Bird atlasing with camtraps

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The value of putting camtraps out for bird atlasing purposes or bird monitoring cannot be underestimated.  The accompanying pictures are of a Kori Bustard Ardeotis kori.  They were taken in an area where the bird would not have been observed easily.  The vegetation provided enough shelter (though the pictures show the bare patch where we set the camera up) and the area is very flat – so the birds would either have flushed long before being observed.  Or they would have taken to cover in the tall grass and shrubs.

At first I was a bit shy …

The pictures do not show the complete bird – but we have enough evidence of its presence in the area.  If this bird was not picked up on the camtrap it would not have been recorded in the pentad (5′ x 5′ lat/long square) for atlasing purposes for SABAP2.  Despite the fact that we had driven past the location of the camtrap frequently in the 5 days that we worked in the area.

Let me show a bit more of myself …

The pictures were taken east of Springbok in Namaqualand (Northern Cape, South Africa).

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Aardwolf – mostly a good model

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The Aardwolf Proteles cristata mostly makes a good model for the camtrap. This may well be due to its foraging behaviour of walking slowly, standing still and listening intently and looking up with cocked ears.  When it passes a camtrap within range, the photos are almost always good and clear.  The colour pattern of these animals makes them good subjects to photograph both in black and white and colour. The two pictures were taken near Springbok in Namaqualand and Laingsburg in the Karoo.

The thick mane on the nape gave these animals their Afrikaans vernacular name.  It is called Maanhaarjakkals (“mane jackal”) which is actually a misnomer as they are not related to the jackal at all.  Although they are sometimes grouped with hyaenas they are not related to these animals.  The Aardwolf is in a family of its own – Protelidae.

Aardwolf – Namaqualand

It is a nocturnal mammal living almost exclusively on termites – up to 300 000 of these creatures per night and as much as 420 kg per year.  The dentures of this animal has adapted to this specialised diet so much that it cannot crush bones or kill anything larger than insects. The animals will dug into termite mounds and then lap up their prey with large amounts of the loose sand. Unfortunately some of these animals are killed in indiscriminate ways of hunting for problem predators.

The Aardwolf occurs widely across southern Africa.  During the day they will sleep in burrows and at dusk they will start foraging.  When they leave the burrow they will quickly move to the closest midden and there they may lose up to 10% of their body weight at once.  The faeces has a sharp pine odour due to the high content of termite remainders and contains quite a lot of sand which is ingested with the termites when feeding.  Another characteristic is the high number of termite heads that can be seen in the faeces.  These middens are a telltale field sign of the presence of these animals in a particular area.

Crawling the fence – Aardwolf in the Karoo

These two photos clearly demonstrate the difference between two camera types used in the field.  The colour photo was taken with a camera (Cuddeback Attack) which employs a strobe flash (white light) to give colour pictures even at night.  The white light (like the flash of a normal camera) can be seen by animals and it may pose some disturbance to animals.  The black and white photo was taken with a Bushnell Trophy Cam with infrared flash technology of which the light cannot be seen by animals and therefore they are not disturbed.  In certain instances the colour pictures are preferred by researchers to ID the individual animal in the field.  Leopards for example each have a unique pattern in their spots and can be individually identified.

Rodent police or “lamb killer”?

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The Black-backed Jackal Canis mesomelas has a reputation in the South African stock farming community as a “lamb killer” and they are persecuted by stock farmers to a very large extent.  Despite the persecution it seems as if their numbers are increasing.  Is this the result of mismanagement of the ecosystems in South Africa over many decades?  They are normally active at dawn and dusk, but these sly animals have adapted behaviour to become completely nocturnal in the areas where they are hunted.  They learn from each other to avoid traps and poisoned baits.  The pictures below were taken on the west coast of the Northern Cape not far from Port Nolloth.

Black-backed Jackal at hole in broken fence

The same individual preparing to crawl the fence

These animals are regularly killed and eaten by larger predators like leopard and brown hyena.  Unfortunately these animals are also persecuted in farming areas as part of the human-wildlife-conflict.  Their natural enemies are dwindling in numbers and therefore cannot contribute to keep the jackal numbers under control.

On the other side of the balance: a single Black-backed Jackal annually kills huge numbers of rodents as prey and carrion forms a large proportion of their daily intake of food. Insects represent a large part of their diet as well.  The management of problem animals that kill livestock poses a huge challenge to both conservation authorities and the farming community in South Africa.

“When the birds came out to play …”

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Runway 026

While I worked in the Karoo area in the Western Cape, South Africa, I set up camtraps at certain focal points to monitor bird activity.  Focal points would include drinking troughs, cement reservoirs and wetlands and sometimes the extra camtrap will be adjusted to capture passersby.  The birds in these pictures were captured to see what passersby could be captured close to the water.  It was mounted close to the surface (about 60 cm up) with the purpose of capturing small mammals that may pass through to the water.  The White-necked Raven Corvus albicollis were having a special aspirations of becoming “fighter pilots” and the practiced their landing and take offs in view of the camera.

Taxying to the runway…

These birds are phenomenal scavengers and were around in the area in flocks of more than 80 birds at times.  They were scavenging on weak lambs and on the afterbirth where the ewes had been dropping lambs. They must have exceptional sight, for they are sailing through the air at great height and then virtually drop down vertically to the ground to where carrion is spotted.  At other times they hunt for food and tortoises are favourite prey.  The tortoise would be picked up and then dropped on rocks from a great height to crush the shell after which the contents of the shell is devoured within minutes.  I will post some pics at a later stage of what may be some hunting method not yet described.

Taking off for home

And then close to dusk they would disappear raucously to the mountains to roost for the night and in the new day return to their foraging grounds.

This is the only species of raven occurring in southern Africa.

Foraging bustards

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The Ludwig’s Bustard Neotis ludwigii is one of the large terrestrial birds occurring in southern Africa.  Normally one does not get near enough to take proper photos as these birds are very skittish and normally fly off if you are still in the distance.  After studying them for the better part of a day, I went out and set up a camtrap or two in the area they were foraging to take these pictures.  Taken near Laingsburg, Western Cape, South Africa.

Male birds can weigh up to 4.4 kg and  females 2.5 kg.  They stand up to 88 cm tall.  The Red Data Listing of this species is vulnerable (VU). For the current distribution of this species in southern Africa, see the current SABAP2 distribution map.