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.
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.