June 2006

The one piece of equipment that is absolutely indispensable to a birdwatcher is a good pair of binoculars. I can say this from experience. The first year of my birding career was spent without binoculars and without a bird book. I used to stalk birds and take careful notes, then go to the county library to look up the birds in their ancient copy of Peterson. I learned a lot that way, but when I graduated from high school my parents gave me a pair of binoculars and my birding mentor gave me my own copy of Peterson and it changed my whole life.

Buying a pair of binoculars

There are lots of reviews of binoculars on the web. In addition, Birding magazine runs reviews about once a year. My rule of thumb is very simple:

Buy the most expensive pair of binoculars you can afford.
Do not go cheap.

The reason is also simple. The cheaper binoculars have surprisingly good optics. Modern computers have taken a lot of the artistry out of optical design and manufacturing. However, the structural robustness of a pair of binoculars is another matter. Many cheaper optics are designed for a life cycle that does not at all reflect the usage that an active birder will put on his binoculars. Virtually any binoculars offered by discount houses or sporting goods houses are designed for the casual user. They are made for people who will use them at horse races and football games, perhaps 10-20 hours per year under benign conditions. An active birder will put a lifetime of use on this sort of optics in about a year. After that time, things will start to go wrong and most of them will be irreparable.I went through about six pairs of progressively more expensive binoculars while learning this lesson. I pass it on to you for free.

In my experience, the threshold of utility for a pair of binoculars is about $350 (in 2006 dollars). At this level, one begins to encounter binoculars with very nice optics and reasonably sturdy construction made by reputable firms with reasonable warranties and effective support capability. If something goes wrong, you can get it fixed. There are nevertheless two points that you will want to satisfy yourself on which vary widely among optics at this level. These are eye relief and close focusing.

Eye relief is important for eyeglass wearers, who need long eye relief (big number) because they are essentially holding the binoculars further away from their eyes. If you wear eyeglasses, don’t try to use the binoculars without them. It just gets to be too much of a hassle. I know because I resisted it for years after age drove me to reading glasses. It doesn’t take much effort to learn to use eyeglasses and binoculars together. You should do it.

Close focusing is pretty much self-explanatory. If you are lucky enough (or skillful enough) to get into close quarters with a small bird, you want to be able to take maximum advantage of the experience. It doesn’t seem like much, but having to take a step or two back from a good bird is really galling. I would like to be able to focus on my toes. Unfortunately, my Leicas won’t do that, but that is what I would like.

When you get up to the $1000 level, the optics are so superb that I cannot distinguish any differnece among them. At this level, any binocular will give you light, bright, colorful images that snap into focus. And those superb optics come in a chassis you can practically drive nails with. At this level, you can confidently expect that your binoculars will outlive you. If you can stretch your budget to one of these wonderful instruments, do it. The only criterion you need consider is personal comfort. Pick the one that feels best to you, sits in your hands nicely, comes readily to your eyes, and complements your personal style.

How much power?

Binocular manufacturers use two numbers to characterize their models. The first one is the power. This is the amount of magnification. This is a linear scale: a binocular with twice the power makes the image look twice as big. The other number in the specification is the diameter of the objective lens (the one closest to the bird). Thus a 10 x 42 binocular is ten power with a 42 mm objective lens. The significance of the objective lens is its light-gathering power. A bigger objective gathers more light and generally gives a brighter, more pleasing image. Note that the ability to gather light is a function of the area of the lens, and is thus proportional to the square of the diameter of the lens. Simply put, a lens with twice as big a diameter with gather four times as much light. So even a small difference in the size of the objective is significant.

There are two basic designs of binoculars, porro prism and roof prism. Porro prism binoculars are the kind that you see submarine skippers using in old WWII movies. Roof prism binoculars look like two telescopes lashed together.   Examples of both are given below.

An example of a porro prism binocular.  Shown are the Bushnell NatureView 10 x 42.



An example of a roof prism binocular.  This is the Leica BN 10 x 42.  Even though the porro prism binocular above has the same power and objective, the Leicas will give a brighter, contrastier image and be lighter and easier to handle as well.

Today, there is little point in going for porro prism binoculars. The roof prism design contains fewer elements, has fewer internal reflections (where light is lost), and weighs less.The old rule of thumb for porro prism binoculars was that the objective diameter should be five times the power. Thus, the popular sizes were 6 x 30, 7 x 35, and 8 x 40. There were some 10 x 50s around, but they were so heavy that few could hold them steady. Roof prism designs are more efficient, so you can combine higher power with a smaller objective and still get superior image quality. The two dominant design points these days are 8 x 42 and 10 x 42. It sounds contradictory, but it’s not, really.

Both designs have strengths that play to different types of birding.The 8 x 42s are lighter, easier to point, and have a very bright image. They come into their own in close quarters, under closed canopies, or when chasing small, agile birds. The 10 x 42s are preferred by birders who are particularly interested in waterfowl, shorebirds, gulls and terns, hawks, seabirds, and birds of the open spaces: savannahs, grasslands, deserts and salt marshes. In these environments, the narrower field of view is not a problem and the ambient light levels are usually high enough to give a plenty bright picture.

So it comes down to a matter of what kind of birding you do and how much you can spend. Isn’t that true of life in general?

 Where to buy

Birding has become sufficiently popular that many businesses have sprung up to provide goods and services to birders. However, I would urge you to buy your binoculars (and just about everything else you need) someplace where it will do more than simply enrich the stockholders. Two of the best are the American Birding Association and the American Bird Conservancy. Both are worthwhile organizations, both offer top quality goods at very good prices, and both plow the profits back into the programs of the organizations. So if you are ready to pony up some bucks for a nice pair of glasses, check out ABA Sales and the ABC Nature Mall.

A beginning birder recently asked my advice on which field guide to invest in.  Certainly, a good reference is absolutely essential for learning the birds.  It is thus one of the first acquisitions of birding gear.  Here is a list of the more popular choices, roughly in my order of preference, together with ten-cent reviews.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds
ISBN-13: 978-0679428527

You’d think that the National Audubon Society would put out the definitive field guide, but alas that is not the case.  The fatal flaw is the use of photographs instead of paintings.  The result is you get one view of one bird at one stage of its life.  Furthermore, in order to get photos, it is often necessary to shoot the birds in positions and postures where they are not usually found in the field.  For instance, the swallow pictures are all taken at the nest or perched on a wire, whereas in the field they are far more often encountered on the wing, where the identification problems are entirely different.  A clever artist can convey a great deal more information by synthesizing impressions from manyexperiences.  Also, the text in the NAS guides is much too skimpy to be useful in any but the most obvious identifications. In short, this is my least favorite guide.  Comes in eastern and western versions and fits in a back pocket.

Stokes Field Guide to Birds by Donald and Lillian Stokes
ISBN-13: 978-0316818094

Very popular due to the visibility of the authors from their PBS series. Written for popular tastes, but not authoritative in any way. Illustrations are photos and leave a lot to be desired.  The emphasis seems to be on getting a pretty picture, rather than covering all the information necessary to make a good identification in all seasons and in all phases of the bird’s life.  The text is way too simplistic, and the text is one of the most important elements for a beginner.  This guide also comes in an eastern and a western edition.  Reasonably easy to carry.

Birds of North America: A Guide To Field Identification, by Chandler S. Robbins , Bertel Bruun, Herbert S. Zim, Arthur Singer (Illustrator)
ISBN-13: 978-1582380902

Many birders know this as the “Golden Guide,” as it appeared as part of the Golden Books series of the 50s and 60s.  The Golden books were primarily for the children’s market, but the Golden Guide or the “Robbins Guide,” as many called it, was a startling departure.  It was the first field guide to challenge the monopoly of the Peterson guides.  It was very innovative 40 years ago.  It was the first guide to put the illustrations and the text on facing pages, and Arthur Singer’s illustrations were very fresh.  All of its innovations eventually became standard, not only in the US, but all around the world.  Sadly, it has not kept pace and is rarely used by serious birders today.

All the Birds of North America : American Bird Conservancy’s Field Guide by Jack L. Griggs
ISBN-13: 978-0062730282

Despite bearing the imprimatur of the American Bird Conservancy, this field guide can really only recommended as an additional source. It is organized according to habitat and food choices, rather than taxonomic order. This often sounds sensible to beginners, but such systems have been tried before and they have always come to grief because birds just don’t separate that easily on those characters. Thus you get closely related birds in distant sections of the book. Most beginners find taxonomic order confusing and difficult to catch on to, but it really is the only way to organize birds. (I am planning an installment of taxonomic order in the near future.) The author attempts to use a system of icons to denote a number of characteristics such as preferred food, nest site and constructin, etc., but it just adds to the confusion.

A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America by Virginia Marie Peterson , Roger Tory Peterson (Series Editor)
ISBN-13: 978-0395740460

Originally written by the dean of American bird-watching, the guy that invented the field guide in 1934, the version is posthumously updated by his widow and a number of well-qualified editors.  Long the acknowledged guru, in his later years Peterson fell behind the tremendous advances in the state of the art advances that he had put in motion to begin with.  Peterson died in 1996.  This new edition of Peterson’s eastern guide was published in 2002, but in my view, the revisions were not sufficient to restore the authority of the earlier editions.  Nevertheless, I think they are still worth a mention for two reasons.  First, the illustrations are superb.  In just about every instance, they capture the essence of the living bird like no others. Second, Peterson’s guides come in two flavors, east and west.  By starting with just the Eastern birds, you will spend a lot less time barking up wrong trees.  Moreover, Peterson’s guides are still small enough to carry in a back pocket, and that is not a trivial advantage.

Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America   
ISBN-13: 978-0618574230

The Kaufman guide is focused on the beginning birder.  It is written by a birder of unrivalled credentials.  The text is very good, maybe the best of the lot.  However, the illustrations are basically photos that have been heavily processed in Photoshop.  It is an interesting idea, but in  my view not very successful.  This technique fails to properly capture the impact of color.  The illustrations have the lok and feel of a colorized black-and-white movie.  Kaufman’s book does not seem to have caught on among serious birders, but it is certainly worth a critical look.  It may have charms for the beginning birder that are not apparent to those of us brought up on other books.

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Fifth Edition
ISBN-13: 978-0792253143

Until recently, the Nat Geo guide was the US standard.  It is still an excellent choice for birders of all levels.  It illustrates every species that regularly occurs north of the Mexican border and almost all the well-differentiated subspecies, as well as juvenile and intermediate plumages, color morphs, etc.  However, for the beginning birder such profusion often results in sensory overload.  I can’t tell you the number of beginning birders in the east who have decided that a strange bird in their backyard was a Pyrrhuloxia when it was a female Cardinal all along.  If you haven’t got the picture of the Pyrrhuloxia, a bird of the southwestern deserts, in your book, you are not likely to bite on it.

The other reservation about the Nat Geo guide is that it is written and illustrated by committees.  The contributors are generally well-qualified, but it does lead to a certain unevenness from one section to another.  This is particularly true of the illustrations, although the fifth edition shows some improvement in that regard.  This volume is at the limit of luggability.

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by David Allen Sibley
ISBN-13: 978-0679451211

David Sibley is a terrific artist and this is thus largely a visual guide.  It is chock full of illustrations of birds perched, flying, feeding, doing just about everything birds do. The text is somewhat skimpy, though accurate.  The main deficiencies of the text is that there is little habitat information and the vocalizations are rendered poorly.  Furthermore, one must realize that Sibley’s illustration technique is highly stylized, particularly the colors.  He is obviously going for a schematic effect; he wants to conjure up the impression of the bird, rather than rendering a feather-by-feather portrait.

It is interesting to me that in Peterson’s first couple of editions, he did something similar. For instance, he did all the ducks in blocks of black and white on the theory that when one sees ducks at a distance in the winter, the light is not usually very good and that washes out the color. His aim was verisimilitude in the experience, rather than in the bird. As time went on, these illustrations were replaced by full color depictions of the ducks at close range in good light. I suspect that Peterson just could not resist the clamor of his public for more of his superb art. The same fate may eventually overtake Sibley.

The standard Sibley guide contains all the birds that the Nat Geo guide does and is so large that it is hard to use in the field.  Some say that this is a good thing because it teaches the student to make careful observations and THEN consult the field guide.  I tend to agree with this, but few have the patience to do it.  A middle way, perhaps, is afforded by the fact the Sibley’s also comes in an eastern and a western edition.  These are much easier to carry, certainly no more difficult than the Nat Geo guide.

Sibley also has out a beginner’s guide to birding. This is not a field guide, but a collection of field birding lore, something the beginning birder will probably be interested in. He has also published a much bigger book on bird life and behavior, a sort of guide to ornithology for birdwatchers. I think sooner or later, you will want that book or something like it in your library.

So, what is my answer to your question? Hard to say, because at some point it becomes a matter of taste. You may even come around to the approach I (and many others, I suspect) have taken: buy ’em all. Maybe not all at once, but most birders eventually wind up with a lot of field guides. Sooner or later, you will come across a problem that one of them treats better than the others and you will be glad you had the additional resource.

Where to buy

Most local bookstores will carry at least one of these titles. A big box bookstore will probably have three or four. Amazon.com has them all. But if you can stand to wait a day or two, I would recommend buying from the American Birding Association (ABA Sales) or the American Bird Conservancy Nature Mall. Prices are competitive and the profit gets cycled back into the organization’s programs.

I lived in Britain for three years in the late 70s when jizz birding was rapidly gaining adherents. In most cases, I thought (and still think, to a large extent) that invoking jizz was a indication that the observer was either too inarticulate or too lazy to say what he or she really meant. It was sort of like distinguishing the yellowlegs by saying that the greater has “a bigger beak.” Bigger than what? In the absence of a lesser yellowlegs to compare it with, the observation lacks persuasiveness. On the other hand, observing that “the bill was slightly longer than the head and slightly upturned” is much more useful statement, and one that few of us would argue with.

On a deeper level, “jizz” is a function of the basic human pattern recognition ability. A great deal of the human brain is highly specialized for this function. We are incomparably better than computers at recognizing patterns. And the more often we encounter the pattern, the better we get at recognizing it. For instance, if I see Bill Whan across the room at a meeting, I recognize him immediately, even if he is dressed differently, turned in a different direction, sitting or standing, wearing a hat or not, etc. I suppose you could say I identify him by his jizz. If I can do it with Bill Whan, is it not equally acceptable to identify birds the same way?

The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is that it depends on how well your pattern recognizer is trained. We can all identify robins in a wide variety of circumstances because our pattern recognizer has such an abundance of experience with robins. If we turn to dowitchers, however, the situation is much different. I have been struggling with dowitchers for 40 years. Last year at the shorebird symposium, someone told me about the “swallowed a grapefruit” tip. The next day at Cedar Point, we found a nice stretch of shallow water that held a bunch of really instructive birds. In particular, there were several small groups of dowitchers of both species, and the “swallowed a grapefruit” effect was very evident; distinctive, even.

However, back home, where we experience dowitchers in onesies and twosies (if at all), the “swallowed a grapefruit” effect is not nearly as easy to use, owing to the lack of comparison. Now, if I were in a situation where I encountered both species of dowitchers daily, I would probably become much more confident in using that comparatively elusive element of the dowitcher morphology.

In my experience, pattern recognition skill often has a fairly short shelf life. I have been to Hawk Mountain several times. Each time, I come away able to distinguish Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks at a range of two miles. However, after a fairly short time back home, I find myself as puzzled by accipiters as I ever was. The confidence I had developed in a day of intensive pattern recognition training has faded with time.

And that is what makes my wary of endorsing “birding by impression.” The variation of pattern recognition skills across observers and through time means the assertion of an identification on the basis of an “impression” must be viewed with a certain degree of skepticism unless the observer has a widely accepted reputation for accuracy in such circumstances. For the rest of us, we should be prepared to present a bunch of corroborating details.