Binoculars are a birder’s best friend. Sadly a lot of people never expand their enjoyment of bird watching because they have had trouble learning how to use binoculars. Maybe you don’t consider yourself a birder, but if you are looking out your kitchen or living room window at your bird feeders and getting pleasure from seeing a variety of birds – you’re a birder. It’s understandable that people grow discouraged when trying to use binoculars because birds have a bad habit of not sitting in one place for very long.
The binoculars we use today to look at birds have evolved significantly over the centuries. The first pair was basically two similar telescopes, one for each eye, mounted on a single frame. Johann Friedrich Voigtländer invented binoculars in 1823 that had a practical use. These simple binoculars did not yet have prisms, offered a small field of view, and had only marginal magnification, but typified the binoculars principle. In 1893, the Carl Zeiss company applied for a patent for a type Porro prism binoculars. Most modern handheld binoculars that are available today have similarities to this one. The name Zeiss is still a highly regarded brand in binoculars.
Over the years with improvement in technologies, binoculars have shrunk in size and have had added magnification and field of view. My first binoculars for birding were big and heavy and caused me to have a headache after wearing them around my neck for hours. That is why I switched to the smaller ones and have been happy ever since. That’s not to say that big binoculars should be avoided, but we find they work best kept in the house near a window so that they can be grabbed quickly to focus on a bird at the feeder.
There is still the challenge of learning how to use the binoculars. There are different ways to do this. It is best to pick a stationary object – start big, say a tree trunk in your yard. The biggest trick is to learn to bring the binoculars up to your eyes, without looking down at them. This is especially important when you are trying to focus on a small object. Try to keep your eyes on your subject and just raise the glasses to your eyes. Now find a branch on the tree and pick out a cluster of leaves. Raise the glasses and put them to your eyes and use your fingers to move the focus mechanism to the left or right until the image is clear. You can challenge yourself by picking out various objects in your yard and practice lifting the binoculars up and down. Once that has become second nature you will be ready to focus on birds that are moving from place to place. The important thing is to
not get discouraged. It will take time but it is so worth it.
One of the newest technologies that has been developed recently are stabilizing binoculars. These are designed to hold the image steady even if you or your hands are moving. This can be especially helpful as we age and find that our hands may shake some. As for the numbers on the binoculars, the first refers to the level of magnification (10 is greater than 8, etc) and the second refers to the field of view (how wide an area you can see). The higher your magnification, the less the field of view (detail increases but the area shrinks).
There are many high quality binoculars available today. They are not cheap and it is wise to choose one that feels comfortable in your hands and around your neck. But it is also wise to pay more because in the end you will have a better product and better bird watching experience.
By Kate Crowley