A Crash Course in Digiscoping

I started digiscoping several years ago with my Swarovski scope, point and shoot Canon camera, and a homemade adapter. Now that I have an iPhone, I’ve been using it for digiscoping both handheld and with adapters. With some practice, determination, and a little luck you can get some really great photos.

My homemade adapter,IMG_4467_2

Digiscoping is a photography technique using a camera with a spotting scope or binoculars to take pictures. The word “digiscoping” is a combination of “digital camera” and ”spotting scope”. Digiscoping started out with DSLR cameras, but advances in smartphone cameras and sensors have made digiscoping incredibly easy with a camera that many have with us all the time. So often, the best camera is the one that is closest to hand.

For handheld digiscoping, extend the eyecup on the scope to provide some “relief” for the phone; this helps focus the camera and also prevents scratching the scope’s lens. Hold the camera back until you see the point of light through the scope, then slowly move the phone down until the bird or whatever you’re photographing comes into focus on the camera. Once you have the phone in position, zoom in a little and tap the screen to focus.


A Snowy Owl digiscoped with my Swarovski scope, 20-60 zoom eyepiece, and Phone Skope adapter

Using a digiscoping adapter eliminates the whole process of aligning both camera and scope and makes it much easier to keep the phone in place for an extended period of time. Many companies make adapters for their scopes, including Swarovski, Kowa, Opticron, and Meopta. And PhoneSkope makes adapters for almost every make and model of phone and scope. Viking Optical, NovaGrade, SnapZoom, and Carson Optical make universal adapters which are great for digiscopers who have various phones or scopes, or who bird with others who want to get digiscoped photos. Universal adapters, however, do require adjustments in the field.


A Black-capped Chickadee digiscoped with my Swarovski scope, 20-60 zoom eyepiece, and Phone Skope adapter.

Vignetting is the dark circle around your view through a scope or binoculars. In digiscoping, vignetting can be eliminated by increasing the magnification on the scope or camera until you no longer see the dark edges. It can also be edited out in iPhoto or Photoshop or whatever you use to crop images.

Smartphones are particularly good for taking photos in low light, but the quality of your optics still has a big impact on your photos. A scope with good light-gathering ability is optimal for photos taken at dusk or on an overcast day. Try to have the sun at your back when digiscoping as this will ensure good light on the subject. Backlit photos can be very nice as well, so try both types of lighting.

Practice using your camera’s exposure adjustments. If you tap where the image is brightest, the iPhone will self-adjust to the correct exposure. If you are photographing a subject that’s a little too dark or too bright and the camera doesn’t accurately guess the exposure, use the slider to make adjustments by dragging your finger up and down the screen. You can lock the exposure by holding your finger until you see “AF/AE Lock”.

While the iPhone camera works well, if you want more control over your camera and photos, try the Manual, and ProCamera, and Camera+ apps.


A Black-capped Chickadee digiscoped with my Swarovski scope, 20-60 zoom eyepiece, and Viking Optical Universal adapter

Camera shake is a terrible problem for many of us. Anything that shakes your setup will greatly increase the risk of blurry, or unfocused photos. Many people don’t realize that the headphones that come with the iPhone (the volume buttons) can act as a remote shutter release. This is a great technique to use if you want to reduce contact with the phone. There are also remote shutter releases that can control your iPhone camera via Bluetooth or use voice commands to take photos with Android devices.

If your photos need some help, try photo editing apps. Upload photos to apps like PicTapGo, SnapSeed, or Hipstamatic to make minor adjustments. These apps can fix and enhance contrast, exposure, and sharpness quickly and easily. Instagram can also turn a lesser quality photo into something great with a filter and some editing. For videos, hold your phone horizontally to take video as most uploading sites, such as YouTube and Vimeo, are designed for horizontal clips.

I would love to see your digiscoped photos, so please link to yours in the comments below!

Dancing with Sharp-tailed Grouse!

Each year our local naturalist society makes the one-hour drive to the Canadian Forces Base at Wainwright, Alberta, to see the annual Sharp-tailed Grouse dance at their lek. The field trip is arranged by the Wainwright Naturalist Society, whose members also maintain the several blinds where we sit and observe. This part of the province has the highest counts and density of breeding Sharp-tailed Grouse.

Thursday morning at 3 am I was awake and ready to head out to watch male Sharp-tailed Grouse strut their stuff at the lek (mating ground) on the Camp Wainwright base, along with Lakeland College students in the Wildlife & Fisheries Conservation program. We left Vermilion at 4 am because there’s a security briefing at the base, about not touching anything, including exploded and unexploded mines.

Once the briefing was over, we drove to the part of the base, all native prairie, where they practice with mines and explosives and then walked about a quarter of a kilometer to the blinds. The birds start dancing at sunrise, which is why the field trip starts so early. This year we actually arrived before the grouse did, so it was good that we didn’t disturb them as we got ourselves situated in the blinds. There are very few places left with any Sharp-tailed Grouse at all, let alone breeding pairs.

Our group counted 15 displaying males this year, up from last year’s six grouse. The grouse weren’t as active as in previous years — not dancing as much and spending more time just huddled up, which was probably attributable to the wind, cold temperature (-8 c), and snow falling. But otherwise it was a great morning!

After we finished watching the birds at around 7 am, we drove back to the base for breakfast in the mess hall, where they prepare anything you might want, from pancakes, waffles, and sausages, to eggs and fruit.

This is the fourth year I’ve watched the Sharp-tailed Grouse dance, and the day is always one of the highlights of our naturalist society activities and of my birding year.

Some of the males got fairly close to our blind which provided me with a good opportunity to practice with my new camera,




Here’s a short video I made,

One of the other blinds and a couple of pairs of males. How many can you count?




I wasn’t able to get very good photos of the birds dancing, but in this photo you can see the bright purple air-sac,


IMG_0575 IMG_0583

DIY Digiscoping Adapter

One of the things I am hoping to learn with my new scope is digiscoping. Digiscoping is using your scope with a camera (point and shoot or dslr), even an iPhone, to take close-ups. It’s a good alternative to an expensive telephoto lens (especially once you have spent all your money on a scope!), and some people can take amazing digiscoped photos.

One of those people is Sharon Stiteler aka Birdchick. Not only is she a great digiscoper, but she is a great teacher as well and has video tutorials, posts, and other helpful tips on digiscoping at her Birdchick blog.

One downside to digiscoping is that the adapters that help you get better photos can be expensive, especially if as mentioned above you have just spent a lot on a scope. You can hand-hold the camera to take photos, but it can be difficult to hold it still enough. One solution, which I like, is a DIY adapter. While it’s not as good as the real ones, it works quite well and is very cheap!

You will need:

A plastic pop/soda bottle (a 2-liter bottle works well)

Duct tape (also known as gaffer’s tape)


A hot glue gun

Backer rod foam insulator (from the hardware store)

Most importantly, patience!

Following along with my how-to video below, cut the plastic bottle to the specifications of your scope’s eyepiece. My adapter’s dimensions are 4″ high and  8-1/2′” long. Make sure the adapter isn’t too tight or too loose, and that it slides up and down the eyepiece easily. I wrapped duct tape all around the clear plastic to give it more of a finished look. I glued backer rod, cut in half, inside the adapter to give the camera support when taking photos.

Here’s my finished DIY effort,

When taking photos with this adapter you get vignetting, which is the black ring around the photo. You can get rid of the vignetting by cropping to get rid of most of it, or zooming in with the camera to reduce the amount of vignetting.

Before cropping,


After cropping,


Swarovski holds an annual “digiscoper of the year” contest, and there is a Facebook digiscoping group too.

In winter in my part of Alberta there aren’t a lot of digiscoping opportunities, but it’s fun to practice on the chickadees, redpolls, and woodpeckers at my feeders. I took more than 40 photos of this Common Redpoll,


Kickstarting The Birder Movie

There is a new independent (Canadian!) birding movie in the works, and it needs Kickstarter funding. As producer Gerry Lattmann of Toronto explains, “We shot the film, now we need help with getting it finished.” The project, which is in post-production, will be funded only if the The Birder reaches the goal of $30,000 by January 4th and so far it has raised $5,840. My mother signed us up for $35 yesterday ($25, which gets you a DVD of the finished movie, plus $10 for shipping the DVD to Canada).


The cast includes Fred Willard, Graham Greene, Tom Cavanagh, Cassidy Renee, Mark Rendall, and Jamie Spilchuk. Most of the filming took place in Point Pelee, and from the few clips I’ve seen, it looks like a fun movie. From the Kickstarter description,

THE BIRDER is an intelligent and witty comedy about a mild-mannered high school teacher and avid birder who plots revenge against a younger, hipper rival, after losing the Head of Ornithology position at the local park.

This Sunday, December 16th, Gerry Lattman is going to be interviewed on my favorite birding radio show, Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds. I’m very much looking forward to that segment of the show!

Here is a behind the scenes video,

and you can find the trailer at the Kickstarter page (I can’t seem to get it to play properly in this post). I hope this project is able to reach its goal!

Birds of Paradise

BirdofPardiseattnborough My mother was looking for some documentary DVDs from our library through interlibrary loan, and requested the BBC’s “Attenborough in Paradise and Other Personal Voyages“, which we watched last week.

“Attenborough in Paradise” is a wonderful documentary written and presented in 1996 by Sir David Attenborough, the English naturalist and broadcaster. When he was nine years old, he read “The Malay Archipelago” (1869) by the English naturalist and biologist Alfred Russel Wallace; the book is free online at this link. If I can find the book through the library, I will be sure to get it and write and post a review here. Ever since, Sir David had wanted to see the birds in their paradise. (In fact, just last year, in November 2011, he gave the Darwin Lecture, speaking on “Alfred Russel Wallace and the Birds of Paradise”, organized and hosted by the Royal Society of Medicine in association with the Linnean Society of London).

Probably some of the most beautiful and elegantly plumed birds in the world are Birds of Paradise. Birds of Paradise are only found on the island of New Guinea and surrounding islands. They perform some of the most interesting courtships and display extravagant plumes that some consider the most beautiful in the bird world, but little is know about the evolution of these birds.

I realized after watching the documentary from 16 years ago that it fits in very well with several current ornithological projects.

One of these projects is National Geographic’s “Winged Seduction: Birds of Paradise”/”Birds of Paradise: An Avian Evolution”, which includes an exhibit, a book, and a documentary film. The projects are all based on eight years of research and 18 expeditions, begun in 2004, by Edwin Scholes, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientist, and Tim Laman, a field biologist and photographer for National Geographic. They decided to do the first comprehensive study of all Birds of Paradise, covering all 39 known species, and were able to document several new behaviors.

The exhibition just opened at National Geographic’s museum in Washington, DC, on November 1st and runs until May 12th, 2013. There will also be traveling exhibits around the US and Canada

Along with the exhibit, National Geographic and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have published a coffee-table book Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds. The cover is beautiful, and it sounds very much like a book I’d like to read. It would also make a great holiday present for your favorite birder!

The book is available from the Cornell gift shop and at Amazon.

The documentary film of the project, “Winged Seduction“, just had its world premiere at Banff, Alberta (in my own province!) at the end of October, and Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes were there to present and introduce the film and speak about their work to photograph, film, and study these extraordinary birds. The movie first aired on television on Thanksgiving on the National Geographic channel. We don’t have cable TV, so I am looking forward to the DVD, which will be available in a few days, on November 27th. For anyone else who is interested in the documentary, there is a terrific trailer of the Birds of Paradise project.

Also, there is an exhibit currently at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton that ties in well with the Cornell/National Geographic project: “Fashioning Feathers: Dead Birds, Millinery Crafts and the Plumage Trade”, about the dangerous connection between fashion and natural history, which opened in March and runs through January 6, 2013.

A wonderful source of information on Birds of Paradise is the Fashioning Feathers blog, maintained by Dr. Merle Patchett, who created and curated the exhibit. The blog documents the making of the exhibit at the Royal Alberta Museum. You can find more information here. The blog has a whole page devoted to the Birds of Paradise, and I recommend reading it from top to bottom!

Unfortunately, because of such lovely feathers, the Birds of Paradise, especially the Lesser and the Greater Birds of Paradise, were greatly sought after for several hundred years, until the early 20th century. The first known “trade skins” of Birds of Paradise were seen by Europeans in 1522, but European naturalists would not see a live specimen until 1825.

When prepared specimens were first brought back to Europe, they caused great excitement, not only because of the beautiful plumes, but because the birds didn’t seem to have any legs or wings. The birds had been prepared by the indigenous traders their traditional way, removing both the legs and wings to better show off the feathers’ beauty; the traders would cut off the wings and feet, then skin the body up to the beak, removing the skull. A stick was then run up through the specimen coming out at the mouth. (This is very much how we learned to prepare study skins at Long Point this past summer). The Europeans assumed from this presentation that the birds lived their whole lives in the air, feeding on dew, and only coming to the ground when they died.

Here is an early European drawing, based on that incorrect assumption, of a wingless, legless Bird of Paradise drinking dew (from Fashioning Feathers blog),

Alfred Russell Wallace (1823 –1913), whose book had so enchanted the young David Attenborough, left in 1854 to travel around the Malay Archipelago for eight years, to study and search for specimens, including the highly desired Birds of Paradise, although it took him three years to finally see a living species of Bird of Paradise. (It was on this trip that he though more about his ideas on evolution and natural selection, and in 1858 wrote to Charles Darwin outlining his theory.)

Wallace returned to England in 1862, with more than 125,660 specimens, mostly insects and birds. He also brought back several live Birds of Paradise, with their legs and wings intact.

Alfred Russell Wallace writing about the Birds of Paradise he encountered in the wild,

When the earliest European voyagers reached the Moluccas in search of cloves and nutmegs, which were then rare and precious spices, they were presented with the dried shins of birds so strange and beautiful as to excite the admiration even of those wealth-seeking rovers. The Malay traders gave them the name of “Manuk dewata,” or God’s birds; and the Portuguese, finding that they had no feet or wings, and not being able to learn anything authentic about then, called them “Passaros de Col,” or Birds of the Sun; while the learned Dutchmen, who wrote in Latin, called them “Avis paradiseus,” or Paradise Bird. John van Linschoten gives these names in 1598, and tells us that no one has seen these birds alive, for they live in the air, always turning towards the sun, and never lighting on the earth till they die; for they have neither feet nor wings, as, he adds, may be seen by the birds carried to India, and sometimes to Holland, but being very costly they were then rarely seen in Europe.

 …the males assemble early in the morning to exhibit themselves in the singular manner already described… This habit enables the natives to obtain specimens with comparative ease. As soon as they find that the birds have fled upon a tree on which to assemble, they build a little shelter of palm leaves in a convenient place among the branches, and the hunter ensconces himself in it before daylight, armed with his bow and a number of arrows terminating in a round knob. A boy waits at the foot of the tree, and when the birds come at sunrise, and a sufficient number have assembled, and have begun to dance, the hunter shoots with his blunt arrow so strongly as to stun the bird, which drops down, and is secured and killed by the boy without its plumage being injured by a drop of blood. The rest take no notice, and fall one after another till some of them take the alarm.

The indigenous mode of preserving them is to cut off the wings and feet, and then skin the body up to the beak, taking out the skull. A stout stick is then run up through the specimen coming out at the mouth.

During the “plume boom”, in the early 20th century, the Greater Bird of Paradise was very close to extinction, with up to 80,000 skins were exported from New Guinea each year.

All around Canada, in big cities and small towns, women were able to buy parrot and Birds of Paradise plumes from the Eatons department store catalogue (from Fashioning Feathers blog),

The killing of Birds of Paradise for the millinery trade was first addressed in the 1920s when it became illegal to export from New Guinea the feathers from all species of Birds of Paradise, though to this day illegal hunting and exporting continues; Birds of Paradise are also in danger from deforestation. Interestingly, ne of the changes that helped save the Birds of Paradise also happened around the 1920s, with the change in women’s hairstyles from long hair to the shorter bob. The close-cropped style couldn’t support large hats and so the demand for feathers dropped considerably.

I would love to travel to New Guinea one day, and see any of the species of the Birds of Paradise in their natural habitat.

Here is one last very fitting quote from Alfred Russell Wallace, from The Malay Archipelago,

It seems sad that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions, doomed for ages yet to come to hopeless barbarism; while on the other hand, should civilized man ever reach these distant lands, and bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure that he will so disturbed the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy.

This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man. Many of them have no relation to him. The cycle of their existence has gone on independently of his, and is disturbed or broken by every advance in man’s intellectual development; and their happiness and enjoyment, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone, limited only by the equal well-being and perpetuation of the numberless other organisms with which each is more or less intimately connected. 


There is also an episode of the PBS Nature series on Birds of Paradise, “Birds of the Gods”, also with David Attenborough, now available on DVD. Our library doesn’t have it so I’ll have to figure out another way to find it, maybe at YouTube.


On Sunday I was very excited to see a female bufflehead and her 10 ducklings. They are the first black-and-white ducklings I’ve ever seen. They are very cute.

I think that the ducklings look like miniature Canada geese,

The mother is on the left hand side of the picture,

I would have made the movie longer, but I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes. In the background you can hear the mother calling to her babies,