Thanks to Chris Brown and the Tees Ringing group for helping us to monitor the boxes and providing the BTO rings.
With the recent inclement weather it may feel like autumn is knocking at the door, but here in Durham we are still busy with breeding birds. On Wednesday, CEG members, with the assistance of Chris Brown from the Tees Ringing Group, ringed six young Barn Owl chicks from one of our larger nest boxes.
A check on the nest boxes in July revealed three very young chicks, only a couple of days old, so you can imagine our surprise when a month later there were not three but six chicks all ready for their BTO rings (See here for more information on bird ringing). It is also worth noting that with an average clutch size of 5, having such a large brood so late in the season is very unusual. 2014, however, has been a ‘bumper’ year for Barn Owls, with the nearby Tees Ringing Group ringing over 80 chicks this year alone. Considering the low population levels of Barn Owls in the area 20 years ago and the poor breeding year Barn Owls had in 2013, we hope that this brood all successfully fledge and the adults return for another attempt next year.
The Barn Owl boxes were put up alongside boxes for small hole-nesting birds such as Blue Tits and Great Tits, as part of a collaborative project with Durham Prison. The prisoners produced the nest boxes which have been installed around the university woodlands as part of our efforts to enhance local biodiversity. For more information on the Barn Owl project visit the University Greenspace pages, which can be found here.
Thanks to Chris Brown and the Tees Ringing group for helping us to monitor the boxes and providing the BTO rings.
Most small carnivores and nocturnal mammals on the Indonesian island of Java lack information about their distribution, which could cause regional population declines and local extinctions to go undetected. A new paper in the IUCN journal on Small Carnivore Conservation, co-authored by Alke Voskamp, a second year PhD student in the Conservation Ecology Group, presents data on various small carnivores and similarly-sized nocturnal mammals of Java collected over a 2.5 year period. The nocturnal surveys supplemented by camera-trapping yielded records of various species and extended the known distribution of the Javan Colugo, which was thought to be confined to western Java, to the easternmost part of the island.
A link to the paper can be found here.
Today I’m going to briefly chat about things to consider when buying camcorders for your research. I hope this provides a good start point for anyone wanting to film animals for research. As said in my previous entry, I am assuming that you are not going to use be able to afford very expensive cameras and you are looking to use the sort of equipment found at normal electronic stores.
The main thing to consider when choosing a camcorder is what you are hoping to film, and therefore what you’d want and need your camera to do. Say you want to film elephants from a few metres away- you probably don’t need a fantastic camera, although I’m sure it would help. If you wanted to film those elephants from miles away you may need something a bit better to let you pick out objects at a distance. In my case I needed to identify pollinators and which flowers they visit on lots of fireweed plants in the wild from one or two metres away. This meant I’d need affordable cameras (so I can have a few filming at any one time) with a good enough quality image to identify the species of fast moving bees and clearly show when they are visiting each flower. For this I got a bunch of cameras, but most were a Canon Legira HFR306 or HFR36.
The confusing thing about modern camcorders is that it can be difficult to work out what specifications are needed. Nobody wants to pay for something they don’t need, especially if you are on a limited research budget. Many manufactures make models that differ in only a few characteristics and it’s hard to tell which is good enough. Obviously if the difference between one camcorder model is one has wi-fi and night vision and the other doesn’t it’s easy to say if you need those things. However, as most camera specs are garbled nonsense to a lot of people, I'll do my best to explain what the main specifications mean and what effect they have.
The first thing to consider is what video quality the camera can film in. Most cameras say something on the box that looks like ‘[seemingly random number]x[another seemingly random number] HD’ and lots of words like ‘FULL HD’ and ‘REAL HD’- these refer to the video quality the camera can do. Basically ignore FULL and REAL and look at the numbers, which refer to the width and height of the picture in pixels. Many camcorders can go as high as 1920x1080 (Full HD), which is generally pretty good (at time of writing) but you can get higher. Often these numbers are followed by letter either ‘p’ or ‘i’, which refer to how often the camera updates the video image (sometimes called scanning). ‘I’, or ‘interlaced scanning’, means the image is updated in alternating screens. ‘P’, or ‘progressive scanning’, means the image is updated every screen; this is generally better if you are filming fast moving objects and picking finer detail, whereas ‘i’ is fine for slower moving objects but might cause blurriness if used to film something very fast moving (like bee flight). It’s worth noting that most cameras can film in formats that are lower quality then the ones advertised on the box.
Most cameras list the number of times it can zoom ‘optically’, with the lens, or ‘digitally’, by zooming into the recorded image. Normally once you enter digital zoom you get a loss in picture quality, though this usually isn’t that bad. If you can’t find how much optical zoom a camera can do, it’s written on the camera at the rim of the lens. 'Optical’ and ‘digital’ stabilisation of video images refers to how the camera compensates for shaking and keeps the image still; this is more important if filming in a windy place or by hand rather than from a tripod. Again ‘optical’ is mechanical stabilisation of the image and ‘digital’ is done by cropping the image a little and compensating for your movement; optical stabilisation is again better.
Most cameras come with a small battery relative to those available. If you are going to be filming all day you’ll need a few batteries, so it’s worth checking the cost of spare batteries before you buy a camera. All manufactures make bigger versions of the default battery but there are also second party ones. Often good second party batteries are cheaper and work as well as the manufacturer's, but they sometimes lack Dolby chips, which allow the camera to know how much battery it has. Lacking a Dolby chip can be a pain for two reasons: 1) when you turn on the camera or start recording the camera may claim it can’t talk to the battery and ask if you want to continue (this may stop recording) and 2) you don’t know when the battery is going to die. Issue 1 isn’t a problem if you're not concerned about getting the camera working at the drop of a hat. I set up the cameras on tripods and had them record for hour intervals so it wasn’t an issue that they needed confirmations before they began filming. However, if you are sitting and waiting for an animal to do some momentary action that you need on film this delay could be a problem. Issue 2 is a bit more annoying but if you test how long the camera lasts when filming on the battery and keep track of how long it’s been filming (allowing some room for error) you'll probably be ok.
Words like ‘better’ and ‘worse’ are, of course, relative terms and the less good option may still be good enough depending on what you are doing. For example progressive scanning is better for filming fast moving objects but, depending on what you want to see, interlaced scanning may still be good enough. Similarly you may find that while filming in a high quality format gets a better image you may find lower quality footage is still good enough to make out what you need to see to do your research. On that note I advise where possible doing test runs to check what formats and specs are ok. This could be done on a model similar to those you want to buy (perhaps borrow from a friend or colleague).
I hope that the above has helped you work out what you may need and understand what these different specs mean. As I already said, what you need depends on what you are doing. You’ll have to decide what is good enough. However, I will say that I was able to quite adequately film and identify bees from tripods set up a meter away from fireweed plants filming in a 1920x1080p format, as long as there wasn't a lot of disturbance from the wind. Unless you’re filming something very small from very far away such a format should probably do quite well.
By Michael Harrap
Michael is an MRes student who studies pollinator foraging behaviours within vertically arranged inflorescences.
For me, starting a career in ecology was about getting out of the artificially lit office and into the wilderness, trading pens for machetes and box-ticking for fire-lighting. Whilst I’m sure that staring at the electrical glow of a computer on a 9-5 basis has its thrills, I have always struggled to incorporate more of a balance.
And I do stress the verb struggle, as fieldwork is becoming an increasingly marginalized component of ecology/zoology/biology degrees. Therefore chances for finding valuable fieldwork experiences are limited, which on another note, isn’t conducive towards solving the catch 22 of ‘to get fieldwork experience you need fieldwork experience’. This article is to simply suggest how to break this circular paradoxical application process, but also to highlight the importance of knowing how you might take to fieldwork.
MSc programs will also offer a similar field work modules to a BSc and these are usual shared between UG and PG students with less and more work expected respectively. An MSc dissertation offers a higher scope for gaining useful fieldwork experience; this is when most students leave the nest and tackle the entire experience without the security demonstrators and classmates would provide should problems arise.
In reality, experience doesn’t necessarily have to come from a purely biological background and if you don’t possess this then it is not necessarily an issue in the field. A degree in biology is not required for ecological recording; these techniques are instead reliant on common sense. Excelling in class does not necessarily correlate with excelling in fieldwork. Both are components of the study of ecology, but ecology is a multi-disciplinary subject. I find the necessary qualities to possess are: being personable; being able to maintain morale; and having a good attitude and a sense of humour when things don’t go to plan (which invariably occurs). Expressing these qualities is definitely worthwhile regardless of how they were attained.
In my experience I have worked alongside individuals with no biological expertise who excelled in the field, but also stellar students whose interests were completely incompatible with the tasks at hand. So I’ll continue to look outside the box in terms of relevant qualities, but just as it is my duty to ensure that I am picking the right person, it is equally the applicant’s responsibility to understand the reality of the work involved and know whether it is right for them.
By Hagen O'Neill
Hagen is a Phd with CEG and studies red deer distribution on the island of Ulva, Scotland.