Which came first

Ahh, the age-old question of the chicken or the egg. There’s a similar theme in my family having to do with my Dad and making stuff. He introduced me to electronics when I was too young to realize how awesome it was, I introduced him to the Raspberry Pi, then he introduced me to Adruino. I introduced him to video capture on the Pi (with the help of a 3D printed camera case) and he turned it around into a nest cam! Ahh, so there’s the bird connection, this is a post about setting up a quick and dirty (and surprisingly effective) nest cam!

At the risk of putting the cart before the horse (ok, I’m done), here’s the link to my Dad’s webcam.  It won’t be up for much longer, since the chicks are ready to fledge (or fly the coop?  guess I couldn’t help myself).

So my Dad sent me an email starting:

I’ve had this elaborate plan all winter to build a bird house and install my raspberry pi and a small Logitech video camera strategically placed so I could watch the comings and goings of some of the many birds we have in our yard.

Then he attaches this picture:


Yep, that there’s a nest sitting precariously on top of a ladder.  The nest was built by an eastern phoebe which in my experience is a species that isn’t afraid to build nests near people.  I guess to a bird the spot looks good: high off the ground, protected from the elements and with clear site lines (it’s located underneath an overhang that extends beyond my Dad’s shed).  Little does the bird know that my Dad and I build that overhang, so “protection from the elements” is a misnomer indeed!

Continuing from my Dad’s email:

 With no time to spare or to get very creative, I grabbed my Pi and camera. I placed it in a plastic sandwich bag to try and keep the moisture out, drilled two screws above the nest while she was off it and wired the camera into a position I thought might work.

I think that quote epitomizes the hacker-creed “necessity is the mother of invention.”  So what did the setup look like?


…and that is what I absolutely love about the Raspberry Pi; when was the last time you threw some electronics in a plastic bag and hung it outside?  Between the ease of use and low price point, the Raspberry Pi opens up an amazing number of opportunities for exploration, especially for those of us who like to procrastinate or over-plan and therefore never get anything done.  The answer to “what’s the worst that can happen?” is that you are out $35 and need to get another credit-card-sized computer.

Surprisingly, the problems we’ve had haven’t been element-based at all.  The RPi has been outside for about a month now, with no apparent ill effects.  (I’d say knock on wood, but the only wood you see is that roof, and remember what I said earlier about who made that roof.)  Continuing with my Dad’s story…

…then a quick extension cord that runs to the house took care of the power issue. I really don’t want to ruin my raspberry Pi but this was a big opportunity for me. I already had it set up with a Edimax wireless adapter so once the power was on back into the house to configure it. Putty worked right away and with some help from fellow Pi lovers I found the information I needed to go live.

That extension cord is the biggest problem!  I’ll be drinking coffee in the morning and hear my wife yell “the bird cam’s down!” only to receive an email from my Dad a few minutes later to say he had to unplug the extension cord because otherwise he can’t get into the vegetable garden.  Jeesh, you’d think backyards nowadays would be better equipped for electrical applications. (I think I’ll get my Dad a solar panel for Christmas.)

OK, so the extension cord was the biggest physical problem.  Once the RPi was setup and connected to the network, Dad installed the raspberry pi webcam server program (sudo apt-get install motion) and everything was fine, until it was not.  He couldn’t figure out the problems, so we set up a weaved account so I could SSH into the RPi and snoop around.  Turns out that he was recording about 100 frames per second, plus video, and the 8 GB SD card filled up pretty quickly.  Sadly, the motion configuration file (and documentation therefor) is a bit difficult to go through, and while we were able to successfully turn off the image/video storage, we could never get a decent set of settings to store some images and video.  So we don’t have a lot of data, but here’s one time lapse video from early on.  It shows the phoebe sitting on her nest being ever-vigilant (and doing a little bit of house-cleaning at the end.

Thanks to all you techies who don’t mind sharing your knowledge. At 67 I’ve forgotten a few things over the years but ya’ll a great help.

Pretty darn amazing that a cheap little computer originally designed to help British schoolchildren improve their physical computing skills has turned into something that reignites the maker-passion in the older generation.  Now that my Dad and I know that it’s possible to get the bird cam up and running with minimal effort, we’ll be ready next year with a well-planned, well-executed system in place;  that is, assuming we don’t let the grass grow under our feet…

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