Thoughts on setting up a wildlife webcam

1. Introduction

Many people have asked for advice about how to set up a webcam in their garden.  These were written some time ago and were intended to help answer this question and give some of the background to our own website.  Things have moved on today, but these notes are still better than nothing.

When setting up a webcam, you need to think about many different things. These include the camera you are going to use, how it is to be connected to your computer, what software you are going to use to capture the images and how you are going to make these available to viewers over the internet.

2. Cameras

The commonest webcam set-up used today consists of a camera sitting on top of your PC so that you can see as well as chat to other people. It is usually connected to your PC via a USB port. This type of set-up is not appropriate for use for a wildlife webcam as it is not weatherproof and must be installed within a few feet from your computer.

A wildlife webcam will normally be outside and installed some way from your PC. It must therefore use a weatherproof video camera or one housed in a weatherproof housing. The camera we use for our bluetit webcam is housed within the roof cavity of the bluetit nest box, and this is dry enough for our purposes. We also have other cameras in weatherproof housings that are installed outside so that we can train them onto the entrance of the nest boxes in order to see what his happening at the entrance of the boxes. If we had had that earlier we would have seen the greater spotted woodpecker stealing Fluffy's chicks! Finally, we have a small weatherproof camera that we use to catch a glimpse of a hedgehog that comes into our garden at night, searching for food. Whilst the bluetit cameras are colour, this one is black and white and works using an infra red light.

You can find suppliers of such cameras on the web. An example of such a supplier is iCode Systems at www.icode.co.uk/icatcher who also supply the software we use.

3. PC Connection

The distance of the camera from the PC means that you cannot use a USB camera as theoretically this will only work with a cable length of up to three metres. Your video camera will need to be connected to your PC by a video cable (eg a coax cable) and also use a cable supplying power to the camera. If you are recording sound as well, then you may need additional links for this. It is possible to get video cable that has spare wires that can be used for power for the camera as well as the video signal, the advantage being that one cable is easier to install tidily than two!

Finally in this section, you will need to install a video capture card on your PC so that you can connect the video cable to it. Initially, we used a Win TV card from Hauppauge. However, we are now using the Picolo video capture cards from Euresys as these have proved to be more flexible. These cards give a superb picture and are much better, though more expensive, than the WinTV card we first used.

4. Software

You will need some software to grab the images from your camera and control their transfer to the web. We use software from i-Catcher (http://www.icode.co.uk/icatcher/) and this flexible software enables us to run in various modes. We use the motion detecting software to take and store pictures when the image changes significantly inside our nest boxes and we use their built-in Web Viewer facilities to show live pictures on the web. i-Catcher are also agents for Euresys in the UK so that you can get their range of video capture cards from them also.

5. Links to the web

Clearly, if you are running a webcam, you will need to be connected to the web while you are showing off your pictures! In practice this means that you will need a permanent cable or broadband connection. You have a choice, however, of whether you write your webcam image to the web space you have on your ISP's computers, or run a piece of server software on your own computer. Using your ISP's space has the advantage that they carry the load if your images prove popular, however, this can be a disadvantage as your ISP may start threatening excess charges if your site proves too popular.

i-Catcher's software has a built-in HTTP server, which enables you to offer your images to the world directly from your own PC. If you are going to use this, it helps if your ISP has given you a static IP address, so that your viewers know where to find you.

6. The Package solution

When we first started we knew little of the technologies involved and got going quickly by buying a total package solution. This consisted of a bluetit nest box and camera from BoxWatch (http://www.boxwatch.co.uk/). Our video card was the ATI All-in Wonder Radeon, which also had a video input and we used this to capture our images. We bought i-Catcher Wildlife for its motion detecting capabilities, and then launched the webcam when we found what it could do.