from their schoolyard with other areas."

The project has support from MN Project WILD, Gander Mountain, Stillwater Area School District, the Conservation Biology Program and the Bell Museum of Natural History (University of MN), MN DNR, and the MN Trappers Association.

If you are interested in the curriculum you can email Dawn at tann0042@umn.edu.

[Opossum at Afton-Lakeland Elementary School] 

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Little Brown Book

As far as I know, most camera trappers don't keep notes.

You don't need to keep notes if you camera trap on a small scale or occasionally, if you know your trapping area intimately, or if you have a photographic memory.

None of these apply to me.

I keep notes in a little brown moleskin book, because I'm a compulsive notetaker. It saves me time trying to remember details.

I try to keep the notes basic.

CAMERA SET: This is a GPS location number.

CAMERA: This is the camera's ID (I use an alphabetic letter, A - Z for each cam).

DATE SET: The day I set the camera.

LOCATION: This includes details (e.g., deer trail, log crossing stream, boulder) and general information (Gillis Canyon, 3 miles E of windmill on county road 631, San Luis Obispo County, CA).

GPS: Latitude and longitude calculated by the GPS, usually after it has taken an average from 100 - 200 readings).

ALTITUDE: As estimated by the GPS.

LURE: If I use a scent lure, like castoreum, here's where I record it.

DATE CHECKED: The date I check the cam, change the memory stick and replace batteries. Several dates may be recorded consecutively, if I leave the camera at the set.

DATE CLOSED: The date I pull the camera or move it to a new location.

If there are other details I want to remember, I jot them down.

When I check the camera and find pictures, I replace the memory stick and upload the photos on my computer.

Then I look at each photo on full screen, and record the photo number, animal IDs, and date and time of every picture on a large tablet. Each sheet is identified with the number of the camera trap set and the cam ID.

After I summarize the information in an Excel spreadsheet I file the sheet in a folder .

I only keep the best or most interesting photos. The rest go to the computer's trash can and are erased.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Black-tailed jackrabbit

This jackrabbit hopped down the deer trail the day before Christmas.

I also found pictures of gray fox, turkeys, a black-tailed deer, and squirrels on the camera.

Thirteen pictures after 34 days in the woods. Traffic is slow.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Rutting buck

This fellow passed a camera in Marin County.

If you want to read the sprig of willow as a festive indicator of the holidays, it's okay.

To me it shows that he was thrashing vegetation, and advertising his fitness to other bucks and does.

The peak of the rut was back in November. He'll be slowing down and dropping his antlers soon.

Sexy does won't distract him again for many months.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rats and Christmas cookies

Your daughter drops off the kids and their rats,

So she can go shopping for Christmas at last.

The kids are lively and thrilled to be here,

With their pets on their shoulders and their grandmother near.

But the rats become boring, and finally pee,

Then helping their grandma is greeted with glee.

Baking Christmas cookies is oh so much fun,

and they are edible too, even before they are done.

But be sure to insist that the kids wash their hands,

before rolling the dough to go on the pan.

For when they are baked and ready to eat,

Who wants cookies that taste like rat feet?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Another time, another place

[Photo credit: Biological Survey Unit, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center]

I wrote to Al Gardner of the USGS when I was fishing for wolf trapping photos last week for the most recent post on animal psychology for camera trappers.

He sent scans of these archival USGS photos of a government trapper’s camp. 

On the back of the photo is the following information:

"Mrs. Frank (Ada) Tingly, predatory animal huntress, for Biological Survey (1919)--now Fish and Wildlife Service--which directs the work of a large number of hunters engaged in destroying predatory wild animals in the west, such as wolves, coyotes, and mountain lions. Several huntresses have been engaged in this work and have been as successful in it as the men employed for this purpose. (Idaho)"  

[Photo credit: Biological Survey Unit, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center]

Women like Ada of course traveled with their husbands. 

The US Biological Survey photographer who took these photos was Luther Goldman.

Luther was taken with Ada Tingly, noting that not only was she attractive, but she was also a hunter and trapper who did all of the "women's work" as well.

That included looking after the Tingly's son, seen here with his father fondling wolf pups.  

Women with these virtues are still hard to find.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

More plank walkers

A raccoon and her family started to cross the plank, but changed their minds and retreated. Another raccoon preferred the creekbed.

Gray foxes were undaunted by the camera. They were in fourteen out of 38 photos at the site.

A pair of them explored the creek bed.

Only one possum was seen scuttling up the trail, barely visible in the distance. I suspect it arrived via the creekbed rather than the plank.

Almost all of the deer pictures were of creek crossers.

Only this buck might have walked the plank.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Walking the plank

When we set the cams in Marin County it was raining and I was wet. I would have preferred a more natural crossing over the creek, but the animals didn't mind.

Five species crossed the creek here, but not all of them walked the plank.

The first animal to do so was an immature-looking bobcat. It might have crouched when the red-eye flashes starting to blink. That was at 5:47 AM.

Thirteen days later a larger bobcat crossed shortly after midnight, and shut its eyes when the camera flashed.

I believe this was the same animal sitting on the plank at 3AM three days later. It was probably waiting for something edible to come trundling down the creek bed, which was dry.

We got 6 pictures of bobcats on the bridge or the trail leading to it.

Newtsville, CA

Rich and I collected memory sticks and changed batteries on Sunday at our Marin County site.

It was threatening to rain.

The newts were out and about, and you really have to watch your step.

Not only is it cruel to step on a newt, it is very unpopular to do so in Marin County.

Some were moving across the trails, others were poised like bird dogs.

They were all looking for action, even when there was no need to look any further.

This is, like, very Californian.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Animal psychology for camera trappers – Part 3

The late Stanley Young (1889-1969) trapped predators for the Bureau of Biological Survey and documented the demise of Colorado’s loner wolves.

The loners were habitual cattle killers, often trap-maimed and sometimes idiosyncratic animals with monikers like Old Two Toes and Club Foot.

The Custer wolf kept company with coyotes. Killer was coyotecidal, and Whitey had a penchant for bobbing the tails of cattle.

They were notorious at eluding federal trappers and postponing the fateful grip of the Newhouse No. 4 ½ -- a forged steel double long-spring, smooth-jaw trap with drag chain and grapple.

But eventually they erred, and the traps got them.

The longevity and killing rate of individual loners has recently been called into question.

The estimated ages of those loners whose skulls reside in museum collections are too young to account for the lifetime kills attributed to them. It’s more likely that several animals including dogs and wolf-dog hybrids contributed to the record.

But no one can deny the loners’ uncanny ability to detect the trappers’ painstaking efforts at disguise and deception. They could scent danger from minute traces and sidestepped hidden traps.

But if a trapped wolf twisted off part of its foot and escaped it wasn’t an experience it forgot. It was a powerfully painful learning experience, and relevant to discussions about the hurtful effects of camera traps.

So first let's talk about learning associated with pain.

It seems likely that, unlike children, loner wolves got the message after a single close call with fate. This is called single-trial learning

No matter how attractive the bait or lure, trap-wise loners fled trapping sites as soon as human scent was detected.

This type of operant conditioning is known simply as punishment.

Surviving a strychnine-laced bait had the same effect. We have all experienced conditioned food aversion – that long lasting food-specific loathing from food poisoning.

Conditioning can be specific to a given context. A trap-shy wolf might respond to human scent with conditioned avoidance when encountering a hidden trap, but not when encountering a flock of corralled sheep.

If the animal encounters the stimulus in a different context and doesn’t give the conditioned response, it is said to discriminate between situations.

The loners seemed to recognize the danger-laden stimulus of human scent in different contexts, and thus showed stimulus generalization. You can call this survival instinct.

Let’s compare these forms of punishment with the alleged “hurt” caused by camera traps.

Encountering a camera trap for the first time can be a surprising or unexpected experience for an animal. It may also be an alarming experience, but most of the time cameras do not evoke strong fearful responses, and initial vigilance quickly wanes.

Animals habituate to trail cameras because fear is not reinforced with painful stimuli. A repeating electronic flash may be ignored or investigated, but isn’t shunned.

All circumstantial evidence indicates that habituation is the prevailing response of wildlife to cameras left in the woods.

Gipson, P. S., W. B. Ballard, and R. M. Nowak. 1998. Famous North American wolves and the credibility of early wildlife literature. Widllife Society Bulletin, 26(4):808-816.

Young, S.P. 1970. The last of the loners. The MacMillan Company, New York.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Animal psychology for camera trappers – Part 2

Mammals and birds quickly learn to associate related stimuli or events.  Associative learning includes classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning and operant conditioning, as well as simpler forms of learning, such as habituation.

Camera-trap an area over time and there is a good chance your subjects will make an association between the camera and the olfactory and visual stimuli you leave behind.  

If you thought your camera trapping shenanigans in the woods were unnoticed, guess again. Chances are local wildlife knows the camera is there, and they are not afraid of it.

You will fool them more often if you set your cams in new areas where the residents have never encountered you and your equipment.  

The regulars who appear in your pictures may not know who or what you are, but in their universe or Umwelt you are a distinct blend of stimuli.

Why? Because you smell, and so does your camera, which also flashes and makes sounds.  

Whenever you venture into the field, you inadvertently scent mark your path and equipment.  

Unless you take extreme measures. Then you can reduce your scent by washing with unscented soap, wearing clean clothes, and masking your scent.

The best way to mask scent is to thrash your body like a Finlander in the sauna. No need to strip down or surround yourself with svelte blonds, just beat yourself with aromatic plants like bay or sage until you smell like trampled plants.  

The new carbon-impregnated clothes on the market may help to absorb some of your smells before they give you away.

Or you can spray yourself with Stumpy’s root juice.

But generally speaking, odor prophylaxis can be rather tedious, and scent-cleansing rituals will not render you smell-anonymous.

If you use scent lures or bait, like road kill, you reward the animal to tolerate the proximity of the camera.

Everything about the scent lure reaction -- from intensive sniffing, to slobbering, rubbing  and rolling in the scent, as well as evacuating the bladder and bowel -- indicates they find it highly compelling and meaningful.

The camera becomes an accessory to pleasure. 

I have a hunch – let’s call it a hypothesis -- that when resident animals cross your scent trail they may search for your camera, because food and scent have repeatedly reinforced tracking your scent trail.

Your scent is a cue to seek the reward of “good smells and eats”.

I believe this is more likely in species have relatively small home ranges, because the probability of camera encounters is relatively high.  We’re talking here about wood rats, gray foxes, skunks, opossums, and racooons.

On the other hand, baits and scents may be less habit forming in far-ranging species like mountain lions, wolverines, fishers, bobcats, and coyotes.

It takes more time for them to make their rounds in their larger home ranges. Positive reinforcement will not occur until the animals have been repeatedly rewarded. 

In support of this idea I would point to the tigers in Nepal’s Chitawan National Park. 

Though they killed tethered buffaloes at a bait site near Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, radio-tracking showed that they ranged as far and wide as other tigers in adjacent home ranges. In other words, they maintained their usual beat in search of prey. Some cats however became habitual bait visitors.

Okay, I've slipped from animal psychology to arm chair theorizing. Now someone needs to collect the data.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Citizen camera trappers make the news

Citizen wildlife monitors in Washington state were busy this summer camera trapping in Washington’s Central and North Cascades.

Conservation Northwest, the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition, and the Wilderness Awareness School sponsor the Cascades Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project.

The project’s goal is “to engage and educate citizens” as wildlife investigators along a 15-mile-segment of the I-90 Snoqualmie Pass highway.

They set their 43 camera traps in the woods, and were rewarded with thousands of images, including some rarities like gray wolf and Canada lynx.

Lynx were previously more widespread in Washington, but it seems that breeding wolves were completely unexpected.


Read about it here, and be sure to check out the links.

Among the commenters are farsighted individuals who don't want taxpayer money wasted on wildlife corridors because elk-wildlife collisions don't affect them. (Aren't they the ones who holler the loudest when an elk totals their car?)

Thanks to Professor Tenaza for the link. (Hey, Rich when are we gonna check the cams in Marin?)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Animal Psychology for Camera Trappers-Part 1

[A raised forefoot while immobile and staring often indicates uncertainty. This full-frame photo shows an alert young squirrel fixating the camera with hesitation. In the next frame it resumed eating sunflower seeds.]

Many animals are cautious or fearful of unfamiliar objects or situations. This healthy response to the unknown is called neophobia or “fear of the new”.  

I believe that neophobia was the reason my first camera trap pictures of gray fox were in the distance or half out of the frame. After a few weeks the animal(s) approached more closely, and finally became bold enough to examine the camera at close range. 

[A jackrabbit assumes a startled stance in reaction to the camera trap. The widely spaced rear feet indicates it is prepared to bolt.]

If there is bait near the camera you might read ambivalence in a neophobic animal’s body language. 

The attraction to the food is strong, but so is the hesitation to approach the strange object near by. The animal may stare at the camera, or stretch its body and creep forward as though it wants to approach and back off at the same time.
Or it may approach and sniff toward the camera, then circle and test the air from a different direction. These are manifestations of approach-avoidance conflict.

Caution wanes quickly when repeated exposure to a strange object proves harmless. Since there are neither positive nor negative consequences, the animal habituates to the stimulus.  

Habituation is why we don’t often see neophobic or avoidance–conflict reactions in camera trap photos. 

Also, habituation usually defeats the clever tinkerer who cooks up various repellents for garbage-can bears and bird-feeder squirrels. Fearful reactions wane, unless the repellent is painful or extremely disturbing . The animals habituate. 

[A jackrabbit in a normal resting stance in its form (nest).  The animal habituated to the camera which was staked closer to the nest on three successive nights while the animal was absent. The camera recorded its daily cycle of rest, grooming, and defecation for a week without apparent disturbance.]

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Denning bears revisited (in more detail)

[red momma pulling grass toward den entrance]

Brian sent me a CD of all 213 photos taken of Red Momma and the two cubs (black and pale cinnamon), and I just compiled the data.

The three bears were active at the den for three days (Nov 4 – 6), and then retired inside (Nov 7), where I presume they are napping now.

November 4th and 6th were workdays.

On the 4th they first appeared at 2:54 in the afternoon. They went in and out of the den several times until 3:06. Then the black cub and mother pulled bundles of grass into the den for 6 minutes, and disappeared.

They were back 5 hours later. Black cub went into the den, and mother resumed dragging grass to the den. After getting it down the hole she rested in the entrance for an hour.

Shortly after midnight, the pale cub -- who had contributed nothing to building the nest -- left the den.

[the slacker, after its nap]

Mom periodically lounged in the entrance looking out into the starlit night until 5:00AM.

[starry eyes and bear thoughts]

She wasn’t photographed again until 11 o’clock the next night. There was no action during the day.

The next night was the same – mom lounged on and off in the entrance, and all three were absent most of the day.

They started nest building again on the 6th around 3:15PM, and work ended just before 6 o’clock.

[the pale slacker tries to back down into the den with mother in the way -- she didn't yield]

The camera recorded an ear or a paw moving in the den entrance 12 times during the next 24 hours.

[one leg up in the den]

Then Brian pulled the memory stick, and replaced it with a new one. We're not expecting much activity at the site for a few months.

In summary, the bears started nest building shortly after they arrived at the den, worked late in the afternoon, and were not seen in daylight before that. At night the mother seems to have alternated between dozing and star-gazed in the den entrance.

The pale cub seems to be a slacker. Not a single frame showed it pulling grass.

Any opinions as to what sex it might be?