As I am already looking ahead to conducting Bergen Audubon’s “Birding for Beginners” classes in 2016, and since the Holiday gift buying season is now coming down to the wire, I thought it might be a good time to talk about binoculars for birding. At every class and almost every nature walk the age old question always arises to what at times seems almost as complicated as considering the question of the meaning of life: “What are the best optics for birding?”
If you’re technically challenged like me, when you read things like exit pupil, eye relief and field of vision your brain immediately turns to oatmeal, your eyes glaze over, and you begin to drool and look out the window aimlessly. But if you are in the market for new binoculars those are the terms you are going to hear, along with more fun stuff like ED glass, phase corrected and lens coatings. So without getting too technical – I don’t want you dozing off and injuring yourself on your computer – I will try to keep it simple and get you started on what to look for in a birding binocular.
I know everyone says that you get what you pay for when buying optics and that is true for the most part, but the good news is that the price of good quality binoculars has come down over the last few years. It used be if you didn’t spend at least $1,000 for birding optics you really couldn’t see the bird you were attempting to identify in any real detail, which, after all, is what separates birding optics from any other old pair of boat watching binoculars.
But those days are gone forever. There are now good starter bins out there for $150-$200, great ones for $500 and amazing ones for $700+. Now I love a classic pair of binoculars as well as the next birder but unfortunately there is still a sort of snobbery among us long-time birders that binoculars can’t be good unless they are this brand or that, kind of like how some folks believe you can’t drive to the supermarket if you don’t have a Mercedes or BMW.
There is however a very good reason to start with good quality binoculars and I never really fully understood until I began teaching beginners birding classes. The issue became very evident when I would have my class out in the field looking at a bird like say Song Sparrow for example. I would try to explain what field marks they should be looking for and I would get blank looks from a lot of my students.
That is when I realized that they were not seeing what I was seeing. Good optics allow you to see the detail of the bird you are attempting to ID, the eye ring, wing bars, etc. That is plain and simple what you are paying for in birding optics. The technology of the new optics is amazing compared to someone using your Dads’ WWII 10lb binoculars that make every bird resemble a Painted bunting; lots of different colors but not true to the bird you are actually seeing at the time.
Now, what do those numbers mean? Again, trying my best to avoid anything too technical there are a few important things to look for in birding binoculars. First, stick to an 8 power (which is the first number). Eight power will typically have a wider field of view and focus faster than a 10 power and when you are trying to find a tiny Warbler darting around at the top of a 50-foot tree you will be glad you listened to me. 10’s are much less shaky than they were in the old days and some of my birding buddies love 10 powers, but if you are just going to have one good pair make it an 8.
Now, for the second number, this is the size of the objective lens or the big end of the binocular. All things being equal (meaning the quality of the glass is the same), the bigger objective lens the more light they gather, and the more light they gather the better you see at low light conditions (much like the eyes of an owl) such as early morning, cloudy days and towards evening.
Most birders stick with a 42mm objective lens. I see too many folks trying to go out on a serious birding trip with an 8×25 binocular. They are fine to throw in your pocket for an extra pair but that is about it. You can buy 8×50’s but that will increase the weight, which is always something to consider since you will carrying them around all day long
Ok, we all agree that an 8X42 is the best all-around birding binocular, but there are a few more things which should be standard with new optics. Waterproof /fog proof is a must have. In the past you had to be pretty well off to afford waterproof optics but this is no longer the case. Now, even low price birding optics have this feature.
Close focus may also be something you might want to consider. I like a 5-foot close focus which comes in handy to look at a something like a little Kinglet flitting around at your feet or a butterfly in the summer.
Also always look for a no fault/lifetime warranty. This means no matter if you run your nice new binoculars over with your car, the company will fix them or replace them for free. Yes, you heard me right. I would not buy new binoculars without this kind of warranty. And don’t be fooled: the company warranty does not have anything to do with how expensive they are so do your homework. I was thankful for this feature when during a school program a lovely little girl dropped my brand new binoculars on the floor. The company had them back to me in a week with just a UPS shipping fee
Now the big one…TRY THEM OUT! You cannot buy binoculars without getting them in your hand. The optics I love you may hate. Everyone’s eyes are different, and so are your hands. You have to feel comfortable with them. Just because your friend recommends a certain brand is not a reason to just buy them without trying them. If your friend is really a good one they will let you use them for a day.
I am always asked where to buy binoculars for birding and my answer is where they let you take them outside and try them. I would never buy binoculars unless the store allowed me to see what they were like under real conditions, not inside with store lights. Most good nature shops will allow you to do this. In fact, they should allow you to take out multiple pairs so you can compare, if not go somewhere else. And when you find a good shop that will let you give them a whirl out of doors do it on a nice cloudy day if possible. You can see a beautiful bright picture through a toilet paper roll on a sunny day. The test of good optics is when conditions are dark, gloomy and in deep shadows. Good optics will make what you are looking at pop out at you, like you turned on a light in dramatic fashion. That is what you should be getting for your hard earned money.
Keep in mind you are buying good optics to increase your enjoyment of birding, not to impress your friends and neighbors. Going afield with a good pair of binoculars will allow to identify more birds and help you to enjoy their real beauty up close and that is what it is all about. Any questions you might have feel free to contact me firstname.lastname@example.org.