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Enter the Wonderful World of Birding

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Birding is an addictive and rewarding pastime. Perhaps you’ve been on the edge, thinking of taking that next step of actually becoming and, dare I say it, admitting you are a birder? “Yes, world, I am a birder and I am proud!” Well, to help you out of the closet, let me introduce you to the two most important tools you’ll need for this engaging hobby: a pair of binoculars and a bird guide. 

I write to you as one amateur birder to another. No, I never got to attend the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, nor have I ever been able to stalk the elusive Junin Rail in the Peruvian Andes or fly an ultralight airplane with the Whooping Cranes. But I can wax endlessly on the wonders of chickadees and, yes, I do find bird songs to be more interesting than anything that I can download onto my ipod. What can I say? Birds rock!

Well, Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat (hey, have we ever talked about geese?  Geese are fascinating and…well, maybe later…) and there is not a better time than now to jump into the world of birding. If you find it over the top to buy yourself some presents this Christmas, let’s discuss dropping some serious hints to those folks who will buy you a present… or two: binoculars first and bird guides second. 

Binoculars are really just a pair of telescopes connected together.  They come in all shapes and sizes and to a certain point any pair of binoculars is better than no binoculars.  In other words, as binoculars really are essential for effective bird watching, any pair will do. But if you were to go out to purchase a pair for the implicit intent of using it for birding, which pair should you buy? The big ones or the little ones? The long ones or the short ones? To answer that we need to first decipher the multiplication problem with which manufacturers use to determine the size and power of binoculars, e.g. 7 x 35 (and no, the answer Is not  245!). 

The first number refers to the magnification power of the lenses within the binocular: the higher the number, the stronger the magnification. For example, a  7 x 35 has less magnification power than a 10 x 35. And while more magnification is better than less, too much magnification can be a problem. Powerful binoculars are difficult to wield effectively in hand and require a tripod to keep steady. So, typically, most birders avoid these heavy-duty units unless they are going to be viewing birds from a stand or a blind.  And they are torture to lug through the field and over trails. So what magnification level is the best compromise? To answer that question, we need to also examine the second number of the equation. 

The second number relates to the light-gathering ability of the binoculars. By nature, larger binoculars allow more light to enter the eyes, whereas smaller binoculars allow less. Subsequently, smaller binoculars might work fine during the middle of the day, but are almost worthless in low-light conditions, such as dawn or dusk or in the shadows of the forest. You can’t win for losing!

As I bring these things into focus and as you can now clearly see (yes, that was a pun), the ideal binoculars for bird watching is a compromise. Too big means too unwieldy, too small means too limited in usefulness. So what are the magic numbers? For me, I prefer 10 x 40 or 10 x 50. Lady birders (called “chicks” in the biz... just kidding) will also find them to be not too uncomfortable to carry. 

On the other hand, selecting the right birding guide is a bit more complicated.  There are so many choices it become overwhelming. So, as they say in the film industry, let’s cut to the chase and look at the most important decision: photo-based or drawing-based guides? Which is best? 

To many novice birders the most logical choice in bird guides is one that uses photographs. Why not use photographs of the actual species? Because, logically, isn’t that what the birds look like? While this sounds intuitive, I would strongly disagree. I much prefer drawings over actual photographs. Why? Because photographs are surprisingly less useful; they show a representative of the species in mind, but they only illustrate that representative. Birds are surprisingly individualistic in coloration, etc.; they are not clones! This is why I prefer drawings that indicate what field marks to look for. 

In bird identification, field marks are everything. A field mark is a unique coloration, marking, or some other indicator that is unique to that species. For example, the white rump patch on the Northern Harrier is a definitive field mark. If you see a medium-sized raptor soaring above the landscape and you notice that it has a white rump patch, you have just definitively identified the Northern Harrier, because only the Northern Harrier has this coloration. B am! That easy. 

What is my favorite birding guide? Anymore I only use the Sibley Guide. This guide is the one that I’ve had to replace as I wear out copies— all my other guides are collecting dust on the shelf (and I got a lot of ‘em!). 

I hope that I’ve been helpful for any of you newly-fledged birders out there.  From my field of view, you now know what binoculars to invest in. And I’ve shared with you the field marks of the best birding guide. That being said, I wish you a merry Christmas and…wait for it…Happy Birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

hobbies, A Bird in Hand, bird guides, binoculars

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