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Thermal Imaging for Bird Watching

The use of thermal imaging devices to monitor birds began in the 1960s. It underwent significant development from the end of the 20th century onwards. This was, at least in part, due to improvements in the quality and portability of thermal-imaging devices, and reductions in their cost.

Although primarily a nocturnal activity, thermal imaging can also be used in daylight, for example monitoring Eurasian bittern (Botaurus stellaris) and water rail (Rallus aquaticus) in dense vegetation.
Thermal image of a European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) in flight, on Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, England

One bird ringing organisation, the West Midlands Ringing Group (formerly Brewood Ringers), caught and rung 424 adult skylarks (Alauda arvensis) in S2019, using thermal imaging to locate them; this was 81.4% of the total caught Britain & Ireland that year.[4] The group subsequently received the 2021 Marsh Award for Innovative Ornithology for their innovative use of thermal imaging technology in monitoring farmland birds.[5][6] The group uses Pulsar Helion thermal imaging cameras and have determined that this not only helps them to find more birds, but reduces the disturbance caused to the birds, due to needing to spend less time in the field.


Easily detecting the metabolic heat produced by birds, thermal imaging devices are the perfect companion for any bird watcher, no matter their skill level. Because these devices do not emit any artificial light or infrared illumination, birders are able to carry out their observations or surveys by night, without the risk of startling any birds or other wildlife.


Understanding Thermal Imaging Device Specifications

Thermal Sensor Size – Similar to digital cameras, thermal sensors are measured in pixels; generally speaking, the bigger the sensor the better the picture, as a larger sensor can capture more detail. Pulsar thermal imagers use one of three different sized sensors with its own designation: XM models use a 320×240 thermal sensor, XQ models use a 384×288 thermal sensor, and XP and XG models use a 640×480 thermal sensor.

Thermal Sensor Pixel Pitch – This is the distance between the centre of the pixels. A smaller pixel pitch results in finer image quality and a physically smaller thermal sensor. However, a larger pixel offers more sensitivity. A sensor with a smaller pixel pitch will have a greater base magnification than a thermal imager with the same size lens and a greater pixel pitch. Pulsar XM & XG sensors have a 12µm pixel pitch, and XQ and XP sensors have a 17µm pixel pitch.

NETD – Noise Equivalent Temperature Difference (NETD) is a measurement of the smallest temperature difference a thermal device can detect. The lower the value, the more sensitive the device becomes — performing better than a device with a greater NETD value in conditions that are challenging to thermal imagers such as cold, fog, and rain. A device’s NETD rating is an important indicator as to how well it will perform.

Refresh Rate – A high refresh rate (such as 50Hz) is best when choosing a thermal imager. A high refresh rate will result in a smooth image when panning or tracking fast-moving objects.

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Using a thermal imaging device for birdwatching/ringing will allow you to reduce disturbance of wildlife whilst observing or surveying, enables more efficient utilisation of your time out in the field, and uncovers wildlife that has until now remained unobserved on your land.

It would be difficult for us to say which model would be best you, as specifications and requirements differ from person to person — which is why we’ve compiled a list of a few highlights of models across Pulsar’s range of powerful thermal imaging devices that may suit your needs.


Pulsar Telos Thermal Imaging Monoculars

Pulsar Telos Thermal Imaging Monoculars

Pulsar Axion 2 Thermal Imaging Scopes
Pulsar Axion 2 Thermal Imaging Scopes

Pulsar Thermal Binoculars

Pulsar Thermal Binoculars