25 August 2016

Them Spots

Some of you might be surprised to hear that I have never camera trapped a Leopard before. Well, technically speaking, until very recently.

Leopard (Luiperd - Panthera pardus) at Koeberg Nature Reserve

The reason these big cats stayed off my list isn't because they aren't around, but rather that I tend to be drawn to the smaller creatures. I also feel like every second camera trap research project is targeting Leopards of one form or another. I'm not saying the Leopard work isn't important, because it is valuable. It just feels like many of the smaller species often fall by the wayside.

But to get back on track, it all started while I was still away on holiday, at the end of May.

I'm not a huge fan of constantly checking my emails or other "social media" from a mobile phone, especially when I'm on holiday. However, since I was away form home for 2 weeks I decided to check my personal email after about a week went by. Just in case there where any emergencies. I scanned thought my inbox and an email from the reserve manager at Koeberg Nature Reserve caught my eye.

I stopped camera trapping at Koeberg a while back and wondered what the email might be about. She was asking whether I might have a few camera traps to spare because they might have found Leopard tracks on the reserve.

My cameras where at home gathering dust, so I told her I'll drop by the reserve when I get back home.

The reserve manager sent me this photo of a Leopard track (photo taken by a staff members)

We placed some cameras in areas she thought the Leopard might move through. Some interesting things have been happening on the reserve since I stopped camera trapping there. There has been a fire, and apparently the Springbok numbers have been dropping faster than usual.

The plot thickened a few days later with more reports of Leopard tracks. Then a dead Eland was found. The Eland was seemingly pulled into some vegetation for cover and might have been fed on.

I doubt that a Leopard would want to take on a healthy adult Eland, but maybe this individual was very old or sick and possibly died from natural causes when the Leopard happened upon it. Who knows, but things were getting interesting.

Video: What remained of the Eland carcass by the time I got there...

And then, a few days later the news came in that the Leopard was photographed on one of my camera traps!

What makes this Leopard interesting is that it appeared out of nowhere, in habitat that isn't what we would normally expect from the local "Cape Leopards" - which are usually associate with the mountainous areas in the Western Cape province.

As a species Leopards can be found in an incredibly wide range of habitats over most of Africa and into Asia. The dunes at Koeberg is definitely not outside the realm of possibilities. From my camera trapping results we know that there is a fair amount of small to medium-ish mammals on the reserve - such as Steenbok, Duiker and Springbok.

One theory is that this might not be a "Cape Leopard" from the mountains, but rather a "Namibian Leopard" more at home along the western coast of Southern Africa. There are some scarce reports of other Leopard sightings some distance higher up the coast, in the vicinity of the West Coast National Park.

I don't know if we will ever be able to know where it came from, or for how long it will stay, but my guess is that it might be sticking around in the area, at least for the time being.

Now, since Koeberg is open to the public to visit and have staff working at the power plant on a daily basis I have to just remind people not to get over excited and scared of being eaten alive. This cat has been in the area for a while before the reserve staff even became aware of it. It is very reclusive and direct conflict is incredibly unlikely. Leopards in general are also more active at night, so normal daytime visitors really don't have anything to fear.

My time back at Koeberg had a few more surprises in store (and as always also the one that got away). But more about that in the next posts.

31 May 2016

Sunrises And Sunsets


I often find myself wishing that I could experience more sunrises and sunsets in my daily routine. Living a busy life in a large city makes it difficult, but there are times when it becomes a little bit easier. For example, during the winter months the sun rises later and sets earlier, making it much easier to overlap with my daily routine.

A friendly Bearded Scrub Robin (Baardwipstert - Cercotrichas quadrivirgata)

Maybe the most common way we all appreciate sunsets, in particular, is while we are away on holiday. I was fortunate enough to be away from April-May and got to see some great sunrises and sunsets.

I really enjoyed the trip and will try to share some of the experiences in this post. I'm not a very good photographer and when I'm in nature I tend to prefer taking "for the record" photographs instead of "for the album", so please don't expect too much. :)

Large unspoiled sceneries like this are becoming a rare thing on this planet

The trip was a form of "volunteer tourism" and I wasn't sure what to expect. It was mostly focused around tagging along with a wildlife monitor as he goes about his daily routine, to keep an eye on the nature reserve's Wild Dog pack(s). The dogs tend to get into all sorts of trouble with snares, etc. and monitoring them contributes to their survival. With only a few hundred left in the country (and a much smaller number if you count in terms of breeding packs, not individuals) any conservation effort going towards them is valuable.

One of my favorite African mammals, the Wild Dog (Wildehond - Lycaon pictus)

I won't go into much details about the "monitoring" or "volunteer" part of the trip, but in short it is a form of tourism aimed at generating income. The money is then, for the most part, used to fund the radio collars, veterinary services, relocations, etc. of the dogs. Its not a perfect system, but seems to strike a decent enough balance. I must admit that I was expecting more "scientific" or "working" activities to be part of the trip, but it soon became clear that it was basically a special kind of "safari" holiday aimed at overseas tourist and not "honorary ranger" type of work. Regardless it was still a lot of fun and a great experience.

Wild Dogs being dogs

In recent years I've started to record every mammal sighting I see when visiting a nature reserve. This trip was no exception. Below is a summary of what I saw during my 2 weeks at the reserve.

Trip sighting count

I managed to see 29 mammal species. I usually have good luck with Leopards, but during this trip they eluded me. I heard a male calling one night in our camp, but I didn't manage to see it so it didn't make the list. I would have liked to end on a nice round 30, but the Suni also eluded me.

Kudu (Koedoe - Tragelaphus strepsiceros) might not be super flashy, but they do have a certain charm

I don't know why I enjoy to record all the sightings, I just do. Maybe part of it is to compare the results of each trip should I ever visit the park again. I also like to record the GPS location of each sighting to get an idea on which roads the animals were seen. Below is a heat map of all sightings. The two red dots are the camp and a nice bird hide situated next to a waterhole.

Each day we would crisscross the reserve on the trail of the Wild Dogs

Some of the highlights for me where the frequent Wild Dog sightings, a couple of new "life list" species (Thick Tailed Greater Bushbaby, Natal Red Duiker, Side-Striped Jackal) and the Reedbuck herd at the dam.

This herd of Reedbuck (Rietbok - Redunca arundinum) was a pleasant surprise

I found it frustrating at times to be in the back of a "safari vehicle", because I'm used to driving myself when visiting game reserves. I would have loved to stop at more of the smal things. The monitor was usually willing to stop when asked, but I feel bad asking to stop at each small thing, especially when there are other people in the car. The positive side of all the driving was that we followed the dogs all over the park and got to see lots of unique landscapes and corners of the park which would otherwise be hidden to normal visitors that have to stick to the main tourist roads.

Beautiful Fever Tree (Koorsboom - Vachellia xanthophloea) forest

Getting to see the Wild Dogs from up close was amazing. They are such amazing animals. It baffles my mind how, even today, they remain a fairly "unpopular" species.

They all have huge ears, black noses and white tails, but the body color differs

On our first morning we found the pack just as they spotted a herd of Wildebeest. The dogs ran closer, but the herd stood it's ground. The dogs lost interest fairly quickly and some started playing with the branches in the area. The rest of the pack trotted off to the left and soon after made a kill. I'm not sure what they ended up killing since it happened some distance away from the vehicle.

Video: Wild Dog pack harassing a Blue Wildebeest herd

Some of my favorite moments where seeing the dogs play, or just to watch them do "dog things".

Dogs jumping and chasing each other in the long grass

Below are some video clips (put together) of the dogs interacting and playing. The clips at the end of the video are my favorite. It was amazing seeing the adolescent dogs play in the long grass (after they had their breakfast).

Video: Wild Dogs playing

Before I wrap things up, below are a few more photographs from the trip.

Lappet-Faced Vulture (Swartaasvoƫl - Torgos tracheliotus), I always enjoy seeing vultures

Cheetah (Jagluiperd - Acinonyx jubatus) doing cat things
Njala (Njala - Tragelaphus angasii) keeping an eye and ear on me

Blue Wildebeest (Blouwildebees - Connochaetes taurinus) drinking at the bird hide

Plains Zebra (Bontsebra - Equus quagga) also drinking at the bird hide
More landscapes

Most of us are familiar with the standard variety of Guineafowl, but these Crested Guineafowl (Kuifkoptarentaal - Guttera pucherani) look much more fancy
These strange Giant Stapelia (Stapelia gigantea) plants grew in the camp

What lizard? Seriously, where?
Another landscape in the late afternoon

Baby Elephant (Olifant - Loxodonta africana) enjoying the water

Too cool for school
I enjoyed my visit, but I must admit, it felt good to be back home. Nothing beats having a dog curled up under each arm.
When I got back I dusted off my camera traps and got them out into the field again. So hopefully there will be some good photos to share soon.

and Sunsets

17 April 2016

The Pond Clickers

I'm more or less out of camera trapping photos, but I still wanted to do a quick blog post before I head off on vacation next week. (I'll be heading to basically the opposite corner of South Africa, 1500 km away, as the crow flies).

Earlier this year, over Easter, I spent a week at the family holiday home in the Eastern Cape and thought I'd share some photographs of our resident frogs.

Clicking Stream Frog (Kliklangtoonpadda - Strongylopus grayii) at the Woody Cape

A few years ago I bought a container to use as a small garden pond. The idea was to entice birds and other animals to visit the garden more frequently. Initially it had only limited success, but then about a year ago I finally got around to redirecting the rainwater from one of the gutters to flow into the pond. As a result it now has almost constant water and the water quality is also much better than before, because of the extra rain water that regularly trickles into the pond.

The small pond with the rain water pipe on the left, I added stones to provide a foothold for visitors

A few months later I noticed a dramatic increase in bird activity at the pond, including some new species I haven't seen on the property before. The "new and improved" pond is a major hit!

Most of all I was happy to find the local Clicking Stream Frogs also approving of the improvements made to the pond. Their original home, the puddle in the ditch at the side of the road, got destroyed during all the construction work when the house was being built, and I always felt a little bad about it.

Now they are back and at night you can hear them merrily clicking away at the pond (their call makes a clicking sound).

They usually like to hide away in the vegetation next to the pond, but some brave frogs venture onto the rim of the pond or even take up center stage on the submerged stones.

After the initial dash for cover, the bravest of the frogs were quick to scramble back and resume their clicking

I was surprised to find so many frogs living at the pond. They were quite entertaining characters to observe. Every now and again when two males couldn't settle things peacefully via a clicking competition, the one would suddenly tackle the other sitting next to him and both would fall off the edge, into the grass below. For the next 10-30 seconds the grass stalks would twitch frantically, accompanied by the cutest , yet clearly very serious, grunts as they wrestle each other on the ground. Eventually one of the tiny frogs would emerge victorious, and climbing back over the edge of the pond reclaim his spot. Soon he'll be clicking again, to his harts content, free of the troublesome contender next to him, for a while.

On a particularly romantic evening, by frog standards, I decided to sneak down to the pond with my camera and was greeted by this steamy scene.

Some prefer to watch, others prefer to be watched...

The Clicking Stream Frog is a common species and found throughout much of South Africa, mostly at lower elevations along the Eastern and Southern coast and some distance inland. In fact, I've even photographed one about 750 km away at Koeberg Nature Reserve.

I found this Clicking Stream Frog at Koeberg Nature Reserve

Unlike the frogs in the pond at the Woody Cape the individual at Koeberg had a large dorsal stripe. This is a know color variation for the species. I'm not sure whether the pattern is more common in certain parts of the species' range or not, but I didn't notice any frogs with noticeable dorsal striping at the Woody Cape pond.

Despite their name "stream frog" they are actually mostly ground dwelling and might even die if they can't get out of the water after a few hours (because they absorb too much water through their skin). As such they don't live in the streams itself, but rather along the damp and dense vegetation on the stream banks.

In fact, they have a very large habitat and water quality tolerance and will breed in very small puddles far away from actual streams. They even prefer to lay their eggs outside of water, up to 30 cm away. These eggs can survive up to a few months waiting for wet weather conditions. During suitable weather the tadpoles emerge from the eggs and somehow work their way into the pond itself where the they can grow and develop into proper frogs.

It is hard to tell from some of the photos, but these guys are fairly small, only 3 - 4.5 cm long. The sexes look more or less the same, except that the females are a bit larger and the males have a golden tint on their lower jaws and throat.

Apparently these tiny frogs even managed to end up on Saint Helena island, 3000 km from their natural distribution range. I wonder how they got introduced to the island and what impact they might be having on the native species?

Fans and critics alike could be found on the ringside seats, while the star of the show was performing center stage

When I get back from holiday I hope to share some of the interesting things I saw, and then I want to get started on some proper camera trapping projects again. It has been too long since I placed any of my camera traps outdoors.

17 March 2016

Rhebok Running Wild

Earlier this month I found myself driving back home on the highway and approaching an off-ramp which could take me home, but via a longer slightly more scenic road. The road passes through the Tygerberg foothills and is mostly covered by crop fields and quarries. Even though "that special human touch" is present throughout the route it still provides a feeling of "open skies" and beats traveling on the highway. So I took the off-ramp and went on my merry way.

A few kilometers down the road something caught the corner of my eye, it was an animal...

A pair of Grey Rhebok (Vaalribbok - Pelea capreolus) on the greater Tygerberg hills

There standing on the slope of one of the undulating hills was a Grey Rhebok! What a pleasant surprise! I pulled over at the first safe spot, got out of the car and started walking back to get a closer look.

The animal was very skittish and I couldn't get close at all. I only had my mobile phone with me and managed to snap some "for the record" photographs.

The Tygerberg Nature Reserve is home to a herd of Grey Rhebok and there are plenty of camera trap photographs of them on this blog. However, the nature reserve is only very small part of the greater Tygerberg Hills area and is fully fenced off. Thus, at least to some extent, the Tygerberg herd isn't fully wild. It is a managed population.

Other hand, these two Grey Rhebok on the slope seem truly wild and appear to roam the small patches of natural vegetation and crop land that still exist along the foothills.

The reason I'm particularly excited about this sighting is because I've heard rumors about the presence of wild Grey Rhebok, but I wasn't sure how true or recent the reports were.

I contacted the reserve manager about this sighting and she said that they are aware of the presence of a herd just north-east of the reserve. This sighting was still further north-west and I'm tempted to think it might be a second herd, but I'm not sure how large their territories are.

I'm definitely putting these "wild herds" on my list of possible future camera trapping projects. It will be tricky to get access to good camera trap locations, but it might yield interesting results...

The Grey Rhebok quickly disappeared over the ridge

I really wish these animals the best of luck. They will need it as they try to scratch out a living in an ever changing, and shrinking, world.

28 February 2016

Up Close And Personal

Large-Spotted Genet (Grootkolmuskejaatkat - Genetta tigrina) in a small cave at the Woody Cape

This photograph was taken last year at the Woody Cape using the Birdcam 2.0. The Birdcam is a strange camera trap. Despite some major issues it still manages to come through with some wonderful surprises, like this photograph above.

The biggest advantage the Birdcam has is the fantastic white flash which works surprisingly well at close range.

Like most commercial camera traps the Birdcam has a fixed focus, but the focus can be manually adjusted. This can produce very sharp images when the animal is in the sweet spot.

Although I do like the benefits that IR cameras offer, I still think there is a place for a good white flash camera trap. I really wish that the recent advancements in mobile phone technology will start to filter through to camera traps and pave the way for a few good quality modern white flash commercial camera traps to enter the market. The color night photographs are particularly useful for identifying small mammals (something the IR models struggle with a bit).

30 January 2016

Getting Shrewed

A (likely) Greater Red Musk Shrew (Grootrooimuskusskeerbek - Crocidura flavescens) at Sonstraal Farm

2015 turned out to be a rough year.

It started out fine, but somewhere along the line it got derailed.

From about the middle of the year more and more of my energy was going towards dealing with some unfortunate changes that took place at work. It is always hard for me to deal with things outside of my control, especially when it effects things important to me. As a result I was left with little energy to spend on my camera trapping and other hobbies. I also didn't plan any vacation trips either and slowly things just kept on spiraling downwards.

A (suspected) Forest Shrew (Bosskeerbek - Myosorex varius) at Koeberg Nature Reserve

The energy I could muster was spent on upgrading the mapping functionality in WildLog. Progress has been slow, but it is finally starting to take shape. I'm really looking forward to wrapping it up and to start using it with my real dataset. I have a fun idea for a blog post about it when the programming side of things gets wrapped up.

Again the (probable) Forest Shrew

I had some Shrew photos lying around which I wanted to post. Identifying Shrews can be soooo hard. I really get the impression that not all species are well defined yet. Very little information is available for some species, and I'm sure that other listed species are most likely more than one real species grouped together.

The (plausible) Greater Red Musk Shrew in almost all its glory

Looking ahead, I have an exciting holiday trip planned for late April. I don't think I'll get to any camera trapping before then, but when I get back I would like to start a new camera trapping project.

Until then I'll most likely focus on wrapping up WildLog and maybe see if I can do an interesting day trip or two towards the end of summer when things cool down a bit (it's been a hot summer).

Is this (possible) Forest Shrew a stargazer?

08 August 2015

Camera Trap Photo Tricks 102

Cropping, one of the biggest enigmas of photography.

Cropping can have a huge effect on your photographs. It can either make or break a photograph. I have to admit that I'm definitely not an expert at cropping or framing pictures. Still, I don't let that prevent me from at least trying to find a good crop for the photos I upload to this blog.

Form my (limited) experience the following concepts come to mind when I think about cropping a camera trap photo:
  • What aspect ration will work best?
  • Will landscape or portrait work best?
  • What should be the focus point of the image?
  • How large do I want the animal to be in the final crop?
  • How should I crop the photo to "tell a story"?
  • What are the limiting factor? (For example resolution, border, obstructions, etc.)
There is a lot of information readily available that deals with cropping and framing in general, and I don't want to repeat it here. I would rather try to illustrate some of the common issues I encounter when cropping camera trap photos.

There is a bit of a love hate relationship between cropping and camera trapping. On the one hand you have very little control over the final image, especially where the animal will be in the photograph, as a result the initial (original) crop is usually rather bad. On the other hand you can use cropping to try and alleviate this problem by making a smaller but better crop of the original image.

However in some situations no amount of cropping can save the image...

[Original] Steenbok (Steenbok - Raphicerus campestris) at Koeberg Nature Reserve

Sometimes a little cropping can still make a meaningful improvement. For example, even thought the full animal isn't in the crop you might still be able to do the background scenery more justice with a good crop.

With some photographs the animal is simply too far away. In these situations cropping can be a very useful tool to bring the photograph to life.

[Original] Caracal (Rooikat - Caracal caracal) at Koeberg Nature Reserve

This slightly closer landscape crop still contains the essence of the original image

I think this much closer landscape crop starts to lose the essence of the original image

Sometimes it is worth playing around with the cropping orientation (landscape vs portrait) or even a square crop.

Square crops usually don't look very good, but can be practical, especially for small images

An important aspect of cropping is "telling a story". A good crop can really help to tell the story of the photograph. This is why the portrait crop (below) is my favourite. It tells the story of this Caracal walking across the expansive barren white dunes at Koeberg Nature Reserve.

My favourite crop, striking a balance between the animal, environment and atmosphere/story

Another size related issue is that the animal itself can be just too small.

[Original] Four-Striped Grass Mouse (Streepmuis - Rhabdomys pumilio) at Tygerberg Nature Reserve

An extremely close crop of the mouse

The image above illustrates another big problem frequently encountered while cropping: pixelation. When the crop becomes too small the pixels become more and more noticeable.

Or the reverse, the animal is just too big or close to the camera. In these situations there isn't much you can do to improve the image.

[Original] Bushpig (Bosvark - Potamochoerus larvatus) at Woody Cape section of Addo Elephant National Park

Another useful feature of cropping is that it can help when you need to rotate a photograph.

[Original] Blue Duiker (Blouduiker - Philantomba monticola) at Woody Cape

The rotated and cropped image

Cropping is often used to place the subject in the center of the image and can get rid of unnecessary, non-essential or undesirable parts of the image.

[Original] Black-Backed Jackal (Rooijakkals - Canis mesomelas) at Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve

Not perfect, but a potentially better crop

The photograph above illustrates another aspect of cropping very well, a too tight crop. The image would have been a lot beter if there was more space in front of the Jackal. When possible try to leave the animal enough space to interact with it's environment. This is closely related to "telling a story".

Instead of always centering on the animal's face, it might be better to allow some space to "follow the animal's gaze".

[Original] Grey/Common Duiker (Duiker - Sylvicapra grimmia) at Koeberg Nature Reserve

Not all crops are better, and I actually think the original (above) looks better than the crop below.

This crop didn't come out very well

Sometimes one is lucky and the original photograph "contains" a good crop. For example, the image below can be cropped to a more pleasing aspect ration and the focal point can be moved slightly to the Jackal's face, leaving enough space ahead of the animal to get the feeling of movement.

[Original] Black-Backed Jackal at Suikerbosrand

I feel that the final crop tells the story better than the original

Cropping is a vast area and I've only managed to scratch the surface of it, nonetheless I hope you will look with new eyes at the world of cropping.

[Original] Common Duiker at Koeberg Nature Reserve
"Oh oh, I'm being framed!"