Binoculars remain the essential tool for bird-watchers, but connected devices such as smartphones can elevate a humble hobby into the realm of science.
Coordinating a team of bird-watchers, also known as birders, becomes easy using texts and tweets. Species identification can be done upon sighting with smartphone apps, or later at home using a location-tagged video or photo.
But first, where would a birder be without binoculars?
“Since birding is nearly 90 percent listening, you could say that actually seeing birds is optional,” Georgann Schmalz, president of Birding Adventures and three-time former president of the Audubon Society in Atlanta, told TechNewsDaily. “But what fun would that be to only hear birds and never observe them close up?”
“Using a bunch of quarters that I had saved up, I bought my first pair of binoculars for $20 at Sears,” Schmalz said. “I’ve been birding for 50 years or so.”
Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a good pair of binoculars for less than $200. However, due to recent advances in lens technology and manufacturing, what started out as heavy and large is now lighter and of far better quality than binoculars of 20 years ago.
A good pair of binoculars can last a lifetime, so choose wisely, Schmalz said.
“I advise people to choose the best optics that they can afford and to choose from the manufacturers with the best optical quality,” she said.
Power and size of the binoculars is important and a pair of numbers is used to describe these two features.
A lower power offers a wider field of view, which allows birders to spot birds more quickly, especially in dense foliage. Higher power makes it easier to discern a distant bird’s markings.
The size of the objective lens determines how much light can enter the binoculars and is measured in millimeters. The larger the lens, the better you’ll see in dim light.
“I usually recommend 8X (power) for beginners, saving the 10X for experienced viewers,” Schmalz said. “The optic size should be no less than 40mm, which is the measurement of the diameter of the objective lens. So a pair of 8 X 42 binoculars is a perfect starting point.”
There are two types of binoculars distinguished by their prism, Porro and roof. Prisms are what let you see a correctly oriented image when you look through a pair of binoculars.
Roof prisms are essentially in line inside the optical tubes, and make for a more compact set of binoculars. Porro prisms have offset tubes; the objective lens is not in line with the ocular lens.
“Generally the better binoculars are the roof prism models that are sturdier, sharper and brighter than the Porro prism,” she said.
Second only to binoculars, smartphones can be essential tools for birders.
“Where would birding be today without the handheld devices from iPhones and iPod Touches, loaded with a dozen or more apps on birding identification and bird songs?” Schmaltz said.
For instance, the Audubon Birds Field Guide app is available for iPhone, iPad and Android phones.
Schmaltz uses email, texts and listservs to share bird sightings with fellow birders. Birders should also head over to Twitter, a favorite place for watchers. As of this moment, Twitter directory service WeFollow.com lists 170 birders in order of influence, meaning number of followers. Burdr tops the list with more than 5,000 followers and also hosts a group photo stream on Flickr, where more than 800 members share their field photos.
"I know that the people who enjoy birds are oftentimes just as interesting as the birds we watch," Andrew Acomb, the Seattleite behind Burdr, wrote on his blog.
Not the rare bird
For some birders, it’s about spotting rare birds in unexpected locations – vagrants, in birdspeak. Not so for Schmalz.
“I try not to take any birding moment or sighting for granted no matter where I am or what I’m seeing,” she said.
Her most memorable moments include seeing common birds doing uncommon things, such as Brown Thrashers anting or spotting a Great Gray Owl on a Minnesota utility line in January at 20 degrees below zero.
“Birding goes far beyond the 'see it, check it off the list and quickly move on,'” she said. “I want to understand my birds, and I try to spread that energy to other beginning birders.”
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