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Beverly’s Basics: Four tips for getting the most from your birding binoculars

Last of three parts

So my friend gets interested in birding and tries out some binoculars. Then she comes to a complete standstill. “There’s something wrong with my eyes,” she says. “Binoculars just aren’t for me.”

This scenario is not uncommon, and it makes me want to shout: Don’t give up! There are tricks! Here, let me show you …

The truth of the matter is that learning to use binoculars is not easy. Even experts like Andrew Farnsworth, a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, agree.

“The idea of them is simple: I can magnify what I’m seeing? Awesome. Sign me up,” Farnsworth said. “But it can be really difficult at first.

“Trying to stay focused on the bird, and then bring the tool up to your eyes is not the easiest thing to learn,” Farnsworth told my husband Anders in a recent interview.

Binoculars can utterly transform what you see, as with this Great Blue Heron's piercing stare.
Binoculars can utterly transform what you see, as with this Great Blue Heron’s piercing stare.

The infuriating thing to me is that you buy binoculars, and they don’t come with instructions. Therefore you assume it’s easy and automatic. When it’s not, you think something must be wrong with you.

When I was starting out as a birder — reading guidebooks and casually scouting for resources — nothing I found touched on the basics of using binoculars to see birds. But as I point out in my post I’ll call “Why Binoculars,” they simply transform your birding experience into something glorious.

So, without further digression, here are my four essential tips for learning to bird with binoculars. They work, and it’s worth it. I promise.

1) Get set up


First, adjust the eye cups. If you wear glasses or sunglasses, screw the cups all they way in.

If you don’t wear glasses, screw the eye cups all the way out. Don’t press the eye cups too hard against your eye sockets or it will distort the image.

Everyone’s face is different, and you want your binoculars to fit. Pull the binoculars barrels apart as far as they’ll go, then lift them up to your eyes. Now squeeze the barrels together until you only see one image through both eyes — a perfect circle.

This usually puts the barrels closer together than you might expect.

Once you’re seeing just the one image, find a good spot on your face for the barrels to rest securely. This is usually the top bone of your eye socket (brow ridge). If you’re wearing glasses, you might find you can use the top rim of the frames a “shelf.”  For me this helps keep the binoculars steady for longer periods.

This is the last of three posts on binoculars, the central equipment for birders. The first piece was about the why good binoculars will change your life on the trail. The second  post addressed how to buy your first pair of binoculars. These and other posts aimed at the new birder can be found on Beverly’s Birding Basic page here

2) How to focus

There are two wheels to adjust. The one in the middle is the focus wheel. Look at something stationary in the middle distance with both eyes open, and move the wheel to bring it into focus.

The details of Belted Kingfishers, skittish birds you can't usually get close to, fill your viewfinders with a good pair of binoculars.
The details of Belted Kingfishers, skittish birds you can’t usually get close to, fill your viewfinders with a good pair of binoculars.

It’s important to keep an index finger on the focus wheel and learn to adjust it as you move your eyes from one object to another. Even the smallest movement can put an object out of focus, and twirling the wheel is necessary. Eventually this will feel natural, and you’ll adjust the focus wheel without even thinking about it.

The second wheel is called the diaopter and is usually part of the right-hand eyepiece. It needs adjustment only once. The purpose of the diopter is to compensate for the differences between your eyes. No two eyes are the same, and don’t have the same ability to focus.

To adjust the diaopter, put a lens cap over the right barrel. Keep both eyes open and adjust the focus wheel. Next, put the cap on the left barrel and, keeping both eyes open without squinting, use the diopter adjustment to bring your view into sharp focus.

Click here for an excellent, very detailed tutorial from on how do each of these focusing steps and why they’re necessary.


3) How to find the bird

Locating a bird through binoculars isn’t necessarily automatic. There’s a disorientation that comes in the instant your eyes go from a wide, faraway view to such a close-up, magnified view. It tend to scramble your brain.

With practice, you sort of train your brain. Or you get used to the disparity. (If I go for a month or so without birding,  my brain has to be trained all over again.)

Mockingbirds are good species to start out with.
Mockingbirds are good species to start out with.

It’s best to starting with birds that remain mostly still for long stretches while they’re hunting, feeding or resting. Herons, hawks, woodpeckers and birds at bird feeders are good examples. Also, especially on spring mornings, usually skittish songbirds perch out in the open and sing for long stretches. The Northern Mocking bird is capable of singing on one branch all day long. Some species, like the Eastern Phoebe and Belted Kingfisher, will settle on a specific branch out in the open. Although they’ll fly off to catch prey, they’ll come back to this same branch fairly often.

There are two good ways to locate a bird through binoculars. Here’s method No. 1, which I’m going to call “The Statue”:

First of all, freeze your body, stay still, and keep your eyes on the bird as best you can. Without moving your head or your eyes, pull the binoculars up to your face. Your eyes should land exactly on the bird. This is not as easy as it sounds, so practice on any small object until you get the hang of it.

Here’s a second technique that’s a bit more cumbersome, but it works for me. I call it “The Bull’s-eye Method” because it’s a lot like target practice. For this method, you don’t start learning with an actual bird. Instead, do this:

A) With your naked eye, pick out an ordinary tree branch that’s not too small and not too far away. This is going to be your Bull’s-eye (i.e. the bird). Try to find it with the binoculars. Sometimes you can’t find it. So here’s what you do next:

B) With your naked eye pick out something so distinctive that there’s no question as to what it is when magnified. It must be stationary, not too small and fairly close to your Bull’s-eye. For example, this can be a jagged dead branch or a patch of colorful dead leaves or even the base of the tree.

We’ll call this focal point “Tinkerbell” because she’s going to guide you to the Bull’s-eye.

C) Note whether your Bull’s-eye is to the right or left of Tinkerbell, and also whether it’s above or below her. Now look through the binoculars and focus on Tinkerbell. Remember where she is in relation to the Bull’s-eye? Slowly move the binoculars in that direction — right or left, up or down — until you see the Bull’s-eye. Voila!

The more you try, the better and faster you’ll get. Once you can easily find the Bull’s-eye, repeat steps A, B, & C until you get good at finding the actual bird.

Male Northern Cardinals stand out because they're plentiful and bright red year round.
Male Northern Cardinals stand out because they’re plentiful and bright red year round.

Practice with common birds that are around a lot so you don’t get frustrated when they fly off. Robins and many sparrows spend a lot of time on the ground, which makes it vastly easier to spot them. Male cardinals have the added advantage of brilliant red feathers.

With both of these methods, when you land on the bird, it’s important to remember that your brain will require a short moment to adjust to the aforementioned magnification disparity.

So, these are the quick tips that work for me. For a terrific, more detailed tutorial on how to bird with binoculars from Birdwatcher’s Digest, click here.

4) Proper Posture and Finer Points

For most people, using binoculars and looking up for long periods can strain neck and back muscles you don’t normally use in this way. It’s called “Birder’s Neck.” Varying your body posture  can help with the fatigue.


The natural tendency is to stand with your elbows fully extended, especially when looking straight up. (Like the photo here.)

However, I find that if I stand with my elbows tucked when looking straight ahead, (like the child pictured here), my muscles don’t tire as fast.

      Along these lines, remembering to use proper posture is really important. The natural tendency is to hunch your shoulders. Just don’t! Pull your shoulders down and back, away from your head.      Now align the rest of your body — back straight, ribs lifted, pelvis tucked, abdominal muscles tight. (This has the added benefit of being good exercise for your abdominal muscles, which will support your spine.)      For some of us, standing this way isn’t natural. When my back starts to hurt, I’m reminded to check my posture.      If you’re near a fence or another structure the you can rest your elbows on can also help. (Be sure to check that fence for ticks or spiders.)       Last but not least, keep those lenses clean! Do not be tempted to breathe on your binoculars and wipe them with your shirt. That’s one sure way to ruin them. That said, looking through even slightly smudged or dusty glass matters. Some binoculars come with a cleaning kit and instructions. But if not, here’s how:      Before putting your binoculars away, use a soft brush to sweep away any grit from the body and lenses. A cheap, medium-size makeup brush does the trick. Next comes a rub with a pre-moistened lens towelette that’s approved for optics or electronics — i.e. one that’s alcohol- and ammonia-free. Or use a Q-tip moistened with lens cleaning solution. Finally, give a rub with a dust-free lens cloth, such as the cloth you’d use for cleaning eyeglasses. This is supposed to be fun!      My parting advice for learning to use your new binoculars is this:  Refuse to be intimidated, and try not to get frustrated. Binoculars magnify all of Mother Nature’s majesty, be it dead branches, abandoned nests or turtles in a pond. But there is something singular and spectacular about coming eye to eye with a tiny little bird. It really doesn’t take long to get the hang of it, so just keep practicing.      

Plural v. Singular

Fun fact: Technically we’re not discussing “a pair of binoculars.” By definition, there are two barrels on one binocular, thus the “bi.” If you hear birders say “a binocular,” they’re probably experts. Go stand nearby. Stay quiet, and point your binocular in the same direction they’re aiming. You’re likely to learn something and/or see something otherwise missed!

      Because “binocular” sounds so odd and is rarely used, I’m going with the more common plural form.


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4 responses to “Beverly’s Basics: Four tips for getting the most from your birding binoculars”

  1. This is encouraging. I have three pairs of binoculars. I can’t see a thing with them. But I didn’t realize it was actually a skill and not a matter of either bad binoculars or my own blindness.

  2. Thanks, Bev! You have literally opened up a whole new world for me.

  3. Thanks Bev! Great piece.

  4. […] of birding binoculars. Next installment: How to go about buying your first pair, followed by Beverly’s insights on how to use them […]

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