How do you use your thermal imager to find wildlife?

I know that quite a few of us now own thermal imagers and use them regularly while mammal watching. However, I think it’s fair to say that they are not always the easiest devices to use, and it takes some practice to get the most out of them. For instance, the Pulsar models that many of us have can be quite grainy and the screen is viewed through an eyepiece that tends to blow out your night vision in that eye for 60 seconds or so after use. It also cannot be used through glass (i.e. a car windscreen or window), and grass or leaves often easily obscure animals. I suspect that many of us have got better at using our imagers over time and have learned tips and tricks to make them more effective for finding mammals. I thought it might be useful to share some of those tips here, so we can all benefit from the shared knowledge. I have the Pulsar XQ30V model which I believe a number of others here are also using. Some of you might have one of the much more expensive all-in-one models that have an external screen and better graphics, and if so it would be interesting to hear how well those are working for you. Assuming we get some useful responses, we can post the thread under the resources menu so that people can easily find and refer to it.

Personally I have found that it’s really useful to use an external monitor for my device. Paul Carter recommended a couple of monitor models to me and I plumbed for the KKmoon 3.5″ TFT Color LED Portable Test Monitor CCTV Camera Security Tester, which is available cheaply on Amazon. It’s not perfect, as it’s fairly cheaply constructed and the connection can be easily dislodged while walking, but viewing the screen this way is much easier on the eyes, plus it allows the screen view to be shared with more than one person. If you are using a monitor, it is the yellow plug that you insert into your thermal imager. There is a 4.5” version from the same company that might be a bit more robust. I usually put my imager onto the red heat setting, as I find the animals stand out more on the screen.

I have tended to use the imager most effectively under the following circumstances:
a) When sitting waiting for animals to come that might be spooked by light. This worked really well for instance at night at the hide at Dzangha Bai, in C.A.R. The elephants would have really freaked out if we had used torch light, but the imager allowed us to see what was coming and going. With no vegetation to impede our view, we could easily see several hundred meters across the Bai. On that occasion I hand-held the device and scanned regularly, although putting it on a small tripod would also have worked well.
b) When standing in the back or out of the moon roof of a slow-driving vehicle at night. I have mostly used it this way when moving through areas where spotlighting is not allowed, such as in National Parks, or around residential areas where people wouldn’t appreciate being lit up by torchlight. I hand hold the imager and scan it slowly from left to right as I would a spotlight, while driving at 10-20 mph. It’s easier if there is someone else to hold and view the monitor, but it’s perfectly feasible to do it by yourself. Obviously you need someone to drive as well. Scanning while driving yourself is possible, but you have to be moving pretty slowly, and preferably be on a road with little or no other traffic. You also only see one side of the road. Once I’ve seen something interesting, I will usually light it up briefly with a torch to get a better view of the animal, and look at it through my binoculars.

I have had some luck using the imager on foot but not as much as with the other techniques. I typically walk a bit, stop, scan and then walk on. However, I normally don’t use the monitor when I’m on foot, as it’s one more thing to carry, and I find that the loss of vision in the viewing eye can make it tricky when I’m walking along narrow paths. Even without the monitor, you still have to juggle your imager, torch and binoculars. I usually have my binoculars around my neck with the imager and torch in each hand.

I have found that you can generally get a pretty good outline of an animal through the view finder, which can often be enough to make an id (specially for the bigger species), but if you need to see colour then obviously you need to get some white light on it. Determining the size of an animal can also be tricky, as it’s often hard to gauge how far away from you it is.

How do you use your imager? I know some people use theirs during the day, and some attach it to the outside of their vehicle for night driving use, and it would be useful to hear the details. Venkat, I saw a recent post of yours saying that you found using your imager to be a much more reliable way of finding rodents than using a torch. Do you use it from a vehicle or on foot, and, if the latter, how do you avoid breaking your legs?

21 Comments
  1. Terry Goble 1 month ago

    Hi I can’t add anything useful to this question, but would like to ask for Thermal Imagery recommendations if that’s ok. I’m considering buying one for mammal trips

  2. Profile photo of Vladimir Dinets
    Vladimir Dinets 1 month ago

    One thing I learned is that weather conditions matter a lot. On wet nights with drizzle or after rain everything is more or less the same temperature so you don’t have to get distracted by warm rocks etc. You can also keep using the imager into the morning hours longer. Dense fog, on the other hand, obscures the view and makes things difficult. If you are looking for arboreal mammals, overcast nights are much better because tree branches show up as hot against clear sky. If there is moonlight, you can walk without any visible light – better for sneaking up on large mammals, but moonlight is usually bad for small ones. Cold nights are better for finding small mammals in open areas because if it’s really cold you can see a mouse on the snow from a mile away.

    Amount of vegetation is important, too, so in temperate latitudes the best time is early spring, and in deciduous tropical forests it’s the end of dry season. Freshly burnt or plowed areas can be productive even if they have fewer animals than grassy places.

    Tree hollows often show up as warm, so it’s a good idea to carry a small endoscope (they connect to your cell phone) to look inside.

    I strongly suspect that looking through the imager with the same eye for hours is bad for your eyesight, so I always try to take breaks. Look for herps or something. BTW, your chances of stepping on a snake while using the imager are much higher – something to consider when choosing your footwear. It’s also more difficult to watch your step in general, so choose good trails, dirt roads or boardwalks if possible.

    • Author
      Charles 1 month ago

      Do you keep yours to your eye when walking with it, or do you stop and scan?

      You’re right about looking up into the tree branches. I find that for the first few seconds everything shows up hot, but then it seems to adjust and return to normal. Or at least my machine does.

      • Profile photo of Vladimir Dinets
        Vladimir Dinets 1 month ago

        It depends. In open landscapes you don’t have to look into the scope all the time, but in the forest it’s very easy to miss something if it’s behind branches, so I try to look through the scope most of the time if the trail is easy enough.

  3. Paul Carter 1 month ago

    Hi Charles
    A while ago I wrote a post on a more reliable neck strap system – so that you can drop the scope and revert to binoculars/camera very quickly. When walking I can’t imagine not having it on a neck strap.
    https://www.pacapix.com/pulsar-xq30v-setup/
    I use a head torch more than I used to, for navigation, and use a stronger hand-held torch for when I find something.
    I walk whilst scoping, a lot, and in Costa Rica nearly stood on a fer-de-lance; after that I immediately bought snake gaiters and thicker boots. So I agree with Vladimir – more chance of missing snakes on the trail.
    A month ago I was finding 5-8 voles over a 200m stretch in a nearby park – at around 9am-10am if not sunny; so more use in day time than most people think at first; depending on temperatures.
    Useful in caves for bats as well.
    And worth rescanning areas from different angles because of vegetation obscuring mammals from some angles.
    Paul

    • Profile photo of Charles Foley Author
      Charles Foley 1 month ago

      Hi Paul,
      Thanks for the link to your blog about the Pulsar neck strap. When you were using it to find voles in the day, were these crossing open areas, or would you locate them through the grass? Where I am the voles seem to keep very much under cover of thick vegetation as they move and I haven’t had much luck with them.
      Charles

  4. Terry Goble 1 month ago

    Thanks Jon that’s really helpful

  5. Venkat Sankar 1 month ago

    Hi Charles,
    I usually just keep the thermal imager to my eye at very low brightness (settings 1-2), without using an external monitor etc. If the night is very dark, it can kill your night vision, but the low brightness helps reduce eye strain. If you’re also wearing a headlamp, I find it often matters very little. But maybe that’s just because my eyes are younger…

    The heat scope works best for me when:
    1) Scanning out of a vehicle at very low speed (say 5-10 mph) for small mammals and slightly higher speeds if only looking for larger species (say 10-20mph). I also scan it slowly left to right. As you say, much preferable to spotlighting in parks, residential areas where locals may call the police. You do need someone to drive, and if you’re up front you can only see one side of the road. Something I’ve tried to do that works in open country is to have one person drive very slowly, while the other is in the back seat and quickly scans each side with the heat scope.
    2) Walking at night or day; I get the most improvement using a heat scope (vs. spotlighting) in forest, but I’ve done this in grassland, desert, alpine etc too. I usually wear a headlamp pointed at the ground at low brightness to check for snakes or obstacles. I keep the camera around my neck and bins over the shoulder. I hold the scope in my hand and scan, and keep a bright small flashlight in my pocket to illuminate anything I find with the scope. I can’t ID much in the heat scope, except close-up larger species and am generally skeptical of anything reported as seen only through the scope. I generally move much slower on foot than others I’ve seen; I usually search by walking a very short distance and listening for movement, stopping and scanning thoroughly with the heat scope, and repeating. I don’t look through the scope while walking in fear of hurting myself!

    Like Paul, I’ve noted that the scope can work well by day too (while driving slowly or walking) for squirrels, duikers, brocket deer, agoutis, gray fox, etc. And in caves to find light-shy bats.

    I find depth and size perception very hard with the scope, even after a lot of practice. A few weeks ago, I thought I had a close woodrat resting in a low fork of a tree, but when I put the light on it, it turned out to be the paw of a mostly obscured and slightly more distant Bobcat!

    To find the Californian rodents, I employ 2 strategies: 1) the aforementioned very slow (5-10mph driving), scanning out the window; and 2) very slowly walking remote unpaved roads or well-maintained hiking trails, frequently stopping to listen for movement and scan with the scope.

    • Profile photo of Charles Foley Author
      Charles Foley 1 month ago

      Thanks for the detailed reply Venkat. I’m going to try mine on a much lower brightness setting to see if it makes a difference while walking. Clearly you must have been referring to Jon when you mentioned others having older eyes than you… 🙂

      • Profile photo of Jon Hall
        Jon Hall 1 month ago

        I think this mentions me … but mmy computer font is too small for me to read properly

    • Paul CARTER 1 month ago

      Hi Charles. Agreed that very thick grass is difficult as there are few gaps for a photo even when found. I had better luck (i.e. managed photos) in grass-areas under oak trees and around bushes; basically areas where you can see evidence of runs or burrow. I will send you a pic. P

  6. Profile photo of JanEbr
    JanEbr 1 month ago

    I have seen several talks about thermal imagers just as I started contemplating buying one (mainly because I can’t seem to find any small mammals as it is now), seems like destiny. Also corona made me immensely rich, as I have found out that until know I was spending basically all my money travelling and since that isn’t happenng, we basically save 75% of our income every month … But there is a problem: quantum lite line is discontinued! Are the new axions the correct replacement? Anyone has any ideas which one? Or is it better to look for a second hand xq30v?

  7. Profile photo of Jon Hall
    Jon Hall 1 month ago

    Thanks Charles – great discussion here. I don’t have a lot to add really other than to echo a few points.

    1. Like Venkat I turn the brightness down to zero … it helps my old eyes a fair bit, but it does take a minute to fully readjust.

    2. Moving and scanning …. this is basically the same perennial question as spotlighting speed. What is the optimum pace… cover more ground with less attention, or vice versa. There is a trade off. In a forest at least I will stop and scan, then walk a bit (without scoping) then walk and scan at the same time, then stop and scan and repeat etc. I suspect the optimum speed equation is inversely related to the size of what you are chasing and density of habitat … you can go quick if you are looking for an elephant on the plains, but go really slow if chasing shrews in long grass. Someone needs to do a PhD in this sharpish!

    3. I also wear a headlight and carry a brighter torch in my pocket.. seems like several of us have arrived independently at this arrangement.

    4, Ambient temperature is important (you don’t want every tree at “Mammal Temp degrees C”) but the speed of change of temperature that is also critical. Up high in the Andes the scope was super hard to use after sunset …. temperatures plunge but the latent heat in rocks and everything really just blew out the image.

    One new point to this thread – though not my own invention – is about locating the heat you see in the real (non thermal) world. This is the hardest part … the world often looks totally different through a heatscope and as Venkat said it can be a real challenge to know if that squirrel is in fact a distant clouded leopard. Its definitely easier with two people but otherwise I am like a 15th century mariner trying to get a read on the constellations for directions …. trying to recognise a certain patter and intersection of tree branches in the scope to match to reality. Some have suggested taping a laser pointer to the scope so – if you have someone next to you – they can see where you are looking when you have an eye through the scope. I fully intend to get around to doing this once I figure out which laser pointer to buy (suggestions welcome).

    jon

  8. Paul CARTER 1 month ago

    Walking with a thermal scope: how best (in my case) to manage 4 or 5 Tools with only 2 hands.
    The tools (in my case): thermal scope (XG30V); bins; camera (z7 with 300/ 500mm lens); hand-held “high power” torch (Fenix TK35UE); headlamp (Fenix HL60R) generally used for navigation and limited observation. Add bear spray and/or knife to the mix as required.
    I find that the following setup is more efficient in going from scope to my bins or camera than it would be in setups mentioned that use wrist/hand-straps on thermal scope, or power torches in pocket.
    SETUP: Scope in right hand with strap always around neck; hand torch in left hand; camera with 300/500 lens over left shoulder; bins around neck then scope strap around neck (ABOVE bins strap).
    SCOPE TO BINS: When seeing something I “drop” my scope to chest and grab bins in same place (torch already in left hand) with no time lost in pouching the scope or retrieving power torch from pocket.
    SCOPE TO CAMERA: Drop scope to chest; immediate access to camera, already with torch in hand, and my torch is held alongside lens during photography.
    OPERATIONAL POINTS: my “power-torch” rarely leaves my left hand all night so there is no time wasted retrieving it from a pocket. With my scope around my neck it is easy to switch from scope to bins if the mammal is hard to find. With my strap system (mentioned at link earlier) the thermal scope as it rests on chest always lies with controls on top; I always instinctively hit the display off button as I lower the scope and turn display on as I raise the scope (this extends the scope’s battery life significantly).
    My camera setup on shoulder is easier to control if it is shoulder-strapped rather than neck-strapped; and easier to remove if having to handhold and/or crawl/crouch (or rapidly abandon in order to run faster) …
    Paul

  9. Profile photo of Vladimir Dinets
    Vladimir Dinets 1 month ago

    I arrange things differently 🙂 I don’t carry binoculars at night at all unless there is a particular reason to do so. I carry my camera with external flash on the chest (with a back brace, of course – carrying heavy items on your neck can cause serious health issues very quickly). Scope in my right hand, torch in my left, plus headlamp on my head (obviously). If your camera has good zoom and focuses well at low light, it allows you to see distant animals as well as binoculars would (once you take a photo and zoom in), plus you get a photo to confirm the ID later. Juggling all this plus binoculars would be too much. Even without binoculars, you need a lot of practice to be able to cut the time from finding an animal with the scope to having a photo down to a few seconds. Most external flashes don’t need to be turned on separately every time, and I carry the camera without lens cover to save another half second (unless it’s bad weather, dense vegetation or something else that can damage the lens).
    Identifying mammals, particularly small ones, through the scope is, indeed, very difficult, but you should still keep trying: it teaches you to pay more attention to how they move rather than what they look like. For example, mice and voles can look pretty much identical through the scope, but move differently. Eventually you should be able to ID most or all mammals in areas where you spend a lot of time practicing.
    You can also use the scope at sea at night (many ships now have thermal scopes to avoid hitting obstacles); it allows you to see not just mammals and seabirds, but also whale spouts.
    One more thing: using a handheld scope while driving is extremely dangerous and tiring. Never do it unless you are on a good, totally empty road, and go very slowly. I once did it for many hours on Aousserd Rd. in Western Sahara – had two days of splitting headache afterwards.

  10. Profile photo of Lennartv
    Lennartv 1 month ago

    Interesting thread. Thanks for the tip about the snake gaiters Charles. I didn’t know they existed and they look like they should be mucht more comfortable to wear than my rubber boots. And thanks to your explanation on the XQ30, I just found out after a year of use that my XQ23 has a menu in which I can change things!

    Regarding how to walk around with your thermal scope as efficiently als possible I can for the most part agree with Paul. I can recommend one improvement though for your camera which would be the Spider Pro Camera System V2. It allows you to carry your camera on your belt which removes a lot of weight from your neck and shoulders. They are relatively expensive but I didn’t regret having bought them.

    Personally I was able to keep up with friends who where spotlighting while using my thermal. Indeed it is tiring and I’ve stepped wrong a couple of times. I use a headlight which is turned towards the ground and I use my other eye to check where I walk. I prefer to use the same (right) eye for the thermal because I prefer to keep it in my right hand. Also I hold the thermal vertically als I found it less tiring to be swiping more right and left than up and down. Personally I haven’t really had the same orientation problems as others report. I’ve found that it helps a lot for my orientation when I walk a bit back and forward and go up and down so you’ve got a perspective of how far away something is.After a bit of getting used to the thermal I was almost always correct in identifying the size of the animal that I saw in the thermal. It’s really interesting to see how much more clearer small mammals are opposed to sleeping birds. Finding non moving small animals could be hard though even when I had a pretty good idea of how far they were.

    I’m definitely going to use some tips I’ve read here about using the thermal. Now it’s only the question of when we might be able to go back to the jungle…

  11. Profile photo of Charles Foley Author
    Charles Foley 1 month ago

    Actually it was Paul messing around with fer-de-lances, not me. I try to encourage a friend to walk in front of me which solves that problem.

  12. Paul Carter 1 month ago

    Hi Lennartv. I have the Turtleskin gaitors which are about $150. There are cheaper versions but these are bulkier I think. So far I cannot report back on effectiveness when bitten. And only wearing leather boots now – not the thinner hiking boots with lightweight fabric. Paul

    • Profile photo of Lennartv
      Lennartv 1 month ago

      Ah, thanks Paul! Having someone walking in front of you is of course also a good strategy and if you give them a flashlight you might get some good herps in the process too!

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