Optics is always a topic of conversation any time I’m in the field or discussing birding. It takes many forms – from other birders trying to “size up” the competition, to genuine interest, and most often from non-birders asking what you’re taking a picture of with that big camera…that isn’t a camera but a scope. Many people try to gauge another birder’s experience, skill, or in some cases social standing based on the optics they carry. I can tell you this is not only off-putting, but really has no value and little relevance. I’ve encountered dozens of birders over the years that have “inferior” optics that are much much better than me, and likewise I’ve encountered hundreds of birders that had “better” or more expensive optics than me and couldn’t properly ID a Carolina Wren. The point is, a choice in optics is often simply based on preference and budget.
In most cases, your choice won’t be legitimately scrutinized by anyone in the birding community, save for one situation I can think of – submitting rare bird reports. Should the occasion arise where you are submitting a report documenting a species on the state review list or for the Christmas Bird Count, you will be asked what kind of optics you’re using. If the answer is binoculars you purchased at the flea market and you’re trying to describe a Black-headed Gull you saw in poor light from 200 yards away, your observation and capability of seeing the relevant field marks in those conditions using poor quality optics will be questioned and scrutinized.
There are countless sites available to read expert opinions and reviews on optics that will include all kinds of fancy language and describe lens coatings and spectrums and all that; you won’t find that level of detail here (mainly because I’m incapable of providing it!). What I do hope to impart is simply my experience, suggestions, and opinion on what works best here for me in the Jacksonville area.
My first piece of advice is to consider your passion for birding, and if you think it’s a hobby you’ll engage in frequently and long-term, buy the best optics you can afford at the beginning. Given the proper – and even minimal – care, optics are something that will last you for many years. I’ll describe many of the binoculars I’ve purchased over the years below; each were a step higher in quality and cost, and I still own all of them today – reinforcing again that with some care, each binocular is a long-term investment that will last you indefinitely. Added together, I could’ve bought the “best” pair on the market several times over, but sometimes you just have to buy what you can afford along the way.
The second piece of advice is to go with a magnification that you prefer, not what the books or other birders tell you they like. Having said that, I will now tell you what I prefer and why! For birding in Northeast Florida, I strongly believe 8×42 is the optimal binocular to use in the field. I see many birders with 10 power (and some 12!) binocular, but I really believe they’re putting a limit on their range of close focus, their depth and breadth of field, and their ability to quickly get on the birds in our area. I think 10 power would be more suited for use in broad open areas, like the deserts and prairies of the western United States; in northeast Florida our habitat is less open, much more dense in most areas, and if you need that high of magnification, you are probably just as capable (and better off) using your scope.
If you’re into woodland birding and warblers, most of the locations you’ll find them in the area are very heavily foliaged, with dense canopies and low light. This is similarly true of looking at sparrows in winter. I just simply don’t believe you’ll benefit from 10x over 8x in those situations. Additional drawbacks of the higher power are size and weight, and consequently the ability to keep them steady for prolonged periods. And, just like buying diamonds, you can “go bigger” but the price vs. quality isn’t equivalent. Meaning you can likely get a very fine pair of 8×42’s for say $500-800, but the equivalent glass for a 10×42 will run you hundreds of dollars more and you’ll be forced to sacrifice quality for “power” if you’re on a budget.
My third piece of advice is also simple – never pay the asking price! Shop around, and my recommendation would then be to go to Eagle Optics on the web. Find what you want, and then call them and ask for a festival discount. They are a fantastic company in general, and will give you 5-10% off (or more) just for asking.
My last tip (for now) – be aware that binoculars are adjusted to the individual. They have the diopter setting (usually on the right side) that is customized/set to the owner’s vision. Keep that in mind as you’re trying out various binoculars or looking through another birder’s “glass”. Don’t rush to judgment if the pair you’re looking through is a bit fuzzy – it’s probably because of this diopter correction interacting with your own eyes.
Now, on to the progression of some of the optics I have in my collection (from “worst” to “best”):
1. Nikon Action 7 x 35
These are the only “porro prism” binocular in my possession; all the others are “roof prism”, which I prefer for ergonomic grip and overall quality. These Nikons are very entry level, and types like it are commonly found in your local superstore or sporting goods shop. They’re honestly barely good enough to take to a football game, and I almost never use them in the field. At this point, they serve two purposes only – a backup pair for a field trip participant or small children, and I don’t mind leaving them in the trunk through the summer heat. It assures me I’ll never get caught out without some optics, but it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if they were damaged in the heat.
2. Swift Ultra Lite (929G) 8 x 42
We bought these for my wife to use as her first pair in the local birds unlimited type store. They had a decent price point (around $275 I think) and are of acceptable quality. Ergonomically, they’re extremely light and have a comfortable, rubberized grip. The telescoping eyecups are a nice feature, and overall the construction is very rugged. We have often tossed these around in the car or truck with no case and no lens covers, and they have held up very well. The focus wheel allows for quick focusing with minimal revolutions. I would say these are a great option if you’re spending $200-300 and are a casual to moderate bird watcher. Honestly the only reason she’s not still using these regularly is she upgraded to my old Vortex when I stepped up from there (keep reading!).
3. Pentax DCF HRII 8×42
These were one of my first “real” pair of quality binoculars, and I think I paid around $350-400 for them. They are “big” 8×42’s; I suspect they appear that way due to the thick rubberized outer coating. Again, the telescoping eye relief cups are nice and work very well (I’m an eyeglass wearer). The eyepiece cover is not “fitted”; it just kind of sits on top of the lenses and does a mediocre job of helping keep them dry in the rain. The objective lens covers are a little more snug, but they’re not attached. I would recommend (for any binocular) purchasing the after-market tethered objective lens covers from Eagle Optics and slapping them on any pair that doesn’t come out of the box with this feature. The Pentax has been good to me and I still use them as one of my back-ups – primarily when I’m out on the water, since they clean up well from ocean spray and it helps keep my Swarovskis clean and out of harm’s way.
4. Stokes DLS Vortex 8×42
I believe the Stokes series by Vortex has been discontinued, but these are excellent binoculars, especially for the price. If I recall correctly, they were priced just under $1,000 and I got them for 40-50% off during an Eagle Optics sale. I’ve used Leica, Swarovski, and some of the other high-end optics over the years, and this pair of Vortex stands up well to them – especially considering the difference in price. This model is extremely rugged and compact; they’re at least 1/3 smaller than the Pentax noted above despite the fact that they’re the same magnification. The lens cover fits snugly, as do the tethered objective lens covers. The eye cups turn up and down very easily, and the focus wheel is the best of any binocular I’ve used. The ‘trueness’ of colors in the field is accurate, and the images are bright even in lower light. I would recommend the higher end of the Vortex line to anyone, especially those that are looking for a fine optic at half the price of the elite brands.
5. Swarovski EL 8.5 x 42
These are my relatively new companions. They didn’t have an “8”, so I ended up with the 8.5. They are top of the line, with sturdy construction, perfect ergonomics, and I can even use them easily one-handed. The eyecups are a little tricky to adjust; the worst of any of the aforementioned models, but it’s about the only complaint I have. The focus wheel is also pretty deliberate, in that it takes at least a full extra resolution to spin through the focus range, but that also allows for ‘finer tuning’ once you’re on a relatively stationary object. They are worth every penny and I will be using these for many years to come.