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Entries in Tasmania Devil (2)

Friday
Apr092010

Hunting Wild Tasmania Devils in the Night

Tasmania Devils (Sarcophilus harrissii ) are endemic to Tasmania, a small island state in Australia.  Once common throughout forest areas, these nocturnal creatures are declining in numbers and have been listed on the IUCN Red List as endangered.  The reason for the decline and IUCN listing is the development of a viral disease called Facial Tumour Disease.  The disease, which is still being investigated and mapped, spreads rapidly amongst devils as they fight and argue amongst themselves for mating privileges and when competing for food. 

LEFT:  A wild Tasmania Devil pauses and looks about for potential predators.

Natural History – A Few Facts

Devils are the largest marsupial carnivore, roughly weighing the same as a largish medium sized dog.  They have excellent smell, can travel long distances in an evening in search of prey, and can eat 20 times their own body weight in one sitting.  They primarily feed on carrion, although live prey is often taken.  Their life span in the wild for roughly 5 years and they become sexual mature at 2-3 years.  Although devils appear vicious looking they are not; I’ve had wild devils sniffing at my boots and playing with my tripod legs!  Adding to their perceived vicious reputation is their loud cry which is very unnerving when heard on a dark night, and their rather poor table manners – devils argue over food and often have short-lived fighting arguments which can be quite intense and very loud.

Photographing Wild Devils- Equipment

Photographing wild Tasmanian Devils is not easy!  First you have to find them, and then they have to be receptive to you being in their space.  Further, shooting at night with flash and fixed light is not the easiest of activities as any budding photographer will attest to.

I use an assortment of equipment to photograph devil which chnages depending upon the environmental situation.  Usually I have two industrial style spotlights set up either side of the carcass.  It’s important to try and disguise the lights as much as possible and usually I’ll hide them in the bush.  The purpose of the lights is to allow the camera to acquire a focus lock easily on an approaching devil.  I’ve discovered through trail and error that some devils don’t mind the lights at all, while others shy away from them – it’s a personal devil thing. 

LEFT:  A Tasmanian Devils rips open the carcass in a frenzy to eat as much as it can before other devils join in the feast.

I always use a tripod and usually use a 70-200 f2.8 zoom lens or a 300 f2.8 lens attached to a Canon 1Ds camera. I use two Canon 580 EX speedlights.  One flash is mounted on a Wimberely flash bracket from the camera L-plate (main light) and the other flash (fill light) is mounted on a small tripod and set off to the side.  I sync the speedlights using two pocket wizards. To ensure that the speedlights are pointing exactly at the devil and not pointing elsewhere, I use a small portable red laser light.  The laser light ensures that the flash is pointing a exactly the place I want the artificial light directed.  On occasion I also use a better beamer and/or flash snoot to help funnel the light and not expose the background too much.  I always set the flashes to manual and rarely use ETTL.

Nocturnal photography of wild animals can be very hit and miss, especially when you must maintain your position and be relatively quiet.  Often if you relocate your position on the fly, and the devil is wary, it will run away and not return that night.

LEFT: A Tasmania devil part way through it's dinner on carrion, stops and looks about before screaming out loud to warn other devils that he has first dibs on the food.

Establishing a Blind & Bait

I’ve spent quite a bit of time photographing devils in a number of locations and by far the best method is to establish a blind of some description; my latest blind was a hole in the ground covered with a military style camouflage net.  On this particular night it was quite amusing, it rained filling the shell scape (a small hole) that I’d dug with water.  I can remember spending the night cold, wet and miserable until 3 devils came by to cheer me up. 

LEFT: A Tasmania Devil stands over carrion that has been securely staked to the ground.

There is no chance that you will photograph, let alone see a devil without setting bait.  I usually collect road kill and then securely stake it to the ground in an opportune area.  I then create a number of blood trails through the forest leading to the staked kill .  A blind can be almost anything from a shell scrape in the ground with a net, to hiding amongst bracken.   It’s important to reconnoiter the location of the blind as it must be downwind of the carcass.  Devils have exceptional senses of smell, and they will smell you a long way off if your scent is blowing toward the carcass.  I remember on one devil shoot the wind was blowing the wrong direction.  I could see the devils in the distance circling the bait, but they would not approach closely.  I decided to cover my clothes with the odour of dead wallaby, and this partly solved the problem, but they were still wary.

LEFT:  Tasmania Devil with Facial Tumour Disease (FTD) on face near jaw.  In the last 12 months I have witnessed a steady increase of devils with FTD in this area.

Patience

Patience is a virtue with devil photography.  Although devils are most active and hour after dusk and an hour before dawn, they can turn up at the kill at anytime during the evening.  Often you must put in long hours of waiting for a devil to turn up – and then there is no guarantee that the devil will feed on the carcass.  I’ve seen lots of devils appear, scout the location and then disappear into the night as quickly as they appeared!

Exciting Experience

I enjoy photographing all animals; however, there is something about devil photography that keeps me wanting to go back for more.  Perhaps it’s having to be patient waiting for a devil to appear, or maybe it’s the work you have to do before you even see a wild devil.  You have to establish a blind, find road kill, set the bait and then stay awake most of the evening; you also get VERY dirty and often are covered in odour and blood from the carcass.   Certainly, the work before the shooting begins makes any images taken far more worthwhile.

I certainly get a “buzz” when, on a dark drizzly night, you see a white blaze in the darkness moving toward you!  To have the privilege of observing the feeding habits of these amazing creatures is a wonderful experience, albeit a messy one.

If you’re interested in reading more about the plight of the Tasmanian Devil, navigate to the official “Save the Tasmania Devil” web page at http://tassiedevil.com.au/

To read a little more about the Tasmania Devil Task Force, click here.

To view short video of devils feeding that I filmed on a previous trip, click the multimedia tab in the menu bar above.

Tuesday
Oct132009

Shadowing the Tasmania Devil Task Force

I’ve just spent the last week or so photographically documenting the activities of the Tasmania Government Devil Task Force (DTF) while they have been working on what they call a “Rolling Disease Suppression Line”. This has been in association with The Devi Task Force belonging to Tasmania State Government.  It's intended in due course to produce several articles on the team and the devil to raise awareness of the devil's plight in Tasmania.

Devil Task Force Team

The field component of the DTF comprises 3 groups of 3 individuals and each group is allocated different areas to work within the state of Tasmania.  Each group consists of a Field Zoologist, Field Officer, and a volunteer.  Supplemental to this is a separate team comprising two veterinarians. 

Through field monitoring (capture & release) the DTF strives to determine the extent and prevalence of Facial Tumour Disease (FTD) within populations of Tasmanian Devils (Sarcophilus harrisii).  Broadly speaking, FTD is more prevalent in eastern populations than western populations and determining which devil populations are affected can assist in the management and quarantine of the disease.

Most of the week involved an early wake up and rendezvous with one of the DTF teams to shadow their activities whilst they checked, cleaned and reset devil traps.  Devils captured in traps the evening before (Tasmania Devils are nocturnal) were removed from the trap, weighed and inspected for the FTD before being released.  If FTD was suspected or observed a call was made to the roving veterinarian unit who attended the animal to obtain further information for analysis which included a biopsy and blood taking.  Each captured devil then had a digital ID chip inserted beneath its skin between the shoulder blades.  The chip can be read by a supermarket style scanner gun.

Additional to this process was the collection of information on each captured devil which included sex, sexual maturity, carried young, age and any obvious deformities.  The information collected is then collated at a later date and added to a database to assist in the management of disease free devil populations. 

DTF personnel work a busy day starting at dawn and only ending after sunset.  Up to 20 traps are set along a pre-allocated line within the forest, forest coup or farmland.  Much of the work is off the main road and along forest trails and four wheel drive tracks involving the use of four wheel drive vehicles. 

Just because you set a trap doesn’t mean you will capture a devil; often traps were left unsprung and at other times they were sprung by other animals such as the Tasmania Tiger Quoll (Dasyurus maculates).  In the 5 days I worked with DTF we drove 1700 kilometres (1056 miles) in rain, hail, sleet and sunshine!

Thanks is due to the Devil Task Force Team (Phil, Holly & Anton), Veternarians (Michelle & Kim) and staff administration (Caroline & Kim) for allowing access.

Images top to bottom:  Devil Task Force Zoologist Holly Devereaux (Field Officer) releases captured devil, Anton (Volunteer) & Phil (Team Leader) take biopsy for tumour desease, Phil (Zoologist) inspects devil to determine age from teeth.

For further information on the facial tumour disease and the Devil Task Force please go to http://tassiedevil.com.au/

To see a short video of the Tasmania devil taken in the wild, click here to view on U-Tube.