Not so long ago, filming birds inside a nest box would have been only possible with sophisticated and expensive camera kits, usually only available to professional film makers and organisations such as the BBC. The advancement of camera technologies, however, mean that this once exclusive professional domain is now available to all… and at a surprisingly affordable price!
The explosion in the availability of nest box camera kits has been incredible, as has been the pricing of quite sophisticated kit. A simple nest box camera kit can now be purchased along with a weekly shop, as they have started to even be available in our local supermarkets! These kits usually provide a nest box, a small camera to go inside and the wiring necessary to plug it into your TV so you can watch the inside of your nest box on your TV. A simple USB connector lets you watch on your laptop or PC and even record the footage. Quality of image varies greatly and, as with most things, you get what you pay for! The very cheap kits will give you a basic resolution image yet, if you are willing to pay more, you can now get a high resolution image both in the day and at night, thanks to small LEDs that bathe the box in infra-red light when dark.
I have been using nest box camera kits for the last six years or so and, every spring, I look forward to following the new birds that choose my boxes to raise their families. I watch avidly from March onwards, as the Great and Blue tits begin to prospect my boxes. Although I have watched the process many times, the process of nest building, lay, incubation, hatch, rearing and fledging never ceases to amaze.
But, when that last chick fledges and my camera just shows an empty nest box, I feel somewhat bereft, knowing that I will have to wait another whole year before I can, once again, be privy to this wonderful story unfolding. It was this that got me thinking….. it seemed a waste of the camera to leave it sitting in the nest box until the following Spring. Maybe I could take it out and use it elsewhere during the rest of the year, providing me with all-year viewing.
The most obvious way for me to use my nest box camera was on a bird feeder. My feeders were relatively quiet during the Spring and Summer, compared to Autumn and Winter so it seemed a perfect way to maximize the use of the camera all year around. The kits that I use have a camera with an adjustable focus. By gently twisting the lens, you can focus the camera to suit the space in which you have set it up.
Some companies produce purpose-built housings for nest box cameras, so they can be used with a feeder and these work brilliantly. You can even purchase a kit with the nest box and the feeder set-up.
One thing you do need to remember is that most nest box cameras are not weather-proof, so they will need to be protected. I often make my own protective housings and these have been everything from yoghurt pots, to takeaway containers… anything that will keep the rain off!
The most effective one I have found, however, is a piece of guttering. Easily purchased for a few pounds at a local DIY centre, I have found that these are easy to adapt and most of my nest box cameras fit snugly inside.
It is then just a matter of thinking about where your cabling will reach to and then creating a set up where the camera can point at your feeder. It may take a little experimentation, but the way you use the camera at your feeders is only limited by your imagination!
You could even mount the camera INSIDE the bird feeder, like I did with this one…
You don’t have to use standard feeders either…. I have made feeders out of all sorts of things and kitchen utensil feeders have been a big hit in my garden!
This ladle feeder had the camera mounted up under a small roof I made to cover the feeder…
This feeder was made out of three little tea strainers and I mounted a camera up behind in a piece of guttering so I could watch which birds visited…
The tea strainer idea was further developed into this set up to prevent some of the large birds raiding the food. Again, I mounted the camera up alongside and adjusted it so I could see all the feeding ports.
I also started to create little feeding platforms and mounted cameras here too….
These feeding platforms also attracted mice and they gave me the idea of setting up some kind of small mammal feeding station. My very first one was made out of an old wicker basket, upturned, with the camera cable-tied inside. The infra-red LEDs on the nest box camera are just enough to light the inside of this space and I was delighted with initial results!
This idea really captured my imagination and I have spent the last few years experimenting and upgrading. The next set up was a mock burrow created out of clay. I added a high res black & white camera to this set up. Being in the dark all the time, I did not need a full colour one.
This set up proved to be highly successful and it still remains one of my all-time favourites. BBC’s Springwatch saw my footage and showed it on the show and then used it as inspiration for their ‘Mammal’ Stump’ camera, which I helped them to design.
I then experimented with lighting the inside of the box with little LEDs to see if these mammals would still visit. By having good lighting in there, I was able to use a high res colour nest box camera and the additional lighting meant I was able to achieve a clearer, crisper image.
This year, I have designed and made the ultimate in mammal boxes, creating a box that houses a more sophisticated HD camera to give me the ultimate in quality. I designed the box so I could change the internal view by removing the ‘set’ and building different environments in which the mammals would interact.
Some sets are pretty natural looking….
but then I started to wonder if the mammals would come into a more ‘unusual’ scenario! Working with a wonderful lady from my local Miniatures & Doll House Group, we created a sitting room scene! Within hours, the mice, voles and shrews were back in, totally un-phased by the interesting internal décor!
Next came the bathroom scene…
I even managed to capture unique footage of a vole giving birth… totally amazing!
I have grand plans for this set up and there will be lots of other interesting sets and experiments going on over the coming year.
Other mammal feeding stations use nest box cameras as well. My ‘Prickly Diner’ feeding station for hedgehogs has additional lighting, as in the small mammal box and a high res camera mounted in a purpose-built ‘extension’ on a hedgehog box.
Even my home-made squirrel feeder has a camera mounted inside the glass jar so I could watch the squirrel coming in to feed!
Nest box cameras can also be deployed on other nests if you are very careful not to disturb the birds at all. These blackbirds chose to nest just inside my garage port and, when they were off hunting for nesting materials, I quickly popped the camera in up under the eaves, having pre-focused it. I was then able to watch the blackbirds raise their family and I had some lovely views.
I have even tried mounting the camera in my pond when the frogs were spawning…. A bit more of a challenge but great fun!
So, if you are thinking of purchasing a nest box camera kit, I would thoroughly recommend it, but don’t go leaving that camera in the nest box out of season… take it out and get experimenting. I would love to see your creative nest box cam projects!
Kate MacRae, also known as ‘WildlifeKate’ has spent the last four years turning her rural garden in Staffordshire into a camera haven, allowing her to monitor the goings on of all the wildlife visiting. She has over 20 cameras set up, all wired back to her office, where she can watch and record the visitors. From inside nest boxes, to small and large mammal feeding stations, Kate’s cameras and set-up have appeared regularly on BBC Springwatch and Autumnwatch. Kate is also a keen photographer and avid user of Bushnell trail cameras and these form big part of her wildlife filming. Kate’s cameras stream live on her website and can be watched 24-7.