In addition to a good pair of boots and clothes to keep a person protected from the elements, there are special types of equipment most birders need. If you watch birds at a window feeder, you might appreciate a field guide to aid in identification of your feathered guests. You might not need binoculars, but they will certainly come in handy for almost any other kind of birding. They bring those easy birds closer and therefore easier to identify. You may need a scope if you watch certain species that won’t usually allow humans closer than a football field. Scopes are great for watching shorebirds. Because binoculars and scopes also optically shorten the distance between birder and bird, these devices may help prevent a necessary trudge across rough terrain such as a soggy marsh, prevent an otherwise fence crossing or across ocean waves.
There are a few types of birding equipment that are helpful to have at hand such as tape recorders, cameras, compass and others. The necessity of some of these other types of equipment probably depends on the type of birding you plan. Easy birding may not require anything much more than binoculars and a good field guide. Many birders will also carry a pen and notepad to take notes, maybe bug spray, and possibly a GPS, and more. Many birds keep all this stuff in a vest, something that has many zipper pockets to keep all the potentially important bird equipment handy. Of course the more objects carried, the less easy birding becomes.
To identify birds, a birder needs at least one field guide. There are published reviews of guides that may help select the most appropriate one. You can also check field guides from your local library, provided they have any and the guides are current editions. You might borrow one from a birder friend. Also ask people what field guides they prefer. There are pluses and minus about the current set of North American guides, all of which will be avoided here since what is here today may be gone tomorrow. Like most birders, my wife and I use more than one. We also use a couple of the specialized guides. These focus on groups of birds such as hawks and warblers. I especially like the Peterson field guides on those groups, probably because I was working at the museum when their authors researched the collection for the books. The other reason is that the guides really are excellent. That is part of the quandary about selecting field guides. There are so many good ones. At least one will eventually become tattered pages that help make birding an easy experience.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to spend hundreds on a good pair of binocular. I apologize to an old and dear friend’s wife, who is a mover and shaker in one of the big optic companies. Binoculars, binocs, bins, binos, maybe even nocs or noculars, whatever they’re called, I believe it’s possible to be a good birder and not go blind with inexpensive optics.
My first birding was when the process was called bird watching. That was when anyone looking at birds was a strange and sometimes suspicious person. We were just a shade from being a loon even when we were watching one. If you were looking at birds that were not beyond the gun sights of a shotgun, you were being silly. At first, I did not fit in with the rare birder that I met because I was binocularless. Being anxious to get out there and see as many species as I could and no binoculars put a crimp on identifications. As a low-income teenager in the late 1950s, I finally managed to buy my first pair of binoculars. They were 7 X 35 and cost about $30. I had them for nearly 20 years, birding over most of the United States and using them during fieldwork while employed at the museum. The thin leather neck-strap began to wear thinner, silver shinned where black paint once was, and I had identified hundreds of species of birds and thousands, maybe millions of individuals.
Sometime in the 70s, I replaced the worn old friends with a newer more powerful binocular, the first pair being lost in a custody hearing as I recall. The new prism pair, 9 X 35 were great. Again, I birded here and yonder, next to Jon Dunn, Kimball Garret and others, never feeling handicapped by my not-so-keeping-up-the-Jones birding optics. Naturally, anyone birding with Jon and some of the other big birder guru might feel handicapped, but mostly for reasons other than binoculars. A worker shouldn’t blame their tools when things go wrong. What really makes binoculars great is the experience and knowledge of the person looking through them. Unlike me, my binocs were essentially faultless. Maybe their light gathering ability or the sharpness of lens could have been better, but what really helps me, and most birders is getting out there and seeing birds, repeatedly.
The second pair of optics took me through the millennium. When the calendar flipped to the new century, nothing happened to them. They didn’t suddenly stop working or require reprogramming. They remained in perfect alignment and were quick to focus on whatever was the target. In Panama, I identified well over a 100 new life birds and saw a couple hundred more. They fogged a little in the hot steamy tropics but took the abuse. Then one day, a fellow birder on the tour asked if I saw the toucan, and told me that years ago they had a pair of binoculars like mine. I tried to ignore the stressed “years ago.“ Then they walked to the other side of the group. Was the relocation a coincidence? Was this a shunning? Should I feel bad? I cannot answer the first two questions. As for the third question, I did not feel bad. That year, besides all those Panama species, I saw the true colors of 501 species north of Mexico. As for the toucan—I saw it too.
Did those old-fashioned binoculars bring on a little optical one seamanship? Perhaps, but I do not care. However, eventually I began having trouble focusing the old prisms. It became time to upgrade so I opt for a new pair of binoculars. When I had to wear glasses, the new ones easily accommodated my aging affliction. Post cataract surgery, which meant no glasses for far off birds, the new binocs are even better and on sunny days, I can screw in the ocular guard for birding free from sun squints. They are also more powerful than the old nine’s. I like the 10 X 42 arrangement. Cost wise, they hardly fit in with several brands and styles of recommended optics reviewed occasionally in magazines and books. More than likely, my binoculars would not get me into the best parties, but I am confident I can see through them about the same as I could through optics that are more expensive.
So the advice here is read about how to select a good pair of binoculars. There are plenty of good tips out there. Once you think you know what you want, don’t turn up your nose at the lower priced optics. Try them against spendy ones, and contemplate whether the difference is truly worth the extra money. Think also how the difference in cost might help pay for a birding trip and imagine the birds you will see through reasonably priced binoculars.
Certainly, an expensive pair of binoculars might last a lifetime. However, what if you dropped them, lost them, ran over them, and dropped them overboard? Maybe you drop them, then run over them, or because a rare bird is missed since the lens caps were not removed, your rage causes you to hurl them and your golf clubs into the nearest body of water. If the binoculars were insured, was the insurance premium worth it? I keep mine under my seat of my locked car , which means I could lose them easily. Maybe my car insurance would cover the loose, but insurances companies are smart about loop holes and not paying. Regardless, leaving my binoculars back home could really spoil birding. I am not ready to go back to watching without binoculars.
Not spending a bundle on binoculars may make it easier to justify replacing an existing pair with super binocs. Some manufactures distribute binoculars that take away vibrations. The option sounds useful for highly caffeinated birders, windy days and older birders. It is just a matter of time. Today there are audio devices that identify or almost identify heard songs. It is another one of those pieces of equipment to put in your vest. Why not purchase computerized binoculars that identify the bird you are observing. It might work something like a computer matching fingerprints or facial recognition. What will they think of next? Technology could become so, well, technical, that it wouldn’t even be necessary to go birding. How easy is that?
Whatever the brand of binocular, there are good and better ways of adjusting the neck strap. The straps are long enough that you can dangle your binocs almost to the apex of your legs. Don’t and if you do and are a guy, expect to speak octaves higher. Adjust the neck strap so that the binocs rest high on your chest, in the nipple range. I like mine so high that when I raise them to see through the oculars, the eye lenses just clear my nose. In doing so, the binoculars are less likely sway and bang into me and more importantly, are close to my eyes. It is sort of like driving with your foot hovering over the brake pedal. Your reaction time is short.
One problem is that neck straps place the weight of the binocs on the back of the neck. Binocular harnesses or suspenders, contraptions that distribute the optic’s weight are available. These inexpensive devices may also help stabilize the binocs, which is good for wind or if you are shaking up your own breeze. One size of harness or suspender does not fit all binoculars, and some do not allow easy switching between neck strap and harness. Not easy, is a relative term, just as is easy birding. Whatever works best is easy. The main thing is to have the binoculars not become a painful tool and to have them ready for a “quick, aim, and fire” mode.
Scopes, tripods and a stool
Scopes or spotting scopes extend the optic magnification so much that what might appear as a speck across a winter field in Oklahoma is actually a female Smith’s Longspur. OK, that’s what we need, but not everyone. Birders content with bird feeders probably don’t need a scope. Birders who bird with people who have scopes will not need a scope. Birders who do bird with a scope are doing so to help make identifications easy. Mostly, scopes bring a suspect close enough to confirm the identification. Sometimes a scope helps sort through the chaff. Not long ago I checked a flock of loafing ducks on the shore of a reservoir. Through the binoculars, I could only identify Northern Shovelers and Mallards. With my scope, I found a male Northern Pintail sandwiched between two female shovelers. The pintail was the first for my county list that year.
My first scope was a $20 hunter special mounted on a gun stock I made in high school wood shop. It worked fine with shorebirds in Maine, even birding around Washington, D.C. and other places until late in the 20th Century when I began feeling uncomfortable caring it. It wasn’t heavy. Its appearance made me finally give it up. Some people, including police and park rangers, perceived a threat, but not using the scope on the gun stock was really for my security.
Following years of eyestrain and walking more to the birds, I replaced the old howitzer with a short scope that actually telescopes to a length that will fit in a pocket. It even fits in the vest pocket, and I’ve only dropped it once. It zooms from 15 to 45.
It’s possible to handhold the scope at a little over 15 power. That works well for grebes a couple of football fields across the water. Cranking over 15 becomes a problem. That is when I look for a tree, fence post or something solid to brace the scope. I have a mount for the car but rarely use it. When I get really serious, an inexpensive and unfortunately rickety tripod I keep for such emergencies comes into play. Like the binocs, I keep the scope under the car seat and the tripod wherever it ends up. None of the tools are helpful if left at home.
Tripods are essential for high-powered scope work. Being on the frugal side, I have yet to get a leg up on good tripods. While using someone else’s scope, I refrain from touching anything except rarely the focus. Although I am somewhat tripod stupid, I naturally have a couple of opinions. One, the tripod ought be solid enough to dampen most vibrations. After all, many of those wide-open spaces are windy. The scope cannot be a shaky as you are from the wind, the cold, too many nerves jangling from any number of things, including excitement of what you’ll see through the scope. Too much coffee may also make one unsteady, either from the caffeine stimulating wakefulness or from its diuretic effect. Which condition might be difficult to eliminate? If you are carrying a tripod, hope that its weight is not heavy. Otherwise, what may have started as an easy day becomes difficult. Who wants to be a birder of burden?
Long and steady use of a scope may cause physical strain. Standing for long cold minutes, maybe hours, staring through a scope may anger more than a skeletal joint or two. For me, it is my whole back. When needed, I use a three-legged camp stool. By shortening the scope’s tripod legs to agree with my stool set-up, I can sit for hours watching birds on an offshore island or a sandy spit. The stool is light-weight, comfortable and helps alleviate my back pain.
Contents of a well-stocked birding vest
What goes in the many pockets of a birder’s vest may vary depending on personal tastes, but there are more or less essential items. At least I think so. My vest includes the following perihelia:
Note pad and working pen. The pad should have a cover to protect the valuable notes. The ink in most pens will not run from rain, but check different ones to make sure your notes are not lost to nature.
Eye drops. A small bottle of the moisturizing eye drops will help ease those burning eyes into a pair of comfortable bird oglers.
DEET bug spray. It is sold in the finer anti bug establishments in a small spray number. Don’t get it on your other stuff including optics and delicate body parts.
Compass. You never know, besides, it might help relocate a bird. A GPS may also help, but more on electronics in another chapter.
Field guide. Even if you think you won’t need one, it’s a good idea to avoid the frustration of being lost without a guide.
Whistle. Actually, only Linda has a whistle although I should get one too. Why? It might come in handy when attacked by a predator, such as a bear, a golden retriever or a cougar (sometimes it’s hard to know) or a human. It might be just the thing as you slowly sink into the quick sand that your mother warned you about or if you are lost, it beats bread crumbs.
Plastic bags. Two or three will do nicely. They are for containing something yucky you want to keep off your birder outfit. Possibly, you found a dead bird and want someone to identify it. Of course, that is illegal unless you have a dead bird permit. One of those bags is also good to collect lunch leftovers.
Lunch. This is optional. There’s no need to pocket a lunch or some other snack unless you plan on using it that day. Most vests have at least a pocket or two that will accommodate a sandwich. Don’t forget to eat it, and be careful to avoid other hungry animals that might be in the vicinity. You may need that whistle in some parts of the country.
Camera. The digital camera de jour fits handily in one of the pockets and has an optic zoom of 10-power. In the chapter on electronics contains a snap-shot on cameras.
Tape recorder. Another optional item that gets stuffed in a pocket if I want to coax a bird using a tape of its call or song. Linda carries a small digital recorder for record keeping.
Water. Usually a 16 oz bottle of water in one of those cute little holders is clipped on my belt, but for long and hot trips, a couple more bottles go in a zipper flap on the back of the vest. I think the back vest pocket was actually meant for a fish or two.
What you wear birding is part of the equipment. It is something that assists us in easy birding. Although most of us have a pretty good idea how to dress, a quick review may be in order. Layering is important, whether it is cold or hot. In hot climes, the upper body might do well in just a t-shirt. The lower parts could be covered with pants. Skirts, regardless of your sex, just are not practical in birdland. Too many critters can fly or crawl up them not to mention a revealing wind puffing a few yards of material up and over the belt line. Clothes that flap and flutter in the breeze or may become caught in the briar patch should be avoided. That goes for outer shirts, jackets and coats. In hot regions, an outer, long sleeve shirt is a good idea. It saves on sunscreen and really is not hot. Remember those photos of Arabs in the torrid desert sands. They kept themselves covered, just as the western cowpokes wore long sleeves and big hats. Long sleeves help avoid skin cancer. The colder it gets, the fewer tropical birds you are likely to see, so a good windbreaker is handy. Wear a brimmed hat and keep a knit one in a pocket for winter. In the summer, have a cooling vest handy. What? These vests are full of some material beyond my pay-grade, that, when soaked in water will help keep you cool. They really work. The garment works on the principle of evaporation. Another new technology works on sweat whereby your perspiration causes something in the fabric to become cool. It does not address odor. Think of these products as your very own dog tongue rolling away unwanted body heat.
Sometimes a good pair of boots are just not enough while imitating a penguin during a winter walk. Packed snow and ice are conditions to cause easy birding to fall flat. To avoid those embarrassing and possibly health care wallet draining accidents try putting traction devices on the boots. Such contraptions include metal such as spring-like webs that can easily be strapped to the bottom of most foot ware.
Now that is over, think about colors. Earth tones are best. There seems to be some controversy regarding white or not. It is puzzling that there is. As mentioned earlier, do not wave your white handkerchief around. It might be mistaken for an alarmed deer. You know, the ones with the white under tail sticking up as they run away. Birds often take cues from other animals. So avoid white anything except possibly underwear, which should not be visible anyway. After all, except for winter plumaged ptarmigan, how many species of birds out there are white. Sure, gulls are white, but birds that must hide now and then are not so easily visible. Those that worry about predators may have white parts such as white outer tail feathers and wing patches. However, those white areas are not there so that the bird with the attribute goes unnoticed, something birders need to do. Those white areas help birds to communicate. It may be to keep others, especially those of the same species, away or to keep them close. Even if you don’t buy it, as some don’t, how hard is it to find some subtle tones to wear while birds. Keep the whites for picking up stains elsewhere.
Why worry about flapping coat tails and white shirts? This is not for style or for birders to be easily located. Non-flapping birders not wearing white is to make it harder for birds to see birders attempting easy birding.
Birders might want to include a map and definitely a pain pill to take after an hour or so of lugging so much stuff. I forgot that sometimes my little scope sits in one of the larger pockets opposite the field guide. The two items weigh about the same and help balance the load.
A field guide and a pair of working binoculars is really all that is needed for birding. All the other things, the scope, tripod, bug spray, and other stuff stuffed in a vest are needed only if you want birding to be easy. If you take it easy, stay in the car or look out the kitchen window, DEET and GPS’s are redundant. Stepping up the hunt, looking for a certain peep across the sand, will mean working harder. That can be fun, but not for everyone. The items in the equipment list have a relative need, depending on the relative difficulty and the converse, ease that is the effort expended to see birds. For some, a good smear of DEET is heaven, so long as that Snail Kite doesn’t fly way.
Now for a few words on what earlier was hinted at with the words more and other while talking birder vests and birder equipment. Electronics here refers to devices that help get the easy bird. This section is not addressing cell phones, walkie-talkies or flashlights. Discussion here are a few sentences on wireless devices that are so common that they are almost appendages to the lowly human. It should not be shocking to think that someday we might plant a beacon, maybe a tiny think on a stick, out in the woods or a desert that will report back every bird detected within a mile-radius. Someday, easy birding will become too easy.
In the meantime, we can have some fun and help ourselves with a few toys to aid in easy birding. First, probably before leaving home, it might be a good idea to check the internet about the birds you hope to see and the location where you might see them. Most all of us know there is a great minefield of information such as everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask. There are sights on different aspects of birds such as identification, taxonomy, distribution and yes, more. Information on birding locations, how to get there, what to expect in terms of not just birds but vegetation, where to lodge, and, yes, even more.
Once in the field, the generic term for being out there someplace where birds like to frequent, you may want an electronic type of field guide. There are several on the market and come with different pros and cons according to different reviews of the products. As an easy birder, I would have to have to the birding day ruined by battery failure, but that is just a small problem if the easy birder studied before the day’s test.
Another electronic device is some kind of audio source for bird vocalizations. The recordings will provide to benefits, so to speak. One is hearing the recording will allow the easy birder to check themselves. Was that melody just heard a crow or raven? The other benefit of recorded bird vocalizations are discussed beyond. Anyway, such audio may be downloaded on to your cell phone if it is smart enough. That of course depends on how smart you are since all the whistles and bells of whatever device available may not be all that easy to manipulate. Ease in use will depend on how intuitive you are and how intuitive the program you are using is. A work around to such problems might be memorizing bird vocalizations as you come across them and trying to mimic the sounds when in the field. Whether going the way of your application on your smarty phone or MP 3 device or going old school is a personal choice.
Playing bird vocalizations also attract birds. By now, easy birders know that playing a Northern Cardinal will attract any nearby cardinal. Playing the calls and especially songs of most species will attract the same species. Is this a good thing? Fooling a bird that its territory is being invaded by one of it own, a conspecies, usually results in a close view for the birder. How easy can it get? Use of playing a recording to ferret out a target species has pros and cons. Mostly, the birding technique of playback is a con. It cons the bird, resulting in an anxious and stressed individual that was otherwise already under duress from other birds, including conspecies and predators. They hear a recording challenging them to a duel. Imagine being challenged in a similar manner. Someone calls you, says your loved one is in danger. Of course you physiology ramps up with increased hear and breathing rate, adrenalin is released and maybe you need a change in underwear. Suddenly, you realize it was a wrong number. Whew. However, minutes later you receive the same message. You run out of underwear and collapse. Well, maybe it won’t be that bad, but little birds are not smart enough to reason. The keep meeting the challenge of the playback while a the eggs get cold, a predator sneaks in a devours the contents of a nest or the bird gives up from fright and abandons its territory. Also, some properties of the Nature Conservancy and other holdings prohibit the use of playback. Think before using playback.
Finally, which is incorrect since the development and use of electronic devices will continue to grow, keep in mind birding is to see birds and not to harm the bird you see today in order that it might be seen tomorrow. If an amazing bird sighting comes your way, don’t rush to the web and post the location without asking yourself about endangering the bird. Some species are easily spooked and cannot tolerate too many humans, others prized by hunter and still others need privacy such as many endangered species. Be judicious.
There are many wireless ways to find and identify birds. Details about these are on the net and in your finder birding magazines. Some will improve the game of easy birds while some may seem, at first or forever, be an anchor to birding progress. For the older or should I say seasoned birders, try to learn how to use your electronics before birding with others. Possibly someone might have the time and patience for tutoring, but do not count on it. Other birders are looking for birds, not trouble shooting your lack of electronic savvy. If wireless troubles hang on and you cannot stand looking for birds, take along a grandchild. Those kids can do anything except be quiet and just maybe a new easy birder will hatch.