Learning to Digiscope: Turning Your Binoculars Into a Zoom Lens

A Canada Goose floats on a calm pond facing the camera with the edges of the photograph framed in a black circle.

Canada Goose, taken through a pair of Nikon 10X42 binoculars with a Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone.

When I go birding, I log my sightings on eBird and scribble them down in a very worn birding journal. I do my best to identify what I can in the field. If all I can hear is the bird, I often use the voice memo function on my phone to record it and then compare with my bird song CD or Sibley’s app later on so I can avoid stressing out birds in person.  However, a picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, and it’s not always possible to identify birds by sight in field conditions. The bird identification guides I have at home and work are great, though I’d prefer not to haul them around on hikes. (The Merlin and Sibley apps can be super handy in that respect, provided my phone doesn’t die while I’m out and about.) However, memory can play tricks on you and having a decent photograph of the bird can really help identify a bird visually later on.

That being said, I am still mentally in the “poor starving student” mode and at this point in my life I can’t really afford a super nice camera with a zoom lens. (You know the ones – they look like huge canons and make me super jealous.) I imagine that they must be tricky to cart around at times as well as you’re traipsing over uneven terrain! That’s why one of the single most useful skills I’ve been practicing while birdwatching has been digiscoping: pairing my cell phone camera with my binoculars or a spotting scope to capture images of birds as an aide-memoire. I mean, I’m going to have my phone and binoculars on my person anyway – why have a separate, expensive piece of technology? 

It’s a relatively simple technique that can get quite good results for my purposes, but you need a steady hand and it does take practice. (You can, apparently, buy clamps for phones but again, see “poor starving student” mindset above.) Even after taking hundreds of digiscopes, I still get loads of photos with a shadow from the binoculars in them from not having my phone in the exact perfect position. Here is a short video demonstrating what I mean by shadows:

The beauty of digital photography, however, is that you can take as many photographs as you like and not be wasting film! For every really solid photograph of a bird I take this way, I get about half a dozen that are flawed in some way.

Here is a small collection of some of my favourite more recent images I’ve taken with this technique. As you can see, particularly by the image of the oriole, it can be difficult to get the birds into focus at times, especially if they are a relatively small part of the image. Regardless, I’ve found digiscoping a valuable tool to keep track of what birds I’ve spotted:

I tend to keep my binoculars in my purse or backpack as I go about my work day or whenever I walk outside, and as a millennial I of course always have my smartphone handy. That makes it super easy to snap a few shots of even distant birds to examine more in depth later on – and to tweet as proof of my sightings. I don’t always set out intending to go birdwatching – and that’s when you stumble across an interesting bird. I always like to be prepared, and having this technique down pat means you can still get amazing photographs relatively quickly without having to kick yourself for not hauling around a giant and expensive camera at all times.

Recognizing Birds at a Glance: General Impressions, Shape and Size

When I first started getting into birdwatching, it was a little overwhelming.  Even just focussing on local birds, there were huge numbers to learn to identify. I got hung up on memorizing patterns of plumage. The colour of a bird’s feathers can be very important in positively identifying a species, but I was getting discouraged when I could only catch a short or partial glimpse of a bird, or when the bird was backlit, making the colours difficult to discern. I was focussing too much on the details, and less on the overall picture.

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Little brown birds, seen from behind and partially blocked by plants: the bane of my existence. 

Then I read the introduction to a book called Better Birding, in which authors George Armistead and Brian Sullivan talked about GISS: General Impressions, Shape and Size. They explained that identifying birds was not necessarily about spotting one particular tell-tale clue, but overall impressions. The author used the analogy of being able to spot your best friend in a crowded room from behind. How do you know it was her? Well, it’s her favourite café, in her favourite booth, with her favourite drink in front of her, but even if there was someone else sitting there with the same beverage wearing a similar coat to one of hers, you’d still know that it wasn’t her. It was also in how she holds herself, what her voice sounds like, and so on. It’s to do with behaviour as well as looks.

I found this idea to be extremely helpful. This is how I can know a Canada Goose at a glance, even in flight and silhouetted against the sun. I’m not necessarily looking for anything specific about them. They just look, sound, and act like Canada Geese. The trick is then to get in enough observation time to build up a vocabulary of bird behaviour for more species than the handful I grew up knowing.

Once you start to know the GISS of a species, the identification of a drab female can get a lot easier. The female Red Winged Blackbird is a small-ish brown-ish bird, but has the exact same GISS as the male, just a different colour.

Drab Female Red Winged Blackbird perched on a cattail.

If she acts like a blackbird and hangs out with blackbirds and looks like a blackbird in every way except, well, being black… She’s probably a female Red Winged Blackbird.

But even really knowing only a limited number of birds really well right now, GISS is still useful for identifying species that are new to me. In May, I was walking in the Lois Hole Provincial Park in St. Albert, Alberta, with my mother and a pair of binoculars. I am very familiar with Red Winged Blackbirds: what they sound like, how they fly and how they move about the cattails. Then a bird that caught my eye. It wouldn’t have last year, when I had spent less time observing Red Winged Blackbirds closely. In that lighting (it was a cloudy day), it seemed dark in colour, and held itself like a blackbird… but something about it seemed off to me. I looked at it more closely through my binoculars, and found that the shape of its tail looked odd, not like what I would expect from a Red Winged Blackbird. Though it was dark in colour, it didn’t have the expected red epaulettes, and definitely didn’t look like a female of the species.

Small dark bird viewed from a distance, partially blocked by tree branches.

This is the bird I saw. Let’s enhance!

However, with a few small differences, the overall GISS led me to think that this bird may in the blackbird family. So pulled up my handy-dandy Sibley bird book app and went to the section with the Red Winged Blackbirds to look at its relations… and there I had my answer: a Common Grackle. It was a little bit bigger than a Red Winged Blackbird, its tail was a different shape, and looking at some photos I took of it later, I could more clearly see the different beak length and of course the plumage differences that were not as obvious to me in the field. (They are ever so slightly iridescent and have blue heads!)

A Common Grackle hops along wet ground at the edge of a pond.

Half an hour later, I spotted another grackle in better lighting and was able to admire its pretty blue plumage!

I never would have looked more closely at this bird if I hadn’t known Red Winged Blackbirds so well. Grackles were just similar enough to make the differences jump out at me. It was the similarities in the general impressions, shape and size of this bird that helped me narrow it down to a definitive identification.

Further Resources

  • Armistead, George L. and Brian L. Sullivan. Better Birding: Tips, Tools & Concepts for the Field. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016.
  • The Sibley eGuide to Birds App.

 

An Ode to the Humble Mallard and Other Common Birds

You spot a bird in the distance – dark head, light body. A Common Scaup? Ring-necked Duck? Canvasback? A quick glimpse through your binoculars tells you that it’s a Mallard. You immediately lower your binos in disappointment and cast your gaze elsewhere to look for more interesting birds.

This reaction isn’t uncommon. However, I have learned that spending some time watching birds you already know and getting to know them really well has huge advantages! Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t dismiss common birds so quickly:

1) Use them for a sense of scale. If you know precisely how big a Red-winged Blackbird, an American Robin, a Mallard, or a Canada Goose is, you can use them to reliably give nearby birds a sense of scale, even when the birds are at a distance. Seeing a pair of mallards sitting next to a tiny duck helped me ID a Cinnamon Teal for the first time.

Two incredibly useful Mallards next to a Cinnamon Teal. How much smaller the Cinnamon Teal was compared to the Mallards was the first thing I noticed about it, and helped me narrow down this ID from “duck? Maybe a drab female something??” to “Cinnamon Teal.” Photographed on April 2, 2017 at the Lois Hole Provincial Park, St. Albert, Alberta, Canada.

2) Use them to rule out or rule in bird families. If you know it sounds like a Black-capped Chickadee but it sounds off… Maybe it’s a different kind of chickadee, like a Boreal Chickadee. Become familiar with your local soundscape. Common birds may give you the first clue to identifying their cousins!

Red-winged Blackbirds are really beautiful and have distinctive voices, but elements of their sound quality appear in the songs of their relatives like the Yellow-Headed Blackbird. Photo by Lauren Markewicz.

3) Common is relative.  Recently,  a bunch of birders chartered planes to a remote island in Scotland to see a drab female Red-winged Blackbird that had somehow made it across the Atlantic ocean. I’ve seen 50 Red Winged Blackbirds in 10 minutes in Western Canada, but I understand the appeal and if a common bird unique to the UK somehow made it to Alberta I may feel the same impulse. I get excited when I see stands-headed Blackbirds in the Edmonton area, though people closer to Calgary and southern Alberta probably see them far more often.

A mallard duck swims across a pond in bright sunlight.

Look at this Mallard! So pretty, with its shiny green head! Have you ever noticed that they have tiny curly black tail feathers? Super adorable! Photo taken at the Lois Hole Provincial Park, St. Albert, Alberta,

4) Some of them are really pretty! Have you ever looked at the iridescent green feathers on a Mallard’s head on a sunny day? Or looked at the oil-slick iridescence of a pigeon? They are absolutely gorgeous. If they weren’t so common, I think that Mallards would be much more admired for their beauty.