By Margo D. Beller
If you go to the store at Scherman Hoffman, or at any New Jersey Audubon center, you will probably find a case filled with optics – binoculars, spotting scopes -- and assorted accessories.
Optics are part of the business of birdwatching, a business so big even the U.S. government has taken note of it. You can buy binoculars from a lot of retailers, of course. For Scherman Hoffman, these birding aids definitely help pay the bills. The most important thing is knowing what to look for.
Over 10 years ago, after I hung my first feeder in a tree and a downy woodpecker came to investigate, I needed binoculars to look from afar. I used a Swift “Sea Hawk” 6X30 binocular that had belonged to my husband’s grandfather. The story was, Grampa was involved in civil defense and needed spyglasses. While this story may or may not be true – Grampa was known to embellish – what is true is these binoculars are older than I am, which puts them back to the 1940s.
A word about what 6x30 means. According to one website I found, the first number indicates the strength of magnification, or how many times closer the subject is to you. So these binoculars brought things six times closer. The second number is the diameter of the objective lens measured in millimeters going across the lens. The diameter of the objective lens, divided by the magnification will determine how much light the binocular gives you to see by. For example a 7 power binocular with an objective lens 42 millimeters in diameter (42 divided by 7) equals 6. This number is called the exit pupil. A binocular with an exit pupil of five or six is very bright. Three or four is ok. Any binocular with an exit pupil of less than three will work in very bright light but it's going to be dark in anything less than bright light.
With the exception of very common bird calls or songs like the "caw, Caw, Caw of the American Crow, most beginning birders identify birds by sight as opposed sound. I look through my binoculars, take a mental note of particular field marks that stand out and then look the bird up in my field guides. To find more birds, I needed to be able to see them clearly and many birds were not going to make it easy for me.
This might seem obvious, but nowadays, when people seem to prefer seeing the world through their cellphone cameras, binoculars have become almost passe, unless they are made by fancy names like Swarovski, which some would say is the BMW of binoculars. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone actually using a Swarovski, but I am sure the pros swear by them.
When MH and I started going out to look at birds, we shared Grampa’s 6x30 binoculars. I quickly realized I needed my own pair. I was doing more birding and MH was concerned I’d break this souvenir of his grandfather.
So during a vacation in Maine, we drove to LL Bean (at the time there was only the one store, in Freeport) and I found a smaller pair of 6x30s with a case I could hang on my belt. When I put the feeder on a pole closer to my kitchen window I was amazed by the details I could see – the rufous underside of a titmouse, for instance.
The Celestron was far cheaper than the Bushnells in the display case but worked well for me for several years. (I still use them when I go to Central Park because they are lightweight and easy to keep in a jacket pocket or backpack.)
However, one spring I was in New Hampshire, trying to identify a singing warbler at the top of a pine tree. Back then, I relied more on my eyes for identifying birds and the Celestron was not helping me make out details at dawn. I needed something that would let in more light so I could see the field marks.
Thus, MH and I made another trip to LL Bean and again, bypassing the Bushnells, I went for a cheaper, but big pair - Nikon 10x50s.
My brother-in-law took one look at them and warned me, “You’ll get more light but they'll be too heavy to hold still and at 10 x any slight movement will make the image blurry like crazy.” He is right. If you go big and 10 x, the binocular weighs more and is more sensitive to movement. Any shaking will obscure the image. So I have learned how to be still, building up my arm strength. It has been worth the effort because thanks to the Nikon, which I call my “big gun,”; I’ve expanded my life list by dozens of birds in many states.
Still, nothing is perfect. The 10x50s will only help by so much when I try to see a bird way out from the beach, or even across a big pond within a flock of snow geese. For that, I need a spotting scope.
However, as I got more experienced in my birdwatching, I started using my ears. I had to – I was hearing too many birds I couldn’t see to identify because they were in thick tree canopy. I finally bought a set of bird-call CDs (also available at Scherman Hoffman) to learn the calls. That helped a lot.
Still, when I am hiking through Scherman Hoffman and the birds are visible, I depend on the binoculars to identify what’s in the treetops, what is soaring over my head and what is on the ground that I would scare if I got too close.
Meanwhile, when I got the Nikon, MH took the 6x30 Celestron, leaving Grampa’s pair in honorable retirement at home. Soon he, too, was not getting enough detail to identify what he was seeing. So on one of our trips to Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, we went to that nearby “shrine” to all things hunting and fishing, Cabela’s. MH bought a pair of 10x50 Bushnells.
Are they better than my old Nikons? No.