Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mama Homemaker

Recently, while up at the family lodge near Mariposa, I decided to put my new homebrew camera traps through some ringers.

One feature I've been wanting to try is the ability of the new cams to remember their zoom position when powered off. I think it could be handy for trapping smaller animals, and for sets where you want the camera a distance back from the scene.

And, in theory, zooming should be better than cropping. I.e., given the same f-stop, ISO and flash distance, glass optics should always trump pixels for resolving an image. Well, at least until they can get those pixels down to photon size. :)

But a side effect of zooming is a smaller field of view. I.e., you're much more likely to get triggers with animals out of the shot, chopped off, or in less-than-ideal crops. But, perhaps that trade-off might be worthwhile now and then.

For my first experiment, I put a new cam on an old, early 1900s outhouse that is now the happy home of a Dusky-footed Woodrat, Neotoma fuscipes. Woodrats construct amazing middens out of sticks, leaves, rocks & pinecones, and while they often build in the forest on stumps, or around the bases or trees, they also like old structures, and will merrily move in to man-mades.

Btw - the native woodrats should not be confused with the icky, non-native Rattus Rats or Norwegian Rats that infests ships and sewers and cities and such. Native Neotoma woodrats are clean mammals that live solitary lives, and are great propagators & cultivators of native plants. They're also a necessary link in the food chain for coyotes, bobcats, foxes and owls.

Here's the ole 3-seater outhouse now occupado by a woodrat:

active woodrat nest in outhouse

(how bad does your cooking have to be for you to need to be ready for 3 on the toilet at once?)

We've tried to camera trap the outhouse woodrat before, and even once put foil squares down to see if it would integrate them into the den. As you can see, the Moultrie IR-flash trail camera took recognizable photos - but only just:

woodrat at outhouse ignoring foil

outhouse woodrat

woodrats in outhouse

However, my new 8 mega pixel, white-flash homebrew cam trap, did much better. Here's a series of uncropped photos it caught. This was at ~ 6 feet (2 meters), with the full 3x optical zoom (to 112mm). I also biased the EV to -0.7 to mitigate flash blowout over the short distance. Ideally, I'd like to cut back the flash, but these cameras don't allow it. I've been playing with putting translucent plastic over the flash to reduce it, but haven't refined that yet, so did w/o in this test.

In the first shot we can see that it's a Mama woodrat in the outhouse! She has a youngin' latched on underneath. Baby woodrats often pal around with Mom by staying attached to a teat:

mama woodrat w/ baby on board

Check out that fuzzy tail - a trademark of woodrats - it's not pink and "scaly" ala the non-natives. There's even a species in Cali with a lush, bushy tail (Neotoma cinerea).

After dropping off the babe, Mama came back - this time to show us a little den building. Here she is hauling in a stick from the forest:

mama comes back solo with stick

Once in the scene, she shows her "kill" to the camera:

shows stick to camera

Then she sizes it up, and gets ready to move it into the outhouse:

preps to move stick

She takes the twig to a safehole in the baseboard, where she commonly comes & goes:

takes stick to baseboard hole

But it can't fit and gets stuck (to her obvious embarrassment):

stuck stick

So she wrangles the stick around and through the outhouse "main" door:

takes stick through door instead

And then gives the camera one last glance as she heads off for another one:


Not bad for a first test of the homebrews. Thanks Mama Woodrat!  :)

For comparison, reference & fun, here's more photos of Neotoma fuscipes and their middens:

woodrat midden

big ears and lil pink feet

woodrat in the wood pile

woodrat midden


Interesting factoids:
  • There seems to be some thought that Dusky-footed Woodrats, Neotoma fuscipes, and Big-Ear Woodrats, Neotoma macrotis, are the same species. Some scientists call woodrats north of Tahoe N. fuscipes, and those south N. macrotis. Since DNA typing is in the process of shuffling all of the flora and fauna taxonomies, I choose to just use Neotoma fuscipes for now.
  • Neotoma woodrats are the original "Packrats" and like to collect shiny and brightly colored objects to bring them back to their middens.
  • It's illegal in California to dig up woodrat dens without a permit.



  1. Wow, those are great photos. I really have to get me one of those! :)

    Getting all the necessary parts over here might be a bit of a mission though... I actually asked around at a few shops whether they had any Pentax Optio e50's in stock, but could not find one anywhere... Where did you get yours or how do you know what other cameras will work with the YetiCam board?

  2. AnonymousJuly 01, 2010

    Awesome series! How neat to be able to see momma in action, and close up, no less! More please!

  3. What an improvement - really nice set of photos. I'd sure like to see one of those middens.

  4. Thanks all.

    Henry - the YetiCam kits have everything but the camera. They have kits for several different cameras including the Pentax (although it hasn't been posted to their site so you have to email them). As for the Pentax cameras, because they use older models, you have to buy them through eBay or like. I got mine on eBay for about $40 each.

  5. Good work and information, RT. And a new first in wood rat photography!

  6. This is excellent coverage and information.

  7. Did you know your photos are posted here: ???

  8. Thanks Nature ID for the comments and the pointer to djibnet. Their flickr scraping is pretty tacky, but at least they include links and it got you to me. Plus, I doubt I have much legal recourse in Djibouti...

  9. Actually, I've been following your blog for awhile. I bookmarked this post, b/c love cam traps. I discovered the familiar looking photos when I was looking for more information on dusky-footed woodrats.

  10. Ah. Well then - get ready for a fun run of cam trapping posts from a new project. :)


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