Bird watching is a very popular outdoor activity, perhaps it’s the fact that birds can fly so effortlessly that makes them one of the most fascinating creatures in the natural world. Birds have fascinated humans since the dawn of our species and has inspired us to take to the skies ourselves in aircraft.
The academic study of birds is known as ‘ornithology’ or more simply to the average person who might just want to watch birds recreationally as ‘bird watching’ Given the variety, grace and beauty of birds it’s no wonder that people choose to watch them as a hobby but it can easily become more than that and very keen bird watchers who might try to ‘bag’ particularly rare species or infrequent migrant birds might also be known as a ‘twitchers’.
If the hobby of bird watching appeals to you you’re in luck; other than a set of the best birding binoculars and a few bird books there is no specialist equipment to worry about and you can watch birds from the comfort of your own house or head as far afield as you want to look for exotic species.
Table of Contents
- Getting Started with Bird Watching
- Bird Watching Equipment
- Bird Watching Skills
- Finally on to Binoculars
- How Birding Binocular Function?
- Top 10 Best Birding Binoculars Review
- Mini Binoculars for Opportunistic Bird Watching.
- Night Vision Binoculars
Getting Started with Bird Watching
A lot of people start by simply watching the birds in their garden or from the windows of their flat or apartment. A few bird feeders with some bird seed or suet balls will attract birds quite effectively even in most cities and they can easily be attached to window frames or even windows using suction cups.
You would be surprised how many birds come to your you will see all sorts of small garden birds and even occasionally larger birds, woodpeckers in particular will often feed from bird feeders. You may even see birds of prey swoop in to catch the smaller birds, some hawk and falcon species are common even in cities and you wouldn’t be the first person to see a hawk crash into a kitchen window trying to snatch birds from around a bird feeder.
Watching birds from the comfort of your kitchen or balcony is a great place to start but you will soon want to take things further and head out to nature reserves and wild places to watch birds. This will require a bit more preparation and a bit of study. Even just watching birds from your window will take a bit of learning but it’s a bit easier to refer to bird books in the comfort of your home than while out in the woods and fields.
Obviously you will need a good field guide, even in the internet age having a bird book to refer to is very important. Make sure you pick the right one for your region such as Kaufmans for North America, the RSPB guide for the British Isles, there will of course be a bird book for every different country and region and you will need to hunt down the right one for the intended destination of your bird watching trip.
When you pick a field guide it’s tempting to pick one based on fancy full colour photographs but don’t underestimate drawings, sketches and paintings, they often show features of birds that photos will not. You might have a good quality image of a very scruffy bird; a particularly drab blue jay perhaps or conversely an unusually brightly coloured woodpecker. Photos only show you that one bird captured by the photographer while proper artistic representations show all the features, subtle stripes and markings and should give you a really good idea of what a bird should look like.
Aim to get a small pocket sized field guide for use in the field, but you’d be surprised how much you pick up from a few sessions watching birds at home with the benefit of your bird books and before too long you won’t need to take a field guide out spotting with you at all.
Bird watching can take you anywhere, as close to home or far afield as you choose but the further afield you venture the more prepared you will need to be and you will need to consider your safety and comfort a little.
Bird Watching Equipment
Obviously you will need binoculars and we’ll get to those in a moment but if you are heading far from home and out into the woods and perhaps most particularly to watch birds in exposed marshland and estuaries where interesting wading birds and wildlife can be found where conditions can be very harsh you will need some decent outdoor gear to keep you dry and comfortable.
A full set of warm comfortable outdoor clothes will be required and also a full set of waterproof’s in case it rains, if you are out watching birds for extended periods of time or even as part of a longer hiking trip you will need to stay dry and safe.
Also if you are heading to a bird hide, not uncommon in popular bird watching areas or at nature reserves and sanctuaries consider a spotting scope to supplement your binoculars. Spotting scopes allow you to view birds in detail or at extreme range. Leupould offer some great options for spotting scopes and while they are one of the very best on the market they won’t break the bank. Remember though that a spotting scope won’t give you the field of view that binoculars offer and due to their powerful magnification they are impossible to hold steady enough by hand and you will deffinately need a tripod or bean bag to rest them on.
Bird Watching Skills
Whatever binoculars and supplementary kit you carry though make sure you spend time practicing your identification skills, there is very little point in being able to see birds in perfect clarity through a set of expensive binoculars if you don’t have the first idea what you are looking at.
One of the first tricks to identifying birds is a principle called GISS pronounced JIZZ. This stands for General Impression of Size and Shape and is used to generally describe birds, or anything else for that matter. Forming a general impression of the size and shape of a bird can help to quickly narrow down what you are looking at and conclude what bird it is.
Size; a general impression of a birds size might group very small birds such as hummingbirds, warblers or tits together. A larger bird might be a heron, or a shell duck or even an eagle but details of its shape will help you narrow it down further. Long legs and a long beak can narrow it down as a wader, while other noticeable features such as a forked tail, crest, spurs, a curve or hooked beak and other features can help you narrow down the species even further. Flight patterns unique to certain species can help you identify them as well, or at least narrow a particular bird down to a group of species, finches for example fly in a typical dipping flap and glide patters, woodpeckers and jays share that pattern but their size and shape distinguishes them.
With practice the GISS principle will help you identify almost any bird and it will only be very similar birds with subtly different features that you will require you to resort to a detailed look at a bird book to help you.
Finally on to Binoculars
A good set of binoculars is a vital piece of kit for any outdoorsman and particularly important for bird watchers.
Choosing a set of binoculars might seem simple, after all they all look more or less the same but if you are going to be bird watching there are some that will be better than others. First lets get to grips with those troublesome numbers stamped on every pair of binoculars.
For bird watching I favour something between 8x 35 and 10x50; The first number the 8 or 10 is the magnification of the binoculars and indicates that it will magnify the viewed object by eight or ten times. The second number is the size of each objective lens. Generally the larger these numbers the bigger and heavier the binoculars. Certainly larger objective lenses mean a larger set of binoculars although powerful magnification can be found in very compact binoculars.
How Birding Binocular Function?
Binoculars rely on a system of prisms to work, without them you would be looking at upside down images. There are two types of prism arrangement in modern binoculars: Italian optician Ignazzio Porro patented porro prisms in 1854 and these give us the off style of binoculars with off-set objective lenses and eye pieces. This produces very compact, short binoculars and offers excellent depth perception and field of view due to the wide set objective lenses. Porro prism binoculars were the dominant binocular design for many years although now roof prism designs are more popular.
Roof prisms are not a new development having been first used in binoculars in the 1870’s, although porro prisms did come first. The roof prism design was later patented in 1905 after refinement by Carl Zeiss. Binoculars using a roof prism design are generally narrower and lighter than equivalent porro prism designs.
Top 10 Best Birding Binoculars Review
These ten recommendations for your birding binoculars are a sample from across the whole range of binoculars, there are very cheap and very expensive binoculars among these recommendations but any of them would be suitable for bird watching in most situation either from your backyard or on a more ambitions birding trip to the woods or mountains.
1 Vortex Diamondback
Compared to some of the pioneers of binocular technology and their established brands such as Leica and Zeiss Vortex Optics are relatively new to the game. Established in 2004 they have quickly become a leader in their field offering an excellent range of spotting scopes, rifle scopes, binoculars and rangefinders. Their diamondback range offer you everything from compact mini binoculars in an 8x28 and 10x28 package but also a massive 12x50 model. My preference for bird watching and in fact for most hunting and general outdoors scenarios is something mid-range in terms of magnification, if I am expecting to use them much at dusk and dawn then larger objective lenses are good but for most bird watching situations massive objectives aren’t a considerable advantage. This 10x32 model would be ideal for bird watching and wouldn’t be too heavy to carry or too bulky.
The diamond back binocular range are ruggedly armoured against rough treatments and harsh environments. They can be focused down to just 6 feet, this short range focus is perfect for watching birds in your backyard or from a bird hide where you might be very close to your subject but these will also be suitable for observing birds and wildlife at greater range.
2 Bushnell Trophy Binocular
Bushnell have an excellent and well-deserved reputation in the optics industry for their products. Whether rifle scope or binoculars their products are excellent and as an additional benefit they won’t break the bank and are very affordable. These Bushnell trophy’s come in at well under $200 and this particular model comes with excellent rubberised camouflage armour. This particular model features ten times magnification and 42 millimetre objective lenses which will be great for light gathering and give the power you need for getting a detailed view of your subject.
Bushnell offer some great lens coatings to add to the quality of the lenses on these binoculars, the proprietary lens coating offered by bushnell include ‘rainguard HD’ for dispersing moisture and keeping your lenses free from beads of rain, snow, dew or the fog from your breath. An ‘ultra wide band coating’ helps reduce reflection to make sure the most light, and therefore best image possible makes it to you.
As with all other Bushnell products these binoculars have a lifetime warranty to ensure you are covered against defect.
3 Celestron Trailseeker ED
The ’ED’ in the name stands for Extra low Disperssion glass, and that’s what sets this particular model apart from the other members of the trailseeker range from Celestron. This specialist glass virtually eliminates color fringing and delivers crystal clear images with clarity from edge to edge of your field of view. This specialist glass also adds to the performance of these binoculars in low light conditions such as dusk and dawn.
This is a great, relatively lightweight option for bird watching, hunting and just about any other outdoor activity. It comes well armoured in rubber and plastic and the package also includes a very useful extra item; most binoculars will come with a neck strap but this model from Celestron also comes with a harness.
These harnesses for binoculars are particularly useful as they make them more comfortable to carry and can also help you hold your binoculars steady if you are watching birds free hand without a proper rest. The tension they can provide between your body and the binoculars really increases stability and helps you get a good look at your subject. Simple neck carry straps quickly become irritating even with lightweight binoculars and they really aren’t comfortable to use for long periods of time. Poorly designed, plain nylon neck straps can chafe and irritate you and at the very least you should consider a neoprene strap. Some form of harness would be even better;
A harness stops your binoculars from swinging from side to side or out from your body and bumping or snagging on things as you move around outdoors. This particular set of binoculars comes with a harness but most don’t and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to consider an after-market option. They really do make carrying binoculars much more comfortable.
These binoculars are a great option for a little under $300 and will give you very good performance in a fogproof, waterproof and very ergonomic package.
4 Nikon 8245 ACULON A211 8x42 Binocular
Most birding binoculars nowadays are roof prism designs but the Aculon is a porro prism design offered by Nikon. These binoculars are yours for under $100 but will perform like a set twice or three times the amount. Despite being ‘cheap’ they still offer excellent lenses and coatings and their Aspherical Multicoated Eco-Glass Lenses will give you the best performance even in low light conditions. As with all Nikon products this is protected by a no-fault repair or replacement warranty and.
5 Hawke Endurance HD
Hawke are a great manufacturer of sporting optics including some fantastic rifle scopes and binoculars. These binoculars from Hawke are built with the outdoors in mind and not just for your average conditions either. These will be ideal for even the very worst of wet or wintry conditions. The oversized knurled focus knob can be operated even with tick gloves on these will be ideal for bird watching on a marsh or estuary where conditions are often harsh but the diversity of birds in wetland areas is massive and the rewards of braving the wet and damp are high.
Hawke are a British brand but have maintained a headquarters in Indiana since 2007 and their reputation in the US and elsewhere is impeccable. These binoculars are no exception to that and would be a great choice for any bird watcher.
6 Zeiss Conquest
Zeiss are one of the pioneering manufacturers of optical equipment and have been since their founder Carl Zeiss’s work as an optician and instrument maker throughout the 19th century. Some of the greatest innovations in optical technology come to us thanks to Zeiss including modern roof prism binoculars and their conquest range of scopes and binoculars are in keeping with this fine tradition.
Their quality is second to none but in terms of price this model is more of a mid-range option at under $1000. Zeiss lenses, glass coatings are legendary and for the price there really is no beating the Zeiss conquest. They are incredibly low weight while still being very strong and of course fully waterproof, dustproof fog proof and treated with lens coatings to protect your crystal clear image from beads of water and the fog of your breath.
7 Nikkon Monarch 5
The monarch models offered by Nikkon feature some upgraded features compared to the more budget friendly and old fashioned appearance of the Aculon porro prism binocular. Their ’extra-low dispersion glass’ and ‘dielectric high-reflective’ prism coatings add to the quality of the image through these binoculars.
These reflective coatings on the internal prisms assist in the reflection of light through the prisms giving you a proper image that is the correct way up. The coatings on the lenses are designed to minimise reflection while these internal coatings maximise it to improve the function of the prisms.
These are a great light weight, affordable set of binoculars that will be give you all the dunction and features you require from a set of bird watching binoculars.
8 Leica Ultravid HD Plus
Leica are one of the oldest binocular and optic manufacturers in the world; they are probably a little more famous for the cameras they produce than their binoculars but among birders and hunters the reputation of Leica binoculars is unassailable.
The Ultravid does cost over $2000 dollars but you are benefiting from well over a century of optic design experience. They are certainly one of the best binoculars money can buy and they will be a fantastic companion on your bird watching trips if you can justify the expense. This model features ten times magnification and fifty millimetre objective lenses for the best light transmission.
Mini Binoculars for Opportunistic Bird Watching.
All the binoculars listed here so far are full size, although some are quite compact, and fully featured with sensible sized objective lenses for the very best light gathering but let’s face it you can see birds anywhere and sometimes carrying a full sized set of binoculars just isn’t practical.
Luckily most of the great binocular manufacturers produce compact options which can easily be carried in a coat pocket or handbag. These binoculars can go just about anywhere with you even if you are tight on space in airline luggage or just have the space in your pockets. You would be surprised how many birds you can watch from the windows of your work place or from a train or while waiting for a bus and these binoculars will make that easier.
They aren’t cheap options or somehow inferior to full sized binoculars and they can often still have eight to ten times magnification like a full sized set of binoculars. They do however generally feature smaller objective lenses making them less effective at dusk and dawn.
9 Leica Ultravid BR Compact Binocular
These are not a compromise on quality for the full sized leicas, they offer exactly the same level of quality and workmanship of the full sized binoculars but in a tiny package. If you want to take a set of binoculars with you on a foreign trip or on a hiking trip and can’t justify the weight or bulk of a full sized set of binoculars these will be perfect.
10 Swarovski CL Pocket
These eight by twenty-five compact binoculars by industry leaders Swarovski are a perfect product for light weight travellers, backpackers and of course bird watchers. These are very compact but just like the Leica product they sacrifice no functionality or quality. They will be perfect to slip into a pocket even on your commute to work or while on car journeys and on your lunch break but also wouldn’t let you down on a proper bird watching trip, except perhaps at dusk and dawn when the smaller objective lenses won’t transmit quite as much light.
Night Vision Binoculars
Modern technological advancements have given us cheaper and more affordable night vision technology but these aren’t really going to be of any use to you for bird watching. A lot of night vision optics do work in the day time, offering both day and night modes but they do not offer the clarity and image quality of standard optics and really offer no advantage, in fact they are heavier, prone to failure doe to reliance on fast draining batteries and really aren’t the right tool for normal bird watching unless you are out specifically watching nocturnal birds such as owls night vision binoculars aren’t the piece of kit for you.
The same can be said of expensive range finding binoculars, very useful perhaps for hunting but the range finding feature is largely useless when bird watching so the expense, and range finding binoculars are expensive starting at around $1000 and going all the way beyond $3000, isn’t really justified.
Binoculars are absolutely essential for bird watching and you absolutely shouldn’t be without them if you plan on being a serious bird watcher. They are much lighter weight and more portable than spotting scopes and they are also far more versatile for general wildlife observations. The moderate magnification of a set of binoculars is far better for spotting and scanning at normal ranges than the sixty power magnification of a spotting scope.
Do pick the right set of binoculars for the task at hand though, if most of your bird watching will be related to another outdoor activity or just opportunistically then a set of compact binoculars is probably the best option. For most situations though a full sized set of binoculars with a magnification of between seven and ten times and up to a fifty millimetre objective, although forty-two is a great compromise between light gathering and overall size.
You could go truly heavyweight when it comes to binoculars but these really big binoculars like the Celestron Skymaster series. These really big binoculars can be of use in bird hides where you can rest them properly and get a steady view but are generally of most use at sea from boats or for star gazing.
Do use a secure carry strap to protect your investment. Your binoculars might have cost over a thousand dollars and keeping them securely around your neck, or even better on a chest harness or in a specialist binocular pouch like this one from Vortex will protect them from damage as well as allowing you to carry them comfortably and safely.
If I had to choose just one set of binoculars from amongst this list of recommendations for bird watching and money was absolutely no object it would be the Leica’s with the Zeiss a close second. Any of the binoculars recommended here though would be a great choice and the bushnell and nikkon offerings are great choices if you are on a limited budget, with the vortex diamondbacks treading a middle ground in terms of price but still offering excellent quality.
Do ensure that while spotting bargains is a great way to equip yourself with a good set of binoculars at a competitive price that you aren’t distracted by very low prices where cheap binoculars may be made to look quite similar high dollar brand name products like Swarovski or Zeiss but are really just copies. Some of these will offer a relatively good level of quality and image clarity but they will not have the ruggedness that you can expect from reputable brands or the protection of warranties.
Whatever you choose the best birding binocular though do make sure you don’t lose them and that you take care of them, modern high quality binoculars are built to very rugged and durable standards but they are not indestructible so make sure they are secure and that you don’t leave them in a remote bird hide somewhere and lose your most important bird watching tool.
Do go to those remote hides though as often as you can, get out there and watch birds it’s only with practice that you will get good at bird watching and over time your reliance on bird books, the internet and other research tools will diminish and it will only be the really rare or difficult to identify birds that you struggle with. You will see some great scenery as well as some fascinating wildlife while watching birds, enjoy it.