19 December 2014

Meeting The Francolins

Some scenery from Koeberg Nature Reserve

The Cape Francolin is by far the most common animal camera trapped at Koeberg. Its range is mostly restricted to the Fynbos zone at the South-Western tip of Africa, but inside that range it is fairly common. Other similar Francolin species fill the gap throughout the rest of Southern Africa.

Cape Francolin (Kaapse Fisant - Pternistis capensis) also known as the Cape Spurfowl

Amongst the torrential flood of  Cape Francolin photographs at Koeberg hides another Francolin species: The Grey-Winged Francolin.

Grey-Winged Francolin (Bergpatrys - Scleroptila africanus) at Koeberg

Both of these species are part of the Phasianidae (Pheasant) family and shares that honour with the infamous Chicken (one of humanities primary food sources).

For those wondering: The Helmeted Guineafowl is not grouped in the same family, although apparently the American Ornithologists' Union don't agree with this.

We often forget that, as with almost any form of science, describing and grouping organisms into species isn't an exact science.

A little bit too close to the camera for good focus

As is often the case with common names, the Grey-Winged Francolin is another victim of having an odd common name.

The "grey-winged" part seems to refer to the wing tips having a greyish look while the bird is in flight, which supposedly helps to tell it apart from the similar looking Red-Winged Francolin. There are much easier ways of telling the two species apart, but somebody decided to go with a feature only visible when in flight...

The Afrikaans name isn't much better either. At least they stayed away from the wing colour, but the "berg" part of the name indicates a mountain, and as you can clearly see Koeberg is not mountainous at all. The "berg" in the name refers to the fact that this species is most commonly found in mountain grassland 1800m above sea level. Unfortunately because of the common name one would not expect to find the species in coastal scrubland 1.8 m above sea level...

Keeping an eye on something to the left, outside the view of the camera trap

The above photograph was taken by an old Bushnell Trophy Cam. The Bushnell usually does OK with lighting a scene, but at this location it was placed in the shade of a tree and severely overexposed the backdrop which was being hammered by the summer sun. The bright and reflective sand / dead grass doesn't help much either.

The Cape Francolin photos (top and bottom) were taken by the Bridcam 2.0.

Is this that "Internet" thing they said I'm going to be on?

08 December 2014

The Owner Of The Hole

I spotted the hole a few months ago but didn't have a camera trap at hand. Now, almost a season later I decided to return.

The hole at Koeberg is under a bush at the top of a small dune

I didn't have the exact GPS co-ordinates and at first had some trouble finding it again. When I eventually tracked it down a slight sinking feeling fell over me... It looked very much abandoned. But then again it looked fairly abandoned the first time I saw it as well.

I decided it can't hurt to try my luck, and slapped the camera trap into the sand next to the hole. Two weeks later when I collected the camera everything still looked more or less the same: abandoned.

But when I checked the SD card I was pleasantly surprised by a familiar face, although more often than not the face that greeted me back didn't look very pleasant at all.

Small Grey Mongoose (Kleingrysmuishond - Galerella pulverulenta) master of the stink-eye!

The Small Grey Mongoose was the only animal species photographed during the two weeks at the hole, but what was lacking in variety was made up for in reliability. On average the mongoose was photographed once every day, usually just before or after mid day.

Is this what a Small Grey Mongoose looks like when it is in a good mood?

I think it is safe to assume the mongoose uses the hole in some way, but I'm not sure how exactly...

Some of the books mention that although these mongooses are active during the middle of the day, on warm summer days they like to rest during the hottest parts. It looks like a decent spot to take a siesta?

Oi! You talkin' about me, punk? I dare yous to say it to my face!

Another possibility is that this is a potential den site. They are known to sometimes have their pups in holes in the ground and these photos where taken during the middle of the breeding season. I haven't camera trapped many animal den sites, and none for extended periods of time, but I would assume to see more than one visit per day if this was a den site? And won't the visits be closer to sunrise and sunset? Then again I was using a Cuddeback which is notorious for missing a lot (most) of the action...

I don't have plans to camera trap at Koeberg again this year and I have other plans for the first half of next year. So, at least for now the mystery remains.

30 November 2014

Keeping Score

This post has been on my to-do list for a while but it was Codger's comment on my previous post that got me moving on it. I'll be using some of the new reports I've been working on for WildLog to share some of the my camera trapping data. The charts are still a work in progress so I hope everything goes well and that I haven't missed any glaring bugs... (Again the usual warning: this isn't "scientific" data, just some basic analysis of my own random data collection.)

For those not statistically inclined I've mixed in some bugs like this Corn Cricket (Koringkriek -  Hetrodus pupus) for your viewing pleasure

I've been camera trapping, off and on, for the past 6 years (since 2 March 2008). In this time I've recorded about 4430 camera trap observations using mostly Bushnell and Cuddeback cameras.

If the charts are hard to read, try clicking on the images to view the full size image

The first comparison I wanted to make was to see just how many of the camera trap observations are from mammals and how many from birds.


My primary focus is on mammals and I'm happy to see that the largest piece of the pie is for mammal observations. Camera traps really are great tools for monitoring animals, especially mammals. It would be virtually impossible to get a dataset like this without the help of camera traps.

Next I wanted to see how many species I've camera trapped in each creature category.

 

In total I have been able to camera trapped about 135 species. I say "about" because there are some species I'm not completely sure about. Some of the tiny mammals can by especially tricky to tell apart in photographs.

I've been fortunate enough to have a steady stream of new species through the 6 years of camera trapping. The chart below shows the rate of new mammal species captured over the years.


Species accumulation curve for mammals captured using camera traps
The species accumulation chart for birds looks more or less the same as the one above. Proving again what a big influence a new location and habitat niches can have on discovering new species, be it mammal , or bird.

Below is a breakdown of the number of camera trap observations for each mammal species.


There are 3 species that are very frequently camera trapped, but I'm pleased to see 10+ species that have a good number of observations and isn't really overshadowed by the dominant 3.


I guessing those red beads on this caterpillar are some form of parasite...

Because my camera traps are usually active for the entire day/night cycle the data can give a good idea of what animals are active at what times.

The chart bellows takes the 3 most frequently photographed mammals and compares the time at which the animal visited the camera trap.


It is quite interesting to see the distinctly different activity patterns. The Porcupine is clearly nocturnal, the Four-Striped Grass Mouse clearly diurnal and the Bushbuck likes to be active during early mornings and late afternoons.

There is also the obvious difference in activity patterns between mammals and birds, but it is nice to see it reflected in the data. The first chart is for the birds only, and the second chart for mammals only.

The active time of all bird observations


The active time of all mammal observations

The problem with comparing the times directly is that sunrise, sunset, etc. can differ remarkably between two sites that are far apart, or even at the same site during different seasons. With WildLog I try to auto-magically assign a "time of day category" to each time based on the estimated sunrise and sunset times at that location. Below is a chart using this time of day category for all bird observations.

Time of day categories for bird observations using camera traps

From the chart it can be seen that birds are much more frequently camera trapped during the middle of the day (mid morning to mid afternoon), with over 50% of captures being during this period. There is also a higher activity pattern in the mornings, compared to the afternoon. Again, no new news, but still good to see represented in the data. (This dataset is dominated by Francolin and Guineafowl records.)

As can be seen from the chart below the mammals have a much more even spread of activity, with an almost even split between diurnal and nocturnal activity.

Time of day categories for mammal observations using camera traps

The mammals, similar to the birds, also have a slight decrease in activity in the afternoon, before the night shift swings into action. (In this dataset the diurnal Four-Striped Filed Mouse and nocturnal Porcupine nicely balance each other out.)

Seeing these differences between mammals as a group and birds, bring the question to mind: "Why are they different?".


A species of Handmaiden next to a small body of water

On average I have camera trapped 4.09 species per camera trap set, with the lowest number being 1 and the highest 24. (Well, actually I sometimes don't get any species as a set, for various reasons, but I don't record those.)

Lastly, I've also tried to get some idea of how long the average camera trap visit lasts using the time between subsequent photographs. (By default when importing the photographs into WildLog the application will group all photographs together into one observation until there is 2 minute, or greater, period without any activity.)

As can be seen from the chart below by far the most of the visits to the camera traps are less than 10 seconds, in other words the animal is simply walking past the camera trap. The vast majority of my camera trap sets don't use any scents or baits.

Duration of a mammal's visit to a camera trap

At the 1 minute mark there is a peculiar "bump". My theory is that it is, at least partially, the result of the slow response time of the Cuddeback camera traps. The Cuddebacks take 30+ seconds to re-arm before the next photo can be taken. The Bushnells can take 3 photographs and re-arm in under 10 seconds, making them much more accurate at estimating the duration of a visit.

The couple of visits with a duration of 7+ minutes are mostly when an animal decides to rest or eat in front of the camera trap, for example it often happens on hot days if the camera is placed next to a good source of shade, etc.

This Monkey Beetle on a flower seems fitting to wrap up this monkey business :)

I hope that most of the charts made sense. I enjoy playing with these charts and "interpreting" the data. I'm sure I'm making a lot of mistakes. But I'm also sure there is a lot more to that can be learnt from charts like these.

22 November 2014

The Elusive Fox

There is one species that has been on my camera trap wish list for years, the Cape Fox.

Wherever I went I'll heard stories about Cape Foxes being seen in the area "only a year or two ago". I would get my hopes up, but nothing ever showed up on the camera traps. The closest I ever got was this photograph from years back at Tygerberg.

Possible Cape Fox (Silwervos - Vulpes chama) at Tygerberg Nature Reserve

Unfortunately this was the only photograph I got and I'm not confident enough to be 100% sure whether it is a Cape Fox or not. Initially I leaned towards Bat-Eared Fox (which is in fact not a true fox). I did a blog post about it which can be seen over here. Since then I've changed my mind and am now leaning towards it being a Cape Fox, but I just can't be sure.

When I got to Koeberg the reserve manager mentioned that she saw a small fox-like animal recently. I've heard this sort of story before and didn't get my hopes up too much, but at least there was a chance.

Then, a few months later it happened!

Cape Fox at Koeberg Nature Reserve

Finally!

It isn't the most awesome photo ever, but at least this time I can be sure it is a Cape Fox. I really wanted a better photograph. Over the next few months I kept an eye open for signs, and saw plenty of tracks, sometimes even fairly close to where I had a camera trap. However, after a year of camera trapping at Koeberg I only camera trapped the Cape Fox this one time.

The Bushnell Trophy Cam was set to take three photos per trigger. Below is a cropped version of the last photograph in the series.

Heading straight towards the camera trap

What makes the Cape Fox interesting is that it is the only true Fox (genus Vulpes) found in Southern Africa.

The Cape Fox is on the smallish side, measuring only 30cm at the shoulders and weighing about 3kg. Like most members of the dog family they tend to mate for life.

They will usually forage alone and both parents care for the young. The male will bring food to the female as well for the first few weeks after the pups are born.

Although the fox is still elusive, at least I now know it can be done :)

31 October 2014

Five Year Anniversary

Incredibly enough this month is the 5 year anniversary of this blog. During that time I've learnt a lot and enjoyed sharing my experiences with all of you. Thank you for all of the comments, interest and support over the years. It has been a pleasure :)

Grey Heron (Bloureier - Ardea cinerea) camera trapped at Koeberg Nature reserve

I've been fairly busy with all sorts of things recently and haven't gotten around to writing as many blog posts as I would have liked. A lot of my time (more accurately energy) is currently going into the next version of WildLog. One of the big improvements will be revamping the reports, which I'm very excited about.

Last month marked the completion of a full year of camera trapping at Koeberg Nature Reserve and I'm thinking of wrapping things up over there for the time being. Once I get all my ducks in a row (or at least most of them moving in the same direction) I'll do a Koeberg summary post using some of the new charts form WildLog :)

I enjoyed camera trapping at Koeberg and will definitely return to camera trap some more in the years to come. For next year the plan is to try some shorter stints at a few new locations that interest me, but I haven't made up my mind yet...

Purple Heron (Rooireier - Ardea purpurea) camera trapped at Koeberg Nature Reserve

To celebrate this historic 5 year anniversary I thought it fitting to share my first amphibian species photographed with a camera trap. Well, technically it isn't my first amphibian, but it is the first one that triggered the camera by itself and wasn't just sitting in the background when some other species triggered the camera trap. I'm quite pleased that it is also a video clip, not just a photo (although the resolution on the photos are much better).


Video: Sand Rain Frog (Rose se Reƫnpadda - Breviceps rosei) triggering the camera trap at Koeberg

While I was at the reserve today I came across this gorgeous little Cape Sand Frog. I found it buried inside an old mole-heap. There is no permanent water nearby, but it was snuggled comfortably in between the leaves of some succulents. The succulent's leaves got covered by sand when a molerat pushed the sand up from one of its tunnels. Thus even though the surrounding sand was fairly dry the micro habitat the frog selected for itself was fairly moist thanks to the succulent plant's leaves.

Cape Sand Frog (Gestreepte Sandpadda - Tomopterna delalandii) found at Koeberg, look at those amazing eyes

This little frog was very placid. I'm guessing that it was in some state of reduced metabolism to conserve moisture and energy. With the dry summer months still ahead of us, I decided to tuck it back into the sand where I found it, next to the moist succulent leaves.

I think this is a fairly attractive little frog, with huge eyes and a cute round nose

A while back I also came across this little Clicking Stream Frog while scouting for good places to camera trap some Shrews.


Though small the Clicking Stream Frog (Kliklangtoonpadda - Strongylopus grayii) has a much faster look and lifestyle than the sand frog

27 September 2014

De Holiday

Earlier this week I got back from a short holiday trip to a nature reserve and thought I would share some of my sightings on the blog.

Early morning view from the camp site

The reserve doesn't offer a lot in terms of mammal watching, and since I wanted to relax I didn't focus very hard on game watching. Still, it was a fun trip and I saw plenty of cool things. The reserve is quite close to home (about 200km) and I'm sure I'll be back.

During this trip (and in general) I don't like to bother too much with taking "good" photographs, and rather spend some time to enjoy the experiences. So, the photographs here aren't anything spectacular. Just simple "point and shoot" attempts.

Macro photography on the tidal rocky shores can reveal a whole new world

My camera traps were at home when I got ready for the trip, for some TLC. I decided to take a few with me to the reserve. Unfortunately there were a lot of Baboons in the area, so I didn't want to take unnecessary risks with the camera traps. Especially since there is a chance that the Baboons have learnt to recognise and target human-made-stuff.

I was mostly interested in taking a break and enjoying my holiday. As a result I didn't get around to doing any real camera trapping.

I opted to book a camping site, since I haven't camped in a tent in a while and thought it would be fun. Camping brings its own charm and experiences. Thanks to that decision I managed to return home with camera trap photographs of one mammal species.

Cape Gerbil (Kaapse Springmuis - Tatera afra) putting it's best foot forward for my Birdcam 2.0

Each night, just after sunset, this little fellow would start scurrying around at the back of my tent. This would continue for a few minutes and then the gerbil would wonder off. Sometime after 12am it would return once more to scratch around in the dirt. After the second visit it would disappear until the next night. Where it went and why it visited each night, at more or less the same times, I don't know.

I had my Bushnell Trophy Cam at hand and got some video clips as well.

Video: Cape Gerbil scratching the ground at the back of my tent

I'm not sure what the gerbil is doing? I put some broken biscuits out as bait, but it didn't pay much attention to it, preferring to rather scratch around in the soil. Cape Gerbils are plant eaters for the most part, but maybe they'll also eat the odd insect? I'm not sure what this one was hunting for each night in the topsoil...

On the last night I decided to try and see the little fellow for myself (not only on camera trap photos). The scratching starting right on time and I sneaked a peak. I even managed to take some photos and video clips using my mobile phone.

As long as the gerbil didn't see my face it wasn't too stressed out about the light

Video: A video clip of the Cape Gerbil keeping me company outside my tent

All in all the rodent was a pleasure to have around the camp site and didn't cause any problems. No, it didn't chew on anything I own. People often think of all rodents as "mice" or "rats" that create unhealthy nests that stink, or as pests that destroy furniture. The truth is that most rodents are good citizens. In particular almost all wild species are shy and reclusive in nature, with specialised diets and do not ever cause any problems of any kind to us humans.

On the other end of the size scale the reserve is also famous for the Southern Right Whales that visit the shoreline during our winter and spring months.

Southern Right Whale (Noorkapper - Eubalaena australis) resting in the waves

At first I wasn't sure how easy it would be to spot a whale, but when I got to the viewing deck I easily counted at least 12 rolling on the waves. It really is a good place to visit if you wish to see some whales.

Highest on my wish list were the Cape Vultures, classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN.

Cape Vulture (Kransaasvoƫl - Gyps coprotheres) souring overhead

As I started the hiking trail I only glimpsed one or two in the distance, but luckily on my way back a few more came in and I got some good views.

Video: I tried to photographs the spiralling column, but I'm not sure how easy it will be to see...

One of my favourite species at the reserve is the Yellow Mongoose. Luckily they were fairly common near the main camp area.

Yellow Mongoose (Rooimeerkat - Cynictis penicillata) doing a good job of staying out of zoom range...

I just couldn't manage to get close enough to one to get a proper photograph! They just do not sit still for long enough and the ones I encountered were skittish of humans, or maybe it was the fact that I was paying them a lot more attention the average visitor does.

An interesting thing about the Yellow Mongoose is that it is a natural reservoir for Rabies, with some individuals able to carry the disease (infectiously) for several years.

There were many other birds and animals around the camp area. The Dassie and Scrub Hare were rather tame and presented some good views.

Dassie/Rock Hyrax (Klipdassie - Procavia capensis) giving us one of those infamous Dassie smiles

Scrub Hare (Kolhaas - Lepus saxatilis) out and about well before sunset

I'll wrap up with a few photographs of flowers (and Monkey Beetles) I spotted while walking the hiking trails in search of the Cape Vultures.













11 September 2014

Grey Matters

I like to use my old Phablet in the mornings while eating breakfast, before going to work, to catch up on some nature blogs and "light-weight" news that might interest or entertain me. (I find "real" news to be just too depressing to waste my time on it.)

Yesterday morning the news article about a mongoose and lion having a confrontation caught my eye. It is actually fairly entertaining and you can see the full story and video over here.

Now, the reason for this post isn't to comment on the behaviour shown in the video itself, but instead triggered by the following statement from the article: "... the terrified marsh mongoose".

A Marsh Mongoose? Really...? Riiiight, sure, OK... ummm... I'm sorry, but I have to disagree with that. Unless the Marsh Mongooses in Kenya differ a lot from the ones over here in South Africa (and I'm pretty sure they don't), then I would not call that particular mongoose a Marsh Mongoose.

Sadly it is true that most people really do not care what kind of mongoose it is, or even whether the face of this earth was ever blessed by the pitter-patter of tiny mongoose feet at all. But since this is a nature blog I feel that I can get away with kicking up a bit of a fuss about the misidentification, to my hearts content. :)

If you are still reading this then you are one of the elite, the special few, that do care about knowing and appreciating nature, even if only ever so slightly. (If I am mistaken and you don't care then I don't know how you ended up on this blog, but I'll save you some trouble by informing you that you can safely stop reading now and continue to catch up on the "personal" "lives" of people being famous for being famous.)

Right, back to business. The Marsh Mongoose (aka Water Mongoose) has a huge distribution range. As a matter of fact they are also found all the way down here at the southern tip of Africa, roughly 4000+ km away from Kenya.

Lets first have a look at a real Marsh Mongoose. The photograph below was taken at Koeberg Nature Reserve just outside Cape Town, near Melkbosstrand.

A real Marsh/Water Mongoose (Kommetjiegatmuishond - Atilax paludinosus) at Koeberg

Ok, so to an untrained eye the mongoose in the video might look similar, but if you spend just a little time comparing the two you will notice many small differences.

The most obvious (and key) difference is the tail. The tail on the March Mongoose is rather short and "thick".

For more examples of a Marsh Mongoose have a look at some of my old blog posts over here.

I believe the true star of the video clip to be a Large Grey Mongoose. The Large Grey Mongoose (aka Egyptian Mongoose, aka Ichneumon) also has a huge distribution and can also be found from Kenya all the way down along the coast, right to the tip southern of Africa.

An old photo of a Large Grey Mongoose (Grootgrysmuishond - Herpestes ichneumon) from Tygerberg

How can I be so sure about the mongoose in the video? Well, the Large Grey Mongoose has a characteristic black brush at the end of it's tail, as can be seen from this photograph below which was recently taken at Koeberg.

The presence of longer black hair at the tip of the tail is a good sign that you are dealing with a Large Grey Mongoose

If the visual clues aren't enough then the behaviour can help to confirm the species. My books state that the Marsh Mongoose is mainly active at night, whereas the Large Grey Mongoose is largely active during the day. I fired up WildLog and pulled a quick report for both species. Yep, my camera trapping data confirms this as well.

The habitat can also be a good tool for identifying species. In this case both species like to hang around near streams and small ponds, but the Large Grey Mongoose tends to readily wander far away from water.

Now, I must admit that I'm not familiar with all the mongoose species found in eastern Africa, but over here in southern Africa the Large Grey Mongoose is the only large, greyish, diurnal mongoose with a black tipped tail.

For more examples of a Large Grey Mongoose have a look at some of my old blog posts over here.

Thus the Marsh Mongoose and Large Grey Mongoose are actually rather easy to tell apart. A much trickier matchup is the Small Grey Mongoose and Large Grey Mongoose. This old blog post over here covers both species.

My most recent batch of camera trap photographs from Koeberg contains a couple of photographs at one particular set which still have me scratching my head. There seems to be photos of a normal Small Grey Mongoose, then some of a very large Small Grey Mongoose and then some of a very small Large Grey Mongoose... I'm starting to think it might be a juvenile Large Grey Mongoose, but I'm not sure yet.


To be honest I'm still not 100% sure whether this is a small Large Grey Mongoose or a large Small Grey Mongoose


I enjoy trying to identify species and can spend hours staring at camera trap photographs of small mammals, trying to figure out what species they are most likely to be.