06 May 2017

Slimy Surprises

I have been fortunate enough to enjoy some holiday time at the coast in the Eastern Cape. One of the things I wanted to make time for on my trip was to visit the rock pools during low tide.

A Triton snail (maybe Ranella Australasia gemmifera) at the Woody Cape

My exploration started off with a bang! One of the very first creatures I saw was this amazing Four-Tone Nudibranch.

Four-Tone Nudibranch (Godiva quadricolor) gliding along the edge of a small rock pool

From what I understand the nudibranch is basically a kind of predatory sea slug-like animal. It feeds on sea anemones and other nudibranch-like animals.

This encounter inspired me to try and return to the rocks at low tide on subsequent days in search of more interesting sea slug-like-things.

Blue-Speckled Dorid (Dendrodoris caesia) hiding under a rock
I turned over many rocks in search of interesting creatures. At first I didn't notice the Blue-Speckled Dorid under the rock, but when I dropped it back into the water it magically transformed.

The Blue-Speckled Dorid unfolded in the water

The little dorid feeds on sponges. I believe the fluffy bits at the rear of the animal is are the external gills.

Another, even smaller, sponge feeder is the Lemon Pleurobranch.

Lemon Pleurobranch (Berthellina granulate) hiding under a boulder

The animal below might seem artificially similar to the sea slug-like animals above, but this beautiful little critter below is actually a tipe of Flatworm.

A species of Carpet Flatworm (Thysanozoon sp.) found along the intertidal shoreline at Cannon Rocks

I was fortunate enough to be able to view one of these flatworms under a field microscope on a recent visit to De Hoop and my breath was taken away by just how beautiful they are.

I found another tipe of flatworm on the rocks, but this one looked a bit like a living blob of slime...

Gilchrist's Booger ergmm I mean Gilchrist's Flatworm (Planocera gilchristi) under a boulder

The Gilchrist's Flatworm feeds on tiny animals found in the tidal pools, such as worms and crustaceans.

Video: Flatworms moving about at Cannon Rocks

My attempt at filming a flatworm swimming failed, but trust me that it is something to behold. Luckily there is always next time. I'm already looking forward to visit the rock pools again and again, in the years to come.

Turban Shell (Turbo cidaris) heading back to the water

There is still plenty more to share from the Cannon Rocks coastline, even some camera trapping, so stay tuned.

08 April 2017

The Goose Mysteries

Back in November I placed my old Cuddeback camera trap amongst some boulders at Paarl Mountain Nature Reserve.

Camera trap at Paarl Mountain Nature Reserve

When I first came across the boulders it really struck me as an atmospheric place. Naturally I wanted to see what animals visited this place.

Common Duiker (Duiker - Sylvicapra grimmia) checking out the camera trap

It turns out that boulders can be tricky places to camera trap.

It is hard to find a good spot that does the landscape justice. Then the next problem is that the animals can come from any direction, because there isn't really a clear path in and out of the boulders.

As a result I got rather few photographs at this location. There was however two photographs that made it worth the effort.

Large Grey Mongoose (Grootgrysmuishond - Herpestes ichneumon) sneaking past the camera trap

The Large Grey Mongoose visited the boulders at 10:31 am. I don't camera trap these guys often, so it is always a pleasant surprise when one shows up. It is also a valuable addition to the reserve's species list. I saw one in person a few weeks before this photograph was taken, but having a camera trap photo is much beter for record keeping.

Precisely 24 hours later, on the dot, I got another unexpected photograph.

Spur-Winged Goose (Wildemakou - Plectropterus gambensis) mother with chicks well in line

Those chicks look awfully young to me. They must have recently hatched, very close by. This makes me wonder about two things.

Firstly, was the mongoose in the area because it knew the chicks where busy hatching?

Secondly, what are they doing so far away from water? These boulders are almost 1.5 km away from the nearest farm dam, and even further from the larger catchment dams. I did some reading and apparently the Spur-Winged Goose is know to breed up to 1 km away from water, so 1.5 km sounds plausible.

They will have a long walk down to the water and some might not make it if that mongoose is still in the area.

18 March 2017

Rolling With The Golden Mole

I'm still busy forming my opinion about my new SecaCam HomeVista camera trap. I believe in finding the strengths and weaknesses of each camera trap I own. For the HomeVista the wide field of view and dynamically adjusting flash intensity sets it apart from other camera traps.

This is the first camera trap I've seen that is capable of adjusting the intensity of the flash based on the distance between the camera and the animal. This helps to reduce the amount of overexposure in the photographs.

The following sequence of a Porcupine family at Paarl Mountain illustrates the dynamically adjusting flash very well.

Porcupine (Ystervark - Hystrix africaeaustralis) with full flash - showing the bushes in the background

Porcupine with medium flash - note that the bushes are no longer visible

Porcupine with low flash - notice that the Porcupine in the background is barely visible

The combination of the wide field of view and the dynamically adjusting flash felt like the perfect combination to test on my resident Golden Mole.

Cape Golden Mole (Kaapse Gouemol - Chrysochloris asiatica) showing his shovel like hindfeet

I usually have to physically dim the IR flash and set the camera trap to use the lowest flash setting available, but with the HomeVista I didn't need to change anything. It works great in a confined space.

I find that videos usually work best when dealing with very small mammals, but I wanted to test both the photo and video settings. I had the camera trap take 5 photos and then a short video clip, but I think only 1 photo and then a video would have been be better.

The video clip below turned out rather comical, albeit a little bit distressing to watch.

Video: Cape Golden Mole slipping and rolling down a slope

I'm also trying out new ways of creating the holes I use when camera trapping underground. I want to make the holes a bit larger and more sturdy so that they will last for longer. I'm now covering the hole with wooden planks, for easier access to the camera trap. The wooden poles, which are used to support the planks, can be seen in the video.

This hole is fairly deep, much deeper than my previous attempts, and as a result the tiny Golden Mole struggled a bit to climb up the slope. The bottom half of the soil is rather hard, so the subterranean traveler wanted to get back to the softer top soil. Once he makes it to the top you can see him quickly tunneling away.

Golden Moles are completely blind with no external eyes at all (their eyes are non-functional and covered by skin and fur). It really is a marvel that the critter is still clearly able to know where it is and where it wants to be going.

It has been hot and windy here in Cape Town and I've been having trouble using this camera trap in more conventional locations. It seems to trigger very easily from warm wind and vegetation.

Luckily it seems to work well for Golden Moles and I'm excited to try this camera trap out in more areas where very small mammals might be scurrying around.

25 February 2017

The Grey Buck Of Paarl

Dense vegetation is an important requirement for Cape Grysbok, and Paarl Mountain Nature Reserve overs plenty of very dense vegetation. It is no wonder that these secretive antelope like to call the reserve their home.

Cape Grysbok (Kaapse Grysbok - Raphicerus melanotis) at Paarl Mountain Nature Reserve

Cape Grysbok can be hard to see in person because of their secretive and nocturnal nature. They tend to hide in the dense vegetation and can go unnoticed, even when you get very close.

Luckily they are still fairly common around the greater Cape Town area and can even be found living close to human development. If you are lucky you can spot one crossing a road or darting for cover as you come around a bend.

Sneaking past the camera trap

Last year I was approached by a company that manufactures camera traps to test one of their new models. I received the camera trap late December and have been using it since then. The camera is the SecaCam HomeVista and the photograph below was take by it.

Young male Cape Grysbok with a very grey coat

I'm planning on doing a longer review of the camera trap at a later stage, but one of the things that stand out for me is the incredibly wide field of view. I'm sure it will be a blessing and a curse in the future.

I had the camera set to take a combination of photos and videos. The video clip below shows the restless youngster on a very windy summers day.

Video: Cape Grysbok walking through the boulders on a windy day

Only the rams have horns and this individual above seems to be still a fairly young male.

The Cape Grysbok is mostly active at night and about 65% of my camera trap observations have thus far been at night.

The white hair is much less visible in this wet female

They are solitary animals and scent mark their territory using the pre-orbital gland (in front of the eye). One of the cameras was lucky enough to catch a Cape Grysbok in the act of scent marking.

Cape Grysbok scent marking on the slopes at Paarl Mountain

The Cape Grysbok is endemic to South Africa and an iconic species of the dense vegetation along the coast and mountain ranges of the south and south-east.

02 February 2017

RIP BirdCam 2.0

It is time to retire yet another one of my camera traps, the BirdCam 2.0. This camera was a bit of a roller-coaster ride and true to its nature it took some great photographs just before finally breaking down completely.

Kaapse Klipklaasneus Cape Elephant Shrew Elephantulus edwardii
Cape Elephant Shrew (Kaapse Klipklaasneus - Elephantulus edwardii) camera trapped with the BirdCam 2.0 at Paarl Mountain Nature Reserve

The BirdCam 2.0 was my "small mammal specialist" camera trap. It wasn't very good as a conventional trail camera, but it was amazing when used to target small critters in a fixed area.

BirdCam 2.0 placed under a large boulder

The best thing about the camera, by far, was its white flash. It was simply amazing and could be used even at close range. The camera didn't have any autofocus capabilities, but the adjustable fixed focus helped.

The worst things about the camera must surely be the build quality and strange trigger speed. It simply wasn't as tough as other conventional trail cameras. For example the LED setup screen stopped working long ago. As a result, for the past few years I just turned the camera on and hoped for the best.

This is the third camera trap I'm retiring, and to be honest I have no idea what camera to replace it with... I'm not aware of any good white flash camera traps on the market, particularly ones that can be used to photograph small mammals... (Having color night photographs can help a lot with identification.)

Not perfect, but good enough

I'm really glad that the camera produced some decent photographs of the Cape Elephant Shrew before finally getting retired.

The Cape Elephant Shrew was one of the species at the top of my wish list for Paarl Mountain Nature Reserve, and I was thrilled when I saw one in person on my very first day at the reserve.

Cape Elephant Shrew sitting in a small hollow on top of a huge boulder

Despite their name the Cape Elephant Shrews are not a type of Shrew at all, nor are they a type of Rodent. They are in fact related to Golden Moles, Aardvarks, Dassies and even Elephants. These animals are all members of the Afrotheria, which represents a group of mammals that are associated with originating from the African continent.

As with the Golden Moles, the Elephant Shrews are still somewhat shrouded in mysterious, although fortunately to a lesser extent. For example, many sources claim that Elephant Shrews, in general, are diurnal, but other sources say the Cape Elephant Shrew is nocturnal. However, I've been camera trapping these little critters during the day and night, equally. I found one source that claimed they were crepuscular (preferring twilight), but that seems a bit off as well...

Activity pattern of Cape Elephant Shrew camera trapped, thus far, at Paarl Mountain

I suspect there is still much we can learn about these cute little guys.

21 January 2017

Spotted On Paarl Mountain

It is the middle of summer at Paarl Mountain Nature Reserve and the world is hot and dry.

Paarl Mountain Nature Reserve in January

I've been camera trapping here since August last year and the species list is still fairly small, only about 15 mammal species thus far...

The strangest part for me is that I've yet to photograph a single Caracal (Rooikat). At both Tygerberg and Koeberg the Caracal was one of the first species to get photographed.

To make things even stranger one of my camera traps recently photographed a Leopard, and still not a single Caracal!

The photograph was taken at 6:21 AM in the morning. The sun was already up, but there was still some early morning mist hanging around.

Leopard (Luiperd - Panthera pardus) photographed by a camera trap on Paarl Mountain

I've been seeing possible Leopard tracks and scat on the reserve since I started camera trapping and knew it would be only a matter of time before one was captured by a trail camera.

Even though the odds of encountering such an elusive animal in person is very small, it is great to know they are still around. I love how camera traps enable you to "see" things you would otherwise never be able to see in person.

The camera trap also captured a lot of Grysbok and Duiker at this location. I'm sure these small antelope also caught the attention of the Leopard.

A female Cape Grysbok (Kaapse Grysbok - Raphicerus melanotis) aka Leopard-Food

I didn't find many Grysbok at Tygerberg and Koeberg, but here at Paarl Mountain they seem to be quite common. I'm looking forward to see the total number of sightings increase over time. It will be interesting to compare the data of all the small antelope I've camera trapped in the greater Cape Town area (Duiker, Grysbok and Steenbok).

There are lots of interesting landscapes at Paarl Mountain Nature Reserve

Paarl Mountain is a popular reserve and is visited by many people on a regular bases. Now, before the masses go crazy about the Leopard, please remember the usual storie of "your life is not in danger, we don't have to kill the Leopard, your kids will survive, etc." apply. If anybody has any concerns then please contact the reserve manager. Remember how fortunate we are to have a member of the "big five" still roaming wild on our doorstep.