A Guide for the Well-Equipped Birdwatcher

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Enough about Angry Birds already!  Real birds don’t strap themselves into slingshots, as any birdwatcher, a.k.a. birder, will tell you. They know because they observe the chirpy critters in the wild or in urban parks. They spy on flocks through binoculars. They snap pictures; they take notes. High-tech birders can think of better uses for their mobile screens than playing games.

The traditional birder needs nothing more than a pair of field glasses and a pocket notebook: binoculars for scrutinizing the avian community up close from a distance; pen and paper for noting sightings. If only things were that simple.

In the high-tech age binoculars are just the starting point. While any rugged pair with decent optics will do, manufacturers play to the birding community with brands like Bushnell Birder Binoculars, Eagle Optics and Sparrow Binoculars. Basic black models work because the color is unlikely to attract attention, but camouflage coloration may be even more subtle for the watcher steeped in foliage. Though you may own Victorian opera glasses—some with a perpendicular handle—they’re meant for use in the balcony rather than deep in the woods.

Binoculars offer their own accessories: harnesses or suspenders so they can dangle from your shoulders hands-free, dual harnesses for supporting two cameras or a camera and binoculars, tripod adapters and even car mounts (for the drive-through birder). Specialty carrying bags accommodate binoculars and cameras, among other bird-watching gear.

You may wonder why you need binoculars at all if you’re taking along a trusty camera or two. After all, a point-and-shoot with an exceptional optical zoom (10x or greater) or a DSLR with long lens (300mm or greater) can put you eyeball-to-beak. The primary reason is that most of your time will be spent watching and waiting, an activity that is binocular-friendly but tends to drain the battery of anything electronic. Also, do you really want to be peering at a TV monitor in the great outdoors when you could be experiencing nature directly?

Cameras do have their perks. Some, for example, have a built-in Global Positioning System (GPS), so your spotting locations are automatically embedded in each photo’s metadata. Also, most new still cameras can capture video, too, so if birds take flight, you can capture the commotion. Also, what’s bird watching without bird listening? A camera that records video means it can also save the singsong. If you’re serious about audio, you may want to use a camera that accepts an external microphone such as a shotgun microphone. A parabolic microphone is useful for gathering sounds from a distance. Better yet, bring along an audio field recorder.

Ground Level Support Bird Watching Fluid Head

If you plan to shoot from a worm’s eye view, consider a specialized accessory that lets you slide and pan your camera on mud or sand while protecting the equipment from moisture and dirt. If you’re using a tripod, there are fluid heads designed for the exceptionally smooth pans and tilts required for capturing avian movements. No matter the camera’s altitude, be sure to bring along extra batteries and memory cards. You don’t want to be caught short when a so-called extinct species wanders into view.

If you believe that the early birder catches the bird, then you should tote wraps impregnated with an anti-fog compound. Use them on the lenses of binoculars and cameras. On the flip side, if you‘re a bat hunter, you should take along night-vision goggles for your binoculars. And a flashlight.

If you’re trekking through the backwoods day or night, you may want to bring along a GPS-based digital compass. You can store locations and more easily back your way out to civilization.

More controversial accessories include laser pointers and bird sound emitters. The former lets you point out a subject to fellow birders. However, you should avoid pointing the laser at the bird’s eyes. The safest approach is to point the beam off target and whisper “3 o’clock” or some variation. Species-specific sounds are readily available on CD or as downloadable files. If you carry a music player with an external speaker or amplify the simulated bird sounds in the field, you might have a leg up on attracting the flesh-in-feather version. However, you should employ such trickery sparingly if at all, since fooling Mother Nature can have unintended consequences, especially if an endangered species is distracted from defending or nourishing its chicks. A more ethical use of recorded bird sounds would be to wear earphones and use them strictly for the purpose of helping you identify the birds in your midst.

Of course, carrying a reference guide either in the form of a book or as an application you’ve downloaded to a digital media player may prove to be the most valuable accessory of all.