How to Choose Binoculars for Birding
It is no wonder that bird watching is amongst America's fastest-growing leisure activities. A recent US Fish & Wildlife Service survey claimed that more than 50 million Americans watch birds. After all, it is a healthy activity that lets you commune with nature and connect with fellow birders; it affords the occasional thrill of a rare observation, and you can do it anywhere. Besides, it's good for your conscience: supporting birding is supporting environmental conservation, for all the bigger sport optics firms contribute to environmental organizations (it is in their best interests).
As digital photography reached all American households, with everyone of every age owning a point and shoot digital camera or three, photographing birds via 'digi-scoping' also blossomed immensely. The two go hand in hand.
Once you buy the basics, birding has practically no recurring costs. Bird watchers need binoculars, first and foremost, along with a hat to shade your eyes without inhibiting the use of the binoculars. Most birders also carry a journal and pen to record observations, and a field guide to learn the birds.
A handy pocket-sized (4.6 x 7") weather-proof journal we carry is the Rite in the Rain Journal Spiral Notebook , which goes hand-in-hand with the Rite in the Rain All-Weather Pen. For making positive 'id's in the field, we carry the Penguin Book of North American Birds, which has illustrations of over 600 native species and a special listing of 100 rare finds.
Larger binoculars with wider objective lenses gather more light and make viewing more stable because there's a bigger shaft of light emitted from the unit. Larger units are also heavier, of course, and so most enthusiasts settle on a 42mm or 32mm objective lens. In a perfect world, every binocular would be razor sharp from center to edge, weather-impervious, able to focus at arm's length, enormously wide of field, have long eye relief for all viewers and become an invisible extension of your vision- and oh yes, they would weigh nothing and cost nothing, too. But binoculars are like shoes-there's different models for different scenarios and you can't have one configuration do all. Each makes compromises. Choose a 8x or 7x magnification unit for general birding, and if you want that extra bold view and don't mind the narrower field go for a 10x-12x unit.
If you're interested in just one pair of shoes, there are many fine models in the marketplace. Likely the most popular model is Nikon's Monarch 8x42, a talented performer in every regard-bright, sharp, close focusing, durable, and easily handled. Without weakness, it's a tremendous value given its exceptional standards.
Similarly priced, Swift's BWCF Audubon is a Japanese-made unit popular with experienced birders who want wide, sharp fields at a good price. The Swift Audubon engulfs you in its view and has gobs of eye relief, but is a bigger porro prism unit (identified by the 'bent' body design). At a lower price point, Audubon's Raptor series offers similarly wide viewing fields and waterproof performance as with the Swift BWCF 8.5x44.
The main difference when increasing the binocular budget beyond $300 is that you get a wide field combined with good eye relief and a light, svelte unit. The pricier units also aim to eliminate chromatic aberration (the 'spreading' of color at the edge of bird and background). All binoculars beyond $350 or so are made in Europe or Japan.
Not well known but nonetheless exceptional, Swift's Eaglet series give incredible viewing and Japanese manufacturing in light, durable packages. They have a buttery-smooth focusing dial that's a joy to operate, and they suffer only in comparison to ~$1000+ models by a slightly narrower field of view. My personal favorite is the 8x42 unit
The Bushnell Elite collection, available in six configurations, has simply tremendous optics. The E2 models are nearly-identical optically for less cash, foregoing the modern "bridgeless" design. All Elites accept their own Universal Doubler, which turns your binoculars into a part-time spotting scope.
When price is no object in a binocular, you're spoiled for choice. Whether you pick Kowa's Genesis XD, Leica's Ultravid models, Nikon's Premier LX "L" or newer EDG series, Steiner's Peregrines, Swarovski's SLC and EL collections, or Zeiss' FL LT binoculars, all reward you with a view that stuns when compared with even fine $300 units. Like arguing which is the world's best sports car, there really isn't a definitive answer.
I've personally always loved Nikon's LX "L" , but if you're after the king of low weight you can't argue much with the stellar Zeiss FL LT. Swarovski's SLC and EL models offer a 2x doubler device, and now use their Snapshot Adapter to affix point and shoot cameras to the eyepiece.
Of special note amongst small binoculars, Bushnell's 7x26 Custom is far and away the best optical performer in the pocket-sized class.
And if you're giving a binocular to a child, look for compact roof prism models with 'twin bridge' body design (two folding points) such as the Fujinon 7x22 SCF-SX or Pentax 8x25 DCF MC II binoculars, which accommodates their exceptionally-short interpupillary spacing.