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

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Camera trap pioneers: Nicholas Smythe

Nicholas Smythe was a fellow graduate student who made me aware of the great possibilities of camera trapping.

That was in the late 1960s.

We were both "Eisenberg students" at the University of Maryland, where we shared a basement office, occasionally with the company of cotton-top marmosets and a misogynist raven named Rolf.

Nick Smythe with his 24 hr clock in the background.

Nick was fresh from the field -- having spent 2 years studying the ecology of the Central American agouti (Dasyprocta punctata) on Barro Colorado Island, a field station of the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

And he was full of observations and ideas.

Among the mementos of his field days were the remains of his camera traps: several worn Olympus cameras, a 24 hour clock, and a 4" spool of spliced 35 mm negatives.

The negatives contained hundreds of pictures of peccaries, agoutis, pacas, and coatis blithely foraging in the windfall of fruit from giant tropical trees, not to mention ocelot, motmots, iguanas, and a boa constrictor.

He also had crisp black and white enlargements of the courtship of male pacas, and I recall one in particular of a bipedal male enurinating (= peeing upon) the object of its affection -- an unconcerned female several yards away.

The flash had highlighted a cloud of airborne urine droplets midway between the couple. Wow!

But Nick's main camera trapping goal was to determine circadian activity cycles of agoutis by monitoring their visitation of fallen fruit, their main food that accumulates beneath tropical trees.

The cameras also helped to determine their home ranges, since marked agoutis could be identified at different sites.

Recently Nick kindly elaborated on his camera traps. 

"I tried several different cameras before settling on the Olympus Pens".

"The details are foggy in my mind, but I believe that the first was the Canon “Dial”.  Then there was a Russian made camera which proved unsatisfactory for reasons unremembered.  I think there were others.

The Olympus Pen series of cameras included the EM, which was the first 35 mm camera with battery powered film advance and rewind.

Nick hacked 4 of the cameras -- a bold act for a graduate student in zoology.

None of us would have dared such an undertaking, but he was a clever tinkerer who understood electrical circuits.

The motorized EMs were well chosen because rodents can trigger quite a few pictures when foraging at a windfall of fruit.

In addition, the half frame cameras doubled the maximum number of exposures possible.

If you bulk loaded your own film canisters, you could push it upward of 72 frames.

That was a real advantage, though a far cry from the 4 GB memory cards we use nowadays.

He used solenoids to release the shutters.

Cameras, solenoids and electronic flashes were housed in water resistant boxes.

"I was not able to find a 24 hr DC clock, so I used one that relied on AC.  This involved running long wires from the lab clearing to the camera sites which, in the ambient 98-100% humidity, gave rise to some interesting involuntary muscular contractions!"

"The triggers were a constant problem.

"I made some that used a 3-4mm copper ring as one terminal and a vertically hung copper wire as the other, but they were unreliable.

"So I used trip wires and micro-switches, and they were moderately successful, but peccaries and tapirs did not treat them kindly.

"And I have had several pictures that showed, indisputably, that agoutis knew very well where the wires were, and inadvertently tripped the cameras while attempting to avoid the trigger wire, or a conspecific, or, once, a coati that obviously had gustatory ambitions.

"Sadly I missed more proof that coatis are opportunistic predators on agoutis.

"Finally, I did rely on photoelectric sensors.  These, of course, required a light source on one side and a sensor on the other,  rather than a light and a return reflector.

"I didn’t know if IR light sources were available at the time so I used incandescent (modified flashlights) as a source.

"I made them myself and they suffered accordingly (the atmosphere in the Panamanian forest is not kind; I still have ear and body fungi that are undiagnosable by local MD’s).

But the cameras paid off and it became quite clear that agoutis are busiest feeding during daylight hours (Figure 18 is from the citation below).


Smythe, N. 1978. The natural history of the central American Agouti (Dasyprocta punctata). Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology, No. 257, 52 pp.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Spooks in the rock pile

We were surprised to find Townsend's big-eared bat (Corynorhinus townsendii) up and around in November when the weather is cool.

Those magnificent ears are hard to mistake for any other species out here.

However, below 62 degrees F most big-ears are lethargic.

Maybe mild temperatures called them out of their caves.

December 1 was the last night a big-ear swooped into the recess.

(Pssst! Guess what? this one is a boy!)


Barbour, R.W. and W.H. Davis. 1969. Bats of America. University of Kentucky Press, Lexington

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Into the rock pile

The first visitor to this set of course was a dusky-footed wood rat.

No doubt it lives very near by, and it dropped by almost nightly.

The bobcat made an appearance the day after we set the camera.

You see it above as it cautiously entered the recess, which was late morning (11:09).

It didn't linger long, because this was the only picture taken.

But three and a half hours later it was back, and three more pictures were taken.

Additional bobcat visits were on day 4 and day 20.

They looked to be the same cat.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Leaping Lupus was well trained

In case you haven't heard, the judges of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition disqualified the winner.

They concluded the stunning image of the jumping wolf was nature faked.

It seems the wolf was tame and as cooperative as Lassie.

I must say that I was a little doubtful about the photograph's pleasant and orderly setting.

It looked more like a museum diorama than real wolf habitat.

A photographer would have a very long wait --we're talking geological time -- for a wild wolf to jump such a fence.

However, I contend that if you know your subject and the terrain -- and use a camera trap -- such a photo wouldn't be impossible to take.

Technically, it isn't hard to get a photo of a leaping mammal.

The hard part is finding a trail used by wolves that crosses a fence.

Wildlife take the path of least resistance unless pressed, and they'll often creep under a fence if they can.

Here in the states wildlife do jump fences made of posts and barbed wire, and the crossing point is usually where the top strand was cut or broken by a falling tree limb.

Tumbled down sections of stone fences also become crossings marked by well worn paths and hoof-chopped earth.

Here's what the codger would do.

I'd try to determine the usual direction of animal movement -- e.g. downhill on a slope, and then I'd adjust and test the camera set by getting my dog to jump the fence.

Fred could do it if the fence wasn't too high.

Where legal, an attractant -- scent, bait or sound could be used to increase the chances of a photo.

Then I'd just wait for the picture.

There's a good chance several contest deadlines will have come and gone before getting the desired picture, and we could be talking geological time again.

But in my experience the wait wouldn't be that long.

The desired photo would highlight the wrong end of the animal, which would be a poacher with a large butt in camo.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Going within

Other than troglodytes and dumb camera trappers one never knows what goes into places like this.

But Craig, ever hopeful of documenting the astute bassarisk (otherwise known as the ringtail), thought this large collapsing outcrop had possibilities.

So did Randontruth and yours truly.

It was also an opportunity to use the expansion post.

In truth, the expansion post was our only hope for fixing the camera at the back of the recess.

It was all solid rock.

But extending the screw while reclining in rat doodoo was not a yoga position I would recommend, and the 5 minute wrist workout convinced me I really didn't want lower arms like Popeye, and the design of the expansion post is flawed.

Randomtruth, who was busy taking these pictures (thanks, mann), knew right away that an effective expansion post should be capable of quickly extending to the desired length, and anchoring tightly in place with a few twists of the screw.

Hey, live and learn.

When we were finished close to an hour later, the set looked like this.

Next week you'll see what showed up.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Coyote spooks at the badger dig

7:49:38 PM

Like Black Tail Jack, Coyote also reacted with trepidation at the badger dig.

It's hard to say why, but it is not the camera that got its attention.

More likely another coyote, possibly the resident territory holder.

7:47:53 PM

The source of threat had moved when the second photo was taken.

Coyote was photographed one last time "making tracks" and eyeing the threat, which seems to have changed its position.

  7:48:32 PM

The images remind me of a scene in Lawrence of Arabia.

Remember when Sherif Ali shot Lawrence's Bedouin guide at the oasis?

A peaceful scene in the desert gave way to panic.

For trespassing at the well the Bedouin paid with his life  -- shot dead while scrambling to his camel.

I am sure coyote was luckier.

If it met the resident honcho, its punishment probably wasn't anything worse than a bite in the butt.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Black-tail jack at the badger dig

7:09:12 AM

The scent of ripe mackerel lured Black-tailed jack to the badger dig.

That's my guess, because the lagomorph's appetite for protein is high when forage is coarse and low in protein.

When a doe rabbit eats her neonates, the husbandryman's advice it to feed her more protein.

Back to Jack.

Ever vigilant, he startled.

Then he returned to examine the burrow wherein the ensconced can emitted its bacterial bouquet.


Looking puzzled, he paused.


And then disappeared into the gloamy light of a new day.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

K-rat checks out badger dig

Kangaroo rat!  A new species for our survey!

In six months of camera trapping we've seen plenty of k-rat burrows,  but we haven't seen one k-rat in pixels.

The question is, what species is it?

There are 17 species of kangaroo rats, and about 14 of them live in California.

Fortunately, from the standpoint of identification only two species are known to live on the Chimineas Ranch.

My first suspicion was that this was Heermann's kangaroo rat (Dipodomys heermanni), because it lives in valley grassland, and that's where we photographed it.

The other species is the endangered giant kangaroo rat (Dipodomys ingens) which is also found in valley grassland, but also lives in drier desert habitats.

I could have settled on Heermann, but I looked up other distinguishing traits in several references.

Well, Heermann is about 12 inches long, and the Giant is 13 inches.

Heermann's tail is about 150% of the head and body length, while the Giant's is a little shorter -- about 128%.

Hmmm. Hard to estimate size from these photos.

Let's keep reading.

Heermann's tail is light gray or abruptly whitish, and tipped with little or no crest.

Well, that's not this guy.

I'd say there is a distinctive crest. Plus the tail stripes are well developed and the tip is dusky.

Now it looks like our kangaroo rat may be the Giant.

Better verify it by looking at other features.

The book says that Heermann's ears frequently appear blackish. 

This rat doesn't have blackish ears.

Now I'm leaning towards the Giant again. Better check further to confirm.

The Giant has a dusky colored nose, whitish cheeks and blackish eyelids.

What? That doesn't fit this rat. Now it sounds more like a Heermann.

Do you follow me? Right -- I'm not getting anywhere.

Here's the thing.  It's hard as hell to identify a lot of small mammals with field guides.

Shrews are deceptive, deer mice are often difficult, pocket mice are problematic, small bats can be baffling, and . . . and even chipmunks can confuse the amateur naturalist.

But that's not to say it's impossible. You just have to work at it.

Anyone who handles enough critters, live and dead, starts to be able to tell them apart.

I just have to look at a lot more kangaroos rats.

(I'll bet Craig knows exactly what it is).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

More badger dig visitors

As owls go, burrowing owls are relatively small, but they don't restrict themselves to small burrows, as you see here.  

Back in November we set three camera traps at what looked to be convincing badger digs -- broad holes with big tailings containing big rocks and big dirt clods.

Ground squirrels don't dig burrows like that, but badgers do, whether for habitation or rooting out rodents.

Back in 1929 and 1930 camera trapper Tappan Gregory made camera trap sets at badger diggings in Montana.

In an article titled "In pursuit of badgers" he reported making sets using a trip wire without bait, and he got a badger at two out of four sets.

And here's the rub, he got both photos after only 2 nights!

On the Chimineas Ranch we have had cameras at badger burrows for over 100 camera trap nights, and no badger has shown its face.

It's disappointing, but we're not complaining.

Burrow tailings are an interesting stage for grassland drama.

As long as the burrowing owls visit and the pocket mice duke it out there, we can wait for badger.


Gregory, T. 1932. In pursuit of badgers. Journal of Mammalogy, 13(4):329-330

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The ultimate jogger

Roadrunner stopped by set 303 at Barrett Creek on December 2 at 1:23 PM.

I wonder if the slightly gaping beak means she had a good jog?

I doubt it was from over eating -- not at this time of year.

Like the bobcat and coyote she posed well for the photo op.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Gray fox gets around

Round round get around
I get around
Get around round round I get around

Here he is again, the get around kid, this time checking out a dab of delectable fox butter on a chilly night near the crest of a steep hill.

Like car-cruising Beach Boys, Gray Fox gets around very well indeed, even with a low-slung chassis.

I sometimes tire of his ubiquitous image, but he deserves credit for being a cooperative subject.

He has none of Coyote's inhibitions around camera traps, and in my experience he is often the first fellow to show at a set.

Figuratively speaking, he's a rambler, showing up almost everywhere habitat-wise, except in the grassland.

Here from set 318 there's a commanding view of the grassland, but outcrops and nearby chaparral offer cover.

Gray Fox may get around, but only one of the Beach Boy lyrics really apply.

My buddies and me are getting real well known
Yeah the bad guys know us and they leave us alone

Well, if you're a Gray Fox, Coyote is the bad guy.

On this chilly night Gray Fox stood only a few yards from a burrow, vertically elliptical in outline, and thus one that most probably accommodates Coyote.

Yet the two species coexist on the Chimineas rangeland.

Before California Fish and Game took over the management of Chimineas ranch, Coyote was persona non grata, and culled.

According to my colleague Kathy Ralls, who used to work on Chimineas, Coyote was very retiring in the old days, and hightailed it when he saw people.

Nowadays you can snap his picture if you are quick with your camera, but he still doesn't hang around.

Not so with Gray Fox.

You might not see him very often, but he's smaller, and perhaps less prone to daylight escapades.

As for getting round, the codger isn't.

Not since tearing my Achilles tendon a week ago.

I am now sporting the big-foot-star-wars boot, and you don't hike, dog walk or boogy wearing something that feels like a bear cub hugging your ankle.

It's tough on Fred.

He knew something had changed right away, and hung back the first 24 hrs.

Then separation anxiety set in.

I knew he was spoiled but didn't think it was this bad. I mean its not like I went away.

He cried so much when we put it to crate at night, that now he sleeps in the bedroom.

For exercise he is getting  2-3 games of fetch-the-ball daily (which by the way was the cause of my injury).

Camera trapping diversions like Chimineas Ranch and Marin County will have to be on hold for a while.

It's going to be a long winter.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Coyote at night

A coyote was also photographed at the set of the curious crumple-eared bobcat.

Here you can see the effect when the flash is on the red-eye setting.

The tapetum lucidem still reflects the flash's light, but with pupils contracted the eyes don't look like headlights on high beam.

By coincidence I stumbled upon Lewis Garrard's description of the song of the yodel dogs:

" . . . a species of music much like a commingled bark, whine yelp, and occasionally a spasmodic laugh, now tenor, now basso; then one would take a tenor solo, and after an ear piercing prelude, all would join in chorus, making an indescribable discord."

Thanks to Brian of Wind River Ranch (another western frontier romantic) for sending Garrard's book.

Before going away, listen to the yodel dogs' repertoire at Soundboard.


Garrard, L.H. 1955. Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail, or prairie travel and scalp dances, with a look at Los Rancheros from muleback and the Rocky Mountain campfire. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Camera Trap Pioneers: George Shiras 3d (1859-1942)

Early readers of National Geographic Magazine were much taken with George Shiras' startling photos of startled deer.

His most famous photos were taken at night with camera traps of his own invention.

When an animal bumped the camera's trip wire it activated a magnesium flash gun.

The flash powder sparked briefly before igniting and flared longer than the 1/1000th second duration of a modern electronic flash.

The earsplitting blast of blinding light affected the animals like a stupendous astronomical event.

There was no better way to get spectacular shots of airborne deer while temporarily blinding the photographer and his subjects.

Shiras's invention of the camera trap was the result of trial and error tinkering and outdoor recreation near the Pennsylvanian family's second home in Marquette, Michigan.

His playground and testing area was Whitefish Lake, then a remote wetland   revealed to him by an Ojibway guide named Jack La Pete.

There the lawyer-Congressman-conservationist began his exploration of wildlife photography using a large 5 x 7 landscape camera that required a tripod.

Approaching timid subjects was a problem, because the camera was only capable of time exposures.

The solution, a flat-bottomed skiff camouflaged with leafy branches, strikes me as something that might have resembled a stage set from a Gilbert and Sullivan Opera.

The photographic result, a phantom likeness of a standing deer marked by the pale blur of its high speed escape convinced Shiras to try something different.

The Schmidt Detective Camera, a  4 x 5 sheet film model seemed a better choice.

Its fast shutter meant pictures had to be taken in broad daylight, and its short focal length meant the subjects had to be approached to within 25 feet.

If human scent didn't alert the deer, the skiff did.

For his next attempt Shiras decided on remote control -- stake the camera offshore, hide in a blind 100 yards away, and trigger the camera with a long cord.

This was an improvement, but like previous efforts it only worked for daylight pictures.

He then decided that what he really wanted were night pictures, "when the deer were more active and could be approached more easily. . .".

He had ". . . little doubt about getting close enough for pictures, provided the flashlight powder was a sufficiently powerful illuminant and had the requisite speed."

The illuminant was magnesium powder, but the lighting event was not instantaneous.

The highly flammable mixture briefly fizzed with increasing intensity until it exploded.

Some deer fled during the fizz, while others moved during the flash and gave blurred images.

More experimentation solved this problem too.

The improved flash device consisted of 3 burning alcohol lamps and a rubber bulb that when squeezed sprayed flash powder into the flames.

It proved itself a forerunner of the Molotov cocktail when Shiras bumped the apparatus and ignited the canoe and his boots "with a cloud of stifling smoke".

Shiras was so taken with stunning images of deer in flight, that he wired a second camera and a delay that captured a second image immediately following the first.

The fur bearers of the north woods presented new opportunities, and tested his jury-rigging skills to create effective sets.

He experimented with various triggers, from spring poles baited with carrot to trip wires baited with meat, fish, or even a caged live chicken.

Communing with nature and wildlife photography led him farther afield, often in the company of biologists.

Eventually he camera trapped in Canada, Alaska, and the newly formed Panama Canal Zone.

Unlike modern trail cameras, the explosive flashes of yesteryear did not tempt would-be pilferers.

Shiras once watched nervously as a dog led an Ojibway boy to a fish-baited camera trap he had just set for a wolf.

"I called and whistled, but my meaning was not understood, and the boy and his follower went on."

"The dog, having a keen and discerning nose, hurried to the bait.  An instant later a white cloud sprang up, followed by the usual boom of the exploding powder. The boy dashed out of his smoky surroundings, but the dog beat him to the canoe."

Shiras's lifelong love of wildlife is documented in a two volume collection of writings and photos published in 1935 by the National Geographic Society.

In these books you can follow the maturation of his philosophy of hunting, outdoor recreation, and conservation.

The writing and photos are an evocative primer of environmental history.

When it came to camera trapping, Shiras was "the man".

That's why President Roosevelt reacted like a bull moose to the guest speaker's remarks at the Boone and Crockett Club's annual banquet in 1906.

The speaker happened to be the German Ambassador, and he used his bully pulpit to praise the remarkable camera trapping feats of his countryman, one Carl Georg Schillings, whose work was soon to be published as a book.

Roosevelt informed the Ambassador that it was the man sitting across from him -- Mr. Shiras, who  developed camera trap methodology years ago and who had in fact won a Silver Medal for his photographic achievements at the World Fair of 1889 in Paris.

Shiras apparently listened politely to the interaction, but afterwards searched his memory and recalled forgotten correspondence with a German professor from the Berlin Museum.

The letters were still in his files.

Upon reading them again, Shiras learned that he had openly shared his inventions with the professor, provided a sketch, and wished him well in his future endeavors.

Armed with this updated information, Roosevelt further clarified the matter with the Ambassador.

There is a long list of acknowledgements in the first edition of Schilling's With Camera Trap and Rifle, but the name of George Shiras is not there.

To the Ambassador's credit Shiras was correctly acknowledged in the second edition.


Shiras, 3d. George. 1936. Hunting wild life with camera and flashlight, a record of sixty-five years' visits  to the woods and waters of North America.  2 volumes. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.

Schillings, C.G. 1905. With flash-light and rifle. Photographing by flashlight at night the wild animal world of Equatorial Africa. New York, Harper Brothers.