For birders, the first binocular purchase is a milestone. No longer will you have to squint to see that bright shaped blur at the very top of the tree. No longer will you have to use your powers of deduction to guess what that was that just flew by. You will actually be able to see your bird.
But buying binoculars is so confusing. And some binoculars cost $1,000 or more. How can you pick a pair that will make you happy? Just go by the numbers. All binoculars are marked with two different numbers. The first is the “Power” of the lens. How much does it magnify? The second number gives the field of vision, the larger the field, the more you will see.
Well, that sounds easy, sign me up for the most powerful pair. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Like everything else in life there are trade-offs and the most important trade off in binoculars is the one between the power of the lens and the amount you will see.
As the lens becomes more powerful, the field of vision narrows. For binoculars of the same weight and size, this fact of life may render the most powerful binoculars useless. After all, the bird is hiding in a thicket or moving. You don’t want to spend so much time trying to frame him in your lens that he flies away.
You can get also get excellent magnification and a reasonably wide field of vision and find that your binoculars are just too heavy. Try carrying the Sherman Tank of binoculars on a long walk through rough terrain. For heavy binoculars you may wish to add a harness of some type to help you support the weight, but carrying heavy objects through thickets and up and down hills grows old fast.
You may also prefer not to carry an item worth big bucks into an isolated natural area where it may draw unwanted attention when no one is around to help.
For this reason you will face a trade-off between power, field of vision, weight and price. I often bird in different environments and find that it pays to have at least two binoculars. The first binocular is a 7×35 binocular, that is it magnifies 7 times and it has a fairly wide field of vision. This is a good specification for a binocular that will be used to see songbirds from an average distance in a wooded area where you may approach within a reasonable distance.
Since I am afflicted with jelly arms, I need a light piece of optics. I picked up my nondescript jobbie in a local thrift store, and I recommend that you try such a source before heading out to the best store in town to pick up their latest jewel. The reason? I don’t want to put myself in hand to hand combat with a thief. Remember, by definition birds typically are out in the wee hours of the morning and birders hike in wilderness areas alone. This makes you easy pickings. And your needs may change as you become more skilled. What worked for you as a tyro may not work later.
For birds in marsh areas such as the Jamaica Bay Wildlife refuge, you will need a higher power lens and may have to content yourself with a much narrower field of vision. Don’t despair, however. In this environment slow moving stealth hunters abound. Herons, rails, egrets, and others can stand still in place for hours and they tend to be quite big. Since you cannot approach closely due to the water and mud, and since the birds will stand around until you can train your binocular on them, you won’t need a fancy piece of optics with a wide field of vision. I like to use a lightweight 10×25 binocular here. Jelly arms, you know.
If price is no object and you have arms like Hercules, you may also want to use a spotter scope in a marsh environment. This instrument is more telescope than binocular and quite costly, but it features the Rolls Royce of vision, combining high magnification and wide field of view. But they are costly, big as a house and rarely found in thrift stores.
What you like is a matter of taste. I find that you can pre-shop by participating in hikes and simply asking other participants to let you momentarily borrow theirs so that you can heft it and check out the optics. Park rangers are also a good source of expertise. In New York City, the rangers even keep a few binoculars around for participants in Urban Park Ranger walks.
Like I said, my priority is weight, price and fitness for locating birds in the types of environments where I normally bird. Everyone is different. You may be physically stronger and be willing to carry binoculars that I find too tedious. You may never bird alone and may be willing to take a chance buying expensive lenses. There is no one right answer.
But ask yourself these questions:
1.Where do I bird? marsh, woodland, manicured park?
2.What kind of birds am I looking for, fast movers or slow, big or tiny?
3.Do I bird alone or with small groups?
4.How serious am I about the hobby?
5.Will I be birding in physically demanding wilderness areas where weight is an issue or where I may fall?
6.Am I willing to buy more than one binocular? How about a spotting scope?
Answering these questions will put you on the road to a happy marriage between you and your first binocular.