Size isn’t everything, especially when it comes to binoculars. I have always been amused and bemused by the fact that in movies whenever people use bins they are enormous. The bins, that is. By BILL ODDIE
Fair enough if it is a black and white naval saga – binoculars were clumsily huge in those days – but that is not the case now. Surely the modern military – or CIA, or FBI or whoever – who are now fully digitalised and equipped with all manner of computers, range finders, telephoto lenses, drones and the like, surely they are using the latest state of the art binoculars? They would be compact and lightweight.
Perhaps very lightweight, like the Leica Ultravid compact range, which weigh a mere 230g. They are brilliant, and will fit in any pocket, but they don’t really fulfil two criteria that are of paramount importance to a birdwatcher. Because they are miniature, they have a relatively small field of view, and also a slightly less bright image. I have known people using miniatures (also known as ‘compacts’) say “they are great, but I do have some difficulty finding the birds, especially in flight.” In fact, compacts are ideal as a second pair, to be kept in a pocket, a brief case, or in the car glove compartment (locked of course!) but just about every birdwatchers “main” binoculars will be “normal size”, which is still a great deal smaller than in the movies!
During over sixty years of birding, I have only ever used 8x or 10x binoculars. Now and then I have tested something with bigger magnification such as 12x or 15x, but – though the picture is great – carrying them and holding them steady isn’t.
At the moment, I am enjoying using my new Leica 10×42 Ultravid HD-Plus. Naturally, I couldn’t resist making comparisons with a few other models and makes, including with some fairly ancient Leicas. Even the oldest are still optically impressive. My 1970s Leitz have rather frayed eyecups (replacements still available via the Internet!), and I didn’t much care for the entirely 1980s barrel shaped design, that meant they were as weighty as they looked. However, they were soon usurped by something altogether more elegant and finger friendly, and of course optically even more impressive. The current models are truly exquisite.
In my experience, the various optical companies – whilst remaining rivals – are generous in their appreciation of one another’s products. At a given price there is probably no such thing these days as a bad pair of binoculars.
The basic specifications of most of the top brands tend to be similar, but there is one quality you can only judge for yourself – “feel”. It comes in two stages. Firstly, is the very first time you hold them. Some just don’t feel right, though you can’t put your finger on why (no pun intended). Others feel totally wrong. Others still – like mine – feel just right, cosy in my hands, comfortable on my eyes, with an image as bright and true as nature itself. The second stage only comes with time. After using your bins in the field, in varying weathers, over different terrains, and indeed looking at a variety of birds at variable distances: only then can you be certain that these are meant for you! It is only fair to say it may take a short while to get used to new binoculars, but after that they should feel as essential and as integral as a body part!
WHAT HAVE I BEEN LOOKING AT LATELY?
This is the time of the year (it used to be called winter!) the weather can be grey, mild and damp one day, but sunny, clear and freezing the next. There have been days when my garden was buzzing with Bumble Bees gathering pollen on a flowering Mahonia. Whenever I look at them through binoculars it gives me a real sense of delight. That’s a home truth that is: all insects look great through binoculars and you are less likely to disturb them than if you lean too close.
That often happens if I try to get some macro shots with my camera. I don’t consider myself a proper photographer and certainly not a wildlife specialist, but what I do enjoy is trying to capture shapes and natural designs. Silhouettes, reflections, and different postures as birds preen, or better still display to each other, or start tussling with rivals. Most days I spend half an hour in the garden sitting at the dilapidated table with bins and camera at the ready.
If I can afford a bit more time off, I only have to cross the road to have the whole of Hampstead Heath to explore. There is a lot of it, but I often get no further than the first Pond which features not only a duck feeding area (no bread please!) but also has a decent wildfowl population of mallard, coot, swans, grebes and so on, plus kingfishers, and woodpeckers and parakeets in the nearby trees. It wont be long before they are joined by the first summer migrants, probably blackcap, chiffchaff and willow warbler in that order. All of them easier to hear than see.
That also applies to the next phase of Heath watching in spring. Birders call it “Viz Mig.”, which is short for “visible migration”. It involves standing on top of Parliament Hill (one of the highest points in London) straining your ears and testing your eyes to pick out migrant birds that have wintered in Africa and Southern Europe, and are now heading high over Hampstead Heath to their more northerly breeding areas. At a distance many of them are merely tiny tazzing little dots. Believe me, that’s when you need the best binoculars!