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Benchmark Study Gear

August 26, 2023

Students placing a trail camera to capture photos of brown bears (and rabbits).

A benchmark study is basically a census of a place, which means it doesn’t require a lot of specialized equipment. It’s all about observation and measurement.

We give each student researcher a waterproof notebook and pen. Waterproof because most days we’re getting in and out of small boats in the rain. The other basic gear is a decent pair of 10x42 waterproof binoculars: 10 power because distances are long (woodland birders seem to prefer 8 power) and the bigger 42 millimeter objective lens lets in more light at dawn and dusk, when animals are on the move. Each team of two students carries a GPS multi-function device for logging waypoints and recording temperatures, a tape measure, and a powerful handheld radio: we use Motorola T600 GMRS units to keep everyone in touch with everyone else all the time.

Every student had his or her own phone with its camera (good for recording animal tracks) and apps for identifying plants, animals, birds, and rocks, (iNaturalist, for example) which complemented our onboard library of field guides.

The team also shared a Mavic Mini 2 drone with a 4k camera, which sees what’s on the far shore and over mountains. Used with restraint, a drone gets you images of animals you don’t want to get close to. Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve captured. Our designated drone pilot was recording a dozen brown bears at the mouth of one stream. Later, we looked at the footage and saw a moose rising up out of the water among the bears.

We had an underwater ROV (a submersible robot with a claw and a camera) but it was too hard to use and useless in streams. Next season we’ll switch to pole cameras, which are just waterproof GoPro cameras on the end of aluminum tubes with coax cable as an antenna.

Motion-activated trail cameras were great for mammals. The students attached the cameras to trees along game trails and got photos of bears, deer, and a rabbit. In the future we’ll mount more of the cameras at ground level. We don’t need live catch traps for small animals.

The team shared one very long lens camera, a Nikon Coolpix P950 with an 83x zoom lens. It’s effectively a spotting scope that takes photos. Can’t identify that bird flying by? Snap a pic and figure it out later, and by the way you also have proof that you saw it.

Speaking of proof, one morning at breakfast the kids spotted a lone white canine far away, walking down the shore. Was it a wolf? A white wolf? Really? No time to launch the drone. We got out the long lens camera. Later, after the expedition, two biologists would look at the photo and confirm, yes, it was a white wolf.

In my opinion, that camera paid for itself with that one blurry shot.

-- Bill Urschel

Proof that the white wolf of Kukak Bay is real.

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