The right kit for working with wildlife
By Ron Bury
My principal ecological perspective is presence/absence surveying for red squirrels and the elusive Scottish wildcat. I have been recording squirrels in the highland region of Scotland for several years and following a recent move to the Glen Affric National Nature Reserve area I decided to also focus on wildcat because of their rarity and endangered status.
All of my work is towards finding and recording indications of the presence of these animals and in the first instance involves getting a feeling for an area by generally exploring the woods, forests, hills and farmland, until I feel as comfortable and familiar with the environment as the animals that live there. Once I've got a mental map of the topography of the area I can start to look at it more from the point of view of the resident wildlife and develop an understanding of where different species will be feeding and breeding throughout the year.
Whilst I'm doing all this familiarisation I have a basic kit that I carry with me all the time. First and foremost is the stuff that I think of as life support, which will be familiar to anyone who tramps remote places for hours or days at a time. The north of Scotland is famous for its ability to throw all four seasons at you in a day, at almost any time of the year; so anyone who travels unprepared is, in my opinion, asking for trouble.
Usually my forays are anything from four or five hours up to long days, so camping isn't normally an issue; but being able to bivouac in an emergency certainly is, and for that I carry a couple of ex services ground sheets/capes, together with a small gas stove, canteen and enough food to sustain comfort into the next day.
Knowing where you are.
A map, compass and GPS are obvious requirements, although I don't rely on the latter for navigation because forests and mountains can cause inaccuracies. I have a Garmin etrex Summit which is a tough little unit and I use it for logging sightings, tracks and signs; but because I worry about lost information I use a note pad to record everything the Garmin tells me.
I print off a section from Memory Map software for the area I'm working in, which I can write notes on if I want, without destroying a bought map.
Observations and Visual Records.
Most people will opt for a pair of binoculars for distance observation and I have always found that 8x40s are the most useful to carry all the time. I have a problem with eye muscles when I try to view through both eyes under magnification so I carry a 10x50 monocular made by Barr and Stroud. This is impressively light and easy to use with good light gathering due to the 50mm objective but is completely let down by the case (literally) as the belt loop stitching is useless.
I carry an Olympus E620 DSLR camera with a single zoom lens which covers everything from close up to medium telephoto, and a small scale rule which I place in the image area when recording tracks and feeding signs et.c.
A couple of years ago I got interested in the use of Infra Red Remote cameras, so that I could watch several places at once without the need to be there. The right camera offers minimal disturbance and influence upon animal behaviour; and used properly can dramatically reduce the amount of work required to gather x amount of data. Remote wildlife cameras or trail cameras were originally used by hunters for tracking game movement and are now becoming very popular among ecologists and the broader scientific community for researching everything from animal presence to river erosion using time lapse.
I tested and experimented with a number of different makes before eventually adopting the Ltl Acorn series cameras. Like all such devices they have their issues but on a balance of specifications, size, weight, price and performance I decided that this was the camera for me. I don't have the space in this article to go into much detail, but a visit to my web site at www.ronburyswildlife.com will give you most of the information you'll ever need about these cameras.
Analysing data and creating inventory.
Arguably the most time consuming part of any ecological census is sorting out the information you gather during the project. Regardless of the methodologies you use, data will have to be crunched.
My own personal view is stick with a windows based system for a computer, as it will prove the most adaptable and compatible for most software you are likely to employ; such as excel spreadsheets et.c.
For processing and analysing digital images I have used Paint Shop Pro for many years prior to its joining the Corel stable and apart from being easier to use than Adobe Photoshop, it does much the same job for a fraction of the cost.
VideoPad Video Editor from NCH Software is a great, low cost programme for editing and producing video files; and VideoMach from Gromada.com is a free multimedia converter software useful for creating videos from stills and time lapse sequences.
Scottish Wildcat Association (SWA) - www.scottishwildcats.co.uk
Highland Red Squirrel Group - www.redsquirrelsofthehighlands.co.uk
Corel Paint Shop Pro - http://www.corel.com/corel/allProducts.jsp
VideoPad Video Editor - http://www.nchsoftware.com/videopad/index.html
VideoMach - http://gromada.com/videomach/