Digiscoping with an iPhone 5s

Hey Minnesota and Wisconsin friends, my buddy Clay Taylor from Swarovski and I will be at the National Eagle Center on December 7, 2013 for the Optics Expo and if you have any questions about digiscoping or would like to learn more about using your smartphone with a spotting scope, this would be a great day to come down.  I'll have some adapters you can play with to. Speaking of smartphones, my Verizon plan was up for renewal which meant I could finally get a iPhone 5s. I am enjoying using this so much for digiscoping, I'm tempted to hang up my Nikon V1 for good.  I got the new phone right before I left for the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival in early November. If you saw the birding trailer I made for it, that was filmed and edited entirely with the new phone.

When the iPhone 5s was announced, my techie niece was wondering why anyone would care or want to have burst mode or slow motion video on a phone camera. I thought, "Man, birders are going to love this!" I already love the iPhone for its ability to capture images well in low light conditions, but slow motion video could be quite something to aid in identification.

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 8.57.27 AM

Clay and I were down to teach a digiscoping workshop at South Padre Island during the festival and we arranged it so we'd not only be able to practice getting photos of birds in the afternoon light, but also play around with getting arty shots at sunset (one of Clay's favorite pastimes). I was eager to see what this phone could do with my scope.



This was the sort of lighting conditions were were dealing with.  You can see a concentration of gulls and terns just off the shore.

SouthPadre Birds

Kite surfers were working the winds and the birds roosting along shore didn't seem to mind them. Above is a black skimmer, laughing gull, marbled godwits, willets and royal terns with kite surfers behind them.  Made for some interesting shots. But it gets fun with the SloMo video feature on the phone. The videos are taken at 120 frames per second. On your iPhone, it will replay back easier, but if you have an older Mac operating system and you upload them to iPhoto, they may show at normal speed. This is easily fixed by opening the movies in iMovie and watching them at 25% speed.

Here's a sample of what you can do with digiscoping through a spotting scope (it looks best if you select watching it in 720p HD or 1080p HD):


This is fun lightweight option to take in the field and with iMovie you have some fun editing options. Heck, one could almost film their own wildlife show with a phone and a good quality scope.

sunset gulls




Rehydrating A Baby Snapping Turtle

Baby Snapping Turtle  

We have had a bit of a dry season here in Minnesota. Some would even say we are in a moderate drought. On one of my bike rides in September, I noticed some freshly hatched snapping turtles on the Cedar Lake Trail--most of them were in various states of flatness from bikers running over them.  I paused to examine one of the smashed one and noticed one in the yellowing grass that hadn't crossed the paved trail yet.  I nudged it with my shoe and it barely moved. I picked it up and it was very dry, I wondered if it was dehydrated and wouldn't make it to the safety of water. Cedar Lake was closer, but all the smashed turtles seemed to be heading towards another nearby lake called Lake of the Isles. I placed the nearly immobile snapper in one of my many travel cups in my bike satchel and poured in a little water. With in ten seconds the turtle perked right up. I didn't put a lot of water in, just enough to stand in and keep its head above water.

Baby Snapping Turtle Rest


Not sure what to do I took the tiny snapper home, made a make shift pond in a giant pasta bowl, filled it with some small pieces of turkey and a few pieces of earthworm.  It took bites of both. I placed some lettuce leaves in from my farm share and the turtle seemed content to hide under that. When I moved, the snapper would dart under the lettuce. If I stayed still while typing, it would slowly creep out and extend its neck just enough so its tiny nostrils were above water.

Non Birding Bill came home and saw it on the kitchen table and said, "We're not keeping it...right?"

"No," I said, "just wanted to give it a bite or two before I send it off to Lake of the Isles."

I posted some pictures on my various social medias and a friend who doesn't know animals very well but loves all things cute sent a message, "Tiny turtle! Wait, turkey? They're not vegetarian?"

I then had the fun task of informing them that snapping turtles are omnivores and those baby ducks they find so cute...snapping eat those too. Something so tiny and cute will grow up to be a monster in dark murky water. But that's ok, ducks have their own dark sides when they grow up--every animal has a dark side.

Baby Snapping Turtle Release


After a night at Chez Stiteler, I took the tiny snapper to Lake of the Isles.  I found a nice shallow spot with lots of vegetation for it to hide in and some good insect larvae potential. The turtle was anxious to get away from me and start life. I stuck around a few minutes to watch how it would acclimate to such new and large surroundings. It wanted as far away from me as possible.  Understood, big things mostly mean to eat you, tiny turtle.  Here's some advice: don't trust a heron.

Baby Snapping Turtle Takes on the World The last photo. Tiny turtle surveys the big world of Lake of the Isles.


Common Tern Parenting

This is a video of some common terns that I digiscoped at South Beach in Massachusetts recently and there was some beach bird family drama. It was too funny because the terns had young that were just out of the nest and old enough to fly--teenagers. They were in that stage of teaching the young to fish for themselves, rather than constantly begging their parents. One young bird in particular was not getting it. The adult bird at first makes a big show of preening its feathers and ignoring the demanding youngster.

The young bird even tries picking up little sticks on the beach as if showing the adult, "Hey, you used to bring me fish this size to eat, I want that now, see?"

The adult just kind of tosses it away, "You don't want that kid."

Eventually the other adult in the pair lands and give the kid a good, swift kick in the rear to get it to fly--it's hilarious.


This video was recorded with a Swarovski ATX 85mm spotting scope, iPhone 4s and PhoneSkope adapter.

PhoneSkope & Swarovski Objective Lenses

Right before I left Europe I was faced with a packing choice I had not expected. The new Swarovski series of scopes have a choice of objective lenses. It's a modular system and you can switch out your objective lenses.  Due to the infamous bathtub video, I have all three on loan for a bit. I generally prefer the 85mm for digiscoping but my trip to Europe is half work and then a trip to Paris and Amsterdam for fun and a visit with my nephew. I can't not go birding, but wasn't sure about taking the 85mm while eating my way through Paris...but then remembered...I have a 65mm objective lens...I could take that and I bet the whole system would be fine with all the biking I'll be doing in Paris and Amsterdam. But I'm such a photo junky by now, would I be satisfied with the results?

As luck would have it, right before I left for Europe, I received an adapter for my iPhone 4s from PhoneSkope that attaches it to an ATX scope. I thought I'd give both the scope objective lenses and adapter a quick test drive before I left.

1 Robin Nest

About a block from my apartment, a robin has built a nest in the yellow section of a traffic signal. It was cloudy and I thought this would be a perfect way to test it out. Would I be losing anything by using a smaller objective lens (the 65mm vs the larger 85mm or 95mm scopes)? Let's see...

65mm scope

So here is the compact 65mm ATX scope with PhoneSkope iPhone 4s case.  Incidentally, there is now a promo code to get a discount on the PhoneSkope.  If you order from their site and use "birdchick 13" when ordering, you'll get 10% off.  It's a thin, easy to carry case and it can be adapted to several different scopes and phones. It doesn't work with the battery charging Mophie case...but I've yet to find an iPhone digiscoping adapter that does, alas.  But this is an easy and lightweight set up.

65 mm iphone

Here is the view you get with the iPhone without any zoom in at all. One thing that I like about using my iPhone 4s for digiscoping vs my Nikon V1--I get a much wider field of view with the iPhone. This gives you an idea of the field of view you get with the 65mm scope on the lowest eyepiece setting (25 power).

65mm iphone skope cropped

Here it is zoomed in with the iPhone to take out the vignetting. There's a bit of chromatic aberration on the white part of the roof behind the robin nest, which with this sort of camera and a 65mm objective lens isn't entirely unexpected on a cloudy day. This is not a bad photo and certainly the sort I could live with to get souvenir shots in Europe.

65 Nikon V1

And here's another just to see how it works with the Nikon V1--which has no vignetting and a smaller field of view. But not bad for a 65mm scope on a cloudy day.

85 mm scope


The 85mm scope is what I use the most. It's optimized for digiscoping, I get a lot of light gathering ability but it is a bit heavier compared to the 65mm...but far lighter in weight than other scopes on the market. It's something I'm used to taking EVERYWHERE with me. But lets see how those photos stack up:

85 mm iphone

I didn't really lose or gain anything in terms of field of view--still very wide.

85mm iphone crop

Here's a photo of the robin nest zoomed in with the iPhone 4s to remove the vignetting. Still a tiny bit of aberration on the white behind the nest but overall not bad. I'm not seeing a large enough difference to encourage me to take along the larger 85mm.

85mm scope nikon v1


Here's a shot with the Nikon V1 and the 85mm ATX. Satisfactory...also, how does that robin stand incubating with that yellow light coming on every few minutes? That would drive me bananas.

95 mm scope

And since I have it, I had to take a few shots with the 95mm objective lens. This thing is huge.  It looks really cool when you have it out, but it's heavier than an 85mm. If I were the sort of person who was mostly stationary and my scope use was primarily lake/ocean watching or hawk watching--I'd be all over this scope. But I prefer the 85mm for it's compactness and that it is lighter in weight.

95mm iphone

When this objective lens connects with the eyepiece, the magnificaiton starts at 30 power as opposed to 25 power with the 65mm and 85mm scopes.  You lose a tiny bit of field of view, but not much. However, for digiscoping, I often find I'm too close to a subject even at 25 power magnification, so for general birding, I think the 85mm is better for me. Again, if I were one of those birders who is all about gull watching and hawk migration, then the 95mm is aces.

95mm iphone crop


Here's a shot with the iPhone zoomed in while attached to the 95mm scope. A big plus is that the 95mm is going to give you even more light gathering ability compared to the other two smaller objective lenses, but you need to ask yourself how significant is that for your type of birding and digiscoping.

95mm nikon v1

And here's a shot with the Nikon V1 and the 95mm.  A very, very bright image for a cloudy day--this scope is incredible in low light conditions, especially dawn and dusk--a perfect tool for surveys and point counts.

So. All three objective lenses are giving me good images on a cloudy day. The PhoneSkope adapter works great with the ATX eyepiece.  It is the first iPhone digiscoping adapter that I have found that works with the new Swarovski scope. But will I leave my beloved 85mm scope behind and travel to Europe with only a 65mm?

You bet your bippy! And here's the deciding factor:



When you take the scope apart, it becomes very compact. The 65mm fits in my purse (Baggallinis are fantastic purses, I've had the above one for almost a decade).

Swarovski Spotting Scope In A Purse


Check it out--a spotting scope inside a purse! I know the tripod won't fit, but that's easy enough to carry and strap onto a bike (especially if it's a carbon fiber one). Also, having a purse doesn't look like I have a camera or scope bag that would be worth stealing. I love the incognito ability that I could have with this set up. So, since I have access to the equipment and this trip isn't strictly birding, I'm going to see how life works with a truly compact scope. I never thought I'd go 65mm...but what can I say, I'm at the at point in life when I'm willing to experiment with my light gathering ability.

phoneskope swarovski atx

With that new PhoneSkope adapter, I'm half tempted to leave my Nikon V1 at home, but...nah, it takes such great photos. But I'm excited to test out a truly compact birding system while biking around Paris.

As wifi permits, I'll post photos on the Birdchick Facebook page and Twitter while I am abroad.

Digiscoping with an iPhone Tip

Not too long ago, I was chatting with someone who had a company that made a camera app for iPhones. They told me how their app allows you to use your iPhone headphones as a remote shutter release. I said, "Well, the camera app that comes with your iPhone does that already." They looked at me with surprise.

I've mentioned this to a few other people and discovered that very few people know this. So, if you have an iPhone digiscoping set up with your spotting scope and your iPhone is secured to the scope with an adapter, you can plug in the headphones that came with your iPhone and use the volume up and down buttons to take photos.  Here's a very short video that demonstrates it:


Here are some of the photos that I took while I was making that video:

red bellied woodpecker

Here's a shot of the female red-bellied woodpecker and house sparrow. The iPhone 4s already does a great job in low light conditions but this is another way you can make sure your photos are in focus. This technique won't work as well if you don't have  an adaptor to secure your phone to your scope.

red belly

I currently only have adapters for my iPhone that work with my old ATM spotting scope and this was the last video I made with that scope before I sent it back to Swarovski to get cleaned up for the contest winner.  I'm trying to find someone who make one to go with the new ATX...but I'm finding it frustratingly difficult...especially since I enquired with a company who claims that they will custom make cases.


The Lonely & Quiet Of Winter

I have been surveying the same patch for on and off for the last three years in southern Minnesota. I really enjoy watching how the patch changes during the seasons: seeing when certain birds arrive, listening to all the birds on territory, noticing when certain birds leave and when winter birds arrive.


But every December I'm always surprised at how lonely I find myself during my many hours in the field. Oh sure there's still some crows and bluejays around and there are the bald eagles which I'm watching for but it's still so quiet compared to what it had been the several months previous.


This year I'm getting a bonus. I've had such delights as the above common redpolls and a few white-winged crossbills too. And they're large flocks of Lapland longspurs all around and they're now being joined by large flocks of snow buntings. But these birds are predator wary and not like feeder birds. However, these birds are different. They are wary and distrustful of someone watching them. It's not like the birds that were singing on territory that were so focused on proving that they were the best male for breeding. These birds are constantly on the alert for predators. I don't blame them, I've seen plenty of merlins, northern harriers and Cooper's hawks around here even make me worry for their safety.

But combined with the wind, these fields are now a lonely place.

Because I Love Bird Camouflage

I was recently at the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival in Harlingen, TX. If you can't tell by how often I talk about South Texas, it's one of my favorite places to visit not only for the birds, but also for the great friends I've made at the festival. Next year is the 20th Anniversary of the festival, it should be a wild time and if you have never been, you should have it on your bucket list.

I have an odd checklist when I visit, I've seen almost everything I can possible see there but getting the key valley species as soon as I arrive is always fun (like the above great kiskadee). This time I went with a new friend that I made at the Biggest Week In Birding Festival in Ohio last May. She had never been to the valley so showing someone all those great Texas specialties for the first time is as fun for me as seeing them the first time.

I could spend several days at Estero Llano Grande (and have) and this photo though not the best on the planet is a great cross section of the amazeballs birding that can happen. In one scope view I have green kingfisher, American bittern and great kiskadee.  I ask you, where else would you get such a great birding trifecta in the same field of view? South Texas, it's hard to beat.

I swear there is a bird in the above photo.

Estero is where the nightjar known as the common pauraque is relatively easy to find. I've posted about their camouflage before. And though we were able to find them easily in that same spot, we were pointed out more parauques by field trip leaders that were hunkered down in yards of people who live next to Estero.  There's one in the above photo...can you find it (even Non Birding Bill was able to find to find it in the photo).

Yep. I swear there's a bird in the above photo too.  That's the pauraque in the "usual spot" at Estero.  There are actually about two or three in this spot (but only one in the above photo). I know brown birds aren't for everybody. I know that I can seem unreasonable in my love of things like native sparrows and pipits but you have to give it to pauraques as a brown bird. They at least stay in one spot for several hours to give you a chance to find them.

iPhone Digiscoping Adapters

All sorts of adapters for digiscoping using an iPhone and a spotting scope are cropping up. I can barely keep up with testing them. This post covers two different adapters that are very similar and work well with my Swarovski ATM scope.

From left to right we have the iTelligent iPhone adapter, Kowa iPhone adapter and my Mophie iPhone charging case. My only complaint with these adapters is that they do not work with the Mophie case. The iPhone 4s has a crap battery life and if you are going to use your phone to take photos and videos, that battery life is going to get eaten up quickly. If someone could find a way to make an adapter that would work with a Mophie case or if someone could create a digiscoping adapter that is also an iPhone battery charging case, I'd be one happy little clam.  And I don't want to hear about how that would be cost prohibitive when Mophie cases run $79 - $99 and digiscoping adapters run $65 - $199.  I don't think my dream is unreasonable.

But enough of my battery charging rant.

The iTelligent adapter is a case that goes around your iPhone and works with the Swarovski DCA adapter using the M37 ring. I know Swarovski is changing their digiscoping adapters but quite a few of us have DCAs already so this can be a good solution to holding an iPhone steady up against a scope eye piece. I've used the DCA adapter for years to slide a point and shoot or SLR camera over my scope eye piece. It's fast and easy to use. It may seem awkward to have the DCA on an iPhone, but if you are used to having the DCA on a camera in the field, it's easy to adjust to toting it with your phone. The DCA easily screws on and off the case, so you don't have to have it on all them time.

I usually have one of those Women of the Cloud Forest totes with me and this fits easily in there.

The Kowa adapter works without the DCA adapter and is a little skinnier. The Kowa adapter is the one on the right with my finger on it. It wedges on to the scope's eye piece and doesn't have the locking mechanism that the DCA has, but stays firmly in place. I wouldn't leave it unattended, a good bump to the scope could cause it to fall (but that's just common sense with any sort of camera when digiscoping). You do have to do a little futzing to get the full image, but it does the trick and fits in a pants pocket. You can take the ring off of the case too.

I played around with both the Swarovski  20-60 zoom eye piece and 25-50 zoom eye piece. The 25-50 works best with an iPhone 4s. Above is a shot I took with the 20-60 and you can see that there is some serious vignetting which you can get rid of by zooming in the image on the iPhone (not zooming in with the scope eye piece).

But if you start with the 25-50 zoom eye piece you have very little vignetting.

When you use the video feature with your iPhone 4s, you do not have the option of zooming in.  If you use the 20-60 eye piece you will have vignetting which you can edit out using a program like iMovie. Or you can use the 25-50 eye piece and have not vignetting in video mode.

I took a couple of short videos with each adapter and the 25-50 eye piece so you can see how they work.

Here is the iTelligent adapter:


Here is the Kowa adapter:


Both work well and are fun way to digiscope. And with both of these adapters, you can still actually use your iPhone to text and you know...phone calls.


Pine Siskins

Whoa, pine siskins are crowding out the goldfinches at our feeders (for newer birders, the pine siskins are the streakier finches in this photo).

Looks like Ron Pittaway's Winter Finch Forecast wasn't too far off.  For pine siskins he wrote:

"Some siskins currently in the Northeast should move south this fall and winter because cone crops are poor. However, siskins are an opportunistic nomad wandering east and west continent-wide in search of cone crops. Most siskins will probably winter in northwestern Ontario and western Canada where cone crops are generally very good. Major southward irruptions occur when cone crops fail across most of North America."