Why good binoculars can change your (birding) life

by Beverly Mills Gyllenhaal
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First of three parts: Over three weeks, our posts will focus on the specifics of birding binoculars. Next installment: How to go about buying your first pair, followed by Beverly’s insights on how to use them effectively.

If you’ve never seen a bird through binoculars, you have my envy. Your future holds one of nature’s great wow moments – and one of its greatest ah-ha moments as well.

Remember the first time you saw something under a microscope? Or stars through a telescope? Seeing a bird with binoculars for the first time is just as magical.

Binoculars make even the most muted colors, patterns and textures pop. You can zoom in on facial details and head positions — or what I choose to experience a bird’s personality or even emotions, despite the fact that science doesn’t confirm if birds have them. But the mystery itself gives me goose bumps sometimes.

Binoculars let you see the fabric of a Song Sparrow. Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal

Of course you get some of this with the naked eye, but binoculars intensify the experience. Have you enjoyed Anders’s photos here on Flying Lessons? He’s able to capture these incredible details thanks to the magnification of telephoto lenses – binoculars of a different sort.

And the wisp of red around the Red-bellied Woodpecker’s beak.

Going from the awe of that first glance to a sustained state of bliss takes practice, and a bit of instruction can help.

Why can’t you just pick this thing up and immediately have nature unfold in all its glorious minutia? There’s a disorientation that comes in the instant your eyes go from a wide, faraway view to such a close-up view. It scrambles your brain. The bird has lighted on a branch, but you’re focused on a nearby pine cone. By the time you figure it out, that bird is gone.

A good pair of beginner’s birding binoculars costs between $250 and $300.

You can tune in on the daily chores of birds, such as this Tufted Titmouse scarfing up breakfast.

Are you surprised? Many people are. Before you settle for those dinged-up binoculars your grandpa used in the war or the $50 ones from your kid’s field trip, hear me out.

Birding is not something you do once, like going to a gourmet restaurant for the best meal of your life. For that same $275 dinner, binoculars can serve up an exquisite plateful every single day.

For thousands of people, birding is a sport like golf or swimming. For thousands more, it’s a hobby like photography, playing an instrument or sewing.

This Barred Owl’s whiskers are visible.

You aren’t surprised when an aspiring golfer spends $275 on a first set of clubs. Did you know that a beginner sewing machine costs $275, too? You’d be lucky to find an entry-level violin or decent guitar for $275.

To make matters worse, as skills improve and dedication to the sport / hobby of birding deepens, many seasoned practitioners prioritize their way to buying optics that cost 10 times this much. If you’re merely surprised at the idea of spending $275 on binoculars, you’re likely horrified at $2,750.

Or the fluffed plumage of an Indigo Bunting

I am acquainted with many amateur musicians, cyclists, photographers, gourmet cooks and seamstresses who have gradually upgraded their equipment over the lifespan of a leisure pursuit. And to be fair, the first time I heard a friend spent $3,000 on a bicycle, $2,000 for a digital sewing machine or $5,000 on a guitar, what do you suppose my reaction was? Disbelief and horror, of course.

In defense of a hobby’s economic investment, you could earn money from it. Let’s say you play tunes for tips, win a contest, sell your custom-made clothing or hire yourself out as a birding tour guide. Your equipment could pay for itself.

Or you could help others by donating such income to charity.

The tiny tongue of a Yellow-throated Warbler in mid-song

But you might just need to accept the fact that if you’re lucky enough to have disposable income, the ability and the time to pursue a leisure activity, it’s rarely going to be free of charge. And relatively speaking, $275 isn’t excessive  and shouldn’t be shocking.

Okay. Now that we’ve established that binoculars are to birding what cameras are to photography, my hope is that you’ll find your way to fairly decent ones and practice using them.

With patience and a bit of luck, God’s most glorious creatures will appear right before your eyes. You’ll never look back.

Next week: How to buy your first binoculars

Even from a distance, you can see the water droplets around an Osprey’s fishing expedition.

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