Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Binoculars Bring You Closer to Birds
August 16, 2014
By Steve Grinley

     One of the few investments that may be necessary for birding is a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope. Binoculars and spotting scopes can enhance your enjoyment of birds and other wild creatures. Binoculars are versatile for many other uses as well, such as at sporting events, concerts, hunting and boating. This weekend’s Tax Free Holiday in Massachusetts seems like a good time for my annual refresher on optics.

     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, 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 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, because you are seeing more of the tree. Ten power does bring birds closer, but it is the practical limit that experienced birders 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 birding in the shade, on cloudy days, or at dawn or dusk. My first pair of binoculars were 7 x50 – a little less power, but a larger objective lens that let in a lot of light. But the added weight of that much more glass in the binocular made my arms tired while watching warblers in the tops of trees!

     Be careful of going to the other extreme with small compact binoculars such as 8×20 or 10×25. Compacts are great for hiking or for a second pair to throw in your glove compartment, 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 $25. to $2500. 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 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.”

     If you want to see shorebirds in the harbor, the snowy owls in the dunes or marshes this winter, or the eagles perched in a tree across the river, you might want to invest in a spotting scope. While binoculars magnify 8 or 10 times and will allow you to spot the distant bird, a spotting scope will bring birds 15 to 60 times closer – important for seeing color and detail at far distances. Such high magnification is impossible to hold steady without the use of a tripod, so scopes are less portable. But they are necessary for long distance viewing and they are great to take photos through with a camera or smart phone as well!

     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 as much as $3000-$4000. The newest scopes are amazing, drawing in distant birds for you to see detail that you never thought was possible. Again you’ll want to look through different brands and models to see which works best for you. 

     Now is a great time to look at and buy optics. Many of the major manufacturers are offering amazing discounts for a limited time. And with the Tax Free Holiday Weekend upon us, you just might want to check them out sooner than later!

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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