Mike Galas and Charles Mitchell Watching Birds
photo by Karen Lee Lewis
I am occasionally asked by nature watchers to recommend binoculars, telescopes or cameras. As I am no expert, I try to lead the questioners to resources that are available to them. I will provide some of that information in this column.
Before I turn to that, however, I offer national data comparing fishing, hunting and recreational participation and expenditures based on the 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey: 33.1 million anglers spent an annual average of $1263 each on equipment. For hunters those figures are 13.7 million and $1017. And for recreational nature participants, 71.6 million and $766. Thus, although they spend less per person, those recreational participants spend almost as much in all as hunters and anglers together.
One sure sign of getting old is how dumbstruck you find yourself by the cost of things. What happens annually is inflation; what happens over many decades is more like superinflation. And so it is with equipment for exploring nature. Here is how much you could spend to acquire top of the line equipment: binoculars $2500; telescope with tripod $2700; camera with 500 mm lens $17,100.
The problem for many of us is that among the things we would have to sell to meet those expenditures would be our car and we would be stuck looking at and taking photos of the bird feeders in our backyards.
Fortunately, you do not need such equipment to enjoy watching birds and even photographing them. One example: a few weeks ago I visited the north end of Bird Island to see the extremely rare elegant tern that somehow made its way here from Baja California. There it was, sitting on the pier about 50 yards away among several dozen local gulls and two common terns. I didn't even have my binoculars with me but I had excellent looks at the bird through several of the half dozen birders' telescopes there. Then I was shown by a young woman a close-up photo of the tern taken with her iPhone through one of the scopes. I was amazed at the high quality of the photograph.
That example illustrates two things. First, birders are more than willing to share their equipment. Second, there are work-arounds for many high tech activities. Another example: today most inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras offer magnification that provides good images of distant animals.
Nevertheless, viewers still need assistance. What are the highest quality manufacturers? What can they get by with? What can they move up to?
A fine resource for photographers is Harold Stiver's inexpensive "Guide to Bird Photography", available from Amazon. (Disclosure: Stiver took most of the superb photos that appear in my "Nature Watch Collection" books.) Yes, Stiver does talk about the top-of-the line camera equipment he uses himself, but he also offers ways to cut costs.
Here are three of his cost-cutting suggestions: "(1) Use third party lenses. Companies like Sigma and Tamron make lenses to fit camera bodies like Canon and Nikon. The quality varies but some are surprisingly good and inexpensive. (2) Buy used equipment. Look at eBay, camera stores or photography forums. You run some risk of getting problem equipment but there often is value, especially with used camera bodies. (3) If you have a birding scope consider digiscoping." Digiscoping is how that young woman photographed that tern. Many of my friends use this technique with their point-and-shoot cameras, but I have found it to be not nearly as simple to accomplish as it sounds.
Stiver's suggestions apply equally to the purchase of binoculars and spotting scopes.
Equally important, Stiver addresses concerns about using whatever equipment you have in the field. Here is one example: "If you are shooting without a tripod, keep your elbows tucked beside your body and your feet apart. Take advantage of items around you. Resting the lens on a log or fence will help and even leaning against a tree will make a difference."
The best source for current and all inclusive information about binoculars and telescopes is that of Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology (www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/gear and www.allaboutbirds.org/page.aspx?pid=2674).
Two final notes: (1) The difference between budget and top-of-the-line binoculars is only about 10%, and (2) After using 10x binoculars for years, I recommend 8x for their wider view, clarity and stability.-- Gerry Rising