Wild Side : Binoculars
One of the finest attributes of the natural world is its accessibility: a little time, a little curiosity, and place to walk are all you need to enjoy the Vineyard's wealth of wildlife. But if you want to add equipment that will enhance your outdoor experience, a pair of binoculars is the place to start. With binoculars, the hidden becomes obvious; suddenly, you're on intimate footing with the small, the distant, or the concealed.
With the fall migration, the pinnacle of the Vineyard birder's year, nearing its peak, I'm expecting the annual wave of requests for advice on buying binoculars. Between the range in price (tens of dollars to well over a thousand), size (pocket-sized to massive), and design, the options are bewildering. Happily, reliable technical information on binoculars is easy to come by on the internet, so I will touch just briefly on the basics. My real purpose is to persuade you to take the plunge: buy your first pair or upgrade to better ones, and get ready for a new perspective on the world.
First, understand that you get what you pay for. Plan to pay about $200 for binoculars at the low end of field-worthiness. Somewhere around $500, in my opinion, is where the best values reside; for $1,000 or more, you find binocs that give stunningly vivid views and will last longer than you will. Unless portability is critical, shun tiny compact or pocket binoculars. They are awkward to handle and have dreadful optical performance.
Follow the lead of experienced naturalists and buy a pair that magnify seven or eight times and have objective lenses between 32 and 42 mm in diameter (look for designations such as "7x32" or "8x42"). Waterproofing is desirable (it keeps out dust as well as water). A "close-focus distance" of seven feet or less will facilitate the observation of butterflies and dragonflies, which prove to be at least as much fun as birds to observe. A wide field of view (usually expressed as feet at 1,000 yards) helps with scanning for your target, and long "eye relief" (how far your eyeball can be from the eyepiece, expressed in millimeters) will add comfort, especially if you wear eyeglasses.
Having bought binoculars, you need to learn to use them: like hitting a tennis ball, using binoculars is a complicated task for your mind and muscles, and it takes practice to be able to do it fluently. An experienced birder takes just a second or two to get a bird sharply focused and in the center of the field of view; the beginner, meanwhile, fiddles and fumbles while the bird takes off for Kansas. Animals move, and speed is of the essence for observing them.
Three tricks will help. First, make sure you know which way to turn the focus wheel to focus closer or farther away. Second, "pre-focus" your binoculars for the approximate distance at which you expect the next target to appear. Third, keep your eyes on the target as you raise the binoculars to your eyes; try to bring the binocs onto your line of sight, rather than putting them to your eyes and then trying to relocate the bird.
Here's another secret to using binoculars effectively: use them, period. They don't help if you've left them at home. I keep a pair of binoculars within reach virtually all the time, at work, at home, in the car, even when I'm walking into a store, because nifty things can show up anywhere. You may find this odd, though it's the norm among serious birders. But at the very least, cultivate the habit of carrying binoculars whenever you're in natural areas.
Ultimately, your success with binoculars depends on your development as an observer. And this is where the fun begins. With experience, your ability to spot wildlife will improve. A subtle twitch in the foliage will tip you off that a warbler is present; a tiny flash of color in your peripheral vision registers as a butterfly. With the right tool in hand and the right skills in mind, you will have growing opportunities to appreciate the natural world. Sparrows, which have all looked alike to you, will start to resolve into different species, each with distinctive patterns and hues. Small butterflies (and most butterfly species are small) will start to be as familiar to you as the obvious giants like the tiger swallowtail.
Binoculars, that is to say, are more than just a tool. They are a doorway to a new world, and if you apply yourself, your binocs will multiply the beauty and variety that you see in nature. In addition to enhancing your vision, they will open your mind.
Matt Pelikan's wildlife column, "Wild Side," appears monthly in The Times.