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.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Camera trapping science and tigers

K. Ullas Karanth and James D. Nichols have produced an 8-part instructional series about monitoring tiger populations.

You can watch it here on You Tube.

The footage and animations are excellent, and three chapters deal with the use of camera traps.

It all builds on the efforts of Karanth and Nichols who have been worked hard over the past 3 decades to introduce science into the business of estimating wild tiger populations.

While few readers of this blog will ever have occasion to use the method, the camera trapping chapters are well worth viewing to appreciate the painstaking effort that goes into wildlife population estimation.

It's not quite as simple or easy as the general public, politicians, and most outdoors folks would like to believe.

But hey, you can trust the results.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The not-so-giant Sulawesi civet--Part 2

[Macrogalidia approaches the camera trap]

"Macro" eventually made an appearance, and was even curious about the camera, but we didn't have the satisfaction of knowing this until we were back in the states and had the film developed. 

However, our spirits were buoyed whenever we checked the camera's film counter. Sometimes a 36-exposure roll was exposed in a couple days. 

What we eventually learned was that most of those exposures were made by night flying moths and falling leaves. They had all passed through the 6-foot pencil-thick beam of light between the sensor and reflector.  (See this post for camera details.)

[the camera trap: Nikon FE and flash housed in a wooden case 
and wired to an external photoelectric trigger.] 

We baited the site with a live chicken, tethered above but just beyond the sensor's beam. 

[Ken Lang and CW preparing the site, photo by Larry Collins]

We hauled 20 lbs of river sand and spread it on the trail so we could see tracks. The final incentive was a ripe banana hung on the tree in the background.   

It was a time consuming process, and checking the cam required a 1000 ft climb from Watling's hut on the Mewe River to the game trail on the ridge. 

[CW testing the photoelectric beam alignment]

The civet came and fetched the banana. 

Then it killed and ate the chicken.

In 1999 or so, a film maker from New Zealand wrote to me and proposed a documentary on Macro.

It was a splendid offer to revisit Sulawesi and take part in the story, but I was overcommitted and very much involved in a project in Burma. I told him that Jack West, who lived nearby in Australia, spoke Bahasa Indonesia, and had been very much involved-- was his man.

Jack spent 5 months in the field, and it took 18 months to trap another Macro, but now it is a matter of record. Jack got excellent footage of the civet moving about in an enclosure, and it is all in the film.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The not-so-giant civet of Sulawesi--Part 1

Hauling a large live trap across the River Mewe, Sulawesi

Before I post camera trap photos of the animal, I'm giving you the background.

The Giant Civet of Sulawesi (Macrogalidia musschenbroekii) wasn't a giant at all, but we didn't know that in the mid-1970s.

To us it was a big civet from a big island with an exotic colonial name, the Celebes , located west of Wallace's Line, the sacred beat of Alfred Russell.

At the time it was known from only 11 moth-eaten and misshapen specimens with incomplete data.

That was enough to get us jazzed. We scoured the literature, but learned little more.

When we discovered that mammalogist Guy Musser of the American Museum of Natural History had logged a couple years in Sulawesi's outposts, we paid him a visit.

Musser's schtick was rats, but he knew of Macrogalidia, and took us to a cabinet down a dark hall.

The Sherman live trap is a well-known tool of the mammalogist's trade, but the one he showed us looked more like a beer can from a shooting range. 

The civet had terrorized and then eaten the live-trapped rodents on his trap line. The canine-riddled trap was a memento.

All of this was a compelling incentive to do our institutional duty: to hunt down "Macro" and "increase and diffuse knowledge".

My colleague at the National Zoo, Larry Collins, and I wrote a proposal to fund a study, and in due course we received a modest grant. It was enough to cover international and domestic travel in Indonesia, and bare necessities such as food in the field.

[Larry Collins, National Zoo mammal curator in the 70s.]

Fortunately, the National Zoo's Director, Theodore Reed recently had met the Director of the Jakarta Zoo, Benjamin Galstaun.

[Dr. Theodore H. Reed, Director of the National Zoo in the 70s]

Reed was a sole surviving son of a military family. Galstaun had been a POW of the Japanese. They had struck it off well, and Galstaun embraced the project. He offered us gratis room and board at the zoo, and travel expenses for the participation of his own staff.

Benjamin Galstaun was an unforgettable grandfatherly kind of character who shatters Yankee notions that worldly people live only in the west. 

A small bespectacled man of Armenian and Javanese parentage, he was an autodidact and an artist, fluent in 5 languages. The Kebun Binatang Ragunan, or Jakarta Zoo, was his creation, a shady green place tucked into a corner of Jakarta's sweltering sprawl.

"You can't starve here", he would say. "The fruit just falls on your head. The staff can have all they can eat." That was his paternalistic side.

Because the zoo was a success he was envied and dogged by seamy elements that harbored entrepreneurial dreams.

Why they tried was a mystery. Galstaun was an egalitarian, stubborn as a mule, and given to droll political commentaries. The zoo was invaded every morning by a battalion of widows, whom Galstaun employed as sweepers and groundskeepers. He would support the down-and-out and send his staff to collect civets, but he wouldn't lift a finger for a politico.  

He assigned his talented General Curator, Jack West as our liaison. 

[Jakarta Zoo General Curator Jack West, our liaison]

The first two trips in '78 and '79 were month-long recces.

After a week in Jakarta's traffic to get permits, Jack and I flew to Menado and then Palu, bought wire mesh, made live traps, and then bussed to some outpost where we lived with local families.

There we explored, read animal sign, collected scat, and surveyed local hunters. We recovered bones and skull fragments in kitchen middens, but caught only local Malay civets (Viverra tangalunga).

[A tranquillized Malay civet.]

In 1980, Collins, animal keeper Ken Lang, and I embarked on a 2-month expedition.

This time our field base was Dick Watling's jungle digs near Lore Lindu National Park.

[Dick Watling, then working on a management plan for Lore Lindu National Park for WWF]

We spent our time running the ridges, checking the live traps, and camera trapping. 

We caught our civet, and took it back to Jakarta. This time Galstaun met us at the airport.

I wrote in my notes, "On our ride to the zoo Galstaun told us he was no longer director of the zoo, that he was responsible for familiarizing the new director - an army general with a veterinary degree - with the zoo's operation, and that he would be retained for one year as a consultant. . ."

Several months later Jack West sent a telegram that the civet had died of distemper. That was the end of our dream to study the reproductive biology of Macrogalidia at the National Zoo. We published the data we had collected.

On a positive note, with the remaining funds from our grant Jack faithfully guided and financed a graduate student to study the civet's ecology, and a couple years later he finished his dissertation.

Postscript: Ten years later I was again in Jakarta and visited Galstaun's widow who had been allowed to remain living in the director's house.  After an hour of reminiscence she asked if I would care to have any book from her husband's library as a remembrance. I picked Hoogerwerf's "Udjung Kulon, Land of the Last Javan Rhinoceros", and she signed it over to me with a kind note.

Publications from our work in Indonesia

Wemmer, C. 1991. Lessons from a Javanese garden. ZooGoer, 20(1):10-14 

Wemmer, C. and Watling, D.  1982. Eye color polymorphism in the babirusa pig. Malayan Nature Journal , 36:135-136 

Wemmer, C. and West, J. 1982. The dermal shield of the lesser mouse deer, Tragulus javanicus. Malayan Nature Journal, 36:137-139

Wemmer, C., West, J., Watling, D., Collins, L., and Lang, K. 1983. The external characters of the Celebes palm civet, Macrogalidia musschenbrocki.  Journal of Mammalogy, 64:133-136

Wemmer, C. and Watling, D.1986. Ecology and status of the Sulawesi palm civet, Macrogalidia musschenbroeki (Schlegel). Biological Conservation, 35:1-17.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Naughty pumas in Santa Rosa

I don't want to make light of this lady's misfortune.

I am sure it was scary as hell being hounded by two young cougars, but it would have been a lot worse if the cats were a few months older.

They are still honing their skills as predators.

Fortunately, the appearance of three dogs changed the cats' minds.

Let's hope they find their mom, and forget about romps in the 'burbs.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Return of the Motown beaver

[Photo by Detroit Edison]

Hot off the press via The Outdoor Pressroom -- beavers are returning to the Detroit River after an absense of nearly a century. While Detroit has its problems, and this isn't going to fix it,  its still a happy wrinkle in the troubled city. 

And the good news is that the beavers aren't covered with sores. In other words, the river's water isn't toxic.

And what's more, the Detroit riverbanks have requisite trees and woody vegetation that beavers eat and so cleverly craft into architectural wonders.

Check out the video of the Motown beaver at work here.

Otter water trails

[An otter water trail]

The otters in the Sacramento Valley use all available waterways to make the rounds, including this man-made channel at Llano Seco.

There are several otter landings near the observation deck there, where they haul out, sniff around, and deposit scat.

Most of the year the scats are packed with crayfish shells, but lately they seem to be eating coots.

[Otters cross the road from the channel to forage in this body of water.]

This is the first time I have seen otter water trails through the algae and duck weed. We must have just missed them.

Check out Cliff Wheeler's blog to see the otters he frequently photographs up in Washington.

[More otter trails and a landing near the observation deck at Llano Seco]

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Splish Splash

With 24 inches of snow on the ground, this bear is nowhere to be seen and most certainly asleep and unwashed.

It wasn't that way last summer, when he was a regular visitor at several pools in the ravines on either side of my house.

As you can see, he had impeccable bathing habits.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Camera Trap Pioneers: Charles McDougal

[Chuck McDougal during a tiger drive in the 1980s. 
Photo by Chris Wemmer.]

Charles "Chuck" McDougal began photographing tigers with camera traps in the late 1970s. Not since F.W. Champion's camera trapping achievements 40 years earlier had anyone pursued this kind of photography with such devotion.

McDougal was trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Colorado and developed a keen interest in tigers and Nepalese natural history during Ph. D. research on the Rai people of eastern Nepal.

With fluency in Nepali and Rai, he was well prepared for work in the terai after graduate school.

That led to several years of hunting problem tigers in the late 1960s. With the passage of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in 1972 the era of sport hunting tigers came to an end.

McDougal devoted himself to scientific studies of tigers when he became the Director of Research at Tiger Tops in the 1970s. At the time, Tiger Tops had the distinction of being the only lodge in a national park where tourists could bank on seeing tigers in the course of a few days.

In my own experience at the time, tiger viewing at Tiger Tops usually interrupted happy hour or dinner.

When the bell rang, tipsy tourists gleefully scuttled into waiting Land Rovers. A tiger or leopard had just killed or returned to the bait -- a buffalo calf.

Ten minutes later they were deposited on a sandy trail in the jungle, where the guide requested you to remove your shoes and remain silent. (I believe the banishment of clodhoppers was a brilliant marketing ploy.)

Then they padded up a sandy jungle path, and five minutes later were viewing the tiger feeding in the light of a torch 100 feet away.

[Photo by Chuck McDougal]

Chuck had been studying tigers in the vicinity of the Lodge when the Smithsonian Nepal Tiger Ecology Project commenced in 1973, and in due course he became a key collaborator with the young American and Nepali scientists who studied tigers and their prey in the park.

McDougal's initial investigations were based on jungle lore -- tracking animals by their pugmarks as popularized by the legendary colonial naturalist Jim Corbett.

Most footprints of young animals are not sufficiently distinct for irrefutable identification of individual tigers. His studies required the ability to individually identify the members of the tiger population. Camera traps were the logical solution.

Tigers left their pugmarks on trails, jeep tracks, and riverbanks throughout the park. Getting pictures was only a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Sooner or later a tiger would amble down the path again.

Chuck's earliest camera trap was a Nikon F2. The model had an accessory electronic shutter release, and this he wired to a switch in a home-made pressure plate. It was built from two wooden planks from the local sal tree (Shorea robusta), and compression springs held the electrical contact apart.

He buried the pressure pad in a shallow depression on a game trail. When an animal stepped on the wooden pad the battery-powered circuit was closed, triggering the camera and its flash.

Here's the story in Chuck's words.

"In early 1972, I started working at Tiger Tops. In 1977, inspired by Champion's tiger photos from the 1920s Mike Price, a Anglia Survial cameraman and still phographer started using a Nikon F2 linked up to a homemade pressure pad. I continued this after he left a few months later and photographed about 20 different tigers in the course of a few years.

"I started using Trailmasters in 1995. The first one I had I put out on the ridge behind Tiger Tops, and I left it there for 3 days. When I went to collect it I found that the tripod had been knocked over and the camera was missing. A young but large male tiger had attacked and carried the camera in his jaws about 80 meters down the path before dropping it. The slide had been knocked off and the camera had canine dents in it. But the photo of the tiger, giving the camera a dirty look before attacking it, came out fine. I sent it to Bill Goodson who put it on his website and gave me a new camera. I still have 2 guys on my payroll camera trapping with the Trailmasters."

Chuck steadfastly improved the system to capture truly outstanding images. He eliminated, for example, the flat appearance rendered by head-on lighting of the electronic flash by placing a slave-activated flash at a 45-degree angle to the trail.

I recall my befuddlement in 1981 when he completed the preparation of a camera set on a trail near the Lodge. He dressed the camera in two quilted mufflers, which made it look like a black effigy on a tripod. The mufflers were beautifully made by the local tailor and stuffed with the unseeded fiber of the local simal or silk cotton tree. (And like all locally made pillows, the muffler was highly attractive to rats hungry for oily seeds.)

Why make the camera look like a black scarecrow?

Well, it solved a vexing problem. In the 'pre-muffler period' Chuck noticed that tigers were often photographed in unflattering moments. They were either frozen in motion veering away from the camera, or they had that unmistakable look of the 'possum-in-the-headlights'.

These responses were testimony to the tiger's lightning reflexes. The big cats actually reacted within microseconds to the sound of the camera's shutter.

As for the pillow-headed scarecrow on the side of the trail, the big cats didn’t seem to notice.

Chuck and his team of two Nepalese camera trappers tallied 8,683 trap-nights of effort and identified 119 individual tigers. They captured a total of 1,309 tiger photos. Most photos were of resident males and females, but each year new tigers appeared, some for a fleeting period and never to seen again, others to challenge and defeat incumbent territory holders.

Over the years he also accumulated an impressive inventory of other wildlife, including yellow-throated martens, several species of civets, and striped hyenas. The rarest find perhaps was a ratel or honey badger. Nowadays it’s an extremely rare species in the subcontinent.

Dave Smith and Chuck McDougal will soon have their book published on the ecology of Nepal's tigers, and I am sure some of Chuck's photos will adorn the pages.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

30-year-old possum (picture)

It was 1978 in Front Royal, Virginia, when this fine possum took the bait and its own picture.

At the time, we were experimenting with a camera trap to take to Indonesia.

The Nikon FE had a motor drive, and the external electronic shutter release on the front of the camera body could be wired to a trigger.

We tried two kinds of triggers.

A waterproof pressure pad had to be buried and covered with dirt.

It was sensitive only to animals heavy enough to press together the internal contacts. This excluded dickey birds and mammals smaller than rats. Another disadvantage is that cold and icy weather made the plastic stiff and less responsive to heavier animals. All the same, often I have wished I could rig a Sony s600 to a pressure pad.

The other trigger was the Sti 2090 photoelectric cell. It was powered by a 9v battery and worked in tandem with a reflector. It triggered the camera whenever the beam was broken. Its disadvantage was that it was totally indiscriminate as to what broke the beam. On a windy day in November you could get 36 slides of autumn leaves in an hour. And oh yes, the trigger could be deactivated if a deer or cow bumped the reflector or the photoelectric cell.

But I have also longed for a simple photoelectric alternative to the PIR sensor on controller boards used with current trail cameras.

So here's a toast to an earlier era of camera trap technology.

Wire barbecued ribs to a stake at the edge of an alfalfa field. Tastefully place photoelectric cell and reflector over the ribs, but outside the camera's view.

When Br'er possum grabs the ribs -- camera takes picture.

You can see the edge of the reflector in the upper left margin. The photoelectric cell is out of sight.

Below you can see the pork ribs wired to a stake.

One last thing. The flash on this setup was a power-hungry battery eater.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

On the blog again

Fred beseiged (he's the little guy with the white-tipped tail)

I'm as happy as a pup. My computer is back, and I'm blogging again.

I was uploading scans from Costco -- 35 mm slides from several decades ago when the CD got stuck. It took a week to get it fixed, and I was having serious computer withdrawal symptoms.

But speaking of pups, Fred is growing (15 lbs this week) and has become a popular member of the extended family.

He is crate-trained and house-broken (though we don't take any chances), and he is not bad on the leash.

His trick repertory includes sit, speak, shake, lie down, roll over, and turn around. We're still working at come and stay.

We taught him with the clicker, and I see now that the energetically easiest ones (sit, speak and shake) are his best. 

He worst habit is chewing the water tubes in the garden. He play bows and barks at the mousetrap deterrents, but they have definitely helped.

Harrassing the redhead as she sweeps is an irresistable misdemeanor.

A snuggle pup he is not. He is unable to deactivate his play-biting jaws, but our yelping, growling, and barking subdues it.

He goes to a dog socialization class once a week. He's the smallest and most playful dog there. 

Porkchop, a  sleepy male Bassett hound seems to have awakened his erotic interest, and Bruno the boxer beats him up weekly. He's starting to hold his own, though. The good part is that exuberant play has a de-energizing effect the next day.

He gets a daily two-mile walk, and is good at tracking and finding animal sign, which was one of my main reasons for getting him.

He sniffs carnivore scat, but tries to eat horse puckies, deer pellets, and turkey turds. I don't encourage or reward the scat attraction, because parvovirus is rampant around here, and even with shots, he is still at the susceptible age (11 weeks).

We'll get into serious tracking and scat detection training later on, and you'll hear about that too.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Passion on the beach

My camera trapping buddy, University of the Pacific Professor Rich Tenaza just sent me these pictures.

At this time of year he takes his marine mammals class to Piedras Blancas beach on the San Luis Obispo coast.

There the northern elephant seals are heavily into the annual rite of reproduction. This is a topic you expect students to be interested in.

In the category of free-wheeling fighting and fornication it puts to shame the spring break antics on any beach in Florida.

But Rich says the students just don't get off on field trips the way we did. Apparently, some view them as an inconvenience.

I suppose we were a minority even among the biology undergrads, but nowadays the minority is even smaller.

I remember my one and only trip to Ano Nuevo Island with Dr Robert T. Orr, and Dr Thomas C. Poulter.

What a privilege. I was a highly impressionable undergraduate, and it was simply thrilling.

It wasn't just the din and wonderment of battle-scarred pinnipeds.

It was the place -- the abandoned coast guard station with sea lions looking out the second story windows, the rugged California coast, the tides we battled to reach the doodoo-covered rocks. It was being there at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, the very same ocean that lapped Asia thousands of miles away . . . it was terribly stimulating.

I guess that's why Rich found one student's comment so strange (and I paraphrase): "Why should we go on a field trip and pay money for a motel when we can see those animals on Animal Planet?"