Birding tip: (Always) use video to document rarities!

Next time you try and document rare bird, or want to document a puzzling “mystery bird” you just can’t ID so you can see what others have to say, digital video should be your new favorite way to get those coveted documentation shots. Yes, digital video, not still photos! Puzzled? Good, then read on 🙂

Why shoot video instead of taking still photos? The basic idea is this: snapping still photos can be hit-or-miss, however in a few minutes of low quality, jerky, in-and-out of focus video you’re very likely to get one or two excellent frames showing key details on the bird that are orders of magnitude better than you could manage snapping stills. Here are a few recent examples from Ohio and Nevada (click the link in the captions to see the original video).

Le Conte's Sparrow

Le Conte’s Sparrow. Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park, Columbus, OH. 19 Oct 2014. Smartphone video through my binoculars. Click here to watch the original video.

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe, Pyramid Lake, Washoe Co., NV. 17 May, 2015. Smartphone video through my spotting scope. Click here to watch the original video.

Golden-crowned X White-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned X White-crowned Sparrow

Hybrid Golden-crowned X White-crowned Sparrow. Reno, NV. 1 May, 2015. Smarthphone video through my binoculars. Click here to watch the original video.

Why do we need photo/video documentation in the first place? Let’s face it: Birders are people, and people make mistakes, including bird ID mistakes. Even the experts get one wrong from time to time.

Decades ago, the single best way to document birds was to shoot them and add those specimens to a museum collection. This is still arguably the strongest form of gathering such evidence, and it certainly still has it’s place, but when it comes to documenting rarities, it’s off the table.  However, over the past century the bird watching public has found other ways to gather solid evidence of the occurrence of rare birds. Before digital cameras became so widespread, meticulously written notes and sketches served as trusted documentation. The art and science of making good field notes and sketches has, and will continue to be, invaluable skills for birders, but this form of evidence is still 100% filtered through the mind of the observer. Careful field notes are an essential part of birding, but in terms of their strength as a form of scientific evidence, the subjective nature of field notes makes them inherently weaker than objective evidence like a museum specimen or good audio or video recordings.

The new gold standard for bird documentation is solid, objective evidence in the form of a photo, video, or audio recording. Even low-quality recordings are typically a MUCH more accurate form of evidence, and can easily document far more detail than even the best observers record in their notes and sketches. Fortunately, taking photos and videos no longer requires huge lenses and expensive cameras and lenses! In fact, odds are good that your cell phone camera can manage some pretty decent “close up” photos just by being held up against the eye piece of your binoculars! Take a look at my recent photos here on Flickr, and you’ll see that the majority of them were taken with my Samsung phone and not my more expensive Cannon dSLR rig!

So here’s a little advice for using your smartphone, along with your birding optics (e.g. binoculars or a scope) to get good quality documentation shots.

  1. Practice digiscoping. Just point your binoculars or scope at birds in your yard, and get comfortable holding your phone’s camera up to the eyepiece and snapping photos and shooting video.
  2. Consider purchasing or making an adapter. Shakey hands? You can purchase adapters from companies like Phone Skope, which can really help stabilize the videos and cut down on blur in photos (not that you’d be taking any photos, ahem!).
  3. Use voice control. If your phone has voice-control capability (e.g., my Galaxy S4 can be setup to take photos whenever I say words like “smile” or “cheese”) or image stabilization options, play with those too and see what works best for you. An adapter and a voice-controlled camera will be the most solid option.
  4. Practice editing videos on your phone, and using your phone’s screen capture capability.  All of the images above were taken by watching the recorded videos on my phone, pausing on the best frames, zooming in to crop out unwanted background space, then saving a screen capture.
  5. Bring your birding optics next time you’re purchasing a new phone. Well, that or spend some time with your friends phones before you go so you know which models are most compatible with your scope and/or binoculars. Might as well get the most functionality out of your new purchase, right? 😉
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