Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Optics Enhance Your Enjoyment of Birds
August 06, 2016
By Steve Grinley

     We are holding our annual Optics Fair next Saturday, and we will be offering to pay your MA Sales Tax all weekend. So that makes this a good time for my annual refresher on binoculars and spotting scopes:

     If you watch birds at the feeder outside your window, the birds are usually close enough to see with your naked eye. But if your feeders are away from your window, or you want to see a bird in a tree further away in your yard, you may want to invest in a pair of binoculars that will bring birds closer for easier viewing and identification. If you venture into the field, binoculars will enhance your enjoyment of birds and other wild creatures. Binoculars are versatile for many other uses as well, such as sporting events, concerts, hunting and boating. 

     Binoculars have come a long way from the World War II vintage pair that your grandfather left you. Today’s optics are lighter, brighter, and sharper than they were even ten years ago. You don’t need to start out with the best optics – there are many 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 more difficult it might be to hold the binocular steady. The lower power usually 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. Ten power does bring birds closer, but it is the practical limit that even experienced birders can hold steady without the aid of a tripod.

     The second number (i.e. 42) is the diameter, in millimeters, of the objective lens – the lens that is furthest away from you. The larger that lens, the more light will enter the binoculars. More light is particularly important when birding in the shade, on cloudy days, or at dawn or dusk. My first pair of binoculars was 7×50 – a little less power, but the larger objective lens let in a lot of light. However, the added weight of that much more glass in the binocular made my arms tired while watching warblers in the tops of trees! So 40 or 42 is a good compromise.

     Be careful of going to the other extreme with smaller compact binoculars such as 8×20 or 10×25. Compacts are great for hiking or for a second pair to leave in the car, but they are not practical 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 only 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). 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!

     Another consideration is your budget. Binoculars come in all price ranges, from under $100. to $3000. You pretty much get what you pay for. The higher the price, the better the lens and the better the thin coatings that are placed on every glass surface to 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.”

     While binoculars magnify 8 or 10 times and will allow you to spot even the most distant bird, a spotting scope will bring birds 15 to 70 times closer – important for seeing the color and detail of shorebirds in the harbor or an eagle perched in a tree across the river. Such high magnification requires the use of a tripod, so scopes are less portable. But they are necessary for long distance viewing and they are great for taking photos through with a camera or a smart phone!

     Like binoculars, you get what you pay for in spotting scopes. You can get a decent spotting scope for a few hundred dollars or you can pay $4000 or more. The latest scopes are amazing, drawing in distant birds for you to see detail that you never thought was possible. Again, you will want to look through different brands and models to see which works best for you. 

     If you would like the opportunity to look at and compare various binoculars or scopes, drop in to our store next Saturday, August 13, 10 am to 3 pm, for our FREE Optics Fair. Representatives from major sport optics manufacturers will be there to share their line of binoculars, scopes and tripods, and to answer your questions. There will be discounts and specials, free give-aways, and WE will pay the sales tax on everything purchased during the weekend. So whether you come to just look, or to purchase, we hope to see you there!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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