Archive for May, 2012
A new Sony W55 trail camera catches the big cats
On May 19th (my birthday) 2012, I decided to celebrate in the forest after returning to Thailand from a two-week photographic safari in Africa. It was once again a great trip to the Dark Continent and I managed to photograph the ‘Big Five’ (three times now) plus a multitude of other animals including some rare species like black-mane lion, black rhino, striped hyena, sable antelope and bush baby. I also got many other common animals like elephant, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, warthogs and antelopes. I also managed to catch Mount Kilimanjaro when the clouds lifted. Kenya is absolutely one of the greatest natural spectacles on the planet and I look forward to returning next year.
A male leopard caught by a Sony W55 homebrew trail camera trap
However, there are still a few wild places in Thailand that harbor many magnificent Asian creatures such as tiger, leopard, elephant, gaur, banteng plus many other mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and plant species. Huai Kha Khaeng is one of the top wildlife sanctuaries in Southeast Asia, and the world for that matter.
Leopard caught again checking out the camera
To get there, it takes about five hours by vehicle from Bangkok and is tucked away in the forested mountains of central-western Thailand in Uthai Thani province. I have written many stories about this place and its wildlife, and it never fails to live up to its status as a ‘World Heritage Site’ but this time it turned out even better than my wildest dreams.
A young female tiger caught by the Sony w55 trail cam
My birthday wish to catch a tiger and leopard up-close with one of my camera traps was granted by the ‘spirits of the forest’ and all the hard work building the cams, setting them up, waiting while they soaked and then the pain-staking collection was truly worthwhile.
My favorite shot of this young tiger
Arriving early in the morning, I got everything ready and went out to check the cams. One location has been extremely productive and had been very lucky catching tiger and leopard almost every time (three months in a row). When I went through the photos on my new Sony W55/SSII/1020/3 AA externals, I could not resist shouting out loud with one big hurrah. A leopard had stopped at the cam for a few shots and a night later, a tiger posed for a whole series of close-ups from the low-down set-up. I was speechless for a few seconds.
Check-out the ticks and markings on the right ear
Remember this tiger eye and ear
This game trail is situated deep in the protected area and many animals use it to get to a mineral lick and waterhole. The balance of nature is in full force here and ‘eat or be eaten’ carries on everyday. There is a fallen tree right across the trail about 500 meters from the dirt road some 15 kilometers in the sanctuary.
More ticks and note the wound on the left shoulder
Both of these big cats jump this log as they hunt for prey but usually a few days or two apart. The leopard is a very mature male but the tiger is a young female that seems to may have finally left her mother. I have a close-up shot of this same cat captured together in March and identified it as the same tiger two months ago by markings on the right ear. What a coincidence!
Stripe-pattern on right side used to identify this cat
All I can say is: this has been the best birthday in many moons and I know that my prayers are really answered from time to time. It is hoped this young tiger will continue to live out its life in safety and carry on its legacy as the world’s largest cat. Huai Kha Khaeng is truly a remarkable place and I have not even scratched the surface of this amazing wilderness!
‘A Needle in a Haystack’: A Sony S600 catches a leopard eating prey
Sometimes, things happen that are unexplainable and spooky. That goes for the following story. I have just returned from Africa and while on safari, was able to slip two camera traps in the bush (a Sony S600 and W7) at several locations. But the weirdest setup was in Tsavo East National Park in Southern Kenya not far from the infamous ‘Man-eaters of Tsavo’ site.
To get a perspective of how huge this place really is (Tsavo – East and West) is the largest national park in the world at more than 43,000 square kilometers (the size of Wales, Israel and New Jersey). Finding a leopard is like finding the proverbial ‘needle in a haystack’.
Leopard’s prey: A wild cat and a black-backed jackal
One morning as my companion, driver and guide Patrick Mjoroge and I were out on a game drive (as they are known), he spotted two leopard kills hanging in a tree by the side of the road. We stopped and saw a wild cat wedged on top of a jackal in the branches, and both ‘dead as door nails’.
Sony S600/1010/SSII camera trap on the ground at the leopard tree
The big cat for a later meal stashed these two small predators and so we waited for a while but in vain. Then it dawned on me: why not just throw my S600/SSII/1010 on the ground in a hollow piece of dead wood pointed up at the big tree. It was worth a shot! Later that day, we drove by several times but the leopard was no-where to be seen.
A full-size image of the African leopard in a tree eating its prey
The carrion was still there so I decided to let it soak overnight until the next morning thinking the carnivore might come at night to eat its prize. I took a few shots of the hanging dead and the set-up, and we departed quickly not wanting to hang around obviously. The leopard on the ground is extremely fast and I was not sure how close it might be waiting, and we might just turn into dinner.
Bright and early the next morning, we drove directly to the tree and found the two kills gone. A small tree branch had fallen right in front of the cam and I thought I had missed the cat for sure. As I scanned through the images, I could see nothing but a large leg in several frames. A giraffe had almost stepped on the cam before we arrived and I could see its head up close to where the kills had been. I was a bit disappointed.
Giraffe at the leopard’s tree
Then, I decided to scroll through again and noticed one frame was darker just before the giraffe shots. I zoomed in and almost jumped out of the truck. Low and behold, I saw spots in the crotch of the tree and then saw the leopard’s head looking down towards the cam with the jackal in its mouth. The big cat had visited late in the afternoon and the background sky was nice and blue. I was speechless for a few moments until I could talk again.
Giraffe very close to the S600
I began jumping up and down in the back until Patrick told me to calm down. I showed him the shot and we both began celebrating this remarkable camera trap event. It definitely was worth several rounds of drinks or ‘sundowners’ as they are known in Africa later at the bar in the tented-camp.
Leopard close-up eating the jackal
Weird is an under-statement and the ‘spirits of the wild’ had answered my wishes. I have cropped and enhanced the leopard shot so it can be seen quite clearly. Remarkable is all I can say and the little S600 did a herculean job of catching a ghost!
More set-ups to follow: The S600 also traps hyena, baboon, impala, waterbuck, and the W7 catches elephant plus a bushbaby in a hotel bar getting the largest and one of the smallest mammals found in Africa. It was an amazing trip to the ‘Dark Continent’ as it was known in the old days, and hope everyone enjoys these camera trap photographs.
New camera trap gets a leopard and tiger first time out
Sony W55 in Otter 2000 case with a Snapshotsniper SSII board and 3 AA externals
The feeling of accomplishment is the best part of building a ‘homebrew’ trail camera and then sharing the photos with others. I am extremely lucky to be working in a place that is one of the top tiger reserves in the world, and is extremely productive for camera trapping. It is not only the tigers, but also other predators like leopard, wild dog and jackal, and their prey species such as deer, pig and wild cattle that makes Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary truly special.
A leopard caught by the Sony W55 camera trap
When I first built this unit, I had one fallen tree across a trail in mind and it proved to be the right choice. I designed the cam to slip the 10mm ‘Python’ locking cable around the horizontal log. One of the first animals to jump over was a mature male leopard several nights after the setup. This frame filling shot is what I was hoping for.
Leopard caught again as it went down the trail
Several nights later, a tiger went over and the W55 caught its rear end as it disappeared down the trail. A female muntjac (barking deer) was also caught. This was after only a 15-day soak and shows the tremendous biodiversity of this amazing place. This unit definitely worked as designed: to scout a game trail with a low-down set-up.
Tiger caught going down game trail several nights later
The next order of business now is to build a Nikon ML-3 ‘active-infrared’ controlled SLR Nikon F5 film camera using Fuji Provia 400 ISO slide film, and a Nikon D2x DSLR and both can fire five shots a second in ‘continuous mode’ with several wireless SB600s or SB28s. These two cameras are my old prime camera bodies that I have kept over the years (they were really expensive), and I have resurrected them for this project. The Nikon D2x is now in the Nikon shop for an overhaul but will be finished real soon.
Female muntjac (barking deer) caught by the camera trap
My main objective is to catch the cats making the jump. I will eventually be installing both units close together on either side of this log about a meter or so away from the trail. The sensors need to be slightly angled away so as to activate them a bit early. Both cameras will be using an 18-35mm wide-angle lens (the zoom setting of the lens will be adjusted when installed) and that should help to catch these quick-acting animals. The units have to be precise and fast, and fire off a good string of shots with several flashes.
Muntjac spooked by the camera’s flash
The only negative aspect with active infrared at night; the first shot will not trip the flash but follow up shots will be OK. But I can also hard wire a flash for each cam with a sync-cable in conjunction with the wireless flashes and that should be enough. I will also experiment with a ‘passive infrared’ system that can wake-up the flashes in time for the shot. However, this is a hit and miss situation whereas active infrared is usually spot on and will trip immediately after the beam is broken.
The system will be modular so sensors and camera are separate, and they will be ‘plug and play’ units. That’s the plan anyway for this absolutely amazing wildlife game trail. I have all the parts ready; just finding time to put it all together is the next trick.
Got a very busy schedule with a trip to Africa and the States for the next couple of months. But I will be getting the SLR and DSLR camera traps up and running shortly after getting back to Thailand, and of course will post the builds. Most important: they have to be ‘elephant proof’ but I have that covered as usual.
Posted from Tsavo National Park, southern Kenya, Africa