Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Binoculars and Scopes Bring Nature Closer
August 13, 2021
By Steve Grinley
With this weekend’s Tax Free Holiday in Massachusetts and our Optics Day at the store on Sunday, this seems like a good time for my annual refresher on optics.
Binoculars and spotting scopes help bring the birds and all of nature closer, immersing you in the natural world around us. Today’s optics are lighter, brighter, and sharper than they were years ago. You don’t need to start out with the best optics, as there are some fine lower priced binoculars and scopes, and you can always graduate to better optics as your interest grows. Or, as most experts advise, you can invest a little more money now and buy the best optics that you can afford and they will bring you many years of enjoyment.
The most popular size binoculars for birding are 8×42 or 10×42. Binoculars with magnification of 8 or 10 power, the first number that you see printed on the binocular, will bring birds 8 or 10 times closer. Higher power may sound better, and it can be, but the higher the magnification, the harder it is to hold a binocular steady. The lower power generally gives you a little more light, and a wider field of view. The wider the field of view, the easier it is to find a bird in a tree, because you are seeing more of the tree. Ten power does bring birds closer, but it is the practical limit that many of us can hold steady without the aid of a tripod.
The second number (i.e. 42) is the diameter of the objective lens, the lens that is furthest away from you, in millimeters. The larger that lens, the more light that enters the binoculars. More light is important when light conditions are not ideal, such as birding in the shade, on cloudy days, or at dawn or dusk.
Compact binoculars such as 8×20 or 10×25 are great for hiking, or for a second pair to keep in your car or backpack, but they are not very useful for general field use. The small objective lens limits both the field of view and the brightness of the image. But for those who just want to carry a pair in their pocket for long walks or for a sporting event, they might do just fine.
Other factors to consider are the close focus (how close you can focus to see birds and butterflies 5 feet away), waterproof capability (for birding in the rain, in the tropics, or in a kayak), and eye relief (important for eyeglass wearers to be able to have the full field of view of the binoculars). Binoculars vary greatly and these factors, as well as how they feel to you, is important! It is best to try them before you buy them, not only to match the binocular to your need, but also to get the one that feels good to you ergonomically.
Another consideration is your budget. Binoculars come in all price ranges, from under $100 to $2500 or more. They are many excellent ones for just a few hundred dollars. You pretty much get what you pay for. The more you pay, the better the lens and the better the thin coatings that are placed on every glass surface that allow light to transmit through to your eyes rather than reflecting off the glass. The best binoculars have the “wow” factor – the ones that you put up to your eyes and you can say “wow.”
All the same can be said for spotting scopes. Spotting scopes start at 15 or 20 times magnification and can zoom up to 60 or 70 times magnification. So a tripod is necessary to hold a scope steady. As you zoom up, the image darkens, so the larger scopes let in more light for those higher magnifications. The smaller scopes are lighter and more portable, and they can perform very well for viewing long distances.
Scopes range from a $200 to $3500 or more and, as in binoculars, you get what you pay for. It is best to try different ones to find one that satisfies your needs.
Now is a great time to consider investing in optics to enhance your birding experience. Sunday is our Optics Day at the store, Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift, from 10am to 3pm. You can meet manufacturers’ reps and compare different binoculars or scopes. Most companies are offering special discounts for the event. And with the Tax Free Holiday Weekend, you will save event more.
Hope to see you there!