Thursday, January 7, 2010

A ramble about birding optics

I just sent this to my e-mail birders list. I want to share here on my blog. I am responding to several "threads" from the e-mail list. Basically they were asking about birding optics. As usual, I ramble.

Someone asked the list about stores after Adray closed. Another store I found recently was Camera Mart in Pontiac (off Telegraph at corner of M-59). It looks like a great camera store to me. I had my DSLR sensor cleaned for free (vs. $89) on a special weekend! I liked their camera knowledge. I know nothing about their binocs – I did not look. However, the scopes for sale they had were more stellar in nature, and not more nature in purpose. I did not hear the “bird” word in conversation there, but, again, did not use it myself.

Primarily tonight, I offer another view on the subject of binocs.

I started my recent birding last year from photographic interests. With the constant pestering from the birders list (especially Allen and others) that to learn birds I needed to start with binocs, and forget the camera, I finally reached a compromise by year end. First in importance was the camera constantly slung around my neck - taking pics of critters (feathered or not) is something Judy and I share. This was always my main “focus”! By the end of the year, I added an old pair of 7x50 binocs I could sling over one shoulder and basically keep in my armpit until I wanted to see more. Yes they helped a great deal!

I am sure in the 1960s as a student in a field zoology class I would not have paid more than maybe $75 for them. I remember I had bought the brighter “50s” because of lots of fog in the SF areas I roamed on the west coast. The focus knob goes slower now (go figure) and the lenses are a bit clouded, but the added detail beyond my camera does really help in seeing birds. The used scope a birder gave me this year further extended the range of what I wanted to see. Yes, I see more now! Yes, Allen, I did need to supplement my camera! ;)

Yet, I have to ask: what will the expensive models buy anyone? Binocs or a scope gives pretty darn good views of something! And when the feathered friend gets closer, I can use the camera. I do not have “expensive glass”, but I think I can see field characteristics fairly well. Yes, I would love “good glass” – especially on my camera – but I have realized I will never be able to afford it.

Would an expensive pair of binocs make me a better birder? I truly doubt it!!! The information from the optics still has to be processed in my “CPU” and compared with my mental “database” (or time permitting, a lookup in a bird field guide). (Let’s see – in computer terminology, I guess I have a USB port somewhere in my head connecting the external device from my eyes to my CPU…).

My 7x50s rode around in my car for a few decades and still seem to be fine based on what I need to see. Well, I did keep the lens caps on when not in use…, but otherwise it seems a “cheap” pair is fine.

I have another not quite so old cheap pair (7x35s) that I use to see yard birds. They are cleaner than the 7x50s.

Yes, if I want to win a photography contest, I would need a better scope (for digiscoping) and certainly better “glass” for my less expensive XSI Canon, but for the 4x6 pics I print, or what I share on the web, it seems luck is the main factor!

I think a more germane question for those considering new optics is “what can you comfortably carry, and what can you hold still”? And what can you afford? And, what would you gain by going into the “fancy stuff”. Also, how will you maintain your equipment? And, do you want “knock around” usage (always in the car) or will you coddle it to see the “gnat’s eye” or the birdie equivalent? How much will you use it? How much per usage will it cost you? And, I guess first, at what level of birding do you consider yourself?

Are there really that many field characteristics of a bird - mostly in motion – that you can see better with expensive optics? (Please someone “come back to me” on this question!)

(While you are “coming back” to me, just what might be the birding equivalent of a “gnat’s eye”? And, please explain your words - I am still working on my annotated pic of a leghorn chicken for verbiage…)

I am just thinking – for the difference in price of expensive vs. Bass Pro/Cabelas/Gander Mtn binocs, you could afford a complete library of local field guides and a few magazine subscriptions (enhance your “CPU”!) and even a weekend trip “up north” for a few days to see something new!

I think my comments really are multiplied for scopes based on their expense! Would a good tripod-mounted hunting-type “spotting scope” serve your needs, or do you really need to move into the $2K+ bracket? (Hey, now you have “earned” a winter weekend in Florida! – Just wait a few weeks for better weather…)

[Here I just have to interject a related thought. Around our condo complex almost everyone has a barbeque grill sitting on their deck. During any year, I only notice one or two people using them regularly. They are there when they want them, and I imagine they all used them a few times the year they bought them, but what is the real cost per usage? And, as an extension, could you imagine a birder not just hoping to share their scope with someone else? Sure, they get “first looks”, but then? Sharing is one of the main joys of ownership! (For which I really appreciate the birders who have shared with us!]

Yes, probably the best answer is that it is best to try it. If it suffices, buy it. Alternately, buy it cheap and if it does not suffice, you do not have a lot invested, and you will know what you seek in the future. And you will still have a somewhat useful optical device to accompany your “adventures”.

On the subject of monocular lenses for birding while running, I think the list had all the responses you need already. What are you going to do? Try to focus a half-cigar-sized thing and expect anything? Are you used to looking at anything while winking/squinting in one eye? Could you even know where to start looking for it thru a minimal field of vision? I had a cheap (free with subscription?) monocular sitting at my kitchen table for awhile, and discarded it as not even useful for yard birds!

By the way, I just got my new Bass Pro Master catalog – usually this is a sign of spring. Go figure…

Happy New Year, Y’all! Cheers! “Dr. Bob”

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