A Quick Guide To Birding Optics

By Ann Hingas

When a friend recently asked for advice about buying a spotting scope as an anniversary present last week, I admit to being stumped in the specifics category with one exception: that is, which specifics you want in any optical equipment depends on what you are using it for.

If you are looking for a scope or binocular for backyard birding, you probably aren’t going to be happy with a powerful scope designed for watching wolves in the Lamar River Valley at Yellowstone National Park. If you are reading this column, I assume you are interested in birding, so here are some tips for picking an optical device for your sport:

* Binoculars and scopes are rated by magnification power and size of objective lens. A binocular that is 7x35 would make the object you are watching appear 7 times closer than it is. The objective lens rating is a brightness rating. The larger the objective lens, the more light comes though the device, and the brighter the scene you see. A 35mm lens would be good for birding in bright sunlight, while a 60 mm lens would be best for hunting birds in dark cover or in the evenings.

* The greater the magnification of the device, the more steadiness is required to keep the view from shaking. A 10x pair of binoculars will get you a closer look, but you must be able to hold them without shaking. Higher magnification devices are also harder to use to locate a quarry spotted with the naked eye. If you are using 10x magnification, a tripod is most useful in getting a steady view.

* Brightness and clarity are a major part of what makes some optical devices more expensive than others. Increased brightness and clarity come with modern coatings applied to the lens or lenses. Look for glasses that say they are "coated" or "multi-coated." These coatings drive up prices. The most sophisticated coatings on the best optical glass can produce binoculars costing $5,000. Only professors with grant money to spend and wealthy people can afford those. You can get a very good pair of 8x40 or 8x42 birding binoculars for $75 to $250 which will serve you well.

* Design is another key feature to consider. If you are going to be birding outside, you will need to have rubber-armored, waterproof glasses or scope. If you add fog-proof coatings, add another $100 or so. If you want the new "rainproof" coatings that let you see through wet lenses, add more hundreds. Also consider whether or not you want the so-called "compact" binoculars versus full or field size ones. Be sure to find binoculars with a center focusing knob which allows you to change focus quickly.

How much money you have to spend will no doubt determine how far up the optical price range you go. Putting a pair of $5,000 binoculars to your eyes will immediately reveal the difference between the top end and those $25 compacts you bought at Wal-Mart last year. You will also notice a big difference if you use a quality manufacturer’s $100 to $300 price range glasses.

My selection was and is the Bushnell Legend 8x42 model, waterproof and fog-proof. These glasses retail for $500, but can be bought for less through discount houses and even online at Ebay.

As far as spotting scopes go, most of them have zoom magnifiers which range from 15x to 60x or more. Remember, spotting scopes are generally used for long distance viewing and have a 60mm or better object lens. Tripods are necessary with spotting scopes, and if you do a lot of birding from your car, you can get a car window clamp that holds your scope on the top of your partially down car window. A good quality spotting scope, waterproof, will cost from $250 to $500 or more, depending upon the brand name.

The most satisfactory scopes I have seen lately are the wide-angle or extra-wide-angle scopes that double the field of view. Field of view is the lateral area you can see on each side of your subject. Typically, a scope at 45x would view an area about 50 or 60 yards wide. The new wide angle scope at 45x would allow you to see an area 80 to 90 yards wide. This is great for viewing groups of birds or animals at long range and greatly improves your ability to see action.

Finally, after you’ve spent your cash on a high quality optical instrument, please take care of it. Use only lens cleaning cloth or paper to keep the lenses clean. If you expose your waterproof device to salt water, be sure to rinse it thoroughly, and dry and clean the lenses immediately after use. Keep the lens caps on and store in the case provided. If you want to know more, go to the Bushnell internet site at http://www.bushnell.com

Email Ann Hingas.

From the Hoosier Times, 8/5/01

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