A birder’s guide to binoculars

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While we were on lockdown this spring, the birds flourished. And so did the birdwatchers. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reported that during the annual Global Big Day on May 9, “birdwatchers set a world record by documenting 2.1 million bird observations.” Over 50,000 people—pros and novices alike—recorded 6,479 species.

In these uncertain pandemic times, many are turning to birds for solace. David Sibley, the illustrious field guide author, reminded us during a livestreamed interview with the Toronto Ornithological Club, the surge of people now taking the time to observe birds relates to the fact that marvelling at avian creatures outside is good for our health. “A lot of research shows that being outdoors in the woods and the fields, looking at nature reduces stress, relaxes us, and makes us happy.”

I often tell people new to birding that the best way to appreciate birds is to open your eyes and look. But to really see, binoculars are indispensable. Sometimes, especially for a beginner birder, navigating the dizzying array of optics options is intimidating.

As with most things in life, what feels great to one person might not be ideal for another. So the moral of the story is: test as many models as you can to find the one that feels great in your hands and fits the contours of your face. As Jim and Lynda Mackiewicz, owners of Wild Birds Unlimited Toronto, wisely advise, “you want to ‘want’ to use your bins…you want to be stoked and raring to go on your next birding trip thrilled with your bins.”

Here are four important things to consider:

When choosing your magnification, keep in mind that 8×42 is easiest to manage for beginners, since it gives a “wider field of view,” which essentially means the binoculars make it easier to spot a bird in motion.

Image quality matters: you want a pair of binoculars where the image appears sharp, clear, and with true colour rendition, because the last thing you want, the Mackiewiczs warn, are “fuzzy lines, blurred and  wrong colours.”

Make sure your binoculars perform well even in low light, because you’ll likely be birding in shade, at dawn and dusk; the Mackiewiczs recommend testing the binoculars in the store and looking at colourful objects in darker conditions.

Finally, eye relief is important and you want adjustable eyecups to accommodate glasses.

The good news is that you don’t need to spend a fortune (though of course you can!) to see the glory of a cedar waxwing up-close. The Celestron Outland 8×42 and Vortex Crossfire 8×42 are solid choices for anyone who wants to start seeing the world beyond her backyard with greater clarity. The popular Vortex Diamondback 8×42 and Nikon Monarch 5 8×42 can serve both the beginner and seasoned birder well. For a truly technicolor experience, I recommend the pricier Zeiss HD Conquest 8×42 and for something genuinely next level where the price is no object, there’s always Swarovski EL 8.5×42.

Julia Zarankin is a Toronto-based birder and the author of the forthcoming book Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder.

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