Gear up

You can do an enormous amount with a smartphone and the right apps. You can do even more with a few extra gadgets.

written May 14, 2021 • by Jon Sullivan • Category: Gear up

A computer, camera, microphone, database, and GPS in every pocket

These days, you can do it all with a modern smart phone. It can be your camera and microphone and GPS, all in one, plus a database to enter your counts. I currently use an iPhone with Filemaker Go as my database. There are other database apps that you could set up to do the job (for example, Airtable, Fulcrum, Tapforms). I like FileMaker Go because you can enter text, audio, and drawings into its fields, and it works well offline. The downside is that you need access to the expensive FileMaker Pro on a computer to create a new database. One of these days I’d like to build and share a small stand-alone app all setup for wild counting using my method. In the meantime, my Filemaker Go solution is online.

Head here for a selection of good apps for wild counting.

Plastic bag

Before I list some of my optional extra tech, I’ll note my one absolutely essential device: a clear plastic bag. It needs to be big enough to fit my phone with plenty of extra space. I use it to continue counting when it rains. That’s because I can’t accurately use the screen of a smart phone when it’s wet, even if the phone is waterproof. Wet fingers on wet touch screens don’t work.

When it rains, I pop my phone into the plastic bag, while everything is still dry, and I seal it up. I can tap the screen through the bag. As long as there’s some slack in the plastic, it’s a finger shaped mass of dry plastic that touches the screen and not my wet finger. It works amazingly well.

In the rain, I don’t type in counts, as it’s hard to see the screen through wet glasses and a wet plastic bag. Instead, I speak my counts, tapping a big button on the screen to start and stop recording each geotagged and time stamped note.

Telephoto and macro magnification

A little extra gear can extend a smart phone further. I carry a small monocular (think half a binocular) to see birds and other things that are far away. I can then hold my iPhone up to my monocular to get far off telephoto photos. Similarly, I carry a small 10× hand lens (magnifying glass) to see little things close up, and I can hold that up to my iPhone to get macro photos.

GPS unit

I also now carry a Garmin GPS unit (a GPSMAP64x) to get more accurate and more frequent GPS points as I travel.

An action camera

I carry a small, high quality camera (a Sony RX0ii) to get higher quality photos than my (old) iPhone takes. I can also mount that camera on the handlebars of my bike and set it to take one photo per second time lapses through my rides. Since late 2019, I’ve done that once a month to record the changes in the environment along my standard bike routes.

Hands free bluetooth microphone

On my bike, I speak my observations into a Sony Bluetooth microphone (the ECM-AW4) clipped on to the strap of my bike helmet. That broadcasts its signal to a receiver plugged in to my iPhone, which is in a case attached to my handlebars. Each time I see or hear something to count, I tap the iPhone screen to start a time-stamped, geotagged recording, and I talk to my helmet. (It helps that most of the time I’m talking to myself while biking through empty country roads, rather than a city filled with other cyclists.)

A better microphone with wind protection

I also carry a small microphone with a wind protector (a RØDE microvideo), which I can plug into my iPhone to get better quality audio recordings of species singing and calling. I use that when I run to get better quality audio notes, especially when it’s windy (and Christchurch is often windy). That improves the accuracy of the voice transcription later and allows me to get higher quality recordings of animals singing and calling.

Bags and vials for collecting

I also always carry at least one Zip-lock bag and plastic vial, in case I find an insect or plant that needs collecting for a better photo (eg with a microscope), or to pass on to an expert for a formal identification and vouchering in a museum collection. I do that for the species I’ve not seen in the city before. Sometimes those turn out to be first records for the city.

Extra power

For long trips, I’ll have a power bank in my bag in case my iPhone or camera needs more power.

A real camera

I’ve got a big Nikon DSLR camera with interchangeable lenses, including a 300 mm telephoto lens and a 90 mm macro lens. I carry those when I’m out walking, but they’re too heavy and delicate to take when I’m biking to work or out on my weekend runs. I also use that camera to take better photos of specimens that I collect.

All of that gear is optional, except the smart phone and clear plastic bag.