Inspection Cams Bring Nests Into View

Photo © Tom Junek

by Robyn Bailey, NestWatch Project Leader

There are many tools that NestWatchers can use to inspect difficult nests: the birdhouse cam, the selfie stick, and the low-tech mirror-on-a-pole. But if you have many boxes, no electricity, and a small budget, the in-box camera may not work for you. And a selfie stick or mirror-pole is no help at all when the nest is underground or in a narrow crevice. What’s a NestWatcher to do when a tricky nest presents itself?

How It Works (click to enlarge)
How It Works (click to enlarge)

Jiri Sindelar checks a Boreal Owl nest in the Czech Republic using a boroscope with its inspection end bent. Due to the extra-long cable, additional support is needed to stabilize the probe (in this case, the probe was run through a plastic pipe for additional control and support).

Inspection Cameras For The Win

An inspection camera (also called a borescope, endoscope, or—my favorite—snake cam) is a very helpful tool for checking tall nest boxes, but it also works well for underground burrows, nests in natural cavities, and nests in inaccessible places (e.g., your dryer vent). This summer, the NestWatch team put one to the test in Ithaca, New York and in Kenya. Dr. Marketa Zarybnicka, a visiting researcher, has also used this system to monitor Boreal Owl nests in the Czech Republic.

Dr. Zarybnicka told us, “The inspection camera approach is a great method for nest box checking, allowing you to substitute the time-consuming ladder approach. I also believe it can be successfully incorporated into citizen science projects like NestWatch. However, it is necessary to consider which kind of inspection camera to use depending upon availability, price, and your scientific goals.”

Inspect Nests From The Ground
Inspect Nests From The Ground

Jiri Sindelar views the display to obtain data on the nest contents.

We recommend choosing a model with a dimmable LED light at the end, for a variety of lighting situations (including dark nest box interiors). Additional options include the ability to capture images and video using one-handed operation (in this case, don’t go too heavy or you’ll have trouble with handshake blurring your images). The length of the cable is another consideration; the lengthier the cable, the more you will need additional stabilizers to reach a tall nest (see photo caption for “How It Works” for an example). Prices range from $15 for a lightweight version that plugs into a mobile device, up to $160 for a handheld battery-operated unit (no mobile device required).


Tips For Success

Students Check An Underground Nest
Students Check An Underground Nest

Cornell University students check the burrow nest of a D'Arnaud's Barbet in Mpala Research Centre, Nanyuki, Kenya. Facundo Fernandez-Duque operates the cable, Sarah Toner views the display, and Christopher Sayers enters data.

Down In A Hole
Down In A Hole

This nest of a Hildebrandt's Starling was found in an open pipe in Mpala Research Centre, Nanyuki, Kenya. The inspection camera revealed four eggs.

Light The Way
Light The Way

The ability to adjust the brightness of the camera is particularly helpful.

  • Follow the usual nest check rules, keeping nest checks under a minute. Similarly, don’t check nests that are near their fledge date, or if you suspect incubation has just begun (particularly for owls). See the NestWatch Code of Conduct for a refresher on appropriate nest check behavior.
  • Practice on an inanimate object first, as it can take some time to figure out what you’re seeing. Images sometimes appear sideways or upside down from what you’re expecting. You’ll get the hang of it after a few tries.
  • Take extra batteries with you (or a portable phone charger) for long field days.

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8 Comments

  1. Barb Eaton says:

    We use a small inspection camera to check some nests too. It is very helpful when checking House Wrens because they tend to fill the nest boxes with sticks all the way to the entry hole, but the bowl is down low in the back of the box. No way to look inside to check for eggs or young without the inspection camera. It works great and doesn’t disturb the eggs or the young! And the young don’t fledge too early because we don’t have to open the nest box!

  2. Joni James says:

    Where can one be purchased?

  3. Robyn Bailey says:

    Hi Joni,

    You can pick one up at an electronics place, but they’re also easily found on Amazon, eBay, and other online shops. It’s relatively easy to compare prices and features on a market like Amazon, but you could also check your local auto supply store (Autozone.com lists them) to see them in person. Good luck!

  4. Paula says:

    Thank you for this. Did not know these existed but they seem ideal for most nest monitoring situations, even just the nest that is 7 feet or so up. I always feel like I am attracting too much attention to the nests when I come lugging a ladder to the site.

  5. Sean Cozart says:

    I love this article, didn’t know inspection cameras existed till today. Once I get one, I can easily monitor nest boxes (without opening the box!), Bank Swallow colonies and high nests (since I won’t get a kink in the neck using mirrors). I just wish I knew earlier since most of the nests I’ve been monitoring have ended. But there’s always next year!

  6. David Kilpatrick says:

    I would be interested to know what specific inspection cameras are being used and also to know how well they work. I tried this several years ago with a digital inspection camera made by Milwaukee and found it basically worthless. The cable was too rigid, the light/lens was too bulky, and the video presentation vitually unusable. I’m sure that the newer stuff is better but I don’t want to invest in something like this again only to find out that there was something that works much better. I monitor 35 boxes on a trail and anything that makes it easier and less intrusive would be great.

  7. Wow I’ve never heard of these cameras before! I will definitely be purchasing one!

  8. Marty Gruer says:

    I have 20+ barn swallow nests that are too high and inaccessible for me to see into so I can only report on hatchlings I can see once they reach a certain age. Tried the mirror on a pole approach but it was too dark to see anything. Too late in the season to start this year but will definitely try to find a good one before the next season starts.

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