28 November 2013

Thiefs In The Night

In general I try to steer this blog clear of social and political issues in South Africa, but when the ever rising crime rate starts to impact my camera trapping it becomes more difficult to do so...

I've been camera trapping, on and off, at Tygerberg for about 4 years now. During this time I've photographed very little "suspicious" activity, until recently.

Thief (Dief - Homo sapiens latro) passing by the camera with, interestingly enough, untied shoelaces...

In September I placed my two Cuddeback camera traps on a road running along the top of Tygerberg. Since this area of the reserve is behind a locked gate I was accompanied by some rangers from the reserve to unlock the gate for me. The plan was to only leave the camera in such a risky place for one week, but after only 4 days I was contacted by the reserve. They informed me that there was a some criminal activity that took place the night before in the same vicinity. Apparently, amongst other things, the culprits cut the chain on the gate using a pair of bolt cutters. My cameras were only a few meters away from the gate, so I rushed to the reserve during lunch time expecting the worst.

In recent month the general Tygerberg area has seen a huge increase in criminal activity. However I think it is important to note that the criminals only seem to travel through the reserve, cutting holes in the fence to get access to the houses bordering the reserve. I feel the reserve itself is still a wonderful and extremely safe place to visit, especially during the day. I'm convinced that you are in more danger at your favourite shopping mall than at the reserve itself.

Still, I was worried about my cameras and didn't want to take any further chances, so I went to fetch them. Luckily both were still right where I left them, but when I viewed the photographs I was unpleasantly surprised.

The criminals passed right by the cameras! To make things worse these are normal white-flash cameras. The flash is very noticeable when it goes off, no matter what direction you are facing.

The Cuddeback takes about 30 seconds to recover between photographs. The first camera the burglars walked past had taken two photographs, 1 minute apart . They must have stood right in front of the camera for at least a minute, trying to figure out what was going on! I'm sure they would have stolen or damaged the camera if they could figure out where the flash was coming from, but luckily they didn't. The night was dark and the moon wasn't out yet.

I usually place my cameras close to the ground since most animals around here are on the small side. The thieves probably didn't realise the camera was only about knee high and almost right in front of them.

My trusty old Cuddeback Capture

I placed my other camera a short distance up the slope, at a T-junction. By the time the second camera flashed the culprits didn't hang around for long and must have skedaddled rather quickly, since I didn't get any other photographs of them.

My not so trusty and not so old Cuddeback Attack

Placing a camera trap on a road or large path might seem like the obvious thing to do, but I usually steer clear of such location. I won't place my cameras on a road if it seems to be frequented by people. If I really feel the risk is worth it, then I'll only leave it out for a very short time.

Another reason I'm not very keen on placing too many cameras on roads is that I believe that some animals might either avoid roads, or only travel along them reluctantly. My theory is that many creatures are shy and reclusive by nature and avoid coming out into the open as much as possible. For them a wide open road is a scary thing and they'll try to stick as close to cover as possible. You have a better chance of photographing such animals on a smaller game trail or at other landmarks.

Porcupine (Ystervark - Hystrix africaeaustralis) zipping past

Not only did the thieves not damage or steal the camera traps, but they presented me with an interesting opportunity. I noticed that a Caracal, Honey Badger and Porcupine all walked past the camera in nearly the same position as the criminals. This makes it interesting to compare the different sizes of each animal to the two humans.

Overlay showing a Caracal, Honey Badger and two thieves

I also created an animated GIF for easy comparison.

Animated GIF showing the Porcupine, Carcal, Honey Badger and two thieves

Readers of this blog might easily forget just how small Tygerberg Nature Reserve is and that it is surrounded on three sides by urban development. The city lights in the background of this Caracal photograph shows just how "urban" the reserve is.

Caracal (Rooikat - Caracal caracal) with the suburbs of Plattekloof and Panorama in the background

23 November 2013

Lunch Time At Tygerberg

I've been sitting on these photographs for a long time and just couldn't decide what to do the post about. So, here goes...

I first noticed this male Grey Rhebok with a broken horn in June 2011. I don't know if this is still the same male I've camera trapped for the first time in February 2010, or whether this is a new male. Nor can I be sure how he broke the horn, but one would expect it happened during a fight of some sort.

Ever since June 2011, this fellow has been the only male to be seen with the females in the small herd at Tygerberg Nature Reserve.

Grey Rhebok (Vaalribbok - Pelea capreolus) closing in for the kill

The Grey Rhebok in particular seems to have a hard time with flies during the summer months, but that does not seem to hamper their appetite much.

Munch munch munch, the plant had no chance against this experienced plant-predator
I made an animated GIF of another predation event. Look at this sap-thirsty Grey Rhebok tearing a limb from this innocent plant. At least a carnivore's prey has a chance to escape! These vegetarians are a merciless and viscous bunch!

18 November 2013

Musk Cats And Iron Pigs Of Berg River

I always like getting camera trap photographs of Large-Spotted Genet. The strange reed-like plants in the background gave this location an interesting look.

Large-Spotted Genet (Grootkolmuskejaatkat - Genetta tigrina) at Berg River Dam

I still can't figure out what happened to this Genet's head... Is this the fabled Headless-Genet of Berg River that the mothers, in nearby town of Franschhoek, use to scare their children with if they don't brush their teeth?

Quick! Spit on the bottom of your shoe and stamp on the ground, or the Headless-Genet of Berg River will give you hiccups!!

It was also nice to get a photograph of a baby Porcupine. He seems like a feisty little bugger!

Baby Porcupine (Ystervark - Hystrix africaeaustralis) feeling spiky

The parents where frequent visitors to the camera traps as well.

Adult Porcupine showing of those quills

14 November 2013

Mouse Dogs Of Berg River

A common character in this part of the world is the Small Grey Mongoose. They are fairly attractive little beasts and often seen during the day running along a road or path.

Small Grey Mongoose (Kleingrysmuishond - Galerella pulverulenta) at Berg River Dam

They have a grizzled grey look, with almost short "stubby" hair around the face and neck, but they seem to like warring slightly longer pants.

I like the pose in this photograph, it almost seems to be wearing little black boots

The Large Grey Mongoose is a rarer find, although also active during the day and fairly easy to spot due to their larger size. The two species can be tricky to tell apart in camera trap photographs, but the size difference helps, and in general they seem to have longer hair. They are larger than their smaller cousins and seem to have longer legs.

The Large Grey Mongoose (Grootgrysmuishond - Herpestes ichneumon) seems to prefer wearing knee high black boots

One great thing about camera trapping at Berg River Dam is that I can take the dogs with me. Most nature reserves don't allow dogs, but since the area around the dam where I put the camera traps isn't a reserve I'm able to take the dogs with me.

Mushu being very "helpful" while I try to setup the camera trap

They love coming along and have a blast of a time.

Scout waiting for me to finish setting up the camera trap

10 November 2013

Spiky Mice

For me the Cape Spiny Mouse was a new find at Berg River Dam. They get their name from their coat of sharp bristles that is harsh to the touch. The spiny hair on the back seems darker, witch then fades into the yellow brown on the flanks and white on the chin and belly.

Cape Spiny Mouse (Kaapse Stekelmuis - Acomys subspinosus) turning on the cute at Berg River Dam

As can be seen from the camera trap photographs these mice like to hang out near rocky areas. They are mostly nocturnal (active at night) and live alone or in small groups that may share a rock crevice called home.

Notice the darker spiky bristles on it's back

They are omnivores and feed an seeds, berries, insects and other invertebrates. They can be seen as a true Fynbos endemic, occurring only in the mountainous Fynbos region in the south-western corner of the South Africa.

Snack time! Check out that long tail

I was surprised to find images of wasps triggering the camera during the day. I did some digging and it turns out these large wasps where somehow introduced into the Western Cape from Europe.

They usually nest underground or in cavities close to the ground. They construct paper nests that can contain up to 3000 wasps. Most colonies live only one year, with only the new queens surviving the winter to start a new colony.

German Yellow Jacket (Geelbaadjie Perdeby - Vespula germanica) triggering the camera trap

Although the adults feed mostly on sugar, such as nectar, they feed insects and other animal matter to their larva. In turn the larva secrete a sugary substance for the workers in exchange for the protein.

A lot of the photographs seems to show wasps fighting

During the time my cameras where at Berg River Dam a veld fire started on the slope on the far end of the dam. I'm not sure whether the flames somehow managed to trigger the camera, or the wind, or maybe just an animal that isn't in the field of view, but it resulted in some interesting photographs.

Veld fire at Berg River Dam

06 November 2013

Dozens Of Duiker

I seem to do a lot of camera trapping at places with berg (Afrikaans for mountain) in the name... Maybe it is because most natural areas that remain are situated around areas where human development has been reduced, such as "mountainous terrain".

Earlier this year I hooked up with fellow camera trapper and blogger Jeremy Bolton to place some cameras in his "back yard", the mountains around the Berg River Dam. You can find Jeremy's blog over here. He also offers unique camera trap safaris, of which you can find out more over here.

Berg River Dam near Franschhoek in the Western Cape province of South Africa

In recent history the area has been disturbed by pine plantations and the development of the dam. I always find camera trapping in such areas interesting, to see what species are still around, or have moved back into the area as the natural vegetation returns.

Berg River Dam near Franschhoek

I was pleased to get some photographs of Common Duiker. Common Duiker are widely distributed throughout South Africa, and they differ somewhat in appearance throughout their range. So I always enjoy getting a good photograph of one in a new location.

(1) Common/Grey Duiker (Gewone Duiker - Sylvicapra grimmia) at Berg River Dam in the greater Cape Town area

Nearby (about 80 km away) on the West Coast, just outside Cape Town I photographed a male looking very much the same at the Koeberg Nature Reserve. (Where? Oops, spoiler alert!)

(2) At Koeberg, also in the greater Cape Town area, this male looks very similar to his friend above

About 800 km along the coast in the Eastern Cape province this individual might have a slightly richer colour with darker legs. This photo is from the same camera as the first animal, so that helps the comparison somewhat.

(3) Common Duiker at the Woody Cape near the coast in the Eastern Cape

You can really see the difference when comparing the three coastal specimens in the South to the this daytime photograph taken about 850-1200 km further North and inland from the three previous animals. In the Gauteng province their other common name Grey Duiker now starts to make more sense.

(4) Far away at Suikerbosrand near Johannesburg this individual looks very different

The Duiker in Kruger National Park looks much more like their Gauteng counterparts which are only about 400km way. These Duiker are now over 1 600 km away as the crow flies (in a straight line) from the initial animal near Cape Town. It might be that the Kruger Duikers sport, on average, a longer hairdo but since the length is know to differ I'll need to get my hands on more photographs from both locations to compare.

(5) This dashing lady looks much more similar to the previous animal than the first one
Below is a map of the approximate locations where the above animals were photographed. The numbers correspond with the number given in each photo's caption.

The numbers on the map corresponds to the number given in each of the previous photographs

And now to throw a spanner in the works, I'll wrap up with a photograph of a Cape Grysbok from Berg River Dam. The Cape Grysbok was also a common visitor to the camera traps. They are mostly active at night, but now and again one goes for a stroll during the day.

Cape Grysbok (Kaapse Grysbok - Raphicerus melanotis) looking somewhat sleepy during the day

02 November 2013

It's Been A While

I haven't done a blog post in quite a while, hopefully I can still remember how to slap something together... The die hard followers (if there are any left) will be glad to hear that I plan to get a couple of camera trapping posts out before the December holiday season kicks off, so here goes...

About two months ago, while going through some old holiday photographs, I decided that I would like to do a post on the African Wild Dog. Now, being the rarest carnivore in Southern Africa I've never camera trapped one, in fact I've only ever seen them once in the wild. I'm worried that based on what I saw, I might have used up all of my luck! The African Wild Dog is Africa's largest Canid species, and world wide second only to the Grey Wolf.

This was back in 2008. I managed to take some photographs and video clips using my trusty old digital camera, a model well known to many camera trappers, the Sony CyberShot S600. The video quality isn't that great, but it's better than nothing. This is a "real world" sighting and not some footage from a documentary happening in front of the camera in ideal habitat where everything can be seen perfectly. I tried to upload the videos to YouTube for better quality, but unfortunately it still seems to have lost a lot of the detail from the original (bad) video clips. OK with that out of the way lets get on with it :)

African Wild Dog (Wildehond - Lycaon pictus) in Kruger National Park

The pack was first encountered at 6:25am on 1 Jan 2008, near Skukuza in the Kruger National Park. Over here in South Africa, Kruger is the last "strong"-hold of these incredible animals. You are looking at the rarest carnivore in Southern Africa. There were once estimated to be over 500 000 in 39 countries throughout Africa, with packs 100 or more strong not uncommon! This pack was one of the largest in the park at the time and numbered only about 20.

Today there are about 5 000 (that is 1%) animals left throughout Africa, most of which are in only a handful of large protected areas. The South African population is balancing on a knife edge, with the only viable population occurring in Kruger National Park, and even there their numbers aren't what it should be. There are only about 450 left in the entire country, some people have more Facebook friends than that...

Video: Wild Dog pack on the move

The pack was moving down the road towards a T-junction. All the while getting more and more serious as they went along. In the video clip it appears as if one of the older dogs are "scolding" a careless youngster that absentmindedly drifted into the open. The pack trots off with renewed purpose.

The 11 youngsters were by now old enough to join on the hunt, although the adults still took the lead.
An alpha female usually has around 10 pups at a time, but it can range from 2-19!

As we got closer to the T-junction they started to cut the corner and we lost them in the vegetation. We decided to carry on and turn at the T-junction to see whether we can spot them again.

Video: Wild Dog pack hunting, unfortunately the footage isn't very clear

The video clip opens with the adult dogs emerging from where they cut the corner of the T-junction. They spotted some Impala across the road and the adults started the hunt, fanning out along the road and studying the herd of Impala a short distance away amongst the trees. The video quality isn't that great, but the small patch of red pixels amongst the trees are some Impala.

The rest of the pack then emerges from the grass. I absolutely love this scene! The youngsters join in, but soon get bored and lose some of the tension and intent they had moments before. Luckily the adult dogs are taking care of things. I think some adult dogs passed behind us to flank the Impala and drive the hunt from behind towards the rest of the fanned out pack.

Suddenly the Impala herd burst into panic and the adult dog closest to the car darts off after them. The white tails of the dogs really help to keep track of them in the video.

At first the youngsters seemed to have been caught snoozing and are late to join the hunt. They came running after the adult, popping up to look over the grass to find the action, but then the action finds them. An Impala darts past them, pursued by some adult dogs, towards the other adults that fanned out earlier across the road. Most of the youngsters then join the chase, but some darted off in the other direction.

They pulled down their prey where the fanned out adults where waiting. The pack briefly called to let the rest of the pack know that they have made a kill. Except for these chirping calls right after the kill, the whole affair was very silent, not even the Impala wasted their time calling, they just ran.

During the hunt individual antelope would suddenly appear running over the road in panic, both in front of and behind the car, sometimes pursued by a lone Wild Dog. There were no alarm calls or attempts to spot the predator ambushing them. This was not an ambush, it was a trap, and they knew it. The Impala knew these were Wild Dog chasing them and some Impala were going to die.

I believe there are hunting roles in the pack, some give chase disrupting the herd, some try to direct the antelope towards the others and some fan out to ambush antelope chased towards them. The dogs definitely keep an eye and ear on one another. The Wild Dogs could often be seen rearing up to lift their heads over the tall grass before darting off in a new direction. I'm sure the fact that all Wild Dog have unique colour patterns helps. They also all have a black nose and white tail, making it much easier to see in what direction a dog is running.

Not all of the pack came towards the first kill, and it soon became clear why. The youngsters that split off earlier managed to bring down a second Impala, with the help of some of the other adults. Wild Dog truly are one of the most successful large predators on the planet. The combination of intelligence, team work and endurance seems to pay off with 80% or more of their hunts ending in a kill, a much better success rate than Lion or Leopards.

It only took 11 minutes from the moment the chase started to the point when the two carcasses were consumed! Afterwards some individuals decided to carry off legs and bones to chew on at leisure.

Wild Dog have to work fast to prevent the larger Lion or Spotted Hyena from taking over their kills. While a large pack can stand up to any Lion pride, a smaller pack can't and Lion will actively try to kill as many animals as they can, especially pups at the breeding den.

Notice the large ears, black muzzles and white tails which all Wild Dogs have

My heart always hoes out to the African Wild Dog. Not only is it our rarest carnivore, but they face a modern world so different to what they where born and bred for that their future can only bring harder times.

Wild Dogs exhibit some peculiar behaviour that makes them difficult to protect in small fenced in areas. They were born to roam a continent, and very few protected areas remain that are big enough to support them. As it stands Kruger might be barely large enough to sustain its dwindling population. There are estimated to be only 370 animals left in Kruger. (Their unique colour patterns makes them easy to count.) For a long time they were killed on sight, even in Kruger.

Maybe part of the problem is with their name. The name has never seemed to match the animal, and even today many variations are floating around, most containing combinations of Hunting, Painted, Wild, Dog and Wolf. Based on those names you won't be blamed to think they are just some kind of wild domestic dog, but that would be a very wrong assumption to make. You might get away with calling an American Grey Wolf a wild domestic dog, they are at least part of the same genus, heck they are even the same species. While the African Wild Dog is still part of the Canidae (dog) family, they are an entirely different beast and is grouped into their own genus. In fact they are the only living species in that genus, so they definitely are not dogs, nor wolves, nor jackals, nor foxes, etc.

Wild Dog tend to wonder over huge territories in search of prey. Because of this roaming tendency they seem to either escape from fenced parks, or learn to drive antelope into the fences for an easy kill. This makes it very difficult to protect a single pack in a small reserve. On the other hand Lion, for example, pose no such problem and can be fairly easily introduced into smaller reserves.

I will always have a special place in my heart for these gems of an age now past. They have been polished to shine in a wild Africa, what will the future hold for them? I often find myself wondering whether the Wild Dog can survive in today's world of protected patches. They were shaped for a world without fences. To roam in packs, 40 or more strong, over the face of South Africa. Striking fear into the hearts of medium to large sized antelope wherever they go.

They have complex social structures designed for a survival of large packs in large open spaces. I don't recall ever hearing about it, since little is know of the Trekbok migrations of old, but I wonder what part they might have played in hunting the huge herds of Springbok that used to crisscross the heart of South Africa, or the large herds of antelope roaming the South African veld. I sometimes fear that, like the well know example of the American Passenger Pigeon, Wild Dog populations won't be able to recover if their population falls below a certain level. Large populations need very large areas of wilderness, something that just doesn't exists any more in large enough quantities, anywhere on earth, even Africa.

Ah, nothing better than lazing around with a full belly

We were the only ones to witness the hunt, but about an hour later we found the pack again, this time they were lazing around on the side of the road to the delight of other visitors to the park.

Video: Wild Dog youngsters checking out my car

May we always be fortunate enough to have these magnificent animals with us. The world is changing, and a lot of what was good has been lost. Some might think we have more now, but I wonder whether the price we are paying is worth it. If you are ever lucky enough to see a Wild Dog in the wild, try to spare a though a time gone by and an uncertain future ahead, for such is life.