Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

July 2003

Tip of the Month

Night Scopes


I'll admit, I'm obsessed with photographing a wild puma after my experience in Chile last fall. Although the full write up on that event is in the Chile Trip Report, to summarize here we spotted the puma in faint predawn light and I followed the cat, actually walking parallel to it, for about twenty-five minutes. When I stopped, there was sufficient light to at least do video if not digital. Had I stayed with it, I know I'd have had it on film (had I carried a camera!)

Since then, I've been doing a lot of research on what gear would assist me in this and, at a recent Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association conference, I saw some neat pieces that would work just fine. Night scopes.

We're all familiar with the technology now -- some of the recent video broadcast from the Iraq war was done with night vision scopes, and if you've ever seen the BBC big cat diary you may have seen the sequence where they followed the cats at night. While the military are now in their 2nd or 3rd generation, most commercial units are first generation, or enhanced first generation.

After the conference I had a chance to try out two different Bushnell night vision systems, a binocular and a monocular system. Although the binoculars can be hand-held, I tried the strapped version which gave me a wonderful Silence of the Lambs experience (if you saw the movie), walking around in near complete darknesss with my headset. Adjusting the headset took some getting used to but once strapped in, via a chin-strap and two velcro tabs, the set wears comfortably, even over my glasses. With it, one can wander the woods in the dark, hand's free, but it's not as easy as it sounds since your peripheral vision is certainly constricted.

The monoculars I'm using are an enhanced 1st generation type, and the clarity they produce is spectacular. There's both an eyepiece adjustment and a lens focusing adjustment and, between the two, Mary and I enjoyed crisp images of the raccoons feeding in our backyard. Unfortunately, I got the scopes after I returned from Arizona where I'd have loved to have tried them out on the kangaroo rats, pack rats, and, hopefully, coyotes and bobcats of the deserts below Madera Canyon.

The two systems use two different batteries. The binoculars use a Type N battery (two) while the monocular uses double AAs, which are certainly more convenient and available. Both scopes have an infrared beam that can be used in absolute darkness, although the beam doesn't travel far and is most useful for short working distances.

Night vision scopes do need some light, whether that's from the stars or a moon, so if you try a pair don't expect to be traveling about in a deeply shaded summer woods as you may at high noon. But in the open even faint ambient light is sufficient to see fairly clearly, and if a moon is out it's surprising how bright and clear and image can be.

A couple of years ago I participated in the Texas Valley Land Fund contest where I did a tremendous amount of night work. On my nocturnal wanderings I encountered armadillos, javelinas, deer, bobcat, owls, rattlesnakes, raccoons and skunks, and I was forced to observe all through the relatively intrusive use of a normal headlamp. It'd be interesting to do that contest again with a night scope as a tool. Although I may never get a chance to use my nightscope in the VLF again, I can't wait to apply this technology to my field work in other areas. Chile, for one, for the pumas, but also Yellowstone in fall to observe predawn meadows for wolves and weasels, and the flying squirrels of Hoot Hollow I'll be working on this summer.

Go to Bushnell for more specs on the scopes. Click their iicon.


Our Past Photo Tips of the Month:


  DIGITAL- Digital Birding

 DIGITAL -Shoot for the Future

DIGITAL-Shoot for the Future, Part II

 DIGITAL Photographing scenes with extreme exposure values

 NPN- Nature Photography Network - a digital forum for nature photography

 Digital Pro Image Management Software

 Protecting your long lens from SAND, the pleasures of beach photography

 How do we protect our gear from dust, and carry our gear when on safari

 The Ultimate Flash Bracket
Padding Your Wimberley
Tripod Head

  Specular highlights and the flashing frog
 Using TTL flash with Hummingbirds  Testing your Flash's Aim
Maximum Depth of Field and Hyperfocal Distance - they're not neccessrily the same thing!  If you see it, it's too late -- a lesson in anticipation  How do you shoot the Moon?
  Low level tripod work  A great depth of field guide  Wimberley 400 and 600mm IS plate
  Take a Workshop First   Luck, what is it?  Don't take in baby wild animals

  Airline Carry-On Luggage -Let your concerns be heard!

 Disconnect -- travel precautions

The Nature Photography Network - a super website for images and information
 Wildlife Portraiture

 Obey the Rules
The Ti Chi Stalk
Photographing Critically Endangered Sites  

 The Sibley Bird Guides

 Removing Cactus Spines

 Drying out boots with newspaper

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