Dreaming of new binoculars

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As the holidays approach, serious birders often dream of buying a new pair of binoculars. Good binoculars cost $200 to $500, so they are a serious investment.

Here are some tips to keep in mind as you shop for new optics.

First, remember that binoculars are also an essential tool for hunters, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. And I never go to a musical, play, concert, or sporting event without my bins, so this advice is good for anyone who uses binoculars.

Do they fit?

One consideration that often does not become obvious until after a purchase is made is that binoculars must “fit.” Even expensive binoculars will frustrate users if they are too big or small for their hands or if they can’t be adjusted to fit the distance between their eyes. Larger outdoor stores usually have a nice selection of optics to “try on.” Then shop around for the best price, which is often found online.

Today, most binoculars in the $200+ price range are waterproof and come with a lifetime warranty. And though the very best binoculars can cost much more than $1,000, most of us don’t need to spend that much. Image brightness and quality on $400 to $500 binoculars will satisfy most casual and backyard birders.

By the numbers

Understanding the basics of binoculars requires understanding the numbers involved. Every pair of binoculars is described by two numbers, which are usually found on the center focus wheel. Among the most popular sizes are 8×32, 8×42 and 10×42. The first number indicates the magnifying ability of the lenses. Eight power makes things appear eight times closer; 10 power lenses bring things 10 times closer.

Higher magnification requires steadier hands. I have both eight and 10 power binoculars, and I use the eights most of the time. Avoid anything stronger than 10x because they are just too difficult for most people to hold without shaking.

The second number is the diameter of the objective lenses (the ones farther from your eyes) in millimeters. The larger this number, the more light the lenses transmit and the brighter the image will be. Brighter is better, especially for early morning birding, but bigger objective lenses mean more glass. And that means more weight.

Choosing the right binocular means balancing magnification, brightness, and weight. I prefer 8x42s for birding, but my favorite all purpose binoculars are 8x32s.

Try a harness

One solution to heavy binoculars is to wear them on a harness rather than a neck strap. For all-day comfort, a harness, which costs about $20, distributes the weight of the binoculars across your back and shoulders rather than around your neck.

Make them waterproof

It is also important that binoculars be waterproof, and today most are. Eventually we all get caught in heavy rain far from cover. And if you plan a trip to the tropics, where it rains almost every day, waterproof binoculars are essential.

Binoculars that are not waterproof are expensive to repair and sometimes can be permanently damaged. I learned that lesson the hard way a few years ago when I got caught in a heavy downpour a mile from my car. My very expensive binoculars, which I had purchased 10 years earlier, were not waterproof, and they were ruined.

Focusing

Close focusing ability is also important. Though most birding is done at a distance, sometimes birds are surprisingly bold, and the ability to focus closely enables incredible details to be observed. Plus, if binoculars can focus down to five or six feet, they are perfect for studying butterflies, dragonflies, wildflowers, frogs, and snakes.

Warranty

And before making a purchase, be sure the binoculars are guaranteed for life. A good warranty repairs or replaces damaged binoculars at no cost.

Don’t bother with scope

Finally, if you’re tempted to buy a spotting scope, don’t. Spotting scopes are basically telescopes designed for birders. They are essential for professional bird guides and ornithologists who study birds most often seen at long distances — waterfowl, shorebirds, and raptors. But casual backyard birders do not need a spotting scope.

For a good selection of binoculars, shop the large outdoor stores and avoid the big box discount stores. And to compare pricing, visit online sites such as www.vortexoptics.com or www.eagleoptics.com.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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