For birdwatchers, everything happens in May. Some 10 billion birds are starting their spectacular, annual migration, up from their wintering grounds in the south. It’s your month to see new birds that don’t normally live around here, such as this beautiful tktkbird. They’re just passing through, to breeding grounds further north.
To catch the show, you’ll need the right binoculars and – if you’re a novice – the right birdwalks, with experienced guides. I’ll tell you about the May walks further down. First, I want to answer a question that I’m often asked: “Which birding binoculars should I buy?”
There’s no single “best” binocular, or “bin,” as birders call it. The best one for you depends on the kind of birder you are, how quickly you can focus on objects, what weight and size bin you’re comfortable carrying and how much you want to pay.
Bins have different magnification and light intake levels. They’re expressed in two numbers with an "x" in between, such as 7x35 or 10x42. The first number is the binocular’s magnification power. The higher it goes, the closer an object will look. The second number is the front lens diameter (in millimeters). High numbers mean that more light will enter your binocular, making the image brighter and easier to see.
I recommend a lens diameter of 42, for its brightness. How much magnification you need, however, depends on how fast you are to focus. When someone says, “Yellow warbler in the pine tree,” can you find it before it flies away? Lower magnifications give you a broader field, which makes it more likely that you’ll see the bird in time. With higher magnifications, you need to be able to focus quickly on just the right branch.
The higher magnification, 10x42 binocular, is great on a hawk watch. Professional bird counters use even high magnifications on hawk and sea watches, to differentiate the age and sex of a bird from a distance of up to three miles.
But for spring migration, and other local situations, you are looking at small, quick-moving birds at a distance of 20 to 300 feet. An 8x42 will be far more rewarding for birders at the novice or intermediate level. I use 8x42s myself, when I lead bird walks. It helps me a focus on the bird very quickly and stay with it, so I can help others find it.
The best way to buy binoculars is to try them out for a half hour or so to see if they fit your hand, feel light enough to carry for a few hours, conform easily to your face (and glasses if you use them) and focus easily.
Most good bins now have straight barrels, without a bend. The focusing ring, in between the two barrels, should be easy for your finger to reach and turn, so you can stay on a moving object. All good models expand or contract, to fit the distance between your eyes. Look for a dial that lets you focus each barrel separately, to compensate for any difference in each of your eyes’ capabilities. The eye “cups” on the binocular barrels should adjust easily, depending on whether you are wearing glasses or viewing with your naked eye.
Weight is also important, if you plan to walk any distance with your bins. Hoist them several times, and hang them around your neck, to see how comfortable they are. People with small hands might prefer a 7x42, although the 8x42 is the best all-around model.
Finally there is price. Beginner and intermediate birders will find a lot of great choices in the $150 to $1,000 price range, for brands such as Eagle Optics, Nikon, Steiner and Vortex. Serious wildlife watchers might want to spring for the lighter, higher-priced models, such Leica, Swarovski and Zeiss.
Because so much depends on personal preference, I recommend that you use local vendors rather than mail order catalogues. Whether it is $150 to $2,500 (and that is the range) you are spending a lot on something you might find yourself using almost daily. So work with local people who care about their reputation in the community, know a lot about the birds and the binoculars, and will let you test the product.
Our Audubon Greenwich Center has a great selection of binoculars. There are also three Wild Birds Unlimited stores in the area -- one in Bedford, N.Y., and two in Connecticut, in Darien and Danbury. B & H in New York City has a fantastic selection of optics and great staff but your ability to try out the product out is more limited.
Bins in hand, it’s time to get out in the field to see the action. Conservation organizations celebrate International Migratory Bird Day on the second Saturday in May -- this year, May 12. Special birding events go on all month. Audubon Greenwich has bird identification classes and walks on its property. Check its calendar for listings. Here’s where you’ll find the walks sponsored by Saw Mill River Audubon. This Audubon page lists other groups near you.
If you don’t have a local Audubon chapter, check your local nature center. I am even going on a bird walk this month at the Darien Country Club, so everyone is getting in the act! As I said, for birders everything happens in May.