By Robyn Bailey, NestWatch project leader, and Ian Stewart, NestWatch contributor for Delaware Nature Society
With the use of home security cameras rising and a growing interest in streaming bird nests, more people are trying their hand at nest monitoring via security cameras powered by Wi-Fi at backyard nests. With recent improvements in wireless cameras, I recently invested in several for home use and was rewarded with intimate views of nesting Eastern Screech-Owls and Carolina Wrens! Meanwhile, NestWatch Chapter members over at Delaware Nature Society were experimenting with their own solar-powered nest box camera this season. As NestWatch contributor Ian Stewart and I compared notes, we decided to share some lessons learned with NestWatchers. The cameras we mention below were not gifted by any companies, and this post is not sponsored content (just our own opinions which we hope you find helpful).
Delaware Nature Society’s Setup
Nest box type: bluebird-style box
Camera model: Ring Stick Up Cam Solar, retails for $139.98
This summer the Delaware Nature Society was fortunate to receive a donation of a nest box modified to include a Ring video camera. You can read all about our special nest box in this blog which includes a selection of our favorite videos. This box was made larger than normal so it could accommodate the camera as well as a potential nest, and because of the extra weight we used two T-posts to hold it in place (though one sturdy pole would probably suffice). This model of Ring camera comes with a solar panel which plugs directly into it and charges the battery. The solar panel has quite a long cable so the box has a spool on the back to wrap the excess cable around. The solar panel provides enough power for our current setting of motion-detected recordings, typically activated by parents entering the box. We have not used the camera for continuous recording but suspect this higher use may drain the battery faster. Ring cameras can be powered by an outlet; you may be fortunate enough to have a nest box so close to your house that you can plug it in directly or use an extension cable, but beware that these cables can be a tripping hazard.
The Ring camera transmits images over the internet, so it needs to be within range of a Wi-Fi network. Our box is over 50 feet from a Wi-Fi router and has been working fine, though if your target box is further away you may need to use a Wi-Fi extender to boost the signal.
Once the Ring camera was in place, it was fairly easy to connect it to the internet so we could view the images on our computers and also our phones after downloading the Ring app. You can view live images without a subscription to Ring, but a subscription is required to save videos as well as share them. However, the subscription is not expensive and would only be required during the breeding season. It is easy to add users to your Ring camera so that others can watch the events unfolding within the box, and it is also easy to share videos of key events like hatching or fledging with friends and colleagues by just emailing them the weblink.
So far we are very happy with our Ring camera nest box and are very grateful to Rawnie Paradis, Frank Levy, and Ken Leister for constructing and donating it! We have obtained great videos of adult Tree Swallows incubating eggs and feeding nestlings and have been posting these updates on social media every few days. We have also seen great footage from a Ring camera installed in a bluebird nest. We believe this technology could be used to monitor a variety of nest box species, provided the camera is mounted securely in place and has access to a power supply and the internet. A world of possibilities awaits!
Robyn’s Home Setup
Nest box types: Eastern Screech-Owl box & Carolina Wren nest shelf
Camera model: Blink Outdoor (3rd Gen) Wireless 1080p Security Camera, retails for $99.99
I chose this camera model because it boasts battery life of up to two years, an important feature because I did not want to have to do battery changes while nests were active. The cameras were deployed on a newly-installed nest shelf and a screech-owl box, both out of reach of easy electricity. In the gallery below, you can see examples of typical daytime and nighttime image quality, with the cameras set on average quality and normal infrared intensity (image quality and infrared brightness could be turned up, but this shortens battery life).
I was nervous about depleting the battery in the owl box prematurely once I had regular visitors. Their nesting cycle is longer than that of Carolina Wrens, so I was more sparing in my owl viewing than I was in my wren-watching. The camera did last throughout the 80-day period from when the female owl first appeared through the fledging date, with modest viewing (i.e., 3-4 check-ins per day, not continuous streaming). This camera model also makes continuous streaming somewhat cumbersome by asking every minute or so if you want to continue watching, and a nonresponse turns off the stream (a helpful battery-saving feature). This may be a setting that is configurable, but I was concerned about the battery not lasting and so chose not to run the camera continuously. Several times I did receive alerts about my “high usage” of battery power. The alerts were helpful, but I had no knowledge of how fast I was using the battery, given that the device simply indicates “OK” for battery life, rather than offering a readout of the percent remaining.
Nevertheless, I still got great looks at my owl and wren families which were sufficient for reporting to NestWatch. Due to the side opening of the Carolina Wren nest, I did need to make 2-3 physical visits to the nest to check for egg-laying and hatchlings, which weren’t visible from the camera angle. However, the camera drastically reduced the number of times I had to climb past a rose bush to check on this nest. One thing I wished I could change was that the owls seemed to notice when I turned the camera on for viewing, and this was likely because the camera makes a slight sound when activated. You can turn off the status light so that no indicator light turns on, but I didn’t find any way to disable this, likely mechanical, sound. In any case, it didn’t seem to disturb the owls too much, but it did cause them to look up whenever the camera clicked on. The Carolina Wrens didn’t react to the camera coming on in any visible way.
The camera mounted easily to the roof of the owl nest box, and no modifications to the box were necessary. This outdoor camera requires a sync module (included) that you plug in indoors and which acts as a hub for up to 10 Blink devices. This model can work with Alexa, but I did not use this feature. I did use the optional subscription plan which lets you record and save clips in your Blink app for an additional monthly fee; without this subscription, you can only view the camera in live mode and clips won’t be saved (although you could take screenshots). Overall, the cameras and the Blink app worked relatively well on my home Wi-Fi from distances of approximately 100-200 feet, and monitoring the owl box and the Carolina Wren nest shelf was the highlight of my NestWatching season.
Watching birds go through the whole nesting cycle is a lot of fun. If the camera is in place beforehand one can watch birds build their nests, lay and incubate their eggs, and rear their young until they fledge. These observations can all help add high quality data to NestWatch or be used in a research project. But it’s important to be aware that things sometimes go wrong, and to understand that not every nest or nestling is successful. Perhaps not all viewers will want to witness nature’s harsher realities, so use your best judgment when deciding whether to install a camera on focal nests.