Camera trapping in a tropical rainforest
This guest blog comes from Frank Fleming, who runs Ocho Verde; a private wildlife preserve & artist retreat within 117 acres of Southern Costa Rica's rainforest.
Nearly six years ago we put a Bushnell camera trap in a forest in Costa Rica. The very first night, Christmas Eve, we got an image of an ocelot. We were hooked on Camera trapping.
One of Ocho Verde's first ocelot images (Image: Ocho Verde/Frank Fleming)
Since then, we have expanded our project to twenty cameras. We are the first to use wireless cellular cameras to transmit images via email from Central America to the United States. We are part of camera trap organisations in Costa Rica and the Zoological Society of London who share our images and videos around the world via social media and YouTube videos. We have made notable discoveries of interesting animal behaviour. We have catalogued rare and common animals so that going forward we have solid evidence of ranges. What we are most excited about is inspiring others to set up cameras and learning that the diversity of animal life often exceeds what was expected by a wide margin.
An ZSL Instant Wild notification with images from Ocho Verde (Image; Ocho Verde/Frank Fleming)
So how did we get here?
Our property in Costa Rica consists of nearly 100 acres of mountainous rainforest, so a single camera was of not much use. We have a diversity of habitat so we needed more cameras. This allowed us to achieve two things; we were able to see what animals used each habitat and we learned how certain individuals wandered through the forest.
A successful Indiegogo campaign provided funding for 12 cameras and we were off. One of our contributors and her husband are crew members on “The Walking Dead” TV show. They provided the funding for Walk-About Camera (a play on their last name and country of birth), which provided us with video footage of 3 Jaguarundi cats on the prowl, and our most popular video on YouTube to date.
Jaguarundi wander past a camera trap (click for video)
Difficulties in the Tropics
Camera Traps are obviously designed to be out in the elements for extended lengths of time. By far and away water and humidity are the number one killer of our cameras in Costa Rica. In November 2016 alone, our area received nearly a METRE of rain. We rarely have cameras that survive more than one year due rain. Fortunately, the camera companies do honour their warranties and we are able to replace the damaged cameras with warranty replacement cameras.
The dry space provided by the cameras make an excellent home for ants. Ants can do damage in multiple ways. They can just gum up the electrical mechanisms inside the camera as the seem to be adept at finding an entrance into a camera. They also have been know to eat away the rubber seal protecting the camera from rain.
The small hood over the lens makes a nice dry space for a single spider to live. The web and spider eventually block the images from being recorded and you just get multiple blurry pictures or video.
Rainforest understory plants grow very fast. We often visit the cameras after a few months only to find thousands of images of a fast growing leaves triggering the camera or obscuring any animals that may be present.
We used to have a problem with poorly made alkaline batteries sweating or leaking fluids which shorts out the cameras and render them useless.
The rainforest is a very dark place. Thick canopy trees make confuse camera sensors so it takes a lot of tinkering to get the settings right. Even when the setting are correct, the intense sunlight often causes contrast problems for these simple cameras. Technology has improved some and has help even out the bad picture to good picture ratio.
While we have had poachers on the cameras, we have had very few stolen. I think we have lost 3 in six years. On one rainy night, we were alerted to unknown barking dogs in the forest. As the clock approached midnight we started to receive email images from the wireless cameras of poachers with machetes. They got uncomfortably close to house before they headed back up into the jungle and off the property. They turned cameras but eventually left the on the trees, but it made there were a few tense hours as we watched the phone waiting for the next image to appear.
Poachers at Ocho Verde (Image; Ocho Verde/Frank Fleming)
Often we encounter slippery muddy trails that lead to bumps and bruises from falls. During certain times of the year branches crack and fall as do entire trees. I have had a few close calls with large branches falling on narrow trails that would have easily killed me. Insects and stinging plants are common in the jungle and we rarely return unscathed. Ticks and chiggers and bees and ants are the most common insect problems.
We do have plenty of tarantulas, but they’re easy to see and relatively harmless. We are on guard for wandering spiders which are present and if bitten will require medical care. The most dangerous animal we encounter is the fer-de-lance viper, which is large, can have a nasty attitude, camouflaged, and will deliver a potent dose of very bad venom. I had an encounter with one in July while setting up a wireless camera. Scary stuff.
Animals, Animal, Animals
By far, the most common animals we see is what is known as an agouti. They are large ground dwelling rodents that meander back and forth in front of the cameras, often posing or peeing. I am certain that they are responsible for 60 percent of all images. We have recently started to place the cameras off the ground to avoid agoutis.
Agouti; cute but common! (Image; Ocho Verde/Frank Fleming)
While cute, they use up a lot of battery power and in the case of wireless cameras, they use up our data plan.
The tamandua also known as an anteater is a common forest inhabitant. We see them on the ground and on trees. While most of our images are from night-time, they are active during the day so you’ll never know where you may see them. Baby tamanduas ride on their mother’s backs until they are large enough to fend for themselves.
A baby tamandua hitches a ride (click for video)
We have 3 types of monkeys on our property. We have never seen Howler monkeys on the camera traps as they are usually not that close to the ground. They are easy to hear when in the forest as the ‘Howls’ carry very far. Red-Backed Squirrel monkeys while very endangered are locally common to our part of Costa Rica and our property.
They rarely come down to the ground as they are easy prey for many animals. The White-Faced Capuchin monkeys are often seen near the ground. They are omnivorous and we are amazed that we see them exploring the forest floor. They have a habit of shaking branches if you get too close to them in the trees and often weak branches fall as they are intentionally trying to scare you away.
A rare tail-less capuchin monkey (Image; Ocho Verde/Frank Fleming)
We have 3 types of cats on the property. Ocelots are the most common and we see multiple individuals on nearly every camera. They are said to be active day and night but on our property we have only seen daytime ocelots in four or five images.
An ocelot captured on camera - there are multiple individual cats at Ocho Verde (Image; Ocho Verde/Frank Fleming)
Jaguarundi are strange cats. They look strange and act strange. They are active only in the daylight and our images suggest that as well. Earlier this year I was contacted by the BBC about filming jaguarundi on our property for their special on the Cats of the World. They were looking for a place that had reliable jaguarundis. These small cats have enormous ranges (similar to jaguars) for their size and food needs (they eat almost anything) making them difficult to predict. They seem to meander through the forest where as other cats routinely stick to one path.
A reliable jaguarundi? (Image; Ocho Verde/Frank Fleming)
In the last 18 months, we have seen margay cats on the camera traps. There are more arboreal than ocelots, but do seem to spend a good bit of time on the ground. We are excited to see them in our forest.
We don’t believe we have any puma/panther or jaguars as we do not have any peccaries or brocket deer which is a good part of their diet. They would also thin out the population of agoutis...
The most entertaining animal that we have is the tayra. It bounds around almost carefree and seems to be or act like they are in charge of the forest. Tayras are mustelids related to honey badgers and pine martens. They are omnivorous and while most often found on the ground, they are very good climbers.
The entertainer - a tayra captured on camera trap (Image; Ocho Verde/Frank Fleming)
In summary, we found our camera trapping experience to be incredibly rewarding. With any project, you never know where it will lead you and as a citizen scientist camera trapper I can’t wait to look at the next group of images from an unchecked camera.
You can follow along with the Ocho Verde project via their blog. If you have any questions, you can contact Frank directly.