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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Conservation Field Camp 2011: Camera Trapping

As I mentioned in my previous post, Conservation students are required to take CON 190: Conservation Field Camp before they graduate. This is a 3-credit, residential course at Cutler Boy Scout Camp in South Bristol, NY. In addition to mist netting, I conducted some camera trapping each day with the students. Here are the results:

Eraser as bat lure at camera trap
(5/11, South Bristol NY)
We have 9 Cuddeback Capture cameras (Five IR [infrared] and four "regular"). I set them out several days before the class started to better our chances of having photos. As I mentioned in my last post, I was one of the instructors for the Wildlife portion of camp. Each day, we received a different group of about 28 students for the entire day. The camera trap activity was part of a rotation where I had a third of the group for about 30 minutes and then did it all over again two more times so that each student was able to participate. To facilitate that structure, I set out the cameras so they were in very loose clusters of three. In each cluster, there was one camera where I tried something different. One cluster had a camera with bait on a tree branch hoping to get some squirrel (specifically flying) pics. Another had a camera with a streamer in front of it to attempt to capture the attention of critters. The third cluster had a camera mounted about ten feet up in a tree with a homemade bat lure in front of it. I had read that some researchers had success capturing bats on camera traps using an eraser at the end of a wire. I used an eraser at the end of a string. In this first photo, you can see the eraser at the top and a tractor that triggered the motion sensor. After three days, I had exactly zero bat photos. But what REALLY convinced me to change the location of this camera trap was having the ladder slip out from under me (TIP: Choose a tree with NO limbs so that when you have to slide down the trunk, it does no permanent damage to the camera trapper)!

(5/11, South Bristol NY)
The animals seemed equally uninterested in my surveyor's flagging. Again, according tot he literature, this is a technique used by trappers to capture fox and bobcat. Use a streamer or a dangling feather and critters will come looking at the novelty. I did get photos on that camera (including the accompanying coon shot) but never saw any indication that the animals were attracted to my orange flagging tape. Perhaps I should try a feather next time...

Flying squirrel sp. on infrared camera trap
(5/11, South Bristol NY)
Even the bait station was less than spectacular.... that is until we switched baits. I started out using the homemade bait we put in the Sherman traps for small mammals. Apparently, the recipe for this bait is a Clinton Krager (another FLCC instructor) special formula that I will describe more in my next post. It sure worked with the small mammals and certainly worked for us at the camera trap as well. We got several pictures each day at that camera including a melanistic gray squirrel, but it wasn't producing the quantities of photos I was expecting. I decided we needed to change things up. In the bottom of the Rubbermaid tote where we store the small mammal supplies I found a jar of Squirrel Paste dated 1999! Made by Havahart, this stuff was AWESOME! We captured photos of 4 different squirrel species at one camera in one night including my first ever flying squirrel camera trap picture. The paste is visible in the center of the photo and the squirrel is at the top right. Not the greatest capture I have ever had, but it is a flying squirrel none the less. The paste smelled vaguely of chocolate and raspberries. Perhaps some of that is due to the fermentation over the last decade. Anyone with experience with FRESH Squirrel Paste is welcome to comment.

(5/11, South Bristol NY)
Overall we captured photos of 14 species in eight days:
Striped Skunk
Eastern Cottontail
White-footed Mouse sp.
Gray Squirrel
Red Squirrel
Eastern Chipmunk
Flying Squirrel sp.
White-tailed Deer
American Crow
Wild Turkey

Each night, I presented a short "Best of..." PowerPoint for the day's captures. Then we calculated capture effort for the 24 hours. I started by asking the students to calculate the amount of "camera hours" for that day. In other words, if we had one camera out for 24 hours, that would be 24 camera hours. If we had two cameras out for the entire 24 hour period, that would be 48 camera hours. So nine cameras produced 216 hours of effort each day. We could then divide the number of photos into that to see how many photos we accumulated per hour of effort. We discussed the usefulness of this to a manager or a researcher in determining how many cameras would be needed for a specific project.

Clinton Krager attracted to Squirrel Paste
(5/11, South Bristol NY)
All in all, I think the camera trapping unit was a success at camp. Many students participated in camera trapping for the first time while others saw applications beyond just taking photos of deer to target come hunting season. My new challenge is to get a bat photo before the month is out! Next post will be Sherman trapping with Clinton Krager.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Conservation Field Camp 2011: Mist netting

One of the required courses for our Conservation students at Finger Lakes Community College is Conservation Field Camp (CON 190). Field Camp is held at Cutler Boy Scout Camp in South Bristol, NY. This year, we had about 110 students that rotated through four different days of activities: Aquatics, Forest Ecology, Wildlife and Forest Products. As part of the "Wildlife" faculty,  I spent the week catching small mammals in Sherman traps, mist netting for birds and calculating our capture effort using camera traps. This coming week, I will present the highlights.

Mist netting at Camp is more of a demonstration than anything else. I set out two 10 meter nets for about an hour. I average about two to three birds per day, just enough to show the students how this is done. We band the birds, micro age them and check for brood patches and cloacal protuberances. This year, I tried a new location at Camp, amidst some good brush. I caught American Redstart, Baltimore Oriole, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Great Crested Flycatcher, Song Sparrow and Chestnut-sided Warbler.

Baltimore Oriole, South Bristol, NY
(5/11, Photo by Erin Lord)
Baltimore Oriole: Here is a nice male oriole. He had a fully protruding cloaca, telling me that he was in breeding condition. I am holding the bird in what is called the photographer's grip here to show off his plumage to the students. I aged him as an SY (Second Year) male due to the incomplete molt of his tail feathers. Birds are powerful. They are dynamic and, like this one, can be beautiful works of art. When banding for an audience, I never forget that I may be the one talking, but the bird is the real star.

Baltimore Oriole, South Bristol, NY
(5/11, Photo by Erin Lord)

Next post, I will explain more about the mist netting process. For now, enjoy the photos from one of the wildlife techs for Field Camp, Erin Lord.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Springtails: A Spring Tale....

I attended a tracking workshop in Chesterfield, Mass. yesterday. The class was run by Kent Hicks and organized through the Walnut Hill Tracking & Nature Center . I learned a ton and hope to blog about that soon, but have just enough time to show you something interesting we found while looking for tracks. Perhaps someone out there can help explain what we found.

Springtails (Chesterfield, Mass. 5/11)
Let me start by saying that I seem to have had some sort of mental block when it comes to tracking my entire life. I have decided to tackle that deficiency with a vengeance this past year and have learned tons from the various classes I have attended. This Saturday, Kent led his class of 6 students through various terrains in search of human tracks. We tracked through leaves, over a dirt road and in the grass. I felt like I had to focus the entire 5 hours in order to stay up with the rest of the class! I had noticed a few instances where there were these little black dots on the leaves in the forest. It seemed like each time I saw the black it was under hemlock trees. And each time, the black dots were in a semi-circle, like they were spores or seeds that had fallen from the branches. The black didn't show up as well in this first photo as I would have liked. You are looking for a small arc that is in the upper center of the photo below the moss covered rock.

Springtails (Chesterfield, Mass. 5/11)
At the very end of the class, as we were being called back to trail back, I found one last arc of black dots and decided to investigate. To my surprise, the dots were moving. Nick correctly identified them as springtails. I assume the semi-circle pattern was due to them dispersing from a central location. I could calculate backwards from the curve of the arc where the epicenter was and if I knew how fast these guys were moving I could deduce how long ago they had hatched. Here is the best photo I could manage with my camera. Still, not a lot of detail.

Springtails (Chesterfield, Mass. 5/11)
Here is a leaf as found, covered in springtails. What can you tell me about them? The little I read says they have six legs but are not insects. I also see that there are many species of these critters. Can anyone tell me which species these are? Why have I never noticed them before? The conditions were I found these are different from the Finger Lakes region where I live, so perhaps I was in the right place at the right time. Did the wet spring have anything to do with this? I will have to research some of this when I have the time.

Springtails (Chesterfield, Mass. 5/11)
Here is the same leaf after I poked it a bit with my finger. You can see the response by the springtails. Now, if someone can devise a camera trap that could take pics of stuff this small, I will buy the first one! :)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Last Bear Den Measurements of the Season...

I spent the first day of "summer vacation" taking measurements from a few of the bear dens we were unable to get to earlier. These dens have been empty for over a month now but we still wanted to gather data on their dimensions and make-up. I will feature the most unusual den here:

Measuring dimensions of a
black bear den (5/11)
This den was unusual for two reasons. First, it was constructed by hollowing out a portion of an old round bale of hay. The bale had sat for a few seasons and was wet and grown over. The den was discovered by a man looking for shed antlers in March. The bear that made this cozy den was a female and she had three cubs. My students and I were unable to take the measurements when the DEC visited the first time to collar the adult and weigh the cubs. In this first photo, Erin Lord, recent FLCC graduate, is measuring the height of the cavity created by this bear. I took a few steps back when snapping this photo in order to show the cover associated with this den. Remember though, that when the bear was using this comfy straw house, there was no greenery present.

The next few photos give a real sense of what this bear chose/created for her and her cubs.

Measuring the height of a
bear den excavated from hay bale (5/11)

Here, Erin measures the height of the entrance. You can see the hay here from the old round bale. Can you also tell that there is a depression beyond the lip of the opening? In other words, the den entrance was smaller than the excavated cavity.

Measuring the depth of a bear den (5/11)

Well, field work isn't always comfy-cozy. Here Erin has to reach in to the back of the den while reading the tape measure to determine depth of the den. It was raining. There were many thorns. And although it is very unlikely that a bear would reuse a den, I am reluctant to modify the surroundings. I could have gotten a better photo by removing that vine in the foreground, but we made the decision to leave the dens as we found them.

Sizing up a bear den (5/11)

What we DID decide, was that there was no problem leaving our scent all over (and inside) the dens since we are many months away from any bear needing a den :)

Black bear den in close proximity to an active rail line (5/11)

The second factor that made this den unusual was how close it sat to a set of train tracks. I paced it off at 45 feet from the den to the rail. In this photo, the den is immediately behind Sasha, Jeb and Erin. The south side of the den was bordered by a corn field. 

Train passing a black bear den (5/11)

As we were remarking on what it might be like to den so close to a set of train tracks, we heard a distant whistle. As the train passed, we felt the deep rumble through our feet and I imagined what it felt like for the bear and her cubs every time a train passed. What did they make of it? Were the trains running when she selected this site? Was the lure of that soft bed a fair trade off for the multiple disturbances? Speaking for myself, I would rather have the peace and quiet....

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The end of the semester...

This was the last full week of the semester for us and therefore is ALWAYS a hectic time. Add to that my daughter's tuba solo and basketball tournament and it was particularly bad. But twice I found time to post only to discover that Blogger was having a worse week than I and was unable to add new content. My window of free time is about to close again but I thought I would take a quick moment to salute the end of another successful semester.

Humpback whale (Newfoundland, 7/03)
 I have been a teacher my entire adult life. While an undergrad, I worked each summer as a camp counselor. As a public school teacher, I taught science to every grade from 6th to 12th. While at Utah State University, I was a TA each trimester and while I lived in Hawaii, I taught full-time at the local high school, adjuncted at the community college on Saturdays and taught Sunday school at our church. On Tuesday, I will have completed my 17th year at FLCC. I hope I never take my career for granted. I hope I attack each new semester with the same enthusiasm I did my first. I hope I never stop learning alongside my students.

I did not enter college thinking I was going to be a teacher. I was not particularly fond of high school and was a bit of a trouble maker. It was more of a fluke that I stumbled upon education as a profession. But those are stories for another day...

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mothers Day!

Black bear mother and cubs
(Wayland, NY 11/09)
It is only fitting that I use today's entry to honor the important role mothers play in the world of mammals. The term "mammals" is derived from "mammary gland" that makes mammals unique. The females of all mammal species produce milk for their young. As I tell my students, producing milk implies a whole host of other behaviors. For example, mama mammals must be good caregivers or the milk would be useless. Being good caregivers often means that the build a nest of some kind. It may mean that they protect their young from danger. And in the case of larger mammals, it means the investment of many, many months. Take black bears for example. Black bears will care for a set of young for up to 15 months. In New York, cubs are born primarily in January (I have several posts regarding black bear den visits. Search for black bear label or go to: for a posting that shows some cubs). After leaving the den, the mother bear spends the entire spring, summer and fall teaching her cubs the ways of the world, especially how to find food. When the cubs are born, they weigh less than a pound. In the camera trap photo above, courtesy of my father, you can see that they have grown substantially. Here in Western and Central NY, the cubs can reach 100 pounds by November. That is an amazing rate of growth! The photo was taken on November 1st and these bears will be heading to the den soon. When they emerge from the den, they will be called yearlings. By June, they will have dispersed to their own territories.

Tapir at clay lick
(Manu National Park, Peru 8/08)
Black bears are so small when they are born because the fetus spends very little time developing. That is NOT the case with our next critter. Meet the tapir. Tapirs are pregnant for 13 months before having a single calf. This odd looking animal was photographed in the Amazonian jungle of Peru. We were specifically staked out at this particular mud pit in hopes of a tapir visiting. Tapirs come to these clay licks in order to ingest mud. The theory is that the mud helps the herbivore deal with some of the toxins that are found in the leaves they eat. According to our guide, this was the first observed visit of this baby at the clay lick. I would like to believe that this was its very first visit; that we were there to witness an important moment in this tapir's education. Regardless, it was an important moment in MY education. This was my first wild tapir encounter, and to be able to see a mother and young was just more than I had hoped for. The pattern on the young tapir affords it a little extra camouflage as it learns the ways of their predator filled world. But tapirs are not the only babies with a unique pattern...

White-tailed deer fawns (Seneca Falls, NY 7/10)
I would guess my readers are more familiar with white-tailed deer than tapirs. So am I. We are only a few weeks away from the birth of this year's crop of fawns. In our part of NY, the last week of May is the peak of fawn births (so many fawns are born over Memorial Day weekend, I think we should rename it Labor Day :) ). The spots fade in the fall, but throughout the summer you can spot a fawn by its spots. Here is my favorite camera trap fawn portrait. It has an abstract look to it...

So, a big THANK YOU to all moms out there, no matter what the species. Every mammal owes his or her early success to a mom that provided food, safety and lessons on life. It was our job to follow and learn. Thanks Mom!
Raccoon family (Seneca Falls, NY 9/09)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cat Track Fever III: Oddities on the trail of wild cats

My two previous posts have focused on showing you typical tracks in order to teach the basics. However, we saw our share of odd things during the week-long workshop on mountain lion tracking. Below is a sampling of some of the more interesting things we found:
Bobcat tracks with nails distended
(Montana, 2/11)
1. Bobcat nails. On the last day, we found some relatively fresh bobcat tracks and followed them for about a hundred yards. Along the trail, there was a rise. The bobcat stopped and sat near the top, just where the view would be the best. The 'cat resumed his travels and as it went down the steep icy slope, it distended its toes and extended its nails thus leaving some very odd looking tracks. In my last post, I showed how a cat's toes point forward in the track while a dog's toes point in a sprawling pattern. This bobcat is purposefully sprawling its toes in order to gain better traction.

Having nails show in a track is also more typical of a dog than a cat. But check out the marks that the nails left. They are thin slices rather than the more blunt marks made by a dog's nails. I can remember thinking at the time that they looked like slices from Samurai swords. I am not sure why I came up with that particular imagery, since I have never seen a Samurai sword in action.

Bobcat imperfect step (Montana, 2/11)
2. Bobcat imperfect step. While walking, it is typical for a cat to place its hind foot perfectly into the track left by the front foot. This is called "direct registering". However, not every single step lands perfectly. Here is an example of an imperfect step that makes the cat look like it had five toes.

If you look carefully at this track, you can see the mis-shaped foot pad. The toe that is all the way to the right is actually from the front foot. The rear foot came down a little off center and covered all of the rest of the front track. But that is nothing compared to the next photo.

Bobcat imperfect step showing heel print
(Montana, 2/11)
Here, we not only have an imperfect step, but we can see the entire heel pad of the hind foot. This is the part of the foot that normally does not touch the ground while the cat walks. However, the snow was deep and with the slight changes in topography, there were a few places where the whole foot left an imprint. This one is particularly odd because it combines the heel print with the imperfect step so it leaves a human-like five-toed print. One final thought: These are good examples of how a single track can be deceiving! Look at trails whenever possible...

Tail slap from mountain lion
(Montana, 2/11)
3. Mountain lion marks. Before I took this mountain lion tracking workshop, I had the impression that I would be seeing tail drag marks as a normal part of a cougar's trail. However, that was not the case. We tracked numerous lions over several different days for miles in deep snow and in all that time I only found a single mark in the snow that I could identify as from a lion's tail. I would call this a tail slap rather than a drag mark. There is a lot going on in this photo. I have to admit to not being able to decipher all of the action...

The lion is moving towards the bottom of the photo. Note the foot drags, bit tail drags in the trail. Also, see that the lion left an impression of its body in the snow, almost as if it crouched. Combine the body print with the tail slap and I had the impression (no pun intended) that the cat was startled or otherwise reacted quickly to something. Did he (track size indicated male) hear or see something of interest? After this brief oddity, the trail resumed its "normal" pattern.