Adding an online camera to your birdfeeder

by Oct 14, 2019

When I built myself a new home office in a spare room about a year ago, the one thing I lost was a view of our birdfeeders, since they are now on the other side of the house from where I work. I used to be able to sit and watch the feeders from my chair while I pondered a solution to something, and I found I really missed that.

I then got into a conversation with some other birders about putting up a webcam that would show the bird feeders at the Santa Clara Valley Audubon headquarters, and that got me thinking about what might be needed to do that. In my research, I realized that the current generation of security cameras could be adapted for this use. I decided to do a proof of concept at my house, hoping to both validate this would be viable and worth exploring further, and to give me the opportunity to watch the birds during idle moments during the day via my iPad screen.

Since I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on this, I started looking at the lower end security cameras. The lowest cost unit I thought was worth testing was about $80, so this isn’t a super-cheap project, but I was curious whether I could get acceptable video of the feeder, and hopefully, still images if I happen to see a notable bird.

A few notes on these cameras: the less expensive wireless cameras have fixed lenses with a very wide field of view, which means you have to place the camera quite close to the feeders to get a useful view. I found 5-6′ the maximum distance away from the feeders that I felt worked. On the plus side, the very wide view meant a single camera could cover all of my feeders. More expensive cameras exist with zoom and pan features, with zoom up to 20X, which would allow you to connect a camera to a house and still get a close-up image of feeders further out in the yard — at a higher cost. I might upgrade to that at some point, but I felt it was more money than I wanted to spend on an experiment.

The less expensive cameras typically only connect to WIFI via 2.4GHz, an older, slower standard. This can impact performance of your wifi with some routers, and if you’ve set up a network with only the new 5GHz band operating, the device won’t connect. 2.4GHz also has a more limited range than the newer 5GHz band, but for the distances we need for a typical feeder setup, that shouldn’t be an issue (but as you can see below, it was).

You can use these security cameras in a few ways: the simplest is live view, where you fire up the app and connect to the camera and view footage live. If you want to capture video when you aren’t looking for later review, some cameras allow you to install an SD or MicroSD memory card, others can save video to a local computer or server, and some offer cloud storage at and extra annual charge. You then set the camera to detect motion and capture video when triggers for some period of time. With the SD cards, you have to go out to the camera and pull the card to load video onto your computer to review; the others you can review at any time just by bringing up the saved videos.

You can spend from around $80 for the basic cameras up to around $1000 for all the bells and whistles, but you can expect to pay around $350 for an upgraded camera with a good zoom and pan function and around $500 for that type of camera with a solar charging panel. If you really want to put something up with 24×7 streaming to the internet, it’s more complicated and more expensive, but if you’re curious, BirdwatchingHQ did this and it cost them about $3000. There are less expensive cameras out there, but a lot of them are Chinese OEMs and knock-offs of questionable quality. I strongly suggest checking to see if the company selling them has a web site that allows you to see the product specs on it, and any company you can’t easily find a web site for or a product page for a camera should be avoided.

I ended up trying two cameras. The first was the Reolink Argus 2 which at $95 was the cheapest camera I thought might serve my needs. It came with an IOS app (Android also available) to monitor with, and you could install a MicroSD card to store video on, allowing you to set up auto-activation on motion and review the videos later if you with. It includes a rechargeable batter that lasts for weeks that can be recharged via USB and a micro-usb port; potentially you could attach a battery to it like you would your phone without bringing it inside, or haul it in to recharge. They also have a solar panel available at extra cost.

What I liked: easy set up, and I liked the overall design of the apps. A nice touch allowed me to create still images from the video with the push of a button as I watched.

What I didn’t like: extremely poor WIFI performance. The camera was about 30 feet from the router it connected to, and I found the connection consistently poor and sometimes intermittently failing. The connection was poor enough to force the camera to downgrade the video quality, meaning I often was watching a blurry, useless image rather than the sharper HD video. There is no reason for the WIFI to be that poor at that distance other than poor design.

In general, I liked the Reolink — except for the poor WIFI, which was a killer for me. If your feeders are closer to your house (say 15 feet or so) this might be a good option, but otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend it.

I then tried the Ring Stick Up Cam ($130, being replaced October 2019 by an updated version at $99). Since I already had a Ring camera as my doorbell and pay for cloud storage for that, it seemed a reasonable unit as my second experiment. This camera is also limited to 2.4GHz WIFI but in my testing with it sitting next to the Neocam it consistently gave me a quality HD video signal and my network monitor showed a significantly better WIFI connection. My experience with my Ring doorbell is positive and this camera feels much better engineered than the Neocam and my testing confirmed that.

As I write this (October 2019) the camera I tested has been discontinued, and is being replaced with a 2nd generation. This new version of the camera is cheaper — $99, which to me makes it the no-brainer choice compared to the Reolink. It has various upgrades, including a solar panel, if you want them.

What I liked: Good, consistent, quality video any time I requested it. I tested the motion trigger and it worked fine, but I got as many videos of feral cats and squirrels as I did birds, so in general I’ve left it off. It ties into the Ring app (IOS and Android, and there’s a more limited MacOS version as well which worked nicely) so I can view anywhere, anytime. It has a removable battery — same one as in my Ring doorbell — so I bought a third battery and a charger so I can charge and swap the battery and not have any downtime of the camera while batteries recharge.

What I didn’t like: unlike the Reolink, the app has no way to snap a still image. You can still create one if you wish, but it involves playing back the video and taking a screen shot. A bit of a hassle, but it works. Ring is all about security video, so this isn’t surprising, but it seems a fairly simple feature they could add to their apps.

Ring is a camera that stores video in a cloud; to do that, you need to sign up for their Protect Basic plan at $30 a year. I don’t think this is unreasonable for the convenience, but if you’d rather store video on your own computer, you’ll need to choose a different camera. If you decide not to sign up for this storage plan, you can still use a Ring camera for live viewing but you won’t be able to use motion triggers to store video for later review.

There is also some controversy with Ring Cameras partnering with police departments around the country. This encourages those departments to promote and recommend Ring devices; in return, the police can request access to video from devices without having to ask the resident permission or get a search warrant. I’m troubled by this partnership program, but I decided since I was likely to offer video to my local police on request that I’d continue using Ring products at this time. You might have a different opinion. EFF has some good background on this if you want to consider it before purchasing. If this had been happening before I purchased a Ring I might have chosen differently, but I’ve been using them long enough I don’t feel the need to swap to a different product over this.

My recommendation: if your feeders are placed so you can put a camera within about 10-15′ of your WIFI router and 5-6′ of your feeders, then the Reolink is a reasonable option. While I haven’t tested the updated Ring camera, at its new lower price, it should be a much higher quality camera for about the same price, and that’s what I expect to recommend once it’s been shipping for a few weeks and I see the reviews.

If the Ring police video policy bothers you, I recommend you spend a little more to get a camera. Something like this SV3C PTZ comes with a 5K zoom so it doesn’t have to be as close to the feeders, and at $129 it’s seems to be a good deal, although I haven’t at this point tested it.

Overall, it is possible to set up a camera to monitor your feeders at a reasonable price without a lot of technical knowledge. Most of these cameras are plug and play: fire up an app on your phone or tablet, connect it to WIFI, place it watching the feeders and remember to charge the battery every so often. If you’re looking for a good, basic setup so you can see the birds outside when you’re stuck inside, the Ring camera will get it done for you quite well.