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I spy with my little magic eye by Matthew Webster

Blog | By Matthew Webster | Oct 02, 2023

This spring, to our delight, a pair of robins built their nest in our porch.

Five eggs were laid, three hatched and the parents diligently sped back and forth every 20 minutes or so, feeding them, although they seemed to pause at night. Then one day all five lurched out of the nest and were gone. How do I know all this? I was able to set up an internet-connected camera pointing at the nest. As it was activated by movement, we could watch from afar every time there was a bit of action, without disturbing the birds.

The advances made in this sort of camera technology are nothing short of astonishing. When I recall the dramas associated with security cameras 30 years ago – cables, power supplies, huge video recorders – not to mention the considerable cost, I shudder.

Nowadays, there are more options than you can count, and you could set up a home network with three cameras for well under £200. I bought the Blink system sold by Amazon; there are many others. The cameras are each about the size of a cigarette packet and all you do is fix them where you want them (one screw), link them by Wi-Fi to the base station (about the size of a matchbox), connect the base station to the internet, and you’re done.

By using a mobile phone, you can control the cameras and see what they see, provided your home Wi-Fi is working. The camera batteries seem to last for years.

They will record both sound and vision, if that’s what you want. In the case of our robins, I simply taped a camera to a convenient window ledge, and we were able to eat our breakfast while watching and listening to the chicks having theirs.

Some people put them in infant bedrooms or use them to keep an eye on the dog while they’re out. Video doorbells have also become popular. They work exactly the same way, and let you see on your phone who is at the door and even converse with them, from wherever you are.

This is all fine, but it’s observing wildlife that I find most intriguing. A while ago, I was given a trail camera – trail, that is, in the American sense, meaning a path through countryside.

It works the same way as my robin cam; you strap it to a tree in your garden and it takes a short video every time it senses something moving within its range and saves it on a removable memory card.

Every few days, I retrieve the card, stick it in the appropriate slot in my laptop and see what’s been going on.

We’ve seen owls, deer, foxes (one with a pigeon in its mouth), cats, rabbits, hares and many birds. I’ve also recorded my wife, clad in her pyjamas, checking her seedlings early in the morning, and had a good view of a grandson hiding from his mother.

There are some privacy concerns, particularly with any cameras indoors. These could easily be seen as intrusive, especially if they are used clandestinely. Airbnb forbids the use of concealed cameras in their properties and any camera at all in ‘private’ areas, which seems a good policy.

If you have these cameras, they should be as obvious as possible, and you should let people know if they are likely to be filmed or, better still, reassure them that they certainly won’t be filmed. Surely that’s only good manners.

Happily, for us, the robins didn’t object at all.