A Crash Course in Digiscoping

I started digiscoping several years ago with my Swarovski scope, point and shoot Canon camera, and a homemade adapter. Now that I have an iPhone, I’ve been using it for digiscoping both handheld and with adapters. With some practice, determination, and a little luck you can get some really great photos.

My homemade adapter,IMG_4467_2

Digiscoping is a photography technique using a camera with a spotting scope or binoculars to take pictures. The word “digiscoping” is a combination of “digital camera” and ”spotting scope”. Digiscoping started out with DSLR cameras, but advances in smartphone cameras and sensors have made digiscoping incredibly easy with a camera that many have with us all the time. So often, the best camera is the one that is closest to hand.

For handheld digiscoping, extend the eyecup on the scope to provide some “relief” for the phone; this helps focus the camera and also prevents scratching the scope’s lens. Hold the camera back until you see the point of light through the scope, then slowly move the phone down until the bird or whatever you’re photographing comes into focus on the camera. Once you have the phone in position, zoom in a little and tap the screen to focus.


A Snowy Owl digiscoped with my Swarovski scope, 20-60 zoom eyepiece, and Phone Skope adapter

Using a digiscoping adapter eliminates the whole process of aligning both camera and scope and makes it much easier to keep the phone in place for an extended period of time. Many companies make adapters for their scopes, including Swarovski, Kowa, Opticron, and Meopta. And PhoneSkope makes adapters for almost every make and model of phone and scope. Viking Optical, NovaGrade, SnapZoom, and Carson Optical make universal adapters which are great for digiscopers who have various phones or scopes, or who bird with others who want to get digiscoped photos. Universal adapters, however, do require adjustments in the field.


A Black-capped Chickadee digiscoped with my Swarovski scope, 20-60 zoom eyepiece, and Phone Skope adapter.

Vignetting is the dark circle around your view through a scope or binoculars. In digiscoping, vignetting can be eliminated by increasing the magnification on the scope or camera until you no longer see the dark edges. It can also be edited out in iPhoto or Photoshop or whatever you use to crop images.

Smartphones are particularly good for taking photos in low light, but the quality of your optics still has a big impact on your photos. A scope with good light-gathering ability is optimal for photos taken at dusk or on an overcast day. Try to have the sun at your back when digiscoping as this will ensure good light on the subject. Backlit photos can be very nice as well, so try both types of lighting.

Practice using your camera’s exposure adjustments. If you tap where the image is brightest, the iPhone will self-adjust to the correct exposure. If you are photographing a subject that’s a little too dark or too bright and the camera doesn’t accurately guess the exposure, use the slider to make adjustments by dragging your finger up and down the screen. You can lock the exposure by holding your finger until you see “AF/AE Lock”.

While the iPhone camera works well, if you want more control over your camera and photos, try the Manual, and ProCamera, and Camera+ apps.


A Black-capped Chickadee digiscoped with my Swarovski scope, 20-60 zoom eyepiece, and Viking Optical Universal adapter

Camera shake is a terrible problem for many of us. Anything that shakes your setup will greatly increase the risk of blurry, or unfocused photos. Many people don’t realize that the headphones that come with the iPhone (the volume buttons) can act as a remote shutter release. This is a great technique to use if you want to reduce contact with the phone. There are also remote shutter releases that can control your iPhone camera via Bluetooth or use voice commands to take photos with Android devices.

If your photos need some help, try photo editing apps. Upload photos to apps like PicTapGo, SnapSeed, or Hipstamatic to make minor adjustments. These apps can fix and enhance contrast, exposure, and sharpness quickly and easily. Instagram can also turn a lesser quality photo into something great with a filter and some editing. For videos, hold your phone horizontally to take video as most uploading sites, such as YouTube and Vimeo, are designed for horizontal clips.

I would love to see your digiscoped photos, so please link to yours in the comments below!

Birding in the Winter

Winter got off to a pretty mild start all around North America, but seems to have arrived now, everywhere just in time for the new year.

Finding birds in the winter can sometimes be very challenging. Birds are mainly concentrated wherever food is plentiful and there is good shelter. Some species such as finches are most active early in the day, but you should be able to find some species at any time of day.

If there is any open water in the area, that’s a prime place to start looking for ducks, raptors, gulls, herons, shorebirds, and even kingfishers can be found around open patches of water or sewage treatment plants.

When driving around the countryside or near airports, watch the open fields for Rough-legged Hawks, Northern Hawk Owls, or even a Snowy Owl. These species will often perch in trees, on telephone poles and also hay and straw bales. Snow Buntings and Horned Larks gather in large flocks which fly close to the ground in fields. Northern Shrikes are often found perched on the uppermost point of a tree in small clumps of bushes.

IMG_0837Winter finches are usually heard before they are seen — Crossbills, Pine Siskins, and Pine Grosbeaks are very vocal in the winter which makes them easy to locate — often feeding on pinecones at the top of spruce trees.

The best way to locate certain species is to ask local birders about the best locations for wintering species in your area. eBird is also a fantastic resource for finding birds in your area. You can submit your own sightings to eBird — adding to the ever growing eBird database of checklists which helps other birders and scientists track bird distribution and abundance.

When I have time in the winter, even in the bitter temperatures from around -20 to -40 degrees Celsius, I trudge through the snow in search of owls, woodpeckers, and winter finches. Staying warm in the frigid temperatures can be a challenge, but being comfortable makes birding much more enjoyable. Sometimes the coldest days can produce the most spectacular birds, but nothing is more frustrating than watching a Snowy Owl and not being able to feel your toes!

Using a camera can be a challenge on very cold days, because changing the dials with mittens or even gloves can be difficult. I try to have my settings ready before I leave the house to minimize fiddling around in the cold. Also, batteries lose a lot of power when exposed to low temperatures, so I keep spare ones warm in an inner pocket, close to the body.

A Snowy Owl I saw last year,IMG_6782

Layers upon layers are the key to staying warm outside. I like to wear warm sweaters and leggings. And on the outside — my snow boots (Baffin), waterproof snow pants, a waterproof winter jacket, my Punk Rock Apparel Snowy Owl winter hat, and a scarf or gaiter. Keeping your extremities warm is essential for winter birding. I like wool socks, and I dry my boot liners overnight. This way there’s no excess moisture in the liners. I wear leather mittens with finger liners since they are incredibly warm and easy to use with binoculars. Hand warmers can be useful since you can stick them in your mittens, pockets, and boots. Constantly moving also helps to keep you warm.


Birding in Germany was a little different for me because the climate is so much more humid and damp than the prairies. The cold went straight through me, so I made sure to dress very warmly even through the winter temperature wasn’t much below zero.

Birding by vehicle can make the weather a little more bearable. Dress as warmly as if you’re going for a walk, because any number of things could happen — a bird might be sitting in a spot where you have to go outside to get a good view, the heater in your vehicle quits working or have some other breakdown (my truck started leaking coolant and overheated far from home on the day of the Christmas Bird Count), or you get stuck in the snow and have to walk.

If you can’t brave the cold, sit by your window with a book and something warm to drink and watch the birds at your feeders. Feeding birds in the winter gives you a chance to watch birds without having to go outside and provides extra sustenance for birds dealing with the winter weather. Many rare birds often show up at feeding stations, so keep an eye out for unusual birds at your feeders. Even if nothing rare shows up, watching the Black-capped Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, and winter finches at close range is always enjoyable. For more bird feeding tips, I highly recommend Myrna Pearman’s new book, Backyard Bird Feeding: An Alberta Guide

There are a number of citizen science programs that take place in the winter, including Project FeederWatch, Christmas Bird Counts, and the Great Backyard Bird Count. You can provide important information about the winter bird population in your area by counting birds at your feeders and reporting the results.

Whether you’re walking, driving, or window-watching this winter, have fun and stay warm!

A male Pine Grosbeak,


Farewell 2015, Hello 2016!

Welcome to 2016 everyone!

I can’t believe that 2015 is over — it went by incredibly fast for me, but was a simply wonderful year. There were so many great birding opportunities and adventures, from birding in Europe, to my very successful Great Canadian Birdathon, the little bit of birding I did in the Northwest Territories, the book signing with Myrna Pearman, and using my new Nikon camera and lenses.

With my trips and a little bit of luck, I added to my various lists last year:
I saw a total of 176 species in Alberta this year — beating last year’s list by five species. Mostly because of our trip to Europe, I added 70 species to my Life List, bringing it up to 343 species. My goal this year is to crack 350 species, which should be quite manageable.

I’m looking forward to what this year has in store for me, birding and otherwise. Happy birding and a happy and healthy new year to all!


Photo Essay: A Snowy Owl

I had a chance to practice with my early Christmas present, a new Nikon 200-500mm lens, f/5.6, last Saturday. My subject was a beautiful male Snowy Owl just north of our farm, who was very accommodating and great for practice. Because the owl is so white, and the sky was very light too, I was really working on getting a good exposure.

The owl wasn’t too keen on looking straight at me, so I have only one photo of him looking directly at me. In all the others, he’s looking ahead or looking away.



This photo is a little underexposed for my liking,DSC_0971

Because Snowy Owls are quite common in southern areas again this fall/winter, here are some tips from the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio and Kaufman Field Guides for observing or photographing Snowy Owls:


Feathers on Friday

If you would like to join me for my Feathers on Friday meme, please put the link to your blog post in the comments and I’ll add the link to my post.

I was finally able to see a Snowy Owl this winter! This owl was hunting near on farm near our house earlier this week.

A Snowy Owl,

IMG_0075 IMG_0077

More Feathers on Friday Posts:

:: From Josiah at Birds in Your BackyardFeathers on Friday

:: From Babsje at Great Blue Herons: Object of her Affection

:: From Ethan at Bird Boy: Feathers on Friday

Where Are the Snowy Owls?

KeepCalmThis might be a strange question to ask with so many Snowy Owls being reported in the eastern United States and Canada the last couple of months. One group of birders from Newfoundland counted 301 Snowy Owls in weekend and one Snowy Owl made it all the way to Bermuda! But for those of us in western North America, who are accustomed to seeing Snowy Owls in the winter months, it’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves.

In fact, Snowy Owls have been found this winter in every northeastern state and even in some southern ones. This explosion of owls has excited birders, and even some non-birders, everywhere the owls have been reported.

Here’s a screenshot of all the recent Snowy Owl sighting reported to eBird. It’s hard not to notice the lack of reports from the owls’ usual winter range in northern Canada and Alaska. There are a handful of reports from the west side of the continent but nothing compared to the east side,


Snowy Owls breed in the very northern part of Canada and Alaska where there is constant daylight in the summer, so during breeding season they have no choice but to hunt during the day. In the winter, they hunt by day or night, which is why this species is more commonly seen than other owl species. Snowy Owls mainly eat lemmings, voles, and mice, but they are opportunistic hunters. A Snowy Owl can eat more than 1,600 lemmings in a single year.

Lemming populations fluctuate drastically from year to year with peak number happening about every four years. Lemming populations don’t affect only Snowy Owls, but also Arctic Foxes, Rough-legged Hawks, weasels, Gyrfalcons, and other Arctic wildlife. When the lemming populations are high in the spring and summer, other species’ populations increase; when the lemming population drops, other species that depend on lemmings for prey decline. So goes the cycle of Arctic life.

A Snowy Owl nest in northern Quebec in 2013 -- brought to the nest even before the eggs have hatched. (photo by J. F. Therrien

A Snowy Owl nest in northern Quebec in 2013 — brought to the nest even before the eggs have hatched. Photograph by J. F. Therrien. I found this photo on the Arctic Raptors Facebook page

It seems likely that most of the Snowy Owls being seen/reported in the east are young ones that have been pushed out of their normal range by the adults or have moved out looking for food. This results in an irruption, or an invasion as some birders like to call it. An irruption is a large, temporary migration of a species into areas where they’re usually not found.

This recent invasion is likely caused by a lack of food supply for the owls, following a plentiful supply of lemmings last spring and summer in the owls’ breeding grounds, which meant the adult owls were able to raise lots of young. But this past fall and this winter, the lemming population may not have been able to keep up with the increased owl population, forcing young owls and even some adult birds south and east in search of food.

Last week I asked members of the Alberta Birds Facebook group if they’ve been seeing as many Snowy Owls as in previous years, more, fewer, or about the same. Some members said that they’ve seen fewer owls, and others said that they’ve seen about the same number as in previous years. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a Snowy Owl yet this winter, so I find myself wondering, where in North America are the Snowy Owls I usually see in the winter. The numbers of Snowy Owls in Alberta are definitely nothing compared to the east.

Here are some photos of a Snowy Owl I took a couple of years ago near our farm,


As a result of the irruption, some researchers have started a project to track the Snowy Owls movements with transmitters. Project SNOWstorm is a really neat opportunity to study Snowy Owls, so please be sure to check out the website and donate if you want to help study Snowy Owls!


More Snowy Owl stories:

:: An interview with Newfoundland birder Bruce Mctavish 

:: The New York Times looks at tracking the Snowy Owl irruption 

:: An article from eBird on Snowy Owls

:: From the ABA Blog: The 2013 Snowy Owl Invasion: It’s Getting Crazier by the Minute