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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, March 31, 2011

Catching Up

Approaching the Sierra Nevada at +20,000 feet.

Mono Lake was a welcome sight yesterday as we returned from a few days in northern Virginia.

It was a mixed family-and-business visit, the latter being time spent at the Smithsonian Archives researching the history of camera trapping.

Catching the metro to D.C. reminded me of my old days of gainful employment, with one notable exception. Nowadays few commuters read the paper.

I noted that the mental exercise of texting and other forms of cell phone amusement is not the same as reading the morning paper.

You just don't see the limp lower lip in people reading the paper.

But I digress.

Reading the old files of predator man Stanley P. Young once again carried me away to the American southwest of the early 1900s.

But there's just never enough time. You want to stay on track, but there are always these distractions and you don't want to pass up an important lead.

I was searching very specifically for Young's correspondence with a Chicago lawyer named Tappan Gregory who became an avid and highly successful camera trapper, but I was led astray.

There was Young's letter to "Old Wash the Dog" -- a colorful collection of shared memories. . .

"... do you recall the night club you dragged me into whence we witnessed all the possible gyrations of the human anatomy as the dancers danced (or did they?) and, when the music stopped to let the dancers 'cool off a bit', the pause was exemplified by beating the hell out of your table top with a one by six board..."

And in a letter to District Agent Everett Mercer there was this:

"You will recall too that Pancho Villa had me as a prisoner for some time after I was picked up by his outposts while following a wolf dragline mark across the border into Sonora."

Despite these sidetracks and many others I got what I was after, and I was sufficiently jazzed to outline a chapter on the flight home.

We touched down in SF and after a quick midday meal boarded the plane to Chico.

Winter may still have its grip on the Sierra, but spring had arrived in the Sacramento Valley.

A warm wind blew across the Chico airport when we crossed the tarmac.

The first order of business at home was to get Fred, who had been lovingly cared for by the owners of his border collie mother, Roxie.

A dog sure can make you feel good; our reunion was the usual waggle dance with yodeling.

The second order of business was to check up on Screech.

I turned on the TV and the owl is still there, but when it jumped up to the opening at 7:15 yesterday evening no eggs were visible on the floor of the box.

I have been hoping that Screech is a she-bird.

She's very preeny.

I'll just have to keep watching.

And oh yes, I re-posted that photo of the Chukar partridges.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The elusive Yesin

The ill-fated elephant named Ko-laung -- shortly before the ye-sin's fatal bite.

The yesin (pronounced yay-sin), so well known among rural folk in Burma and Thailand has never been camera trapped.

There are plenty of indigenous and foreign wildlife biologists looking for adventure and new species within the yesin's range, and some are experienced camera trappers.

My hunch is they haven't been looking in the right place or haven't even tried because they regard the yesin and its lore as just so much malarky.

Let's assume however that the yesin is a small, nocturnal, cryptic, and undescribed species of aquatic mammal.    

You are not going to camera trap it on game trails because it's aquatic (Burmese "ye" = water). 

Fishermen who occasionally net them say they are the size of a shrew or rat, smaller than the quarry of most camera trappers. 

If the yesin exists I rather doubt there is more than one species and would attribute the size variation to age differences and possibly sexual dimorphism.  

What makes the yesin fantastic to the gullible and doubtful to the skeptic is the claim that they are dead ringers for tiny elephants (Burmese "sin" = elephant) and have venomous tusks.

Elephants are terrified of them, or so claim the yesin experts, usually fishermen and mahouts who I should add have a reputation as story tellers but not teetotalers.

My earlier hypothesis was that the yesin was the rural Burman's joke on the colonial British, many of whom were enthusiastic and at times overly credulous amateur naturalists.

Perhaps the Burman was only telling the vainglorious Brit what he wanted to hear -- that fame was around the corner in the form of a new species waiting to be discovered.

All that was required was to collect it, stuff it, and send it to the British Museum for identification and description.

After all, having a species named after you confers a certain though obscure immortality, and even today grown men occasionally fuss peevishly for the sake of taxonomic fame

Back in 1915, a Burmese lady gave a mummified yesin to S.F. Hopwood, then Assistant Conservator of Forests and a "madly keen mahseer fisherman". 

Hopwood spoke Burmese and therefore was well-acquainted with the yesin but confessed he had always thought it was just a mouse deer. 

The lady had paid 5 Rupees for it, and the seller had gotten it from an old Burman who had come to her door seeking a cup of water. 

In Hopwood's words, "She gave him the drink and asked what he had in the bag. He said that he was a fisherman and had caught a water-elephant in his nets. It had lived 3 days after he caught it.  He wanted to sell it for Rs 25, but she succeeded in getting it into her possession and sold it to her for Rs 5."

The curious yesin owner consigned the mummy to Hopwood, who shipped it across the Bay of Bengal to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) asking its true identity and requesting that it be returned, "as the present owner values it very highly . . ."

The editors of the BNHS Journal reported that it was a "a wonderful curio" fashioned from a squirrel skin.

Its maker had painstakingly stretched the hide to render a hump and a vestigial trunk and had supplied it with miniature faux tusks.

It was a remarkable feat of taxidermic fakery.

Now you may not believe it, but the codger had a similar yesin experience.

It happened during tea break at an elephant workshop in Rangoon where I engaged two bashful ladies on the sidelines in small talk.

They had been sent as observers by the University and were obviously not feeling a part of the predominantly male in-group.

"Do you know yesin?", asked the Karen lady.

"Yezin the town? Or yesin the water elephant?" was my childish display of Burmese knowledge.

"Water elephant" she said with a frown. 

"Ah yes, that yesin," said I, "but I have never seen one. Is there really such a thing?" 

" I have a. . .a . . .(she searched for the words). . .a small bone." 

"My grandfather owned elephants. The yesin belong him.  I will show tomorrow."

Sure enough, the next day she handed me a small cardboard box of the kind made for jewelry. 

Inside was a rodent's mandible cushioned in cotton.

  The yesin's maker had inserted a tusk into the foramen on the lingual or inner surface of the jaw, but I didn't divulge my thoughts.

It was admirably done, and I just savored it as a fake, a relic, and an unsolved mystery.

I might as well have been handling a ruby from King Theebaw's throne.

What motivated grown men to fabricate yesins? 

Was crafting a yesin like carving an image of the Buddha?  Did the ersatz yesin confer power or profit to the owner?   

My adoration ended, I tucked it into the box of cotton and returned it to its owner.

"You may have it,"she said.

I was touched but demurred.

After all, it was a family heirloom.

[to be continued]


Hla Aung, Col. 1970. The water elephant or Yesin.  The Sunday Working People's Daily, August 30, 1970.

Hopwood, S.F. 1915. The Ye-sin or water-elephant. Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, XXIV:379-380.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Partridges in a bush

I'd never seen a chukar partridge at Chimineas until Craig sent this photo from our last camera trap set last year.

Nor have I heard its lusty chukaring call.

It's a new camera trapped bird for our Chimineas species list.

This group looks a bit fagged, possibly from climbing the hill to reach the shade of the holly-leaf cherry tree.

But maybe they were just cold.

Anyway, they loafed there near the bobcat latrine on November 19th.

The picture was taken at 1:20 PM.

Chukars are a widespread across Eurasia, and their good looks and good taste won them honorary California citizenship in 1932.

They've done well in the eastern Sierra Nevada and the inner coast range ever since.

In fact they are thick around the spring at the old toll station on Westgard Pass.

I almost slipped on the shotgun shells there.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Owl in the box

The blasted cam is TOO CLOSE!

Wet snow was blowing when I checked the screech owl box Saturday evening (March 19), and to my great surprise there was something in the entrance.

It was 6:30 and there was still enough light to glass it with the binocs.

It wasn't a bug-eyed squirrel, but a well-ruffled screech owl with half closed eyes.

The discovery wired me like a couple of double espressos.

This morning I brought the cam cable into the house and hooked it up to the monitor.

The owl was nestled in the wood shavings and saw dust, but damn! the cam's field of view is not what I had expected.

You can only see part of her head and back.

I had tested the cam's field of view in the shop last fall, but now realize I was a bit too generous with the bedding.

Live and learn.

I'll have to make a longer box for next year.

I'll check this evening to see if there are eggs or owlets.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Camera Trapping Workshop -- July 17-22, 2011

Looking toward Sierra Valley and its wetlands. 

Once again good readers, I will be giving the camera trapping workshop at San Francisco State University's Sierra Nevada Field Campus.

This will be the third course, and I've been making incremental improvements in the presentations and activities as a result of growing familiarity with the location and input from participants.

We have definitely nailed down the whereabouts of several additional species of small mammals not far from the campus, but we'll also range into surrounding areas to cast the camera trap net more widely.

As in the past, I'll set several cameras in the field a month before the workshop, and we'll gather them and view the photos during the week.

Be sure to bring your laptop for downloading and viewing photos, and a GPS, if you have one. I'll provide you with camera trap data notebooks.

Basically, we'll cam trap daily and move through the subject matter using powerpoint presentations and discussions.  

Click the Sierra Nevada Field Campus website for information about the field campus and its course offerings, including Photographing Wildlife with Camera Traps.

Registration materials are available at the website.

I know that regular readers of CTC are well aware of the recreational and educational rewards of camera trapping, not to mention the adventure and sheer fun of it all, so read on if you want to know what's planned. 

Fording the Yuba on the way to Deadman Lake



July 17-22, 2011 
Sunday, July 17
  • Arrive: noon through late afternoon.
  • Dinner: 6:00 PM.
  • Evening: Class introductions, workshop goals and work plan, participants voice special interests.
  • Power Point presentation: Camera Trap Discoveries

Monday, July 18

  • Breakfast: 7:00AM (make your own bag lunch)
  • 8:30 AM: Power Point presentation: Camera trap structure and function and Camera Trap "Set Theory"
  • Other Topics covered: Camera attachments and mounts (low to high tech solutions).
  • Activity (mid-morning): Hands-on instruction in pre-visualizing images and anticipating animal behavior. Subjects = golden-mantled ground squirrels, shadow chipmunks, chickarees, mountain beavers, pikas, bushy-tailed wood rats): Sets = hollow logs, burrow entrances, and natural feeding stations--e.g., seed and cone middens
  • Lunch: in field or in camp
  • Afternoon: Collect pre-set cams in the field (car pool to site, and a short hike in) or stay in camp with your own cameras. Return to field campus, download photos, compare results from morning sets.
  • Dinner: 6:00 PM
  • Power Point presentation/discussion: Use of Attractants (windfalls, water, scent/visual/sound lures and baits; legal restrictions).

Tuesday, July 19

  • Breakfast: 7:00AM (make your own bag lunch)
  • 8:30 AM, Powerpoint Presentation: Animal Psych for Camera Trappers (species differences in behavior and sensory perception).
  • Activity: Set cams in field (car pool to site in Sierra Valley).
  • Lunch: in field
  • Afternoon: Return to field campus, check cams near camp, download photos, compare results.
  • Dinner: 6:00 PM
  • Power Point presentation/discussion: Old timey Camera Trap Luminaries
  • Additional activity: Home-made portable endoscope (burrow and cavity video cam)

Wednesday, July 20

  • Breakfast: 7:00AM (make your own bag lunch)
  • 8:30 AM: Topic: camera trapping databases (inventory of sets, spreadsheet of camera trapping results); image database software; digital darkroom software, GPS mapping software.
  • Activity (mid morning): Hike to Deadman Lake and scree (optional, but a chance to see pikas).
  • Lunch: in field (or in camp).
  • Afternoon: Return to field campus, download photos, compare results from morning camp sets.
  • Dinner: 6:00 PM
  • Power Point presentation/discussion: How to be in the right place at the right time.  
  • After sunset: Flying squirrels: observations and photography (tentative, it depends on a good neighbor).

Thursday, July 21

  • Breakfast: 7:00AM (make your own bag lunch)
  • 8:30 AM: Topic: Making your own: General guidelines and links for hacking cameras, i.e., “homebrew” trail cameras.
  • Activity (mid morning): Collect cams from outlying sites (talus slope, ravine springs, mountain beaver burrows).
  • Lunch: in field
  • Afternoon: Return to field campus, download photos, compare results.
  • Dinner: 6:00 PM
  • Power Point presentation/discussion: Wildlife Surveys using Camera Traps (scientific applications)
  • General discussion: Topics of class choice; hand out evaluation forms (questionnaires); copy and share photos taken during course.

Friday, July 22

  • Breakfast: 7:00AM (make your own bag lunch)
  • Activity: (1) collect cams and pack, (2) return evaluations (3) class photo
  • Farewell and Departure
Viewing photos during last year's workshop 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Risky business concluded

Wet weather delayed my return to the beer can highway, but when it dried up I checked the cams.

I surmounted the cut bank without acrobatics and bee-lined to the camera, which was facing the sky.

The woodworked sapling had snapped under a snow load.

I knew at a glance that the case contained water. The fresnel lens always has the weakest seal in my home brews.

The LCD was fogged, the D-cells were taking a bath, and the silica gel container was soaked.

But the camera fired up and I quickly clicked through the pictures.

I could only make out two species: the  neighborhood wood rat hung its tail over the lens and a gray fox posed demurely.

The other two cams had even less to show, but I was still high from the Burma trip, so I could afford to be reflective.

When I downloaded the photos at home, however I found a pleasing wood rat portrait,

and the unmistakeable tail of a ringtail.

There was only one other photo -- of the ringtail sniffing castoreum and looking patently stupified.

With a year and half of camera trapping on the Chimineas, I believe that Chimineas's ringtails are few and far between, but we are not ready to throw in the towel yet.  

We've just got to climb down into those deep rocky canyons and set cams near water and dense cover.  

By the way, I dried the camera and controller over the wood burning stove, and they are again in working condition. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The risky business of stealth camming

"Quiet!" I growled as Fred looked in the direction of an approaching pickup truck.

We weren't well hidden, but the last thing I wanted was my barking dog to give us away to some beer guzzling yokels plying the roads in search of mindless diversion.

We were lurking in the bosom of a big old outcrop 60 feet above a county road and I had almost finished setting the camera.

By now you all know that camera trapping is by economic necessity a clandestine activity.

Camera trappers can get a little weird where people pursue outdoor recreation year round or grow exotic plants in the woods.

Sometimes they develop peculiar tics, or just get paranoid.

This was a risky place and yes, I was feeling a little paranoid.

It was far too close to a road that attracted that subset of the population that tosses beer cans out the car window.

But I had succumbed to the temptation of ringtail country with its voluptuous outcrops and jutting crags.

For three years I had resisted the temptation, but when I scoped it out on Google Earth and saw those bounteous rocks peeking out from a quilt work of chaparral and oak woodland -- I abandoned my normal caution and made a plan.

I would set three cams along that stretch of road before I left for the trip to Burma.

I parked about a half mile away, donned my rucksack, leashed the dog, and walked nonchalantly down the road.

A muddy jeep roared by and spattered us with brown water.

A minute later I spied the departure point.

The "coast was clear".

I crossed the road, unleashed Fred, scrambled up the bank and grabbed a branch of oak.

My footing gave way as Fred disappeared into the undergrowth.

I was dangling on the cut back like a rabbit in a pole snare, and if anyone came to my rescue, I'd have to say it had happened as I was looking for a place to pee.

I managed to crab my way up and crawled into the thicket.

In the chaparral I felt safely incognito and soon found there were several outcrops hidden from Google's piercing eyes.

Though close to the road one mossy rock with nooks and crannies looked promising.

Mounting the camera was the problem.

Only one small tree was suitably placed, but it was bent back, and no matter how tightly I cinched the cable the camera wobbled.

I started over, sawed a shallow kerf in the trunk, and hacked a plane surface with my trusty kukri.  

The camera was secure and seemed to be at an optimal angle.

That's when the pickup passed.

I dabbed the rock cavities with castoreum and packed my bag.

Two months passed before we climbed the cut bank again, but that story's for next time.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What goes in gotta come out

Bobcat with Botta's pocket gopher,  Jan 19, 2011 at 10:36AM

With this post we are back at the Chimineas Ranch where winter storms washed out most of the back country roads.

Cattleman Ross made the roads right again, and Todd finally made the camera trap rounds on a quad.

Yesterday Craig sent good tidings,  "All cams we set out in November made it through the winter fine and there was no water damage. All are accounted for."

What you see here are a few of the recently downloaded photos from set 421 made last November.

"The amazing thing about this set, "writes Craig,"  is that the cam operated for the entire period from November 9, 2010 to February 24, 2011. That's 107 days!"

I know a lot of camera trappers make their home brews compact, but there's something to be said for 2 D cells as backup power. You just have to settle for bigger housing.

The bobcat made its appearance with a pack lunch of fresh pocket gopher, which looks like it was taking its last breath.

Take note where it placed the gopher, and its interest in the depressed area beyond.

Bobcat looks at the latrine

You could say it put the gopher on the toilet seat, because our cat, or another one just like it perched in the very same place 3 weeks later.

I don't think there's any debate about what it's doing.

Feb 11, 2011 at 12:08AM

Craig viewed all the photos at this set and reports that bobcats visited the depression several other times.

It may well be a latrine, and we'll check it out to satisfy our curiosity when the weather warms up.

No doubt the cat or cats devoured quite a few gophers between the input and output photos. 

A stroll in Udjung Kulon

I enjoyed a cup of coffee this morning watching a mother and child strolling in the forest of West Java, Indonesia.

The strollers were Javan rhinos, and if you want to see them, click HERE.

It's good to know these beauties are still with us and reproducing.

Thanks to JoEllen for the heads up.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Elephant examines camera trap

Thanks to wildlife photographer Bruce Kekule for sending me the link to this interesting footage of a teenage tusker reacting to a trail camera.

After its initial back-stepping hesitation (Whoa, what the..?") it satisfies its curiosity with trunk and foot.

Bruce warned me about those puny camera mounts made of sticks I wrote about the other day.

He said they wouldn't last long with elephants in Thailand.

I assured him that the cams in the Rakhine Yoma are now chained to trees and sporting metal protectors.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Vernacular CT tech -- in photos

If you can start a fire with a couple pieces of bamboo, you don't have to curse yourself for forgetting your camera trap mounts, steel posts, cable, chain, or cord.

If you grew up in the forest you know how to use the materials around you.

The problem with our high tech generation is we can't even start a fire with matches unless there's lighter fluid.

Here are a few photos of camera mounts made by the Chin students from materials found in the forest.

A machete or large knife is all they need.

Thin creeper vines = cord. 

The cross was not their preferred camera mount, even though they could lash two sticks together with minimal wobble. 

They preferred a forked stick, and had no trouble finding them. 

If the camera swung within the fork as this one did, they used a splint to restrict movement.  

They could render a suitable stake in a minute and enjoyed sighting the camera at the target. 

But suitable materials were never critical. They had the wood craft to make do with whatever was handy.  

If a villagers's trail was nearby they camouflaged the camera with vegetation. 

The camera is in the middle shielded from view by the large leaves

I have to say that I prefer my own homemade mounts to this vernacular technology, but sticks and vines do quite well if you don't want to haul your own stuff, set off the airport metal detectors, and raise questions with the TSA

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Snapping the toddy cat on purpose

It was almost within reach of the bait, but then the toddy cat changed its mind.

After the toddy cat's first visit I decided to try baiting it into a strangler fig.

The upright trunks were picturesque and more accessible than the log jam and windblown tree I had previously tried.  

The first fig we tried was a wash, so we pulled the bait and moved it to another tree.

There the camera snapped only one photo, and strangely the toddy cat quit the tree before it reached the bait. 

I suspected the flash scared it away, but knew it would soon habituate if it was the same animal making its rounds. 

We decided to make the next set on a prostrate tree decorated with a fresh seed-filled scat, most probably the work of our omnivorous toddy cat. 

The location was made for camera trapping: there was a vertical pole to attach the camera, and the toppled trunk would be easily accessible to almost any small mammal. 

The only detraction was its location next to a trail used by villagers. 

We staked the chicken guts with a bamboo splint and covered them with a leaf. 

I had to leave for Rangoon the next day, but instructed the team to leave my two homebrews out for two more nights. 

A dedicated student took the night bus and delivered the cameras the morning before I flew home. 

The toddy cat had left 31 photos of its feast.  

My camera trapping venture in the Rakhine Yoma was over, but the cooperative toddy cat gave it a memorable ending.

Smithsonian's Camera Trapping Site

In case you missed it, the Smithsonian's new camera trapping site -- Smithsonian Wild-- was on NBC's evening news last night.

The new site has some terrific camera trap photos from various projects around the world.

It sure would be interesting to know what camera models were used to take those pictures, but you know how it is -- "the gov" doesn't want you to think they are endorsing a commercial product.

And congratulations to my colleague Bill McShea and his fellow camera trappers for cooking up the idea.

Thanks to Scott in Northern Virginia and Bill in Nevada City for the heads up.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Update on the 8 camtrapped mountain lions

Here's a bit more information about that photo I linked to recently.

Read it for an explanation of how you get cougars in groups like this.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Snapping the toddy cat by mistake

Set 464 -- a cut bank with an overhang

I set the cam under an overhang for only one reason -- something had gathered and stored wild figs there, and I suspected it was a rat.

So we baited the set with a handful of cooked rice and activated the camera. 

As an afterthought I dabbed the rock with castoreum, and that's when the cam snapped my picture.  

A few hours later this toddy cat, or common palm civet visited the site. 

(No doubt it was searching for prime coffee beans.)   

There were only two pictures.

It came . . . 

I guess it cleaned up the bait, because there was little to be seen as it made its exit.

and it went. 

The toddy cat was too big for the frame, but I couldn't complain.

I'd set the camera for rats, framed a small area.

Now it was time to snap the toddy cat.

We would have another shot at one. They're abundant and bold -- the ecological equivalent of our raccoon.

We just had to find a better place for a set, and next time I'll show you what we did.

(And if you're wondering about the rats, yes, one showed up shortly before dawn.)