INTO THE WILD:
Searching for Binoculars
Ever since two telescopes were strapped together in the 17th century, binoculars have brought us closer to the bellies of sapsuckers, the rumps of warblers, and the eyes of vireos. Here’s how to find a pair that’s right for you.
Compiled by Robert Dolgan
Photo: Arthur Morris/Birds As Art
Do I Really Need Binoculars?
Binoculars are the single necessary tool for birding. But they also help identify dragonflies and butterflies, turning the view into an intimate experience. Is that a coyote? A green heron up the river? Look with binoculars. Or turn skyward to check out stars and nebulae. Do you really need them? The simple answer is no. But if you love the details in nature, they could be a great investment.
The Pinto or the Rolls
How much should binoculars cost? Quality binoculars are available for around $100, and many birders start out with these inexpensive models. But at some point, many birders will consider moving up to a better pair. The cost of European brands such as Zeiss, Swarovski, and Leica sometimes holds people back—some models approach $2,000. Though the quality of the lens glass improves with price, binoculars that are ten times more expensive might be only five to ten percent better, says Mike McDowell, an expert with Eagle Optics, a Middleton, Wisconsin, binoculars emporium. For the generalist who wants more than a Pinto but doesn’t need a Rolls Royce, $150 to $200 gets you a durable 8x42 binocular that works in a wide range of settings, has a crisp view, and is something you won’t be afraid to knock around a bit. Finally, don’t be afraid to press into service the cheap old ’nocs in the closet, or borrow from a friend—the legendary late birder Roger Tory Peterson’s first binoculars were four-power opera glasses.
That Personal Fit
Don’t forget to consider ergonomics, weight, waterproofing, and the fit of the eyecups, since they all affect the experience. Can you imagine holding this pair to your face for several hours? (That weight can add up over time.) Do you like the feel in your hands? What about the way the focus knob rolls? Find binoculars with the proper distance between the eyes (interpupillary distance). Your brain should combine the two images into one round field.
Choose Your Optics
Each binocular has two key numbers: the magnification and width of the objective lens (opposite the eyepiece). Binoculars stamped “9x25” magnify objects nine times and have a 25 millimeter objective lens. A wider objective lens means bigger (and heavier) binoculars. Some pairs also note the field of view—the diameter of the area you see—in degrees or feet (one degree equals 52.5 feet at 1,000 yards).
McDowell recommends 8x42 binoculars for birders. They work well for birding in dim situations, but are not as big as some models. They generally have a wider field of view than binoculars with more powerful magnification. A pair of 16x50 binoculars, for example, work well for identifying wildlife in expanses of the American West, but have a limited field of view for birding treetops.
Butterfly watchers often choose binoculars in the range of 8x32 with a three-foot “close focus,” McDowell says. The lower the close focus number, the better for identifying butterflies nearby. Also, the higher the magnification-to-lens-size ratio, or “exit pupil,” the more light comes through the lens, which provides more detail in dim conditions. (The 8x42s have an exit pupil near five.)
Now Put Them to Use
It can take practice to actually see birds through binoculars. The bane of the birder: the bird that flies off in the instant it takes to lift the field glasses eyeward. But be patient. If a bird is flitting near the top of a tree, find a landmark before looking through binoculars or use binoculars to follow the tree trunk up to the branch. Success comes with practice.
Where to Get Your Glass
Many serious Chicago area birders make the 156-mile pilgrimage to Eagle Optics (they almost universally regard it as the go-to resource). But other outfitters, department stores, and camera shops also sell binoculars (Helix Camera, Wild Birds Unlimited, and Bass Pro Shops are a few). Experts recommend going to a store and trying out different models. Web sites offer detailed buying guides for phone and Internet orders. Birders can also find hefty scopes and camera lenses on the market.