YBN Macaulay Challenge: The Power of a Smartphone

By Sarah Toner April 25, 2016

A Southern Giant-petrel, taken with an iPhone through binoculars--from a boat!

     The YBN eBird Challenges are encouraging eBirders to submit photos, video, and audio to the Macaulay Library. Each complete checklist with a Macaulay upload is worth one entry into a drawing for a pair of binoculars! Find out more details here.

     The idea of submitting materials to the Macaulay Library can be intimidating to many birders. “None of my photos are professional grade.” “What information do I need to record?” “How do I record audio?” Getting good photos of small, constantly moving birds can be a challenge, but the good news is that every piece of data is worth something, and it is relatively easy to get informative and good-quality samples with very little tools or effort.

    If you happen to have a nice camera like a DSLR or a superzoom, getting good photos and videos can be quite easy. However, what if you don’t have a camera? Moreover, how do you get audio data? I don’t know very many birders who take audio recorders and microphones as part of their standard birding equipment. However, what many people may not realize is that they probably *are* carrying a camera and a microphone in their pocket at all times, in the form of their smartphone. With just a bit of know-how and some optional tools, a smartphone can be an invaluable tool for collecting photos, videos, and audio to submit to the Macaulay Library.

Digiscoping and Video

     I’m often embarrassed when a birder friend of mine gets better photos by holding a iPhone camera up to a scope than I do with a 300mm lens and a DSLR. Taking advantage of the magnification tools that you already have in the field–binoculars and a scope–combining them with your smartphone camera can go a long way to documenting birds and getting good quality photos. The basic premise is simple: hold the camera lens up to the objective lens of the binoculars or scope, adjust it until you get a clear picture of the scope’s image, tap on the screen to focus, and then take the photo. However, there are some tips and tricks to help improve the image quality of photos taken this way.

     The biggest issue with this technique is handshake, which makes your image appear blurry. Because scopes are on tripods, they tend to have a lot less handshake than binoculars. Even with a scope, however, it can be hard to hold the phone up to the lens and also manage to tap the center button to take a photo–this motion usually introduces a lot of jostling. The more you can get your phone/optic apparatus stable without using your hands, the better the photo. One way to decrease jostling is to use the volume buttons on an iPhone to take your photos. I find this grip to be a lot more stable and easier for taking lots of photos. An even better tool is to use a pair of Apple earbuds as a remote shutter: the volume buttons on those work the same way as on the phone, and your hand isn’t even connected to the phone. If you have an Android phone, you can change the settings to use the volume buttons in a similar way.

A fledgling Common Tern, taken with an iPhone through binoculars.

A fledgling Common Tern, taken with an iPhone through binoculars.

     These techniques still leave one hand holding the phone against the scope, which is another source of shake. Fortunately, there are tools to solve that problem: you can buy special cases that use rings to hold the phone tightly and securely against the scope. These tend to be a little expensive, but they can greatly improve image quality. Swarovski and Kowa sell some very adaptable ones for a variety of scope sizes, and the company PhoneSkope can custom-make one for your brand of phone and scope. Combined with the earbud trick for using the volume buttons instead of tapping the screen, you can use these tools to create a camera that is stabilized by the scope’s tripod and uses a remote shutter, virtually eliminating handshake and producing some very nice images. Using a case like this can also allow you to take better video, since video usually requires more stabilization than photos.

     The Best Practices on the eBird Help page has more details about improving quality and adding extra comments and data with the Media Upload. Any combination of these tips can help improve your photo quality and get good specimens for the Macaulay Library with just a smartphone, your optics, and a few accessories. 

Audio Recording

     A built-in microphone in a smartphone is surprisingly good at capturing noises made by even distant birds. When I was watching a Red Crossbill call while foraging, I was able to get a recording of it just by holding my phone up and using the voice memo app. That memo recorded enough details of the calls for the bird to be identified as a Type 3, which is a valuable piece of data for researchers studying the distribution of Red Crossbill call types. While voice memos do work to record the sound, there are a few things that you can do to improve the quality of the recordings you submit to the Macaulay Library.

     Most music files (and voice memos) record in mp4 or mp3 format, which works fine for human speech. Bird sounds, however, are a lot more varied, and so it’s usually better to use a .wav format. There are a number of free apps you can download for both iPhone and Android that record sounds in .wav format. A few are listed below:

Apple: “Awesome Voice Recorder”

Apple: “RecordPad Sound Recorder Free”

Android: “Hertz, the WAV Recorder”

     In addition to making the recording in the .wav format, it’s a good practice to create a “voice announcement” at the end of the recording that gives all of the information associated with the recording. If you forget where the recording came from (which is surprisingly easy to do!), the voice announcement will include all of that information with the recording, making it much easier to add data when you upload the recording.

The kind of information voice announcements should contain, as well as your name, the date and time, and your location

The kind of information voice announcements should contain, as well as your name, the date and time, and your location

     If you want to get higher-quality recordings with just a smartphone, you can get a small microphone that plugs into the audio port of a phone, like this one. These can be quite small and affordable, and they can significantly boost the power of your microphone to help you record distant birds and get better recordings of close birds.

     In addition to using these good practices when making a recording, there are a few editing tools that you can use to make your recording sound more professional and also make it more useful for eBird researchers. You can see a good overview of these tools on the eBird Help Page.

     Don’t be afraid to experiment and be creative about what you record. Even common vocalizations can be useful for researchers studying geographic variation, and many common birds vocalize in ways that are not common and have yet to be well-studied. If you happen to be traveling abroad to countries with relatively few specimens, any vocalizations can be extremely informative. In general, the more data, the better, so feel free to record anything you can. Plus, the more you record, the more experience you’ll gain, improving your recordings. The digital era has made it extremely easy for anyone to create high-quality recordings with tools they already have; why not take advantage of them to contribute to science?

If you’re age 13-17, you should ask your parents to send eBird a quick email letting them know that you have permission to use the photo upload tools. You can see more information about the permissions here.

    The eBird team has assembled a Rich Media Upload FAQ here, and you can use the eBird Help Page to submit additional questions. If you decide to go further into the world of photography, videography, and audio recording, I encourage you to explore more advanced tools like DSLR cameras with telephoto lenses and professional audio recorders with shotgun or parabolic microphones. These help give you the highest-quality photos, audio, and videos that provide the best data for Macaulay. However, for many birders, those tools aren’t available or affordable, and in cases like these, a simple smartphone and a few apps and accessories can go a long way to creating good, informative specimens to build the Macaulay Library’s database.

Sarah Toner