Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
How to Choose Optics for Birding
August 11, 2023
By Steve Grinley
This weekend is the Sales Tax Free Holiday in Massachusetts. If you watch birds and wildlife, you may want to consider purchasing a new pair of binoculars or a spotting scope, or upgrading ones that you have, and save money on the tax this weekend. This is a good time to repeat my tutorial on binoculars and scopes to help educate you on what to look for in optics,
Binoculars help bring the birds and all of nature closer. 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 is some fine lower priced binoculars and scopes, and you can always graduate to better optics as your interest grows. Or, as many 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 can be 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 with less field of view but provides more definition if you can hold the binocular steady.
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 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 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 may do just fine.
Other factors to consider are the close focus (how close you can focus to see birds and butterflies a few 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. There 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 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 still perform very well for viewing long distances.
Scopes range from $200 to $4000 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.
This weekend is a great time to consider new 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 representatives from the major optics companies and compare different binoculars or scopes. Most companies are offering special discounts for this free event, and with the Tax Free Holiday Weekend, you will save even more!
Hope to see you there!