Ralph Arwood Photography

Searching for a Florida Panther Den.

Thursday, May 12, 2016 7:53 AM

When a female panther stays in one location for more than five days, she is usually giving birth to kittens.  If she has a simple VHF collar we will go to the area and try to triangulate her exact location without disturbing her so that she does not move away from her kittens. If she has a GPS collar it will download her location and save us that step.

Searching for a den is always a challenge.   Florida Panthers usually den in very dense saw palmetto thickets. The dense vegetation comes with saw teeth on the palmettos and the many thorny vines. It’s a great place for a den, offering protection from the sun and rain.  The tangle of vegetation makes it impossible to approach the den without making a lot of noise.

For several years we have worn body cameras trying to capture what a den search is like.  At first we used GoPro cameras on a head strap. The video quality was great but it was impossible to keep the camera in place crawling through the thick vegetation.  The constant head motion often resulted in motion sickness when you watched the video.  Changing to a chest mount helped with the motion sickness but much of the video was of the ground as we crawled through the palmettos.

Recently I have started using a Pivothead camera.  The camera is built into the nose bridge of a pair of safety glasses.  It adds eye protection from the sharp vegetation and always stays in place.  Motion sickness can still be a problem but with practice you learn not to turn your head so fast while filming. 

Mothers usually stay close to the den for the first two weeks.  As the kittens get older she will leave them to go off hunting. Sometimes she will be away for more than a day. With mom away we have a chance to go in and examine the kittens.

Using the GPS location as out target, we will each approach the den from a different side.  That way if the kittens are old enough to crawl, they will hopefully not get away from us. Moving toward the den is a slow methodic process. One you do not want to step on a kitten and two you need to look in every nook and cranny along the way. 

I have yet to get a video that truly captures the feel of a den search.  The video always looks much brighter than what I saw.  It also does a poor job of showing the three dimensional nature of the tangled vegetation.  With those limitations the video below of our search for FP-180’s den is the best so far.  In hope of not giving you motion sickness I’ve edited out the first 18 minutes of the search.