Sunday, 1 December 2013

Identifying a Mystery Nighttime Visitor

Riddells Creek Landcare recently purchased several Scout Guard trail cameras for use by members interested in photographing and identifying nighttime visitors and other camera-shy creatures. There have been a few mystery creatures on my property that that I have not been able to confidently identify. This is the account of one of these mysteries that I finally solved with the help of the trail camera. I'll give a more complete report on usage of the camera in a later post after I've resolved a few more things and when I'm ready to return the cameras for others to use.

One of the Scout Guard Trail Cameras. The front face of the camera has the following features from the top down: Infra-red LED flash unit for low light and night photography. The camera lens (note that it is protected from rain and direct sun by an "eyebrow". An infra-red motion detector that is used to trigger the camera. The easiest way to deploy it is simply to strap it to a tree or post using the supplied strap.

The camera contains an internal clock and control computer and has several user settings: date and time (to be recorded on the images), video/camera, number of pictures to be taken in a sequence when triggered (3 is the default, with an interval of ~1 sec. between each), delay following a trigger (one minute is the default), and trigger sensitivity.

My mystery began when my wife and I heard a strange animal noise as we were going to bed between as hiss and a faint scream followed by something zipping past the bedroom window that I couldn't properly make out. Whatever it was, it wasn't a rabbit or a cat - of which we have far too many. When the house was built, we laid pebble mulch along the side of the house - which happens to provide a nice path for animals to follow. So, one of the first uses of the camera was to set it up looking down the path to try to identify what the animal might be.

You can just make out an ear and forehead to the right of the second post behind the overexposed grass in the foreground facing towards the camera.

Note the sharpish nose and long running legs. Might it be a fox?
Look at the skinny tail, either hairless or covered by very short hair. Couldn't be a fox.
Given the frequency with which we see foxes passing through the property during daylight and the number of chickens and even a full grown goose taken in the night, we know there is no scarcity of foxes in the neighbourhood, but the foxes we have seen all have luxuriantly bushy tails. This looks like no fox I have ever seen. Except for its long legs, it is also not much larger than a prowling cat which conveniently posed in the same spot (the stake the camera was on was moved slightly further back before the cat sequence was taken).

Not a cat I have seen before during daylight.
Note the position of the cat relative to the vine twisting around the post. Although it stands higher off the ground, the body size of the unknown creature is only slight larger than the cat's.
I have had one or two cameras out now for three weeks looking for unknowns. I lost a week on each of the two cameras. One because I partially ejected the memory card in the process of turning the camera on (one week of camera time wasted!), and the other when I forgot to turn the camera on before I tied it to a stake (another week of camera time wasted!).

However, I have several more pictures of the mystery animal, both by the bedroom and on the bridge out to the small island in our dam. Coming towards the camera.

Going away from the camera 10 minutes later:

Far end of bridge walking away from camera. This guy might have a fox tail.

Definitely a small fox in the above sequence

More cats to establish size:

Another one I have never seen during daylight.
Yet another cat not seen during the day

To resolve my questions, I scrolled through numerous fox pictures on Google Images ([IR "red fox"], ["trail camera" "red fox") and got lots of hits, including many with comparable lighting to mine. The notable thing about all of these is the luxuriantly bushy tail - which definitely does not fit my unknown culprit. Wikipedia "red fox" finally solved the conundrum, with a daylight picture. Following are a couple of shots from that page of what foxes should look like:

The last shot removed any doubt that all of the fox-like creatures photographed by the trail cameras were in fact foxes:


This guy is suffering from mange! According to Wikipedia "The mite Sarcoptes scabiei is the most important cause of mange in red foxes. It causes extensive hair loss, starting from the base of the tail and hindfeet, then the rump before moving on to the rest of the body. In the final stages of the condition, foxes can lose most of their fur, 50% of their body weight and may gnaw at infected extremities. In the epizootic phase of the disease, it usually takes foxes four months to die after infection."

My wife hates foxes (we have given up trying to keep chickens on the property), so says Hooray! that at least one fox is suffering.

More to the point is that the trail cameras have shown beyond a doubt that our 5 acre property is overrun with nocturnal predators that don't belong in Australia - at least three different cats and two different foxes, not counting the occasional sightings during daylight hours. Hopefully they are at least keeping the growing rabbit population under some kind of control.