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Feature for November 2007

Blurring the Line Between Technology and Nature

By: Scott Martin

A blue jay takes a peanut from the window feeder. Image snapped automatically from the Puffin Post Live Bird Cam, November, 2005.
For November's feature, I'm going to focus on setting up your own live birdcam. If there are any technical questions you have that are not answered in this article, please contact me at : scott@nfinteractive.com and I'll try my best to answer them.

In the past couple of years, NL Interactive hosted a live bird watching camera via the web. Officially called the "Puffin Post Live Bird Cam", we made it a seasonal feature on our popular online community: The Puffin Post Online Pub.

In the years before the web, bird watching meant going through the forest with a trusty set of binoculars or sitting in a sun porch in the comfort of your home watching and possibly taking notes on the different species of birds that visited the feeder.

Flash foward to the web in 2007. You can now watch your bird feeder from different floors of your house, at your office building or when you are away on vacation. I discovered one single great thing about this technology: the birds will stay longer in the feeder when a person is not in the room watching them. They really don't mind the camera.

A couple of years ago, I decided to add technology to the mix and let others from around the world peep in on my feeder. The response has been wonderful. As "high tech" as it sounds, you can get started easily with just a computer and a camera. I'm basing this article on a home-based feeder, you can get as creative as you want with the technology, including mounting outdoor cameras with wireless access etc. Here is how I brewed my own...

First I made a checklist of the supplies and materials I would need to start the project. Some knowledge is needed in the area of home computer networking and software. I understand everyone has a different configuration in their home, but hopefully you can adapt the following knowledge to your configuration.

My checklist:

1. Highspeed, Dedicated Internet Connection

Having a highspeed, dedicated Internet connection to your house is the single most important thing. Whether it is DSL, Cable or Satellite is trivial as long as the connection is greatly faster than dial-up and is dedicated, which means "always on". For the purpose of this article, my connection is DSL.

2. USB Compitable Camera and Tripod

Most, if not all, web-cams these days are USB compitable. If you don't have a web-cam, any Mini-DV home video camera produced in recent years should offer a USB connection. I use a Sony TVR19 Mini-DV home video camera, which doubles as our family video camera in the off season. You can pick up a sturdy tripod at any major department store that peddles camera supplies, however make sure the tripod has a "neck extender", allowing you to crank the tripod neck to a reasonable height. This allows for the camera to be mounted high, while the legs of the tripod take up minimum floor space.

3. USB Extension Cord / Network Cable (optional)

I use a 20 foot USB extension cable for the sole reason of flexibility in positioning my camera. I wanted my computer to be a reasonable distance from the camera therefore a USB extension cable acts like an extension cord or cable; it increases your distance. If you don't mind the short default cable, then the extension is not needed. The network cable is also optional, as you can use a wireless connection to your router in the house.

Personally, I use a network cable for "connection stability". Sometimes wireless can become "polluted" or interrupted by other sources like microwave ovens, fluorescent lights and cordless telephones. Currently my network cable runs through the top floor to the basement then into my router.

4. A Computer and Router

I chose a laptop computer running Microsoft Windows Vista (both my wife and I agree, Vista is for the birds). A laptop doesn't take up much space and you don't have to use an external display, keyboard and mouse as well. For this project, any recent computer running Microsoft Windows will do. A router is another crucial element. By enabling port fowarding on your router (more on this later) it "listens" to all incoming web traffic and "routes" them to your camera server.

5. Web Cam server software

Installed on the computer is your web-cam software to "serve" the live video feed to the world. I recommended "Web Cam XP" (http://www.webcamxp.com ). It features a web server and web camera software all in one. Other major features include: Timed captures of frames in galleries, password protecting, chat boxes and text over-lays. Advanced features of the software include technology like motion detecting, in which the software will capture a picture for your gallery only if something in the feeder moves.

6. Window Bird Feeder and Bird Seed

Any feeder will do, as long as the camera is zoomed or close enough to see action. I chose a window feeder because it allows the lens of my camera to be inches from the feeder, while the outdoor window feeder and indoor camera are seperated by the window.

Depending on what type of birds you want to attract, any seed with nuts will attract larger birds like jays and flickers. You can use whatever seed you like.

My Illustrated Setup




Technical Details

Cords-n-Cables

Assuming the webcam software is installed on your computer, plug in all USB and power cables to both the camera and computer. Plug your network cable into "port One" of your router and into the network jack on your computer.

Router Software and Port Setups

I'm going to be really general here, as there are too many possibilities and network setups to be precise.

Use the webcam software, in this case: "webcam xp" to search for a WAN IP. This will pickup the IP address of your router. Now you need to configure your router for port forwarding. Depending on your type of router, you need to access the router setup software or firmware. This can be done by typing the local IP address of your router in a web browser address bar. It can be 192.168.1.1 or something similar. Once you log into the router setup software, find the option for "Port Fowarding". Again, depending on the router setup, you will be presented with an option to foward one port to an IP address. In this case, we are going to forward port 80 (the http port) to the computer IP address hosting the webcam software.

Once this is done, you can now share your WAN IP (your external IP to the world) with somebody on the outside to see your live camera feed.

I went a step further and signed up for a free service named "DYN-DNS". Your router IP will change in a couple of hours or days, causing headaches for sharing your webcam, as you would have to send out a new address every time it changes. DYN-DNS basically keeps checking for a change in the IP address and lets you pick a name for your web service, instead of giving users a IP address. Then you will be able to share a memorable name that stays put.

The above instruction is based on my own "home-brew" setup. There are hundreds of ways to offer live cam viewing via the web, but this worked best for me considering the materials and technology I already had on hand. My total expense for setting up a cam every season is about $20. Some years I have to buy a new feeder and of course the bird feed is a re-occuring expense.

You can view the Puffin Post Online Bird bird camera here: http://birdcam.kicks-ass.org

If you have any technical questions, please contact me at: scott@nfinteractive.com

Happy November!

Scott Martin
Founder, NL Interactive

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Autumn Reflections
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Destination: St. Anthony Part One
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Gardening in Cottage Country Part One
Gardening in Cottage Country Part Two
Gardening in Cottage Country Part Three
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