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An Introduction to Binoculars

One of the many excellent things about bird watching is that there are few barriers to getting started. Unlike pastimes such as skiing or woodworking, you need very little gear. You already appreciate birds and nature so you really just need a pair of binoculars and a field guide or a bird identification app.

Every keen birdwatcher needs a pair of binoculars. The range of manufacturers, models, retailers, and prices can be overwhelming for a new birder. It makes best sense to test a range of binoculars within your price range. Photo by PAUL NICHOLSON

Some aspects of binoculars and birding optics can be a bit confusing. Should I get a pair of 8 X 40s or 10 X 32s? And what do those numbers represent?

The first number represents the magnification power and the second number is the diameter of the front lens in millimetres. On the one hand, a larger lens does capture more light, but on the other, the larger lenses are heavier and image stability becomes a challenge.

There is no prescribed “right” answer for you. Ideally, you would simply try a few pairs of binoculars to figure out your favorite pair. Are some heavier? Is there a pair that seems to work best with your glasses?

If your are able, I recommend getting a pair that retails in the $200 to $400 range since the lenses will be of a good quality. I have used my current pair of Nikon Monarch 10 X 42s for some years and have been very pleased with them. They cost approximately $400. (I am not an influencer.) Not surprisingly, it’s possible to spend thousands of dollars on binoculars. For example, a pair of Swarovski EL 10 x 42 FieldPro Binoculars retails in Canada for $2,700.

Many experienced birders will add a spotting scope to their tool kit because a scope’s powerful magnification can be useful on those occasions when birds at a great distance are being observed. For many people however, this is “niche birding.” New birders don’t need to get a spotting scope right off the hop. Photo by PAUL NICHOLSON

When focusing your binoculars, remember that each of your eyes focuses a little differently. Good binoculars account for this with two focusing wheels. First focus your binoculars with your right eye closed. Adjust the focus by adjusting the central focusing wheel between the lenses. (You will adjust this focusing wheel frequently while you are bird watching, depending on whether the bird you are looking at is close or far away.)

The next step is to close your left eye and then further refine your focus by turning the fine-tuning “diopter” adjusting wheel that is typically part of the right eyepiece. Don’t touch the central focusing wheel at this point. The diopter adjustment is typically done just once, and the diopter wheel can then be locked in once the sharp focus has been achieved.

When using your binoculars, it’s usually best to bring them up to your eyes while continuing to keep your gaze on the bird that you are observing.

An overwhelming majority of bird watchers use binoculars. A very few bird enthusiasts will opt for a monocular however. The advantage with these devices is that they are compact and can simply popped into the pocket of a jacket.

If you are new to bird watching, you might also wonder about whether or not you need a spotting scope. You don’t. With a spotting scope, magnification can be jacked up to 20 X and zoom technology can further boost it. For shorebirding or for identifying distant waterfowl, there is a use for scopes. That said, you can put off this purchase for a time. With my first scope, I made the mistake of trying to save money and only spent about $500. My upgrade makes all the difference in the world.

In terms of other optics that could enhance your birdwatching experiences, a digital SLR camera is more useful than a scope. It can be used to take record photos, identification photos, or of course any pleasing bird photographs.

Whatever optics you opt for, it makes sense to take reasonable care of them. Scratches to lenses can’t be fixed. If you are considering the purchase of used binoculars, do check the lenses for scratches.

It’s also sensible to keep lenses clean. A micro-fiber lens cloth from an optics or camera store can be used. I use a Lenspen cleaner.

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