Starting off on birding requires very little basic equipment with the bare minimum generally accepted to be a pair of binoculars, a decent field guide and a note book.
You can attempt to do birding without a pair of binoculars (bino’s), but you will miss many sightings in doings so.
Buying your first pair requires some thought as you will probably use them for some time. The pair that you will settle on will be based on a combination of personal preferences, budget and technical specs.
Your pair of binoculars need to feel comfortable to handle and should be a weight which you will be able to carry for long periods without getting tired.
Before going out to buy a pair there are a few things that you need to consider beforehand, as they could influence the models you are looking for:
- Do you wear glasses? If you do then having enough eye relief becomes important. Eye relief is the distance between the eyepiece and your eye when you are seeing a clear and focused image that fills the full view of the binoculars. Eye relief is provided by the cups on the small lenses that can be turned in or out. With glasses you will turn then in so that the lens is almost directly in touch with your glasses. With glasses you also need to decide on fog proof binoculars, as in my experience the fog proofing works well without glasses, but can leave the binoculars clear and your glasses fogged up in humid conditions.
- Do you want full-size or compact binoculars? This will be based on factors such as the weight you want to carry, where and how you will use the binoculars i.e. when space is limited (traveling long distances or hiking). Compacts are less adjustable for the distance between they eyes, and could be uncomfortable to people with wider faces.
- How do the binoculars feel when you hold them? Test this by holding several types of binoculars. Comfort is important when you’re using your binoculars for a long period of time.
- How durable do they need to be, and what are the additional features and benefits you require? Lifetime warranties make a difference and as you will be using your bino’s outdoors and they could take some beating. I would advise to take waterproof ones, as there is nothing as bad is being caught in a down pour and trying to keep them dry. How well the lens caps fit and if they are fixed or not are important to some people, to me personally they are just a hindrance. Whether they are fog-proof or not also need to be decided, but there is nothing as bad as trying to see a bird and they fog up, but bear in mind that they could fog-up your glasses.
Decide on how much you can spend. Never buy cheap binoculars as they will soon become a frustration, and you will spend money again on a better pair. Most birdwatchers are also keen wildlife enthusiast and should you not find birding appealing in the long run, they will still be useful to watch other wildlife. Always spend the most you can afford, there are some very good ones on the market at very fair prices.
Buy your binoculars from a reputable store, and this can be a physical store or a trusted online store. The secret here is to physically test the pairs before you buy. Professional camera and photographic shops tend to have the largest selection and their advice and knowledge tends to be very good. Their prices might be higher than online or retail stores, but don’t be shy to negotiate with them. If you know which pair you want there is nothing that holds you back from buying online, but never buy any pair if you have not handled them personally.
The most popular sizes tend to be 10×50 and 8×42. For birding 10 x 50 is the maximum that you should consider. But what do these numbers mean? The first number is the amount of magnification and relates to the number of times the image is magnified against what you can see with the naked eye. The second number is a measure of their ability to gather light. The bigger that number is, the brighter the image will be, especially early mornings when birds are most active or in poor light (like in a forest).
Having both these number the highest is not necessarily better. Look for no more than 10 times magnification. 8 or 10 is best. Magnification magnifies everything, including how much your hands shake or how much the wind is blowing you about. Strong magnification also reduces your field of view making it more difficult to find the bird in the binoculars. Nothing is more irritating than being able to see the bird with your naked eye, but not being able to find it in the binoculars.
Another thing to consider is the strap. Most binoculars have the standard around your neck type of strap and these vary from very basic and uncomfortable thin webbing to thicker padded and slightly elastic straps. As you will be wearing your binos for long hours getting one with a comfortable strap is very important.
Many people have now started using harness straps that are worn across the back and over the shoulders. They are jokingly referred to as man-bras, but do not let this put you off as large numbers find them very comfortable. I personally do not like them as I find them cumbersome to take on an off and they tend to get in the way of my camera. But try both types out for yourself before making a decision as both have merits.
Also look out for where the strap connectors are placed on the binoculars. If they are too far down the binoculars, and not within the first quarter of the length of bino’s from the end you have against your eyes, they will hang at an uncomfortable angle away from your chest.
Apart from your field guide I also recommend to take a little note book with you. With this you can not only list what you have seen, but also make notes or sketches of the birds and what you have observed to aid you in identification.