Monday, August 19, 2013

Cam Trap Mistakes: The Stubborn Brush Rabbit

A brush rabbit in a willow thicket at dusk.
Photo taken with Moultrie M100 trail camera and post-processed (cropped, exposure and contrast adjusted).  
In July, I took a five-day workshop in the Sierras on photographing wildlife with trail cameras. It was an excellent workshop at the beautiful Sierra Nevada Field Campus. There are no good books yet about using remote cameras to photograph wildlife (aka camera trapping), but there are good blogs on the adventures of experienced cam-trappers with gorgeous photos and exciting videos, websites that review trail cameras, and trail camera discussion groups.*

I learned a lot at the workshop especially from my mistakes. What the heck, why not share my cam trap bloopers? In these next few posts, I will reveal the trials of a novice cam trapper and throw in my subjective reviews of a few commercial trail cameras with example photos (and maybe videos?).

First up is The Stubborn Brush Rabbit.

A high elevation valley with grassy bottoms where water collects from the surrounding steep mountain slopes. Although the snowy winters can be cold, summers make for good forage for cattle and wildlife.  
The cam trapping class went to a subalpine valley east of Yuba Pass where we had permission to put our cameras on a private ranch. We focused on a riparian zone that was fenced off from cattle. In a dense corridor of narrow-leaf willow, I spotted a 4-inch patch of crushed miniature miner's lettuce in front of low tunnels disappearing through the thicket. I assumed this was the bedding area of some kind of animal although I didn't know what.

A small creek bordered by a dense, linear willow thicket. Intermittently fenced from cattle grazing, these areas can provide good wildlife habitat and provide water for cattle at downstream stockponds.  
I strapped my Moultrie M100 trail camera to a tree facing the crushed vegetation. The M100 has a small screen on the inside front on which you can view the menu for setting the camera, review photos taken, and even get a live view of the area that the camera will be shooting. Although that all sounds good, the screen is placed at an awkward location for live view. You have to look at the screen dead-on to avoid glare and distortion and when you do that, you are mostly blocking the scene you are trying to preview. You can sit to the side of the camera and crane your neck around while simultaneously waving something in the scene to see if the movement shows up on the camera's screen. However, since you are viewing the camera from the side, the image still appears blurry and if the light is bright, it is virtually impossible to make out anything on the screen except for gross movement.

Interior of Moultrie M100 trail camera with the view screen on the bottom.   
The entire class was watching as I attempted this contorted position in the willow thicket. My arm was not long enough to wave a hand over the small bedding area while checking the screen on the tree-mounted camera. When I asked if anyone saw a long stick, a classmate handed me a machete. Yah, a machete. Something I liked about this workshop is how everyone helped each other and sometimes with novel ideas. It's been years since someone handed me a machete and this time no tape measure got hurt. Turns out a machete is the perfect long and broad item to brandish in front of the Moultrie M100 to make sure it is centered on the target area.

Moultrie M100 trail camera mounted on willow tree in riparian corridor. Notice the stick wedged behind the strap at the top.  This tilts the camera down so it is better aimed at the bedding area on the ground.  
The workshop instructor, Dr. Chris Wemmer, suggested that I lower the camera and trim more vegetation from the sides of the scene. In bright sun with reflected light or heat waves, vegetation waving in a breeze can cause the camera to false trigger sometimes hundreds of times. I made adjustments and returned the machete. The last thing I did was take two photos with my cell phone of the scene and the mounted camera. As we wove our way out of the thicket, I tied survey tape on branches so I could find my camera again.

We returned 2 days later. Excitedly running ahead of everyone to check my camera, I followed the trail of ribbons back through the tangled willows. But when I spotted the Moultrie, I was alarmed to notice the camera's front cover was open. What kind of animal or person attacked the camera? Seeing no other suspicious signs, I unstrapped the camera and checked the settings. Seventy-six photos. Perhaps some showed the culprit. It was too bright to review the photos in the field, so I packed up the camera and headed out, removing the ribbons on the way.

The brush rabbit initially shows up at dusk on the first evening.
No post-processing of this photo except downsizing of file size for web posting.  
Something catches the brush rabbit's attention.
No post-processing of this photo except downsizing of file size for web posting.  
Spotting a change in its environment, the rabbit stands up for a closer look of the Moultrie camera strapped to a nearby tree. A camera may be noticed by animals, however, if there are no sudden or unpredictable movements or sounds, they often habituate to its presence and soon ignore it.
No post-processing of this photo except downsizing of file size for web posting.  
Later, in the back of the car as we rocketed over Yuba Pass, I checked the camera and found numerous day and night photos of a rabbit and sometimes a small bird. In the more recent photos, a shadow progressively covered the left side of the scene. Moisture, goo, or an unbenevolent hand slowly emerging from the ground and clutching onto the camera? It was weird.

Over approximately 2 days, the Moultrie captured the rabbit browsing over 50 times, mostly in the evening and morning. At night, the Moultrie camera uses an infrared light thus takes black and white photos instead of the daytime color photos. A shadow on the left side of the set is starting to crop the photo.
No post-processing of this photo except downsizing of file size for web posting.  
Back in the classroom, I downloaded the photos on my laptop for a closer look. On the first evening and through most of that night, the Moultrie captured one rabbit frequently nibbling in the small open area beneath the willows. This appears to be a brush rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani) because its ears are short and rounded, its body has an overall grey color, and it is foraging in dense cover in the morning and evening hours.

Brush rabbit on the morning of the second day. Shadow creeping further over  the left side.
No post-processing of this photo except downsizing of file size for web posting.   
The creeping shadow on the left side of the photos was the camera's cover slowly opening and blocking the lens. Nevertheless, the rabbit continued to pose for the camera. By the next morning, the stubborn rabbit had relocated to the far left where the camera was still able to detect and shoot it even though most of the set was otherwise blocked by the loose cover.

After two days, the open camera cover had nearly covered the lens and sensor, yet still the Moultrie was taking photos of active wildlife.
No post-processing of this photo except downsizing of file size for web posting.  
I checked my cell phone for the photos I took just before leaving the willow thicket on the setup day. A close look showed the guilty party - me. The latches on the Moultrie were not secured. Breezes or changes in temperature or moisture probably caused the camera cover to slowly open. I am impressed that the Moultrie continued to take photos while the cover was open. Here's another item I need to add to my list of things to do when mounting a trail camera - firmly latch the cover closed.

Ah yah, a close look shows the camera latches are undone.   
The Moultrie M100 is a discontinued camera. Technology is changing so quickly in digital photography that there are often new models of trail cameras almost every year. However, this quick review may help if you have a Moultrie M100 or are considering cameras with similar specifications or options especially if they are made by the same manufacturer.

My evaluation of the Moultrie M100 is that it is a compact and tough trail camera. It takes good quality color photos in partial shade and decent infrared photos at night. The view screen may seem like a bonus but my experience is that it is very awkward to use in live view and you just end up eyeballing the aim of the camera from the front in most situations anyway (unless you have a machete!). Remember that extra options like colored screens with live view use up battery power faster.

The Moultrie uses AA batteries which means you have the option of using longer lasting lithium or rechargeable Eneloop batteries. The partially rounded ridges on the back cover and the straps work well for mounting the Moultrie to a tree or wooden fence post, and work moderately well for mounting to T-posts or other smaller diameter or irregularly-shaped posts. You might be frustrated if you want to use a tripod-type attachment for mounting this camera because the mounting hole on the back of the camera is not a standard size. You could get a converter but who wants to find and remember to carry an extra piece of equipment and more weight into the field?

Several weeks ago, my Moultrie M100 did not seem to be working when I had it mounted at a pond at the Dipper Ranch. I knew that cattle and wildlife had been visiting the pond, but the Moultrie had only taken photos of me setting and removing the camera at the beginning and end of a two-week period. Frustrated, I checked several trail camera discussion groups and discovered that the Moultrie M100 needed a software update to fix some glitch. It was easy to download the software update off the Moultrie website onto an SD memory card, place the memory card into the camera, and then follow a few simple instructions to allow the card to download the fix onto the camera. The Moultrie M100 has been working great since then.

So far, three of the five brands of commercial trail cameras we have been using have needed software updates to fix bugs. In some cases, it was months of frustration before we realized what to do. Two of the updates were easy to install and fixed problems with the cameras right away.

I strongly recommend that you check the manufacturer's website to determine if your trail camera needs a software update, even if you just bought the camera, but especially if you are experiencing some glitches as you experiment with more of the model's options. Reputable manufacturers post software updates even on their discontinued models.

If you don't find anything on the manufacturer's website for software updates, search the discussion boards for recommendations on how to adjust settings for different situations or for hack-fixes on that particular model. In learning to use your trail camera, you need to be as persistent and stubborn as the brush rabbit at Yuba Pass.

Must get in photo no matter what!
Photo post-processed (cropped, exposure and contrast adjusted).  
In this set, the Moultrie M100 trail camera was set to photo, 3-shot, enhanced quality, no bait or lure. In approximately 48 hours, 76 photos with brush rabbit and/or small wren-like bird, few blank shots.

This post is part of a series based on my experiences at a camera trapping workshop. To see the other posts, check the dates after this one, or enter "wildlife camera" into the Sightings box in the right column.

----------------
*the workshop - Photographing Wildlife with Camera Traps
* the forthcoming book - Dr. Chris Wemmer, instructor of the above mentioned cam-trapping workshop, is writing a book. May it be so.
*trail cam links: Rather than listing trail camera blogs, websites and discussion groups, check the blogroll on Dr. Wemmer's blogsite Camera Trap Codger

miniature miner's lettuce (Claytonia parviflora)
narrow-leaf willow (Salix exigua)
brush rabbit (Sylvilagus bachmani)

13 comments:

  1. The WORST though, is when you have a really good set, and you put time into setting a bait or hiding a lure...and then leave the camera for 2 weeks and come back to it still 'off'! Not that this has happened to this AMATEUR 'trapper or anything like that...

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  2. Cindy, what is it about trail cams that causes normally adept folk to behave like eejits? I certainly include myself in that category. By day, mild-mannered, sensible type. Setting up a cam in the evening, ham-fisted nincompoop. Thanks for giving me perspective and hope.

    You highlight some great tips, perhaps none more so than ensuring that the target is a rabbit, especially one obsessed with being a celebrity!

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  3. Great comments! Feel free to share your cam-trap bloopers here, a place to know what to avoid or to confess your foibles. And yes, I had to look up "eejits". Good word.

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  4. Time to 'fess up?

    The following is a typical example of one of my camera trapping exploits:

    http://aeshnacaerulea.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/the-strange-case-of-insert-name-of.html

    Other choice images include next door's cat at below focal length range or the rear of any retreating beastie. Deep down, I know it's about the 7 Ps, but that doesn't seem to translate to wildlfe cams :o(

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  5. I&T: a list! I 'heart' lists. Ok I'm hanging out with teenage girls this week. And your usual wry humor in that post but what are the 7 P's? Planning, plotting, patience, praying . . . I give up.

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  6. Ah, if young minds are involved, make that the 6 Ps!

    Prior planning and preparation prevent (p*ss) poor performance...

    as any Sergeant Major will attest.

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  7. So very nice of the bachmani to use its Jedi mind tricks to slowly open the unlatched door and teach us all this valuable lesson. ;)

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  8. Jedi rabbits? Oh my, I have so much to learn.

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  9. Awww…. Camera trapping! I wish I had a nickel for every time I forgot to turn the camera on.
    Only to return two weeks later only to find the attractant I had so carefully applied was wasted on my own haste.
    See here. http://www.youtube.com/user/datharp?feature=mhee

    Cindy I thank you for the informative blog and look forward to each new post. DT

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  10. DT: I double-checked a trail camera tonight when I was resetting it after reading your comment. It was okay but I will still sleep better. Interesting video you have there with probes sticking out that have scent on them? Have you ever noticed mountain lions curling back their lips like in the Flehmen response? I just got a photo of one like that at a spring.

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  11. Yes to both questions. We are attempting to get a rub response from wild felids in order to non-invasively collect DNA. I have observed many different responses from many different species. DT

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  12. Still hemming and hawing about getting a trail cam. Hard to decide on a model and commit to the expense with no experience. Looking forward to hearing more about your own experiences, though.

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  13. John: as with the rest of your photography experience, cam-trapping is about finding your match among many choices of which a number could be quite suitable for you. I think the biggest question for most people is where are they going set their trail camera. I am working on a series of posts right now about decisions one makes while setting a trail camera and how you should sink into your surroundings to guide you. I hope it helps.

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