Mammal watching gear

One of the inevitabilities of going mammal watching is that you end up taking lots of gear with you. There are headlamps, hand torches, binoculars, cameras, mammal traps, bat nets, thermal cameras, camera traps, lazers, field guides, handling gloves etc etc to think about, and one still has to remember to pack a spare pair of underwear (sometimes even two). While carrying gear can be a curse, having the right equipment can make the difference between seeing an animal properly versus fleetingly or not at all. There are many sites dedicated to discussing field gear in great detail, but the needs of a mammal watcher are quite different to say, those of a birdwatcher or simple nature enthusiast. I suggested to Jon that he set up a dedicated page on this site to discussing what gear we bring with us in the field, but he was a step ahead of me and there actually already is one – it’s under the resources page. However, I’ll post this here and then Jon can pin it to the gear page, and hopefully people can add to it over time.

 

Lights

Given that approximately 40% of mammals are either nocturnal or crepuscular, a good torch (or flashlight to our American brethren) is essential. I’ve spent more money than I care to admit on trying to find the right torch, but found that the high-end torches, which are often made in small quantities, were simply not very robust in the field. Then someone on this site put me onto Fenix torches, and now that’s all I use for head or hand torches. I have found them to be reliable, robust, easy to use, and have the extra benefit that most of the models use the same battery type. They are also smart in providing different illumination levels, so one can balance between battery life and need for brightness. Their battery charger can be charged on mains electricity or 12 volt (meaning you can charge it while driving from one destination to another in a car), and some of the headlamps can be charged from a USB.

 

I use three types of torch: a headlamp, a hand held torch with its own battery power, and, when I’m operating from a vehicle in savannah areas, a hand held spotlight that plugs directly into the car battery.

 

Headlamp: If you’re mammal watching on foot, then a powerful headlamp is essential. I learned the trick of using powerful headlamps with different settings from Jon and Phil Telfer in Sierra Leone, and it makes a huge difference to finding animals. In many cases you can only see the reflection of an animals eyes when you are looking from directly behind the beam. So a handheld torch doesn’t work, no matter how powerful. I now use a Fenix HL60R headlamp, which has 5 different illumination settings, and is powerful enough at its highest setting to see eye reflection even high up a tree. There are more powerful headlamps, but they typically have a battery extension, which you have to attach to the back of your head or carry on your hip, which, in my opinion adds too many wires. This headlamp lasts about 2.30 – 3.00 hours on a high intensity beam, so I usually carry a spare battery with me in case the main battery runs out.

 

Handheld torch: A couple of people on this site recommended the Fenix TK75 torch, and it is my go-to torch for all night spotting. Its not particularly cheap (around $220 in the US), but its extremely well built, and, at its maximum illumination, will give you all the light you’ll probably ever need. It uses four 18650 batteries, and I purchased an extra extension tube with extra batteries, plus the battery charger. This is the ARE-C2 charger and I use either 2300AH or 2600AH batteries. I typically use a mid-range illumination level to find animals, and only use the high level if I need to see something far off. A note of caution: this torch can switch on quite easily if its bumped when in a bag, and can then get incredibly hot – too hot to touch. To avoid draining your batteries and melting your belongings, make sure you either remove the batteries or reverse the polarity of one of the batteries before traveling. This torch lasts about 2 – 3.00 hours with continuous use depending on the illumination level.

 

Spotlight: For spotlighting from a vehicle, I use a halogen torch which is connected to the car 12v plug in the vehicle, or directly to the battery using crocodile clips. The model I purchased is no longer available, but the closest model would be the HL-85-21RT from Larsen Electronics in the US, which retails for about $125. However, there might be LED lights these days that are just as good. The weak spot on hand-held spotlights is always the connections, so make sure you have some extra wire and a bit of duct tape on hand in case the connection starts playing up.

 

Laser pointer: Many guides in Tanzania now use laser pointers so they can show their clients where an animal is – for instance if a leopard is hidden in a tree, the client just has to follow the beam and they can find the animal. I’ve found they can also be really useful if there is a group of people mammal watching at night, as sometimes by the time you’ve explained where the animal is, it has disappeared. There are lots of different lasers out there, but I use a Green dot laser by Pinty, which you can buy on Amazon for $15. It is not really powerful enough for daylight use, but is great at night. Of course lasers can do a lot of damage to people or animals eyes, so don’t look into the beam and don’t shine it directly at an animal.

 

I’ve now started carrying an extra headlamp, and, if I’m doing a nightwalk with a local guide, will give them a headlamp and the laser pointer, so they can help find the animals.

 

Thermal imager: Thermal imagers have become quite popular among the mammal watching crowd, after Richard Webb raved about using one on a snow leopard trip. Jon has written about the pros and cons of using his, and has organised for a 10% discount for people on this site buying them from Pulsar. The most advanced models have extremely high definition, external screens, built in laser pointers etc, but also cost about the same as a mortgage on a house. I purchased a Pulsar XQ30V model and it has worked very well. This model (and presumably most models) can’t pick up heat through glass, leaves or thick grass, so you need a fairly clear view of the animal. I find it lends itself best to watching animals from a hide or hidden vantage point, rather than when walking or driving, but others might use it differently. Paul Carter has attached an external monitor to his, to make it easier to use; looking through the eyepiece for a long time strains the eye. The advantage of the Pulsar models is that they look like binoculars (or rather monoculars), and are therefore probably easier to get through customs in countries that are paranoid about gadgets. I take the battery case out of mine when I travel. I have also found that it doesn’t work very well with rechargeable batteries, so unfortunately I have to carry a fair few regular AA batteries with me.

 

Binoculars: Binoculars are probably the single most useful tool for mammal watching. As with everything, you get what you pay for, although with binoculars there is a steep jump in price from ‘good’ to ‘top of the line’ versions, which are dominated by the big three companies: Zeiss, Leica and Swarovski. If you’re using them very regularly then the high end binoculars have some big advantages; the glass is very good so you can through them for long periods without getting headaches, they have good light gathering capabilities, they tend not to fog up in damp weather, and they have lifetime guarantees, so you can send them in regularly to get fixed should they need it. I have a pair of Swarovski Swarovision 10×42. They have great optics, but they also have a major flaw in the focusing mechanism, so I don’t recommend them. The focus wheel turns 6 full turns from close range to far range, and often trends towards extreme close range when they are around your neck, so you end up spinning the focus wildly when you lift them to your eyes. That half a second can be the difference between seeing the animal or not, and is extremely frustrating. I would therefore probably go back to Zeiss if I ever needed another pair. I have used Nikon Monarch’s before, which have great optics at a very reasonable price, but they didn’t prove to be very robust and fell apart within 18 months. The Swift Audubon 8.5×44 roof prism binoculars are a bit heavy, but again offer really good value for money.

 

I find that the over-shoulder straps are better for carrying binoculars than the usual neck strap, which can get tangled if you’re carrying lots of other equipment.

 

Cameras: The type of camera you choose to carry will depend very much on the quality of photos that you want to obtain, and what you intend to do with those photos. Again, one can spend vast quantities of money on camera equipment, in the hope of getting that perfect shot. I use a Canon 70D with a 100-400 II L lens. That combination works well for me, and I really like the lens, which is a huge step up in quality from the previous model. Instead of carrying around another heavy lens for close-ups, I instead use a Canon G16 – an idea I got from Morten Joergensen.The problem I have with cameras and lenses is that they are usually really heavy – typically 4-6 kilos, which makes them a real pain to carry around. If you’re also hauling lots of night vision equipment, traps etc, then they can be a real burden. Because camera equipment is quite sensitive, it has to be packed in well-padded cases, which adds to the weight. I’ve travelled with serious photographers, who’s camera gear took up 60% of their luggage allowance on internal flights. Several companies make cheapish cameras with very large optical ranges, but I’ve found the photo quality of these to be pretty poor. Fortunately that seems to be changing. I was on a recent trip with a friend who had a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 IV, which has an inbuilt lens with an optical range of 24-600mm, and produces excellent photos. Its still quite large (the size of a normal SLR with a short focus lens) and fairly pricey, but is much, much lighter than a standard SLR with a lens with that range. Hopefully more companies will work on producing similar models.

14 Comments
  1. Profile photo of Vladimir Dinets
    Vladimir Dinets 7 days ago

    Thanks for the informative post! Does Fenix HL60R have red light mode?

    • Profile photo of Charles Foley Author
      Charles Foley 7 days ago

      Hi Vladimir, yes the HL60R does have a red light mode, but it uses two very small led’s on either side of the main light for this, and the illumination level is very low. You can probably use it to walk around without stumbling on things on a dark night, but not for watching an animal at any distance.

  2. Profile photo of Miles Foster
    Miles Foster 7 days ago

    Very useful, Charles. Thank you.

  3. Profile photo of Miles Foster
    Miles Foster 7 days ago

    Thanks for this – very helpful advice, Charles.

  4. Profile photo of Manul
    Manul 7 days ago

    Thanks a lot for this!
    We are very happy with the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 IV indeed and can recommend it.

    • Profile photo of Charles Foley Author
      Charles Foley 7 days ago

      Good to hear it Manul. What is the photo quality like when you’re shooting at 600mm? Can you hand hold it at that magnification or do you need to rest it on something or put it on a tripod?

      • Profile photo of aholman512
        aholman512 5 days ago

        The photo quality is excellent at 600 mm due to the Zeiss lens and because it is light and has built in stabilization does not need a tripod or other support in most cases. I

  5. Profile photo of geomalia
    geomalia 6 days ago

    Here’s my setup for mammal-watching and photography on foot:

    HEADLAMP: Night Eyes HL50-Q, dual red/white: http://nighteyeslights.com/LED-headlamps?product_id=73. Takes 1x 18650.

    This is the only headlamp I could find with reasonably strong red and white modes. The beam is a bit too concentrated for searching, but I purchased a diffuser which I can flip up/down to switch between viewing and searching. The diffuser is not advertised on the website, but may still be available.

    The only downside (other than cost) is that the light makes a barely audible high-pitched noise when not at full power. I do not know if it is loud enough to scare away mammals.

    FLASHLIGHTS:

    Armytek Predator Pro v3 XP-L Hi Warm 1150 Lumens – a small flashlight with a narrow, powerful beam for viewing mammals located with the headlamp. Takes 1x 18650.

    Fenix TK75: A wide, powerful light for open country. Takes 4x 18650s.

    THERMAL IMAGER: Pulsar XQ23V, acquired last month.

    BINOCULARS: Swarovski SLC 8×42 HD.

    CAMERAS AND LENSES:

    I use a Canon 5D MK IV with a Canon 400 DO II lens (and sometimes a 1.4x teleconverter), hand-held. I also recently purchased a Canon EF 100 f2.8 Macro IS for photographing herps, and I carry it on a 5D MK III.

    FLASH AND BRACKET:

    I use a Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT, attached via a Desmond Flash Bracket: https://www.amazon.com/Desmond-Compatible-Bracket-Lightweight-DAFB-1/dp/B00987STOK. The bracket is made to be used with a tripod, but I figured out a way to use it hand-held.

    The purpose of the bracket is to (1) allow a gap for my headlamp in order to help focus on subjects (2) to reduce red-eye in photos. The setup has been very effective for (1) and moderately effective for (2). The bracket is somewhat unwieldy, and I often break flash cables (which is much better than breaking the flash itself!). I always travel with extras.

    Let me know if you’d like more details about my camera and flash setup.

    CAMERA CARRYING:

    I’ve grown tired of conflicting camera straps and belts, and am trying a Cotton Carrier as an alternative.

    Best,
    Ben
    http://www.tremarctos.com

  6. Paul Carter 6 days ago

    Hi Charles
    Good to see your gear post.
    I ordered the Fenix headlamp before getting to the end of the article as I had been meaning to replace my current headlamp.
    I have the Swarovski EL 10×42 as well but don’t have any issue with the focussing mechanism you mention – maybe just your pair or you heard of this elsewhere.
    I think that maybe your statement “So a handheld torch doesn’t work, no matter how powerful” is a bit misleading as I do most of most spotlighting with handheld torch but just need to be holding it close to the side of your head – easy with a TK-41. Having a handheld torch means I can quickly place it next to my lens when raising my camera; if a flash mounted on top of your camera then that blocks headlamp (I have side-mounted flash). Having said that I have found myself using my headlamp more when using my thermal scope.
    For flash brackets I cut down a 1 meter, lightweight aluminum bar to 45 cm long (2.5 cm across, 3mm thick), the flash mounted 2/3 of the way along it; the extra length is useful for resting on my shoulder during shooting, especially when in odd places/angles and needing extra support.
    Torches – TK-41 my main torch in forests up to this point; TK-75 for when more power needed; but just got a TK35UE (2018 edition, $135) which runs on two 18650s so smaller than TK-75 but “delivers a maximum output of 3200 lumens”.
    For one-handed, small camera support I have an Olympus Stylus Tough which has a “microscope” photo function but I am not always happy with the results – probably more user error than design. There is a v5 now; I have v4. Waterproof to 15m depth it says so useful to have if having to pack my main camera away in very wet conditions.
    On the DSLR I have a beat- up Nikon d800 with focussing issues and had been thinking of upgrading to d850 but because of Nikon’s incompetence they are still out of stock so perhaps now is the time for me to switch to mirrorless – Sony a9 – I was looking at the comparison of the 2 cameras a couple days ago – http://cameradecision.com/compare/Sony-Alpha-A9-vs-Nikon-D850 I understand that Nikon lenses can be used with a Vello adaptor. If anyone has experience on this in wildlife scenarios then I would be keen to hear if that works well.
    Still very happy with my Pulsar XQ30V, which seems to work fine on rechargeable batteries (I use Sony and Energizer).
    Cheers, Paul

    • Profile photo of Charles Foley Author
      Charles Foley 6 days ago

      Hi Paul, concerning the Swarovski binoculars, I know of 3 pairs of Swarovisions that all have the same focussing issues (including mine). Perhaps one bad batch, but not good when you’re spending that amount of money. I have an old pair of EL 10×42 that had no problem with the focussing.

      Have fun with the headlamp.

      Charles

  7. Richard Webb 6 days ago

    The focusing issue on Swarovskis has been a long-standing issue for birders as well and is certainly true on my 5-year old 10x32s. They have always seem to take longer to focus than Leicas for example but the light gathering of Swarovskis is far superior in my opinion on models with the same specification. By coincidence I was comparing the latest 8×32 and 10×32 Swarovskis with the equivalent Leica Ultravids at the weekend and the light gathering of the Swaros was appreciably better but the focusing much quicker on the Ultravids. After sales service is also far superior on Swarovski in my opinion but sadly it’s a trade-off between light gathering and speed of focusing at the moment.

  8. Profile photo of Jon Hall
    Jon Hall 5 days ago

    Thanks Charles – this is indeed useful stuff.

    Just a few comments from me to your comprehensive set up which is very similar to what I lug around.

    I have had some problems in the past with Swaros (especially with the eye pieces coming loose and the focusing) but the latest model I tried has addressed these problems and – as Richard said – their servicing is legendary. Pretty much any problem I have had they just send a replacement part for free. I have some 8x32s and waiting for a new pair of 8.5s x 42s.

    A bluetooth speaker can be useful for call playback off of your phone (it works really well for some primates though should also work for some sciurids and other species) … if you are really serious then get a microphone too.

    Squeaking (like a dieing rabbit) is a good way to coax some predators in more closely … and if you can’t squeak then you can get a $10 mouse squeaker. I have never tried these but just ordered one to see if it works better than I do.

    Related to this I am sure there are a range of tricks that hunters use that haven’t really permeated into the mammalwatching community. For instance Charles told me about the Baaka people calling in Duikers (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bYxDeJBScE – sounds like a cow having sex with a goat )… I cannot find any duiker squeakers on Amazon and suspect I cannot make a similar noise myself … though am not going to try while I am in the office!. There are – though – some fancy devices that alledgedly call in predators and other animals (eg something called a Foxpro)… has anyone tried these? Could they work for a Lynx say?

    If you are planning (allowed) to handle any animals (trapping, or catching by hand etc) then a few calico bags are useful so you can put the animal somewhere comfortable while you are looking through text books etc. If you don’t want to handle the animal directly then a ziploc plastic bag is OK to use for a few minutes so you can get a decent look. Callipers (or a metal ruler) are also important for measuring the beast – often the only way to distinguish certain rodents, bats etc. I have a small spring balance too but seldom weigh animals anymore… it is not a reliable guide for most species and a ruler is much more useful. A small hand lens is good too if you need to check dental patterns in particular – though it is often easier to take a macro picture of the mouth and zoom in.

    Goes without saying I hope that you often need scientific permits to catch animals, and if the wildlife police don’t get you then it is possible that rabies or hanta virus will.

    Finally – and I don’t have one myself – some of the nature guides in Costa Rica have perfected the art of finding roosting bats in the forest. A small mirror on the end of a long stick is a great way to check for bats under leaves, fallen trees etc withouth spooking the animals.

    cheers

    Jon

    • Profile photo of Miles Foster
      Miles Foster 5 days ago

      I don’t know about the cow-having-sex-with-a-goat thing (!) but that mirror-on-a-stick trick has got me thinking…. something with a universal ball joint like a small rear view mirror that could be clipped to a trekking pole / monopod? Could be used for photographing things in tricky places? I wonder what I’ve got lying about the garage….

  9. Profile photo of stevebabbs
    stevebabbs 5 days ago

    I have just bought a Sony RX10 iv. I’m still undecided about whether it is a serious alternative to a SLR and suitable lens, if you’re doing a lot of low light photography, but it is certainly a lot more pleasant to lug around. I bought a Neewer 2.4G wireless TTL flash for it for £80 which seems an absolute bargain. It probably recycles faster than my top-of-the-range Canon flash. Of course it may fall apart in a few months.

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