As a bird videographer I am always looking for new and interesting ways to capture bird images. Birds around the nest are always good subjects, and with spring coming the time is almost ripe. The trouble is finding the nests. Unlike the early 20th Century guys who raided nests, tore all the cover away and lined the nestlings up in a row for portraits, or Elliott Porter who actually cut down trees to get at nests, we modern folk have more concern for the welfare of the birds. There is still a lot of activity near nests that can be recorded without unduly stressing the birds. You just need to find the nests.
With this in mind I bought a thermal imaging camera. It images heat instead of light. The idea was that even if a bird on the nest is hidden from view, you could still locate it by its body heat. The average bird's core temperature is over 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Once I located the female on the nest, I could then set up my camcorder at a respectful distance (video has a huge reach) and start shooting as nest building, baby feeding, and all sorts of fun stuff was going on. Sounds like a great idea, right? Wrong. The thermal camera doesn't let you do that and this review will hopefully save someone else with the same idea some time.
The best consumer-grade thermal imaging camera out there is the Flir One. Its sales are driven by the construction and maintenance trades. It can easily locate leaky windows, poorly insulated pipes, etc. You can touch a wall, remove your hand, and the camera will image a perfect hand print where you touched. A cup of lukewarm water lights up like a lantern, with a plume of heat rising above it. The camera can image cats, dogs, deer, and people as far away as half a city block. The thumb-sized Flir One works when attached to a smart phone, using the phone's screen as a display. It sells for about $250.00 and there is a free app to download. I figured that something this sensitive would be a great addition to my photo kit. I was wrong.
To test the camera, I went to the Miami zoo, which has a wonderful walk-in aviary featuring Asian birds of all sizes. Birds sing, fly, and yes, nest here all year. All close, and easy to find. The camera's problems quickly became apparent.
1. The image you get is relatively wide angle, and there is no way to zoom in. At more than 10-15 feet, any bird becomes just a tiny dot. That would be OK. You just learn to look for the dots. After all, if you are seeking hidden nests, you have probably gotten this close by observation and instinct before even unsheathing the camera.
2. Images are displayed as color variations. They look like posterized Andy Warhol paintings. The hottest objects come across as white, followed by orange, yellow, etc, all the way down to blue for colder stuff. Unfortunately there is more to thermal imaging than just heat. Reflective surfaces like smooth-barked trees, and pavement show up yellow and orange, just like a warm bird. It is impossible to identify your orange bird dot when a lot of the screen is also orange.
3. The camera has several display modes, and not all of them use the rainbow of confusing colors. One promising one was "hottest". A quail a few feet away showed up as a bright red dot. Everything else was gray. The result was not consistent. A little farther away, a little smaller, a little more hidden, and no red dot appeared. I played around with the dozen or so modes, and found none to be a magic bullet.
4. My final decision to quit this adventure came with a 4 foot tall Eurasian Stork sitting out in the open on a rock about 30 feet away, and a Wattled Plover somewhat closer. Both birds were visible in the camera as outlines in the general background noise, but neither lit up in yellow or white as objects warmer than their surroundings. This explained my failure in the thermal imaging of birds. Their feathers are such good insulators that they do not radiate enough heat to be picked up by a device of the quality of the Flir One at the distances I need to work.
Too bad. This would have been a wonderful way to find hidden birds. Although I have no data, I suspect that the Flir One would work quite well looking for owls at night, or imaging birds in the winter where everything around them is really cold. But birds don't nest in the winter. Maybe a future generation of thermal imager will work in the specialized world of small bird photography. Stay tuned.