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A logbook that describes three different accounts of community-based camera trapping practices. These events emerged mere metres apart during fieldwork in the spring and summer of 2023 at Ecodorp Boekel (NL).

Katten Clusters

A group of katten (cats, in English), is also called a cluster.

The third emerging camera trapping site includes a wide angle camera that is originally developed for placement inside a nestbox. However, when we started working with this camera, we felt that the bird nesting season was already well on its way and we may miss out on observing nesting birds this year. Instead, biodiversiteitsliefhebbers came up with the idea to make a bird resting and feeding station with a camera to monitor and help local birds during upcoming warm weather and droughts.

Together with Annemarie, and with input of other ecovillage residents, we designed and developed a Vogel Spa Centre (Bird Spa Centre, in English), also called a Fly-Through.

The first most important quality that this bird refreshment station should have is that it has to be made katten-proof. The local katten are regarded as important members of the eco village. There are about seven kat-residents, some of whom roam around outdoors and others are kept inside. Some of these katten are known bird hunters, and we wanted to develop a local area where birds would be able to rest safely from these katten.

Annemarie's artistic background and rich collection of material resources supported the development of this project. Later, Ali, who lives opposite of Annemarie, also became a core participant in the development of the Fly-Through and helped assembling the wooden panel. During this two-week long development phase, we engaged in a lot of conversations about birds, biodiversity , development, the food garden, and stories we shared from the different countries we inhabited. Due to our language differences, we spoke a mixture of Dutch and English, influenced by many Middle Eastern words and histories.

The activity of building the Fly-Through slowly became a goal in itself, where everyone seemed to enjoy engaging in material exploration, meeting each other for conversation, and spending time together. There was no need to speed up its development, because engaging in the process produced collective thinking, playfulness, and learning.

Eventually, we constructed two pillars made of kippengaas (chicken wire, in English), bamboo sticks, iron thread, a wooden panel, a plastic bowl filled with dry sand from the lower side of the Peelrandbreuk, and two ceramic bowls filled with water and birdseed mixture.

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An image of the emerging Vogel-Spa Centre, or Fly-Through as we were building it. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

The chosen location, on a sunny spot between wild plants and next to a young tree in front of both Ali and Annemarie's homes, required a network cable connection to another home close by. Also for this project, the camera set up had to be discussed in detail with the residents at this home when potential issues were raised. The residents wanted to have more details on what would be connected exactly, how much bandwidth this would use, if it included infrared imagery, and when the cameras would be turned on and off. We engaged in a longer conversation together, where we did not only discuss these potential issues, but also the wider research project and the more general environmental issues the two residents experience. These revealed insightful thoughts about how more data does not necessarily help to protect our environment. Another pressing issue that was raised involves the agricultural field next to the eco village. The residents pointed out that it may be entirely futile to create a 'Vogel Spa Centre' when the neighbour is continuing to use poison and harmful pesticides. We talked about the difficulty of engaging in small scale explorations when these large issues overshadow good intentions.

Even though the residents were happy to help with this project and host the network connection, it is important to reflect on these conversations as part of community practices. Even though local biodiversity project may not be directly involved with the larger issues that they raised, these conversations point out local problems and difficulties that must also be addressed as they are brought up. The conversation also revealed a more direct opposition towards the use of technology. Besides questions about the specifics of the network connection and camera, the residents also aimed to understand the goals of the research project at large and our position towards increasing techno-scientific approaches to biodiversity restoration.

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The camera footage of the Vogel Spa Centre, or Fly-through, showing a water bowl, seed mixture bowl, and sand bowl, installed next to one another. The camera is installed on a longer bamboo stick and offers a wide-angle top down view. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

The contrasts and overlaps between the two elements of this particular camera trapping site are interesting. One the one hand, the project helped to facilitate community engagement, creativity, and rich conversations about biodiversity between people with different histories. On the other hand, participants posed critical questions and helped surface pressing questions on the meaning of these small-scale exploration at a site that struggles with its relation to conflicting land-use practices such as adjacent agriculture and pollution .

The camera is now installed and - similar to the Bosrand camera - operates at a very low frame rate at which no birds or other animals are seen. What can be seen is how the camera moves and becomes part of the local ecology as time passes and plants grow taller. What can also be observed is how local inhabitants take care of the bird area by occasionally refilling the bowl water. Even though we didn't see any birds on camera, no katten were spotted near the Vogel Spa Centre thus far either.

Huismussen Knots

A group of huismussen (house sparrows, in English), is called a Knot.

The second camera that became operational at Ecodorp Boekel is a 'smart' device called the Nestbox Live. This equipment and its custom-made software is developed by Jamie Wainwright and was funded via a Kickstarter campaign in 2022. This device includes an 8 megapixel camera, a temperature sensor, night vision, motion detection, a microphone, and Power over Ethernet, all integrated into a wooden nestbox suitable for birds such as huismussen and mezen (house sparrows and tits). On the software site, this hardware connects to a mobile application with an informative interface for sensor data and metadata. A connected algorithm is able to detect the type of bird that comes into the nests and sends push notifications to the users as soon as movement is detected. The video footage can also be shared with a broader audience through livestreaming. This platform also connects to a wider community of other Nestbox Live users who share footage of the visitors in their nestboxes.

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The Nestbox Live device is a wooden bird nest with integrated equipment. This image shows the hardware inside the nest. It is supported with a Raspberry Pi and includes various sensors and hardware that detect motion, emit light, and transfer data. Image by Michelle Westerlaken.

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This screenshots shows the mobile application interface of the Nestbox Live connected camera menu. Screenshot taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

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This screenshots shows the mobile application interface with sensor data information of the Nestbox Live. Screenshot taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

The urban area of Ecodorp Boekel includes three circular sites with 12 houses in each circle. Huismussen (house sparrows, in English) commonly breed in communities of multiple nests built closely together to protect themselves from predators. Therefore, all three huismussen nestboxes, including the one with this camera, had to be installed closely together, facing the east. In discussing the potential location of the three nestboxes, it appeared that inhabitants of all three circles were interested in providing a potential home for these birds. After some more discussion and site visits, several locations were marked as suitable and we discussed possibilities with the inhabitants of the homes closest to these spots to find out if they were open to hosting these nextboxes and the required network cables and connections.

During these discussions, several cats that live in the eco village started to make their intentions clear as well. Even though one of the homes would be highly suitable for these nestboxes, and the human inhabitants were open to host the internet connection, the window on the upper floor, right next to the ideal nestbox location, was also the favourite location of their cat, who often looks out of the window from this site. When checking out this possible location and imagining ourselves as birds flying in from the east, it became clear that this did not appear to be a very attractive nesting location.

The best remaining possibility was another home with an open view towards the east. Also here one of the cats enjoys bird watching by laying on top of a small shed, but the nestboxes could be installed at a much higher position. Is it possible that cats enjoy bird watching towards the east, specifically?

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This picture shows one of the possible locations for the Nestbox. On top of the small bike-shed a cat is resting and observing local biodiversity. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

The inhabitants of this home posed important further questions on the safety of these devices. They were specifically concerned with the safety of the connection of this hardware to their local internet, and wanted to know more about the device's security features. These questions were forwarded directly to the developer via email who could ensure protection from potential hackers as well as the option to categorically turn off the option to stream the sound recording of the device. This helped to ensure protection for the inhabitants, but also in this case, it was important to emphasise the possibility to discuss and reconsider this installation at any point in the future as well.

Also at this second site, the installation of the hardware and software was not straight forward and involved multiple people, Rob with a ladder and screwdriver, internet passwords, network troubleshooting, redoing the colour-coding inside the network cable connected to the closest LAN connection, and friendly conversations.

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The current location of three nestboxes at one of the east-facing facades at Ecodorp Boekel. The middle nest includes the Nestbox Live camera, and a network cable enters into the home through the adjacent window. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

A few days later, all technical issues were resolved and we obtained live footage. This mobile application provides much sharper images, no technological bugs, and a much better application interface.

However, no birds have yet appeared inside the nestbox.

Further patience and observations will tell if any birds will visit the nestboxes this season. Between the three nestboxes that are installed at this site, will they choose to make their nest inside the one specific nestbox with the camera?

These anticipations and absences show how much agency multispecies entities have in engaging with humans and their technological ambitions. The cats were involved in decision-making by choosing similar sites for bird monitoring. The huismussen continuously influenced our decisions as we adapted according to our knowledge of their ideal nesting circumstances. Even if they are not present, their absences stir up conversations as we are monitoring the footage of the empty nestbox, awaiting the much-anticipated push notification.

Some participants are wondering if the AI is getting bored inside the camera.

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The current footage inside the Nestbox Live camera shows high definition footage of the empty nest. Screenshot via the Nestbox Live mobile application taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

Mezen Dissimulations

A group of Mezen (great tits, in English), is also called a 'dissimulation'.

During Michelle's first evening at the eco village, inhabitant Annemarie introduced her to several of the other human inhabitants, the wild birds, the different cats, and the landscape . One recent story that stood out from this was the 'uil' (owl, in English) that has lived on the 'bosrand' (the border between forest, food garden, and eco village houses) and recently moved into the owl nestbox high up in a tree. Supposedly, they made a family. We speculated that it would be really exciting to hang the outdoor camera in an adjacent tree, pointing towards the nest, so that we could figure out which uil species this is. This uil, with their story, immediately impacted the plan.

The following morning, Michelle brought over all the equipment and we held a meeting with the biodiversiteitsliefhebbers and all agreed that this camera would be a good addition to the 'bosrand'. We double checked the necessary equipment: the camera, a long -flat- network cable that fits through a door, a Power over Ethernet switch, a second indoor network cable, the printed camera instructions, the mobile application. However, we'd still have to discuss this further with the inhabitants of the house closely located to this site, as the internet cable and power supply must be installed at their house. "Does this uil actually still live there", someone asked. "I guess we'll find out soon enough", Michelle optimistically replied.

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The fieldwork equipment included a collection of nestboxes for different species included in the biodiversity plan as well as different camera trapping equipment. Here, part of the equipment is brought over to the fieldwork location by bike. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken

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During the meeting with the Biodiversiteitsliefhebbers, we checked all the equipment and discussed possibilities for setting up the camera traps. The close up shows a Power over Ethernet adapter. With this equipment, we ensured that power and data connection could be established via a single flat network cable that fits through closed windows. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

We checked the uilen nest. It looks mysterious with its large dark opening so high up into the trees. We also found that the network cable may be too short, so we would need a small LAN extension. To save the environmental impact of yet another package delivery van for such a small item, Michelle biked 8km to the closest hardware store to buy the extension.

We had to wait until Saturday to install the camera. Saturdays are 'meewerkdagen' at the eco village. These are days on which many inhabitants work together around the eco village to undertake maintenance, development, and gardening labor, as well as connect with each other and share their experiences. During this day we could collectively discuss and carry out the camera plan.

Saturday came and the people involved were all happy to accommodate the uilen-camera-plan. However, several people who lived adjacent to the 'bosrand' noted that the uil has actually left. They had not seen the uil for over a week, so perhaps it would not be so relevant to hang this camera there? Yet, close to the uilen nest was another nestbox for smaller birds, and one inhabitant noted that she saw a couple of 'meesjes' (great tits, in English) at this nestbox. In order to avoid further delays, we decided to point the camera in the direction of the family of meesjes instead.

From 9.30 to 13.00, Michelle worked tirelessly on connecting the camera. The instructions were minimal and the internet connections with LAN ports in different rooms of each house were not always connected to the main router. Lots of trial and error followed. The inhabitants of the home were happy to help with adapters, laptops, wifi passwords, extension cords, and small talk. Hours later, after helpful phone consultations with the sales support of the camera webshop, the camera footage finally appeared.

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This image shows the location of the 'bosrand'. The border between the forest (on the left) and the houses (on the right). The outdoor camera is installed high up in the trees at this location. Image by Michelle Westerlaken.

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The outdoor camera is installed in the tree, pointing towards a nestbox that may or may not be occupied by a family of Mezen. Image by Michelle Westerlaken.

It was at this point of seeing the footage and the camera itself that the inhabitants of this home started asking relevant and important questions: what will you be recording? Will we be on camera? Will it record sounds? Will the camera be close to our home. Together we discussed that the camera will be installed high up in a tree to avoid capturing humans and the sound will be turned off. We discussed that when any doubts arise, we should come together again and make changes to this setup to ensure their sustained and informed consent. As all inhabitants have busy daily lives, it would take three more days until Rob was able to help climbing into the tree to hang the camera at the intended location. Armed with zip ties and a ladder, together we ensured that the nestbox was well framed and completely into view.

This intensive week-long process helped to reflect on all the different elements of collective decision making and the difficulties of undertaking participatory digital practices at shared locations. Furthermore, it materialised the importance of involving community members and the need to remain flexible in the process. During this process, other local ecologies emerged as well. These include the connections of different inhabitants with local birds and the ways stories travel within this community. Another vital ecology emerged when burying the network cable under the soil to avoid cable-tripping accidents. This particular garden through which the cable traveled was full of life in the soil: worms, ladybugs, flies, ants, mycelium, roots, weeds, young plants all moved as the LAN cable became part of this site.

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A screenshot of the mobile application that connects to the outdoor camera. The image is often lagging due to a slow network connection. Image by Michelle Westerlaken

Nonetheless, at last, an online bird monitoring site was established at the bosrand, and since then we saw....NO BIRDS.

No mezen, no uilen, no huismussen.

Instead, what became visible was the slow and lagging frame rate of the camera, the technological bugs in the mobile application, and the difficulty of connecting other phones to the app. The camera has a motion sensor that picks up continuous movement due to its location among moving oaks and other tree species. So we are receiving push notifications at least once every thirty minutes. It also includes a sensor for night vision. At night the camera seems to picks up strange flashes of lights and movements in the forest canopy.

Birds aren't noticeable on the camera either because they do not visit this particular frame, or because the frame-rate is too slow to capture the fast flight of the small birds. What is noticeable instead is how the camera became a part of the ecology of the tree in which it hangs. Trees move continuously and therefore the frame of the camera changes depending on the time of the day. Slowly, during the last few weeks, leaves have grown in front of the camera, blocking the view towards the nestbox at an increasing rate.

At this point, only two other people were able to connect their phones to the footage. One of them also noted how the camera frame changed. However, rather than intervene, we have thus far observed the ways in which the camera itself is not a separate monitoring entity, but instead a part of the local ecology that becomes increasingly visible. This visibility does not only happen through the camera's frame, but also through its surroundings, the conversations, and the absences involved.

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This is an example of a typical day of footage captured by the camera. It shows how the tree in which the camera is installed is moving and leafs may appear in front of the camera, blocking the view towards the nestbox. Screenshot taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

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The night view camera footage of the nestbox occasionally reveals light flashes or other unidentified objects that may be caused by the slow frame rate, the moving tree, or other forest entities. Screenshot taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

Emerging Interests in Bird Nestboxes and Cameras

During the first meeting with the inhabitants at Ecodorp Boekel, we discussed what kinds of digital practices for monitoring biodiversity could help to further explore their biodiversity plan. Things that came up include camera trapping of birds, bat detection, and soil quality monitoring. In earlier eco village documentation on the budget for the biodiversity plan, bird and bat nestboxes were already included as the main initial investment to increase local biodiversity.

After this meeting, we further explored suitable equipment for these practices and decided to obtain a collection of eight nestboxes (specifically catered to house sparrows, starlings, and insects, in line with the biodiversity plan) as well as three different types of wildlife monitoring cameras, an outdoor camera, a mobile nestbox camera, and an integrated, automated, AI-powered, nestbox camera.

The following logbook entries detail the chronicles for each of these emerging camera trapping practices.

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