I and the Bird

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Optical Allusions

The most important piece of equipment a birder takes into the field (uh, well, usually the only piece of equipment) is his optics. The math is simple: Birds = small. Birds + Binoculars = Big. Easy enough...just don't forget to carry the one. What the heck am I talking about.

Oh yeah, optics. So, the most common piece of optics are binoculars. The word comes from Latin "bini" meaning 'two' and "oculars" meaning 'eye-related'. The Romans were pretty straightforward people (who were also adept at naming things that hadn't been invented yet - binoculars were invented in 1825 by J.P. Lemiere). There is a whole lot of complicated science behind how binoculars work, but all any birder really needs to know is that you put them to your eyes and see things far away. It's magic for all I care.

There are a few things that a birder does need to know, however, before throwing down some cash. First, magnification. This is simply how much bigger the thing your looking at is going to get when you look through the binoculars. This number usually ranged from 6 to 10 and is the first number when you see the, say, 7x50 designation. Cool? The second number is the aperture. This is the size, in millimeters, of the front (facing out) lens. The theory is that the larger the aperture, the more light it will gather and the more detail and clarity will be provided (for SLR photographers this will ring bells). Read a lot more about binocular tech here.

The other factor is the design. There are two basic styles, the porro prism and the roof prism. As far as I can tell from websites like this, the roof prism is only good for being more waterproof and more expensive. I'm sure there are other details but that's all I've got.

I got my first pair of binoculars for 8 bucks at the Ritz Camera in the Sangertown Square Mall in New Hartford, NY. I think they were Quantaray...nice reverse porro prisms with bright orange lenses and probably 7x25. They were awesome. They fit in my pocket, were light as a feather and gave me a crisp picture. I carried them with me every day during my job in the woods this summer, until they fell out of my pocket in a swamp one day (I didn't realize until I was back at the truck. They were so light!). R.I.P. Little Fellas.

The Binoculars I rock now have been in my family since I was a wee boy. They are Nikon Owl II (although this page is for 'reconditioned' models...mine are the real deal from the 80s). I like these binoculars, too. 7x50 gives me a lot of space to look at, but I wish they were a little stronger for their size. I like their heft, though, it makes me feel like an explorer or something.

The only binoculars I dont like, and by dont like I mean HATE, are folding roof prisms, like these. Binoculars like these have two independently moving scopes and are SO IMPOSSIBLE AND ANNOYING TO ADJUST AND FOCUS THAT IT MAKES ME CRY. I really can't stand them. Following a flying bird is hard enough without having to adjust 40 different knobs and settings. If you want small binoculars, get porro prisms. Stay away from these.
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