Beverly’s Birding Basics: How to buy your first binoculars

Second of three parts

      Over time, birding binoculars will start to feel like a piece of your anatomy. They’ll be attached to your face for hours at a time for years to come. Whether or not you’re going to enjoy birding – and how skilled you can become  – depends a lot on your binoculars.

     To complicate matters, the price range is wide – from about $120 for the most basic, entry-level pair to nearly $3,000 for the finest birding binoculars on the market today. 

      “Birding binoculars” are specific to birding because the requirements are, well, very specific.

A little reading helps

      My favorite, most easily understood criteria for what constitutes birding binoculars comes from an article on the Audubon Society’s website, written by Wayne Mones, an avid birder since childhood who writes about binoculars for multiple publications.

      “Bird-worthy binoculars must focus quickly enough to “get on” a fast-moving bird,” he says. “They must have a field of view wide enough to locate birds rapidly and follow them in flight.

The cover of Audubon’s binocular package. See link below.

     “They must also provide accurate color rendition,” Mones continues, “have no observable distortion in the center of the field, and be bright enough to show subtle features in poor light and sharp enough to resolve fine detail.”

     Mones really knows his stuff, and the rest of his excellent article explains the technical basics of binoculars such as magnification, field of view and special considerations if you wear eyeglasses. Again, for the entire article, click here.


Beverly’s Birding Basics, a new feature on Flying Lessons, is meant to help new birders find their way. Last week, the first post in this series addressed why buying a good pair of binoculars is imperative to a fruitful birding experience. The third part will explore how to make the most of your binoculars. For a full library of Birding Basics links, click here. 

How much to spend

      So how much money do you really need to spend if you’re a beginner – someone who’s enjoyed birding walks several times, is intrigued and excited to go again? This is a highly personal part of your decision, of course. Some folks would simply say “you get what you pay for,” so spend as much as you can afford. Others might say the cheapest model makes the most sense because if you don’t end up birding often, you won’t have wasted much money.

      I don’t agree with either extreme. After hours and hours of research, Anders and I settled on a *pair that costs between $250 and $280 (depending on where you buy them). These binoculars have served us very well for many years. So, this is twice what the very cheapest model costs. However, for the top-of-the-line birding binoculars, you’d have to pay over 10 times as much.

      (*For the record, we chose the Nikon Monarch 5, 10X42 binoculars, said to be the most popular birding binoculars on the market. Also for the record, we don’t accept sales commissions, discounts or free equipment. We have no affiliation with Nikon or any other company.)

How to compare binoculars

      For a terrific overall discussion on which binoculars to buy for birding and why, and for reviews by a panel of experts, Audubon’s website is a great place to start. Click here for Audubon’s step-by-step Binocular Guide.

      However, for spec-by-spec descriptions of every brand there is, the place to go is the Internet. Brick and mortar optics stores staffed by experts are largely a thing of the past. Manufacturers and vendors sometimes have booths at larger birding festivals, but who knows when these events will resume due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Optics4birding.com is a basic site rich with good options and reviews.

     What online purveyors lack, of course, is your ability to touch the goods, but they make up for it with depth of knowledge, details and clear communication. One such example is Optics4birding.com. It sells 20 different brands of birding binoculars – twice the number of brands at RedStartBirding.com, one of its competitors. The reviews and tutorials at Optics4birding.com go on for page after page, representing an astonishing amount of work and commitment to birders. You should check it out.

Talk with some birders

      In addition to reading and online shopping, it’s very helpful to talk with other birders about what’s hanging around their necks and why. (Don’t do this while the binoculars are pressed to their faces, however. That’s like interrupting a golfer in mid-swing. Otherwise, most birders will happily talk your ears off.)

      Don’t ask a stranger for a look through their binoculars, either. Someone else’s binoculars must be sanitized, since germs can be spread through eye contact. You might also need to re-adjust the binocular settings because not everyone’s eyes are the same. However, if you have a friend who’s a birder, it’s worth asking if they’d be willing to arrange an off-the-trail, germ-free demonstration.

Finding the right fit

      Binoculars are a bit like shoes – there are differences in weight, size and design. Because most birders use them for hours at a stretch, binoculars are most comfortable when they fit your hands and body.

    I wish there was an easy way to line up a bunch of binoculars for a side-by-side comparison with an expert salesclerk as your guide. However one alternative is to visit a large sporting goods chain store, like Cabela’s or DICK’S Sporting Goods,  that carries several brands and models. To serve as the expert salesclerk, make a printout of the top-rated binoculars in your price-range from the Audubon website’s review and bring it to the store. (I’d also bring instructions for how to adjust the settings. Click here for those.)

      Even at a large sports store you probably won’t find every binocular on your list – so you might want to call the store to check what’s in stock before making the trip.

      If you do get to compare lots of binoculars side by side, you’ll find that within each price category, there  are similarities. If you just can’t choose between two equally good options, it might come down to the manufacturer’s warranty or whether accessories are included.

Just do it

Beverly and her first birding binoculars

      While there is a lot to learn before you buy, I also think you can “overthink.” If you’re the type of person who gets completely stressed out trying to make a decision — to the point you’re likely to freeze and not buy anything — I’m standing by my prediction that you’d love something along the lines and price of the Nikon Monarch.  (If it makes you feel safer,  a pair of pre-owned Nikon Monarch 5 10X42  binoculars costs $219 on eBay. So you could always sell them on eBay without a huge loss.)

Binoculars become part of your anatomy.

      Remember what happened back in the spring when birds were flying around everywhere? Well, the Fall Migration starts in a matter of weeks. Those same birds, along with hundreds of their offspring, will come parading back through on their way South. Your new binoculars are like a front-row ticket to the viewing stands.

       And if you go ahead and buy the binoculars now, you’ll have lots of time to practice using them before the big show begins. Next week’s post offers my best tips for mastering the art and skill of actually seeing a bird through binoculars.

 

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3 comments

Fred M. Watson August 5, 2020 - 5:30 am

Thank you Beverly for this article on choosing binoculars. I’ve been looking for a pair that I can use occasionally for spotting animals and maybe for bird watching too. I really want something that is light and easy to carry as well as easy to use. I’m not brand focused so that plays no part for me.
What would you recommend for me say in the $300 range?

Reply
Anders Gyllenhaal August 8, 2020 - 1:01 pm

The Nikon Monarch 5 that we mention in this piece is very good for birds, as well as other wildlife. It’s not the most lightweight binoculars, though. I put together a summary on this that I’ll send a little later when I’ve had a chance to pull it out and email. Thanks for checking in.

Reply
Anders Gyllenhaal September 3, 2020 - 10:33 am

Fred,

As we should have mentioned in the recent post, the best pair we’ve found — and have been using for years — are the Nikon Monarchs. There are a couple of versions, but all fit under that budget.

All the best, Anders

Reply

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