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 farther away in your yard, you may want to invest in a pair of binoculars that will bring birds closer for easier viewing and identification. And if you venture into the field, binoculars will enhance your enjoyment of birds and other wild creatures as well.
Binoculars have come a long way from the World War II vintage that your grandfather left you. Today’s optics are lighter, brighter, sharper and have a single-center focus rather than having to focus the individual eyepieces. You don’t need to start out with the best pair as there are some fine lower-priced binoculars 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 binoculars that you can afford and they will bring you many years of enjoyment.
I find that 8x42 or 10x42 are the most popular for birding. Binoculars with magnification of 8 or 10 power, the first number that you see printed on the binocular, will bring birds (or any object) eight or 10 times closer, or appear eight or 10 times larger. Higher power may sound better, and it can be, but the higher the magnification, the harder it is
to hold 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 is the practical limit that experienced birders can hold steady without the aid of a tripod.
The second number (42 in the cases above) is the diameter of the objective lens, the lens that is farthest away from you, in millimeter. The larger that lens, the more light that enters the binoculars, which is important when birding in the shade, on cloudy days or at dawn or dusk.
My first pair of binoculars were 7x50 — 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 sure made my arms tired watching those warblers in the tops of trees! Be careful of going to the other extreme with small compact binoculars such as 8x20 or 10x25. Compacts are great for hiking or for a second pair to throw in your glove compartment, but I don’t find them very useful for general field use. The small objective lens limits both the field of view and the brightness of the image.
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, are important. Binoculars come in all price ranges, from $25 to $2,500. It is best to try them before you buy them, not only to match the binocular to you, but also to get the one that feels good to you ergonomically and within your budget.
Binoculars are versatile for other uses, such as at sporting events, concerts and while boating. But if you want to see the snowy owls in the dunes or marshes this winter or the eagles perched in a tree across the river, you might want to also invest in a spotting scope. While binoculars magnify eight or 10 times and will allow you to spot the distant bird, a spotting scope will bring birds 15 to 60 times closer, which is 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 much less portable. But they are necessary for long-distance viewing and are great to take photos with as well.
Like binoculars, with scopes, you get what you pay for. You can get a decent spotting scope for $300 to $400 or you can pay as much as $3,000 $4,000. Again, you’ll 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 the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center on Plum Island Turnpike in Newburyport today from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for its free Optics Fair. Representatives from many major sport optics manufacturers will be introducing their new products, sharing their whole line of optics and answering questions. There will be discounts and specials as well and the Nature Shop will pay the sales tax on all binoculars and scopes purchased during the event. There will also be door prizes and drawings for binoculars and accessories. So whether you come to just look or to purchase, I hope to see you there!
Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.