Smartphone Birding

In the past few years, smartphones have made big gains into birding since one small device can now be used to share information, take photos, record songs, and supplement or even replace printed field guides. There are so many birding apps and products available now that I thought it might be helpful to share some favourites.

Many of the major field guide publishers have created app versions of their books. While I’m always on the hunt for free or inexpensive apps, good birding ID apps can can get expensive, though they are well worth the price considering that you’re getting a whole field guide that takes up virtually no space, and weighs only as much as your phone. You get text as well as search functions, range maps, illustrations, and multiple songs and calls in the palm of your hand. There are also great apps, often free, not specifically meant for birders but which can be very useful in the field and handy to have.

A good list of bird apps can be found hereand there are some more in this past post here. Although the Collin’s Bird Guide app covers European birds, it’s my absolute favourite. I even use it for looking up species that can be found in North America. It’s well designed, with comprehensive information, and the functions and features are top-notch.

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A good North American equivalent is the Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America. The app hasn’t been updated since last May, so hopefully a new version is in the pipeline with updated taxonomy, new species, and some of the changes from the second edition of the printed book.

The BirdsEye app helps find nearby birds by showing you which ones have been reported to eBirdand also shows birding hotspots from all over the world. This was the app I used most during my Banff trip in January, because it helped me to find lots of new species and excellent birding locations.

Great to pair with the BirdsEye app is the eBird Mobile app, available for free at both the App and Google Play stores. The eBird Mobile app lets you submit your birding checklists from the field in an easy format.

Raptor ID app was just released in February by HawkWatch International and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The app covers 34 species of North American diurnal raptors with almost 1,000 photos, videos, range maps, links to interactive seasonal eBird maps, and vocalizations for each species.

The Merlin Bird ID app by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the perfect app for young or beginning birders who are looking for an interactive way to ID birds. Users answer five questions about the bird in question, and then the Merlin app provides a list of possible matches. The app includes songs and calls, as well as multiple photos for each species covering 400 species across North America. The app is at the App and Google Play stores for free.

I like tracking my movements when birding to note the distance and length I bird. I’ve found that exercise apps are the best for this, and the two I use the most are MapMyRun and Strava.

For counting gulls at landfills or Snow Buntings in a field on your Christmas Bird Count circle, a tallying app can make counting a breeze. There are various apps available for iOS and Android devices. The one I use is called Tally Counter.

Orienteering apps are very useful for birding, especially if you want to know the latitude and longitude for adding to your eBird checklists or field notes. The free Coordinates Lite app is good for plotting both. If you need more in an orienteering app, try Spyglass, which has a high-tech viewfinder, milspec compass, gyrocompass, tactical GPS, speedometer, sniper’s rangefinder, and inclinometer among other things. For birding, use the apps to determine your distance from a bird or to find the precise location of a rare bird.

When I’m away from my laptop, I use the Inoreader app to keep up to date with the birding blogs I follow. Some other RSS apps are Feedly, Flipboard, and Bloglovin’ which are free and available for Apple and Android devices.

I don’t do much blogging through my phone, but I have the WordPress app downloaded for the times I’m away from my laptop. Blogger also has an app. I’ve found the WordPress app bit wonky but it’s good in a pinch.

Smartphones are perfect for recording bird calls for identification purposes and submitting sound recordings to databases like Xeno-Canto. You can use your phone’s default recorder, but for better quality recordings the RØDE REC app is $8.49 at the App store. For capturing high-quality sounds, try an external compact mic.

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A Clark’s Nutcracker photo I posted on my Instagram account

For birders interested in pairing optics and smartphones, digiscoping is an ever-growing activity. I’ve written an introductory post about this photography technique and the photo editing apps you can use to help improve your photos.

With a phone, social media platforms are always at hand making it easy to stay up to date with rare bird alerts, Facebook bird groups/pages, and birding Twitter accounts. Instagram is also a great app for sharing bird photos and seeing what others are posting. I post some bird photos to my general Instagram account and some of my favourite birding IGs are kojobirder, lovingfornature, petersownbirds, nickparaykoimages, and phoneskopebirding to name a few. You don’t need an Instagram account or a smartphone to follow someone’s account.

If you have any apps to recommend, please let me know in the comments.

Feathers on Friday

If you would like to join me for my Feathers on Friday meme, please put the link to your blog post in the comments and I’ll add the link to my post.

The other day while working on my second to last chapter of my Cornell Lab Home Study course in Bird Biology, I would periodically look out the kitchen window at the slough across the road. Among the Mallards, Northern Pintails, American Avocets, and Greater Yellowlegs were two Black-necked Stilts. Black-necked Stilts aren’t all that common in this area, but I’ve seen at least one every spring at this same slough for a few years in a row now.

I took a break from the birds on the page for some digiscoping of actual birds. I used my Swarovski ATM 80 scope with the 20-60 zoom eyepiece and Phone Skope adapter to get this photo.

One of the Black-necked Stilts,

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More Feathers on Friday Posts:

Bird Boy

Birds in Your Backyard

The Cats and the Birds

Wolf Song Blog

JG Birds+

Backyard Bird Blog

The Morning Side of Life

Anotherdayinparadise

A Day in The Life

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Swans and Digiscoping

Our yearling heifers have been on pasture 45 minutes away from our farm since June. Every couple of days, we check on them to make sure none has crawled through the fence or needs medical help. I checked them on Saturday and enjoyed driving around the countryside on a beautiful fall day. I brought along my scope, Canon SX50 HS camera, new Viking Optical Universal digiscoping adapter and new Phone Skope Bluetooth Shutter release.

The heifers are well trained and expect treats, so they all came running toward me as soon as they saw the truck. I gave them their hay which they all enjoyed.

The herd is a mix of crossbreeds including Shorthorn, Black Angus, and Speckle Park,FullSizeRender-3FullSizeRender-4 FullSizeRender-2

Birds were few and far between, but on the way back from the pasture I finally found something to photograph/digiscope. A large group of Tundra Swans were feeding and preening on a slough (pond) north of our farm.

I used my Canon camera for these photos, but the wind picked up and it was tough to keep everything stable.

There were over 100 Tundra Swans on the slough and even though they were on the far side I was able to get some decent photos,IMG_9868 IMG_9874 IMG_9877

I hauled out my scope, iPhone, Viking Optical Universal adapter, and Phone Skope Bluetooth Shutter release to digiscope some shots of the swans.

The Bluetooth shutter came in the mail from Phone Skope on Friday and this was my first chance to test it out. The shutter release removes all contact with the phone to prevent shake and blurry photos. It’s very handy and an excellent tool for digiscoping.

Getting the correct exposure on white birds can be tricky, especially on water. These photos are a little overexposed and there’s also a bit of chromatic aberration outlining the swans. I took photos of the swans three different ways with the iPhone’s camera, with the Pro Camera app, and with the Manual app, playing around with the exposure and other settings.

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Photo taken with an iPhone 6, Viking Optical Universal adapter, Phone Skope Bluetooth Shutter, Swarovski ATM 80 scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece, and the Manual app

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Photo taken with an iPhone 6, Viking Optical Universal adapter, Phone Skope Bluetooth Shutter, Swarovski ATM 80 scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece, and the iPhone’s camera

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Photo taken with an iPhone 6, Viking Optical Universal adapter, Phone Skope Bluetooth Shutter, Swarovski ATM 80 scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece, and the Pro Camera app

I drove to another slough, where there were only 10 swans, some Mallards, Northern Pintails, and this muskrat house, which is at least three feet tall,IMG_9880Though there were fewer swans, these were a little more co-operative as they were closer to the shore,

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They weren’t too concerned by my presence and were busy preening and spreading their wings. This is one of my favourite shots from the afternoon,IMG_9906  IMG_9915

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Photo taken with an iPhone 6, Viking Optical Universal adapter, Phone Skope Bluetooth Shutter, Swarovski ATM 80 scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece, and the iPhone’s camera

Viking Smart Phone Adapter: First Impressions

:: I received a Viking Optical Smart Phone adapter from the company for review; all opinions and writing are my own ::

Viking Optical is a UK company that makes scopes, binoculars, and optics accessories including their Universal Smart Phone Adaptor, which is designed to allow any smart phone to attach to a spotting scope. Viking is an independent company in the UK with a long history of supporting conservation organizations, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and BirdLife International, the species champion for the Forest Owlet and Seychelles Paradise-flycatcher.

This digiscoping adapter is comprised of two elements — a platform to support the smartphone and a collar that twists and locks onto the platform.

Viking Optical has a choice of five collar sizes designed to be compatible with five scope models: 39mm (RSPB AG), 48mm (Viking ED Pro Zoom, Viking AW Zoom),
55mm (Swarovski ATS/STS Zoom; Kowa TSN 770/880 Series, Zooms and 30x),
56mm (Leica APO Televid 65/82 Zoom; RSPB HD Zoom), 59mm (Swarovski ATX). The collars will also work with other brands. I was sent the 55mm and 56mm collars as we weren’t sure which would fit my older-model scope. The 55mm collar fits best on my scope’s eyepiece and provides the most support for the platform.

Just align the phone’s camera with the centre of the adapter’s opening. Secure the phone in place by tightening with the four adjustable flexible rubber clamps which are tightened to hold the phone in place. The clamps can be removed and placed in different sections for a better fit no matter the design/model or thickness of the phone. Once secured, the camera is able to rotate within the adapter, alternating between portrait and landscape shots.

This adapter would be great to share on birding walks with other birders since various phones can be switched in and out to get digiscoped photos.

Another benefit to this adapter is that I’m able to leave on my protective phone case while using this adapter. Setting up the adapter for use is simple, and the adapter is both lightweight and sturdy. It also fits inside a larger jacket pocket, and comes with a detachable lanyard in case you find yourself pocketless.

The Black-capped Chickadees at my feeders are great for practicing my digiscoping technique.

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Photo taken with an iPhone 6, Viking Optical Universal adapter, and Swarovski ATM 80 scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece

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Photo taken with an iPhone 6, Viking Optical Universal adapter, and Swarovski ATM 80 scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece

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Photo taken with an iPhone 6, Viking Optical Universal adapter, and Swarovski ATM 80 scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece

Feathers on Friday

If you would like to join me for my Feathers on Friday meme, please put the link to your blog post in the comments and I’ll add the link to my post.

A gang of Black-capped Chickadees have started visiting my feeders and sometimes they sit long enough for me to digiscope a few photos.

Here’s one of my better ones taken through our kitchen window with my Swarovski ATM 80 scope and Phone Skope adapter,IMG_0006

More Feathers on Friday Posts:

Bird Boy

Birds in Your Backyard

The Cats and the Birds

Wolf Song Blog

Kathie’s Birds

Phone Skope Adapter: First Impressions

:: I received a Phone Skope adapter from the company for review; all opinions and writing are my own ::

Even before I got my new iPhone — in September, my first ever cell phone — I was researching digiscoping adapters to use with it and my Swarovski scope. Over the past few years, I’d seen lots of good reviews of the Phone Skope adapter, so I contacted them about their adapters.

Phone Skope specializes in making adapters for digiscoping on a variety of phones and scopes/binoculars; you make your selection based on the smart phone and scope/binocular you have. The eyepiece adapters and cases come in several sizes, so you can choose the correct model for your phone and optics. If you can’t find the correct sizing, custom models are available. Tim at Phone Skope was very helpful and generously shipped out an adapter to me last week to review. I’ve been testing it out and enjoying it very much.

The adapter consists of two parts, the case and the eyepiece adapter. Your phone just slides into the snug-fitting plastic case, then twist-lock the two pieces together and slide it onto your scope or binoculars. It’s that easy!

I keep my phone in a Lifeproof Frē case at all times to make sure it stays safe; I waited a long time to get a cell phone and I spend a lot of time outdoors, so I’m not taking any chances. In order to use the adapter I have to take my phone out of its case. Compared to some other adapters I’ve seen, the Phone Skope adapter does provide some protection for the phone if it’s dropped, which is a top priority for me. I also like that the adapter fits tightly on the scope’s eyepiece. It would take quite some force to knock the adapter off the scope, so I feel comfortable leaving the phone sitting on the eyepiece.

I went on a Sunday afternoon drive to test out the Phone Skope. It was very windy, so it was impossible to keep my scope motionless. However, I’m very happy with the photos I got. So far, I really enjoy the Phone Skope adapter and can’t wait until the Spring to use it to its full potential.

But I’m going to keep testing it and am planning to write more posts on the adapter as I perfect my digiscoping skills.

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Photo taken with an iPhone 6, Phone Skope adapter,  and Swarovski ATM 80 scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece

For digiscoping, I use my ATM 80mm Swarovski scope with 20 – 60 zoom eyepiece. I twist the eye cup most of the way as it reduces the vignetting (the black circle around the photos). You can get rid of the vignetting by cropping the photo in iPhoto if you like.

Here’s an un-cropped photo of Canada Geese,

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Photo taken with an iPhone 6, Phone Skope adapter, and Swarovski ATM 80 scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece

Coming in for a landing,

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Photo taken with an iPhone 6, Phone Skope adapter, and Swarovski ATM 80 scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece

Tundra Swans,

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Photo taken with an iPhone 6, Phone Skope adapter, and Swarovski ATM 80 scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece

I found this young Bald Eagle sitting in a dead tree on my drive. I really like this photo, with the eagle taking off,

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Photo taken with an iPhone 6, Phone Skope adapter, and Swarovski ATM 80 scope with 20-60 zoom eyepiece