Birds, Binoculars and Field Guides

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The Ornithologist
The Ornithologist

One of the nicest things about birdwatching is that it is cheap. You don’t have to travel much if at all, you don’t have to buy expensive gear, there are no admission charges, and you don’t have to stand in line to get in. No wonder 70 million people in the U.S. consider themselves birdwatchers at some level.

Now, you don’t really need binoculars to birdwatch, but they make birdwatching a whole lot easier and many birds will be impossible to identify without them. You can get an acceptable  pair for as little as $30, although better ones are pricier. Compare several makes and models. See what feels good in your hands and what fits your face.

Binoculars come with numbers like 7×50, 8×29, 8×40 or 10×50. The first number is the magnification; what you see is that many times larger than you would see with naked eyes. The second number is the diameter of the large front lens in millimeters. The greater the number the more light is captured. So higher numbers such as 10×50 mean high magnification and admit a lot of light. Are they best for bird watching, then? Not necessarily, because 1) they are heavier than binoculars with smaller numbers and 2) they magnify movement as well. So they are best used in a stable situation when, for example, you are sitting or have them on a tripod. On the other hand 8×20 binoculars are light and easy to carry but have a smaller field of view and let in the least light. Good for backpacking but not serious birdwatching. Best for birdwatching are 7×35 or 8×42. Try before buying to see what you like. And see for more information.

When you have your binocs in hand you can start birdwatching, but you need a field guide to identify them. There are several good ones such as the Sibley or Peterson guides to Western U.S. birds. If you have some experience birdwatching, you can probably figure out what birds you see by comparing the illustrations and looking at the range maps, but if you have minimal experience, the best thing to do is go out with someone who knows the birds and can point them out to you. Your local  Audubon Society  offers free field trips and they welcome beginners. The more you birdwatch, the easier it becomes.

Fall and winter are good times to begin birdwatching because there are a lot of migratory birds wintering in the valley and many waterfowl. Waterfowl often sit in the open where they can be observed easily and ducks are especially easy to identify as the males are sporting their colorful breeding plumage.  There are only three abundant species of geese and one kind of swan, so waterfowl can be your entry to the world of birdwatching. 

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