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Birding by Webcam

Nashville Warbler

A screen capture of the Southeast Farallon Island webcam from September 25th, showing a Nashville Warbler clinging to the lighthouse antenna.

On the morning of September 14th, a birder named Matt Brady turned on his computer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, opened an internet browser, and clicked on the Farallon  Islands webcam to do a little virtual birding. The live camera, maintained by the California Academy of Sciences and mounted atop the Southeast Farallon Island lighthouse about 30 miles west of San Francisco, was pointed at that moment at an antenna array—the highest point on the isolated island, which is a migrant trap. A little bird flitted into view and perched. Brady squinted at his screen. He realized that it was a
Yellow-throated Warbler, a very rare species in California—almost 2,000 miles away from where Brady sat comfortably at his desk in Louisiana.

He immediately called the crew of biologists stationed on the Farallones, who, several  times zones ahead, were just rolling out of bed. A vagrant like a Yellow-throated Warbler is a big deal on the island; despite decades of daily coverage, there had been only five previous records. The crew, all serious birders, sprinted out the front door of  their hundred-year-old house and up a steep hill to reach the lighthouse. Sure enough, the warbler was up there.

Townsend's Warbler

A color-banded Townsend’s Warbler alights in front of the webcam.

That may have marked the first time a vagrant bird has ever been spotted, identified, reported, and chased via webcam—a significant moment in postmodern birding. Pretty soon, others caught on; such luminaries as Alvaro Jaramillo and Kenn Kaufman began posting regular sightings in a Facebook group called “SEFI Remote Birdwatching” created this fall by Matt Brady. In September, viewers identified a Blackburnian Warbler, American Redstart, Ovenbird, and Chestnut-sided Warbler on the Farallon webcam, all rare species in California. On September 25th, a Hermit Warbler,
Nashville Warbler, and Magnolia Warbler appeared within a span of a few


An Ovenbird “photographed” with a screen capture on the Farallon webcam.

It wasn’t long before Farallon webcam addicts started competing with each other to see who could identify the most species of birds onscreen. A Google spreadsheet was created to keep track of who had seen what. Although more than a dozen birders have submitted their totals so far, Matt Brady’s webcam list far exceeds anyone else’s. At last count, his personal total was 35 species out of 40 recorded thus far from the webcam, including 12 species of warblers—or, as Brady calls them, “weblers.”

“The most important variable is how much time you spend staring at the cam a day,” Brady advises. He admits to keeping a small window open with the webcam running in a corner of his computer screen while he
studies. For the first time in eight years, he is not spending this fall season with the crew of Farallon biologists; the webcam lets him stay in touch with the place he knows so well.

Brown Pelicans

The webcam zooms in on Brown Pelicans, Brandt’s Cormorants, and Western Gulls.

Others have also become dedicated watchers. A birder named Christian Schwarz has been keeping a laptop propped next to his main work computer with the Farallon webcam running full screen, full time. “All my coworkers think it’s a really boring screensaver,” he remarked.

Hardcore webcam watchers have even invented an ironically derisive term for real, in-the-flesh sightings: “meat birds.” When a rare Prairie Warbler was seen on Southeast Farallon on October 5th but failed to pose for the webcam, virtual birders scoffed at an update posted in the webcam’s Facebook group. “This sighting is irrelevant,” one remarked.

Hermit Warbler

A Hermit Warbler perches in view of the webcam.

The star at Southeast Farallon this summer, a Northern
Gannet that was first spotted on April 25th and has hung around ever since—the first of its kind ever recorded in the Pacific Ocean—eluded virtual viewers for a while. But on September 13th, Californian birder Oscar Johnson logged on to the webcam and caught a glimpse of the distinctive bird flying past, and, on October 9th, Matt Brady was able to point and zoom the camera at the gannet perched on its favorite rocky cliff. At home in Oregon, I happened to log on just at the right moment to watch the famous bird preen, stretch its wings, and settle down on a rocky ledge, live on my computer monitor but hundreds of miles away.

Clearly, you can’t count webcam birds on your life list, and neither can you count meat birds on a digital list. But the question highlights an increasingly gray area. Today’s birders use such advanced technology to identify birds—image stabilization, parabolic listening devices, high-speed cameras—that the birds we “see” sometimes aren’t even detectable by normal human standards. In one sense, a webcam is just an extremely powerful spotting scope. So, where do you draw the line? Must the same photon strike both the bird and your eyeball?

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatches have made several webcam appearances this fall, as part of an unusually heavy influx on the Farallones.

The Farallon webcam runs year round; September (and early October) is the best month to look for migratory songbirds, but you never know what might show up—Great White Shark attacks on Elephant Seals have also been observed on the webcam. Recent virtual sightings have included a Brown Booby, Wandering Tattler, Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows, Brewer’s and Red-winged Blackbirds, and even a passing Violet-green Swallow.

If you want to test your digital skills and patience, the link is below. Me, I’m off to find some real birds—in the meat, so to speak—closer to home.


Click here to read Noah Strycker’s past ABA blog posts.

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Noah Strycker

Noah Strycker

Noah Strycker, Associate Editor of Birding magazine, is author of Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica (2011) and The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human (2014). In 2015, Noah completed the ultimate big year, traveling through 41 countries to see 6,042 species of birds between January and December.
Noah Strycker

Latest posts by Noah Strycker (see all)

  • Rob

    Thanks Noah, I hadn’t heard about this. I’ve got the webcam window open now. Just what I needed, another way to fuel the birding fires. Somebody stop me 🙁

  • “Must the same photon strike both the bird and your eyeball?”

    In that case birds viewed through binoculars would not be countable as the refraction of the lenses eats and emits different photons. Same with spotting scope. In fact the photons reaching the lens of your eyeball are different from what reaches your retina. And then the brain inverts the transmitted image using digital processing.

  • Is the webcam footage stored? Does anyone ever go back to it? The utility this represents for documenting birds is pretty huge.

  • Who controls what the webcam is viewing at any given time? The current view appears to fairly unproductive (of course it could just be that there aren’t many birds on the island at the moment). Thanks!

  • What’s the eBird protocol for webcam birding? Do I exclude meat birds heard or seen while making a webcam birding checklist?

  • Gary Bloomfield

    This is something I’ve speculated about a fair bit and the implications are truly foggy with gray areas. As JM mentioned above, if you only see a bird through your optics you have only seen a reflection of the bird. Consider a seawatch with an angled scope. I don’t know of any birders who would consider that to be anything short of a True Birding Experience. Now, how about using a periscope (just another angled optic akin to a spotting scope) to look around a building. Probable acceptable, if a bit odd. Alright; now add a few more angled and mirrored tubes to the device so one could bird the yard from the comfort of one’s home. This is now pretty much just a technical difference from viewing a video monitor for a camera aimed at a feeder. From there it’s just a matter of distance.

    Watch your step; this can of worms on the floor can get pretty slippery….

  • Matt Brady

    The thing about this webcam is that it isn’t quite live. There’s a fairly significant time delay, of up to 2 minutes. So, someone who has control over the live feed points the camera at a Townsend’s Warbler, and, two minutes later, everyone who is watching sees the camera view shift, and center on the Warbler. By that point, the bird (assuming it’s on the Farallones) may no longer even be at the lighthouse, but flitting about one of the three trees on the island, hundreds of feet away from where dozens of virtual birders are “watching” it. I think that that is the most significant difference between watching a bird through a pair of binoculars and watching it through the webcam. The photons activating your optical nerve may not be the exact same as the ones that bounced off the bird, but at least what you’re seeing is happening in real time. The webcam is just glorified TV.

  • As far as I know, the footage isn’t stored anywhere. But the crew of biologists stationed on the Farallones documents all birds that land on the island (banding them, entering them into eBird, etc). The webcam is a fun way for the rest of the world to get a glimpse of what’s out there.

  • A few designated people have control of the camera (not me!) and the rest of us are generally at their mercy. Many days there is nothing to see (especially now that songbird migration is winding down), so you have to spend a fair amount of time watching to spot anything interesting (especially on days like yesterday, when the weather at the Farallones wasn’t very conducive for grounding migrants). But you never know…

  • Why is there a 2-minute delay? That seems weird. Although I’d say the most significant difference is still the fact that people are sitting in front of their computers, hundreds of miles away – clearly not the same experience as “real” birding. I suppose it’s like watching live TV, as even “live” TV shows have some short delay.

  • Somebody was moving it around yesterday (was even out of focus for a while) but now is back pointing at the same spot. Favorable winds today – northeast at 12 mph. I will check the Facebook page, could be more information there.

  • Matt Brady

    Cal Academy removed the option to have the public be able to control where the camera points because, I think, birders kept crashing the server whenever a bird would pop up and it was announced on the the Facebook group. So, now you just have to wait for a bird to pop into the frame (luckily the camera is most often pointed at the best spot), or wait until someone who does have access to the controls moves the cam around (as happened yesterday). Northeast winds are not that great. What you really want is east or (especially) southeast winds. Northwest winds are the worst, as they blow birds back to the mainland or prevent them from moving out over the ocean in the first place. West winds are similarly poor.

  • Matt Brady

    I think the biggest delay comes in having to beam the feed over the ocean for 30 miles each way. Sometimes, though, the delay is down to a more reasonable 2-3 seconds.

  • Nothing is simultaneous. Nature imposes roughly a 100 nanosecond delay when a birder observes a “meat bird” from 100 feet away, even with no optics.

  • Matt Brady

    I think eBird would frown upon entering cam lists. Just trust that Team SEFI has it covered. If you do see something that they missed, though, you can let them know, and they might add it to their list.

  • zainabjamal

    Is there any known technology to automatically identify the birds from still images (image recognition/ object recognition) Just curious.

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