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Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011

News photo
Mount Kurohime seen recently through my study window. C.W. NICOL PHOTO

OLD NIC'S NOTEBOOK

A window on our woods

A new high-tech video camera lets us watch nature undisturbed before our eyes


When I'm sitting at my desk working in my study, I can look up through a large window and enjoy the view of some woods with a meadow beyond. Except that I'm not too happy with the woods, that is, because they belong to a neighbor who has left the trees untended and neglected for all of the 30 years I've lived here in the Nagano Prefecture hills outside Kurohime and so they have all become spindly and some are sick.

News photo
Fine sights: Myself with Norio Taori (above), president of our trust's camera benefactors, the Tokyo-based marketing research company Intage, at the unveiling of a big-screen link to our woods in the company's headquarters. IZUMI MORITA PHOTO

But I shouldn't complain. In winter, the sun sometimes shines through the window and into my face so strongly that I have to pull down the Venetian blind. Then when the spring comes and new leaves grow, the greenery acts as a gentle screen, and once in a while I'll see a jay, a woodpecker, a nuthatch or some other little bird.

To my right there is another window, not so large, but this one can be opened. Opened or closed, though, the view out of it is magnificent, what with it being a mere two spits and a piddle from the Torii River, which starts up at Togakushi, then comes rushing down the valley between Mount Iizuna and Mount Kurohime.

Before the Chikuma and Shinano rivers were dammed much further downstream, salmon used to swim up them from the Sea of Japan to the Torii River to spawn. The salmon are gone, but there are wild char and introduced rainbow trout, as well as a small, indigenous species of bullhead. Blue herons, dippers, wagtails and kingfishers come to the clear waters, and in summer children play.

The Torii River runs straight toward my study, but takes a sharp turn to its left just 10 meters off. Looking up the river, I have a grand view of Mount Kurohime.

The view through this window changes by the hour, by the day, by the season. I never get bored with it. I'm the kind of person who not only thrives on natural views, sounds and scents; I can't live without them.

The few times I have lived in a city, I have gone out of my way to get a place where I can see nature from the window. If you put me in a city and surround me with unnatural shapes and angles I get close to panic, I feel trapped, hemmed in.

News photo
Watch tower: The steel post by a pond in our woods with the remote-controlled high-definition autofocus camera housed in a "bird box" on the top. Live video from there is relayed to the nearby Afan Nature Center and to the offices of our sponsor company, Intage, in Nagano and Tokyo. Soon, however, footage could be going around the world. C.W. NICOL PHOTO

Over the past few years, to aid in the research we do up here on our more than 30-hectare C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust property, we have installed several simple still cameras that are activated by movement. These cameras have taken shots of bears, wild boar, deer, foxes, martens, badgers, civet cats, racoon dogs, hares, weasels, squirrels and even the lovely and increasingly rare copper pheasant.

Delighted by these results, I got the notion that I wanted a camera we could remotely control to take live, real-time moving images we could share. I sold the idea to friends at Tokyo-based Intage, Japan's pioneer and leader in the field of marketing research, which this year is having its 50th anniversary.

"What if you could have a large window onto our woods?" I said to the company's president, Norio Taori. I had already consulted communications experts, and knew it was possible. My persuasion worked, and last autumn we designed and built a 4 1/2-meter-high camera tower beside one of the largest ponds in our woods. The tower is a steel column with a buried reinforced-concrete base that no bear but only an earthquake could shake. At the top of the tower is a sort of open-fronted bird box to house the camera. We installed a Canon Remote Control Pan-Tilt System BU-45H.

Admittedly, the steel camera tower looks unnatural, but when spring comes and the snow melts, we will plant small trees or bushes around it to hide the metal, and we will choose trees and bushes that have flowers and berries to attract bees, butterflies and birds.

However, because we needed to protect the camera with the wooden housing, it will at present pan through a maximum of 180 degrees. Right now, as I write this, one view is shown through icicles growing from the corner of the housing. If we tilt it, the camera will point to the nearest edge of the pond, or up to the peak of Mount Kurohime.

Better still, as the lens can zoom to 20-times magnification, and the camera has a high-definition, auto-focus system, we can close in to fill the screen with a dragonfly emerging on the stem of a reed, a tiny green tree frog on a branch, or the entrance of a nest box 20 meters away. All of this perfectly focused and in vivid color.

The camera is controlled from the office of our new Afan Nature Center on the edge of the woods through a small box and a monitor screen there that are linked via easily hidden critter-proof cables to the camera. We now relay the images to a 64-inch screen in the center's main hall, and to 100-inch screens in the lobby of our benefactor, Intage's, offices in Nagano City and to the lobby of its headquarters in Akihabara, Tokyo. In addition, smaller screens also open this HD window on the woods in the elevator halls and at various other points in the offices.

So now, in the heart of those two busy cities, Intage's staff and their visitors have a woodland window with changing views to enjoy whenever they want — all in vivid detail and color.

But still some people didn't get the point. Indeed, some even wondered why anyone would want to look at the same scene all the time.

The thing such folk failed to grasp was that it never really is the same scene — as anybody who regularly looks out of a window onto nature knows. Also, if somebody in the center's office glances at the monitor and notices something, then they can easily turn and zoom the camera to get a really close image. In the process, many times the camera will be capturing a view of woodland life that could not be seen in such detail if a human was there in person.

Snow began to fall here in Kurohime on Dec. 24, so there, in the big Intage lobby in Akihabara — the crowded, bustling, noisy, high-tech electronics hub of Tokyo — they were treated to their very own white Christmas! People were delighted. When I went to Tokyo around then to hold a press conference for this new attraction, I looked at the big screen and immediately noted the tracks of a weasel and a fox in the snow, and with a simple phone call, got our office staff to zoom up on them.

Before long, spring, too, should be a lot of fun, when lots of things will start happening in and around the ponds, and in the woods. I'm really hoping that the nest boxes will be occupied, with the parent birds coming and going to feed their young. Then, we will be able to zoom in on a little coal tit with a caterpillar in its mouth so that it will appear as big as a turkey on the screen. And if we want to, we can get somebody to sit at the monitor and count exactly what and how many insects, grubs and caterpillars the birds bring to their nest. That alone would make a research paper.

Ducks, herons and kingfishers will come to the ponds, animals will stroll the pathways, the magnolia and mountain cherries will bloom, dragonflies will emerge to dip, dart and hover. This camera gives clear images even at dusk or in the light of a full moon, which is when many animals are out and about.

Mr. Taori noted that some workers used to grumble if they had to wait for the elevators, but nobody complains now. On the contrary, he said that some even seem annoyed if the elevator arrives quickly — because they were engrossed with what they were watching through our window on the woods.

From here on, our plan is to thoroughly test the system through all the seasons for a year, then hopefully to proceed to share the images with others in Japan and beyond. I'd especially like to link with our sister forest, the Afan Argoed Forest Park in South Wales — and who knows, some day we may be sitting in our center here watching nature live and in full color as it happens on the other side of Eurasia as well.

If any readers would like (for a paltry fee) to become members of the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust, please visit info@afan.or.jp. As my staff are not entirely fluent in English, I will do my best to answer any questions they can't handle.


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