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Monday, September 10, 2007

K-Rats and Camera Splats

I had a much-needed birding and naturalizing weekend over the last few days- starting off another school year right takes a lot of time and energy and I've felt the fall migration slipping by without getting out much. To remedy this, a bunch of friends and I met out in eastern Colorado (almost spitting distance from Kansas) at Bonny Lake State Park. A bit of the trip was for birding business, as we had our Colorado Field Ornithologists board meeting at the Colorado Division of Wildlife work center mid-day on Saturday. We arranged the use of their bunkhouse (thanks, DOW!), enabling us to get there Friday night, bird Saturday AM & PM, and stay after the meeting to see what we could see on Sunday before heading home.

Anyway, I was carpooling out after school on Friday with fellow Boulder County resident and bird sound recordist extraordinaire Nathan Pieplow (check out his article on describing bird vocalizations in the latest Birding Magazine.) We hit a little vagrant trap called Last Chance on the way as the sun was setting, picking up a few neat birds and even more mosquito bites from some tiny variety that could soundlessly approach, land, and extract blood seemingly without detection. From there it was off to Bonny, driving in darkness with eyes peeled for roadside owls. As we made the turn onto the dirt road for the final approach to the bunkhouse, we paused at a few groves that always hold Eastern Screech Owls. Nathan
perfectly whistles both EASO songs (the whinney and the tremelo), and soon had rivals singing back. I had my camera at the ready, including my big external speed flash mounted up. Nathan had his fuzzy stick (Ted Floyd's term for his long wind-baffled shotgun mike) and digital recorder at the ready as well. Unfortunately, the owls were content to serenade us from unseen perches so I got nothing and Nathan got so-so recordings, but how bad can it be to stand out on a moonless, star-lit remote dirt road surrounded by singing screech owls?

Anyway, we were off to try another spot, so I kept my camera at the ready alongside me on my truck's bench seat. I always carry it around like this when the passenger seat is occupied, and it sits securely (I thought), resting on the lens hood
pointing downward. In the event of a deceleration I keep it in place with my right elbow- it is kind of mashed in against my side, anyway. In this position, the mounted flash was pointing straight out at the dashboard. Yeah.

Well, despite this foreshadowing, having the camera at the ready with flash and everything turned out to be cool, because a little ways down the sandy road I noticed a Kangaroo Rat along the edge as we went by. I turned around, and sure enough the little guy was still there. I coasted to a gentle stop & killed the motor, leaving the truck lights on. Much to my surprise, it didn't immediately depart into the sunflowers and weedy veg along the road but instead continued to forage, probably not seeing much in my direction but glaring lights. I was able to snap some shots of Colorado's only Kangaroo Rat, the Ord's Kangaroo Rat. Nice trade for missing any owl photo opps.

So then we turned around again and continued our way down the last few miles of the road to the bunkhouse. Suddenly (sorry for the cliché), another K-Rat hopped out in front of me, and being the soft-hearted guy I am, I slammed on the brakes. We (my truck, most of its contents, Nathan & I) came to a stop without hitting the rodent, but my camera and the attached flash continued to travel eastbound towards the rat and the bunkhouse for about 18 inches until it met the dashboard. It was too dark to see what happened, but by the crunching sound I guessed it wasn't good. With great trepidation I turned on the cab light and gathered up my camera, which I immediately realized was missing the flash. I fished around the empty food bags and other truck cab duff around the 4WD selector lever, finding the flash. Maybe it just fell off, I hoped. Nope. It came off still wearing the hot shoe mount which was supposed to be permanently part of the top of the camera body. Damn. Guess Nikon service & repair will be getting another package from me. Fortunately, everything else seems fine and I'm still able to use the camera sans flash. So what's the moral of the story? I still like to have my camera at the ready, mounted up and ready to go at my side. Yeah, it would be much safer all packed up in its case, but I know I'd miss too many shots (remember my goshawk sob story?) I've just got to figure out a better way to do it without launching my camera on emergency stops... And hey- by missing the hapless K-Rat I must have charged up my wildlife serendipity karma a little, eh? (Hear that, goshawks?)

Anyway, here are a few pics that I'll dedicate to my favorite nocturnal mammal photographer, the Camera Trap Codger. The tail is foreshortened in the first pic, but it was the best body shot I got. The second pic gives you a better idea of how long the tail is. Still, Ord's Kangaroo Rat has a relatively shorter tail than most other K-Rats, according to Kenn Kauffman's mammal guide. I particularly like the black stripe arching over its back and the little white stripe on its haunch.


DJB's Photo Adventures said...

Ouch!!!! I feel for you with the conundrum of having the camera available and the dangers of emergency stops!
I can't tell you how many times I have put up my camera to see a bird, bear or a merlin hanging out but by the time the camera is out they are not at optimal distance anymore.

Camera Trap Codger said...

I'm starting to worry, Bill -- the mammals are seducing you, LOL. But I'm not complaining -- I'll drool over any of your pictures, avian or otherwise. Keep 'em comin'!