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, August 28, 2012


You have to be an electronic wizard, a risk taker or just an idiot to attempt hacking a digital camera.

I count myself among the risk-taking idiots, because I have a marginal understanding of electrical circuits and principles.

I blame it on a traumatic childhood experience.

At the age of 5 I ignored my grannie's advice and stuck a bobby pin into a wall socket.

It was a single-trial learning experience I never forgot.

For decades I thought alkaline batteries would electrocute me if handled recklessly.

Eventually my desire to hack digital cameras overpowered the fear, and to date I've hacked several dozen point-and-shoot cameras.

During a moment of brash overconfidence last fall I decided to hack an HD video cam, the DXG 125v.

I was taking a big chance, but I ordered two cameras and two sets of parts -- 12 volt SLA batteries, BigFoot controllers, sister boards, external battery holders for backup camera power, circular IR arrays, gain-adjustable spy microphones, faster replacement lenses, and IR cut switches for the cameras.

I was in over my head, but this week I finished one of the cameras, and yes, "the Spyclops" works.

It wouldn't have happened without the help of several kind-hearted home brewers.

The home-brewed camera trap community is one fine bunch of people united by a common interest in the outdoors and wildlife photography.

Among them are some some electronic wizards you can lean on when your hacking isn't going right.

By phone and email they guided this old codger through several hard spots.

So I want to thank EgbertDavis, TCScout, OKBio, Ghoot, 212, and BlackHillsDave for their patience and time, and their tolerance of my many dumb questions.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Smoky Memories, once again

A recycled post from the archives -- with update.

There's a fire in the mountains about 50 miles away. We're not in danger, but the smoke plumes over us during the day, and flows down the canyons at night. The Sacramento valley looks like an inland sea, the hills are gray, and the house smells like chipotle, which isn't bad . . . for a while anyway.

I woke up at 3:07 last night with an acrid presence in my sinuses. Couldn't sleep. The security light next to the house kept going on and off -- thirsty skunks at the water trough, I guess. Then came the smoky memories . . . .

A sunny spring day in 1950, Lafayette Elementary School, San Francisco
I'm looking towards the classroom window and freedom outside, smelling burning eucalyptus leaves in Golden Gate Park. It's beautiful outside, and I hear the cries of peacocks in the park . . . why am I being held captive? Then the teacher calls my father for a meeting. Apparently he is clueless. Unless he can influence my behavior, she dreads another week of school. She advises him to lower his expectations for my future. My mother says he was rather glum that weekend.

1952. San Francisco. Geary street between 40th and 39th avenues
We hear the fire engines before we smell the smoke. Burning linoleum. When the firemen arrive, my friend Clayton, who lives in the burning house is dancing and leaping for joy. He started the fire. Luckily the fire department puts it out before it reaches the basement, where we used to play with a box of machine gun ammo left over from the war.

1958, A Thanksgiving fieldtrip to Bridleveil Campground (now closed), Yosemite National Park
A field trip for science nerds--student members of the California Academy of Sciences. It is cold, so cold that my fellow nerds are raiding my plant press for newsprint to insulate their sleeping bags. This is irritating, but I can't complain. My bag needs insulation too. We also warm our feet in front of the campfire, and I am the only one who doesn't heed the smell of burning rubber. It is hard keeping up with my friends wearing boots with curled soles.

1982, December. Royal Chitawan National Park, Nepal
The sun is a red rubber ball. At 3:00 PM there's enough smoke in the air that you can look at it without burning holes in your retinas. The villagers are lighting fires in and out of the park. Not to worry, they're not wildfires. Indian rollers and drongos follow the flames and glean smoke-dazed insects with frazzled wings. The firing of the terai is an ancient rite that's good for ungulates. In a few weeks chital and great one-horned Asian rhinos, not to mention cattle and buffaloes will be munching on the greensward. Burning grass smells sharp, but burning sal (Shorea robusta) smells like incense.

c. 1985. Chitawan again, Smithsonian-Nepal Tiger Ecology Project
Sweating in my skivies under a mosquito net, upstairs in a wooden bungalow, I am a dysenteric zombie trapped in the stench of burning elephant dung. There is no escape. The mahouts burn green dung balls as a nightly ritual. It's a sanitary practice. Like Gunga Din, Bishnu delivers electrolytes and bottles of water three times a day. I make dozens of trips to the loo, day and night. A Swedish tour group sees me creaking down the stairs in my stained skivies. They think I'm a druggie. I don't care. My only goal is to get to the loo without you-know-whating myself.

c. 1990. near Bangalore, India
Riding in a taxi with the late "Doctor K" (for Krishnamurthy), I scent something familiar and appealing in the air. "Doc, is that hamburger I am smelling? Doc laughs wildly in his falsetto and then replies, "No, you are smelling a crematorium". 

At 4:30 I am staring at the vague movement of the ceiling fan in darkness. The redhead asks if I want the radio on. I do.

The BBC reports the state of the world. Pavarotti has died and Putin is selling arms to Indonesia . . .

There will be no more double espresso iced coffees with lunch.

[August, 2012: Since writing this I have fallen back on having an iced espresso after lunch, but now I limit myself to a single.]  

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A brief sad pleasure

It was 100 degrees outside when I got out of the car and a strange dog crawled out of a hedge next to the driveway.

He wore a dusty black collar without identification.

We'd been gone for only two days, and someone had discreetly dumped the dog on our quiet driveway.

He stood there panting noisily and looking at us, and I felt resentment.

I didn't blame the dog.

He was gray in the muzzle, had bad breath, a torn ear, and stiff back legs.

His coat was mixed with the thick dusty undercoat of winter.

But he had clear eyes and a good disposition.

I gave him water and kibble, thinking about my schedule and this new responsibility.

One thing was certain. If this dog decided to hang around it was going to have to sleep in Fred's outdoor dirt bed under the hedge.

And sure enough, he was there Saturday morning, wagging a bobbed tail that looked like a fat coin purse.

I fed and watered my new "Buddy".

Afterwards he squeak-whined with that familiar dog-look of expectation.

Then he stabbed me with his forefoot.

"What? You wanna be brushed?"

I could tell it was a rare pleasure, and the old hair came out in gobs.

But brushing wasn't enough.

There was more of the look and the squeak-whine.

"Now what? You want a massage?"

He loved that too.

He followed me to the chair on the back porch and put his head on my knee.

The dog was a gentle charmer. I fed and brushed him, and massaged his neck three more times that day.

How could someone abandon a sweet trusting dog like this?

Many years ago someone had paid to have him castrated, and he liked being put on the leash. Obviously someone had taken him for walks.  

He was an old person's dog. That's my guess, but who knows the owner's story? It may be even sadder than the dog's.

I put a notice in a local community forum, but no one claimed Buddy.

Butte County Animal Control said they would pick him up on Monday.

I hated the thought. Whatever was in store for the dog, I would to treat him well during our brief time together.

On Sunday Buddy stood stoically as I sluiced him with cold water and lathered him with shampoo. His pleasure was unmistakable when I rubbed him dry.

In two short days Buddy was as attached to me as I was to him.

At dusk he came to the front door to look in at us as we watched TV. Fred was sleeping on the floor. Then he ambled off to his dirt bed.

On Monday morning the Animal Control truck arrived, and the dog knew something was about to change.

I sat down with the warden and waited for Buddy to approach.

"If there are no takers, and he's not fatally ill", I asked, "can you call me?"

"I'm sure I can find someone who will give him a good home. I just need more time".

"Do you really want to know?" asked the warden. "A lot of people regret it when they find out".

He said he'd make a note in the record.

Buddy allowed himself to be collared, and the warden lifted him into the traveling compartment.  

And so he surrendered himself to yet another person. A gentle old dog. Life was not in his control.

What would happen to him next? How could such an animal be found unsuitable as a pet?

It all made me very sad.

As soon as they left, I took Fred for a three hour walk on the flume.

We cut the usual spectacle with Fred yodeling in anticipation as we drove up Humbug, and he did his usual crazy stuff, racing back and forth, leaping wildly into the water, barking, and surrendering the stick only on his terms.

Dog-youth looks like it will last forever, but of course nothing does.

Fred and I live on different time lines, but he's slowing down and catching up with me.

We'll converge in our dotage, but we're going to stick it out until the end.

And I'm still hoping . . . . hoping the animal control folks in Oroville will have the wisdom to see that old people need old dogs like Buddy.

Monday, August 13, 2012

An attempt at subterranean video

I was eager to set the home-brewed video cam (a DXG567) in a burrow so the camera trapping class could see the magical underworld of the mountain beaver or showtl.

In June we revisited the tunnel we used last year, and found that it wasn't feasible.

We couldn't drive a pipe into the hardpan of that tunnel and couldn't mount the camera.

We settled on another tunnel nearby.

Underground set-ups often require special mounts, and since we lacked the necessary equipment we jammed the short pipe mount into the muddy side wall of the tunnel and stabilized the camera with a wooden stake.

It was a sloppy job, but we took a chance.

During the workshop we found that something had uprooted the camera, and when we viewed the video clips we found that the culprit was a bear cub.

Its curiosity satisfied, it left the camera like a tortoise on its back, and it took over 100 video clips of waving tree limbs.

As you can see from the video the camera was positioned too high in the tunnel.

When a camera is underground you can't pre-visualize the picture by looking at the LCD.

Instead of seeing the floor of the tunnel we see a pale fungus above.

The camera took 270 30-second videos, and most of them were of the forest canopy overhead.

Though the underground video clips were poorly framed they show us once again that the mountain beaver shares it tunnel with several other species.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

2012 Camera Trapping Workshop

2012 Camera trapping class:
Top row: Greg MacDonald, Hannah Stewart, Patti ten Boom Byrnes, Natalie Fenner, Timothy Fenner, Sam Dailey.
Bottom Row: Joshua Fenner, Bill Wilson, Gwen Dailey, Chris Wemmer, Doug Overman, Lance Milbrand, Caitlin Ott-Conn.  

Thunder showers and an electrical outage got us off to a slow start, but otherwise, the 4th camera trapping workshop at SF State University's Sierra Nevada Field Campus came off well.

Participants of past workshops helped the codger by setting their own cams in the Yuba country a month beforehand, and when the job was done we had a total of 15 in the field.

We were confident we'd have a few photos of Bruin. Large piles of bear scat seemed to litter one meadow where we set two cameras. 

But when we went to collect those cameras we found ourselves in the midst of a logging operation. The bears left us empty-handed.

The field campus provided ample opportunities for camera trapping, and back at camp, however, Patty ten Boom Byrnes captured video of a cub exploring a log. (Sorry I can't upload it.)

Doug Overman with his pre-Galileo
all purpose cam mount.   

Just down river from the tents Bill Wilson added a new species to our Sierra County mammal list -- an incomplete but unmistakable image of a river otter.

Bill Wilson's river otter visited a log jam below camp.

Not far away RandomTruth's cam snapped a bobcat.

Above camp Caitlin Ott-Conn got a photo of an upright showtl -- not a pose commonly caught on our cameras.

The class harvested the usual assemblage of cute rodent pictures.

We added the long-eared chipmunk to the species list -- and you can see here one of its distinguishing marks -- long almost unchipmunkly ears.

The Douglas squirrel or chickaree

Chickarees were the usual early morning and late afternoon camp visitors, but our subterranean video cam once again caught them doing mysterious things in mountain beaver burrows.
Golden mantled ground squirrel.

Golden mantled ground squirrels were already plumping up for hibernation. If the bitter cherries are any indication, there will be heavy mast crop this fall.

Jake's cam also got an image of a Wandering shrew (Sorex vagrans).  See if you can find it.

To celebrate the "strenuous life", we forded the Yuba's north fork and climbed Deadman Scree.  Everyone marveled (I hope) at this geological phenomenon and savored a habitat that cooks in the midday sun but hides an ice age climate in the underworld beneath the rubble.  

On the Deadman talus slope with Lance in video-documention mode.  

We had a couple of camera failures, but still managed to capture some portraits of bushy-tailed wood rats in various stages of development.

A heartfelt thank you to the "alumni" who helped me out on Tuesday night by making presentations about their own camera trapping discoveries.

Jake and Christian compared still pictures with video clips, their message being that if one relies entirely on still pictures one gets snapshots of a much bigger story. Video clips contain much more information. 

Random Truth presented his ideas about close-ups and serendipitous sets with gorgeous examples of woodrat activities in the coastal range and critters from the eastern Sierra.

A serendipitous mountain beaver set -- no "Aplodon,
but a handsome Western tanager (Sam Dailey's photo).

My subterranean cam yielded some chickaree and showtl footage, but a bear cub curtailed that set when it uprooted the cam and turned it on its back. (More about the challenges and risks of subterranean cam-trapping soon.)

I'll be heading back in another week or two -- as soon as I get some special mounts made for some odd sets.

Many thanks to the "alumni" from previous courses, Jake, Christian, Sean, and Random Truth, and to Bill Wilson for assisting with local logistics during the full week.

Last but not least, thanks to the class for enthusiasm and hard work.

One of a series of time lapse photos taken at lunch with a Canon A630. The camera was hacked with the Canon Hack Development Kit (CHDK). We also demonstrated motion detection.