Revised and updated April 2016 with new recommendations and information
This is the list of of gear I carry with me when I go out birding.
What’s the bare minimum you need to carry to go out birding? A good attitude and a comfortable pair of shoes. Just go out and walk, look around, and see what you see.
As you get more interested in the birds, you’ll find bare-eyed viewing has its limitations. You can’t see birds further away very well, you can’t see detail. Birds skulking in bushes and trees are little more than dark blobs. Binoculars change this. You can bring the birds much closer visually; you can start to see the color and detail on the birds, you can start to observe their behavior more closely, even when they’re partially obscured in the foliage.
What you’re starting out, don’t spend too much on a pair of binoculars, but don’t spend too little. There are a lot of really cheap binoculars out there but they don’t focus well, their images are blurry and they do very poorly in dim light. you’ll just frustrate yourself and not enjoy birding with them.
At the same time, while you can pay literally thousands of dollars for binoculars, there’s little reason for most of us to do so. There is definitely a quality difference between a $150 pair of binoculars and a $1500 pair of binoculars, but a beginning birder probably wouldn’t see the difference, and it’s silly to spend too much money when you’re starting out; you can always upgrade later when your skills and experience improve. I’ve been birding seriously since 2005, I’m on my fourth set of binoculars (one set I broke, two were quality upgrades). I can’t see a time ever when I feel it’s worth spending money on a $1500 pair of binoculars.
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For the novice birder I recommend you consider a good pair of basic binoculars in the $100-150 range from a well-known manufacturer such as Bushnell, Bausch & Lomb, Orion or Vortex. A good beginner set of binoculars is the Vortex Vanquish Compact Binoculars. They’re about $125, they’re small enough to fit into a coat pocket and light enough that you won’t mind carrying them. I use them as my home office binoculars; they sit on my desk so I can check out the bird feeder and see who’s visiting. They are also small enough I can stick them in my camera bag if I’m going out do to photography. They’re a great starter set at a good price, with a solid build quality that should hold up to significant use.
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The binoculars I carry when is the older version of the Vortex 8x42mm Viper HD Binoculars; my version doesn’t have the upgraded HD glass (low dispersion, sharper, better light transmission so it works better in dim light). It also doesn’t have the new, higher price of the HD Viper. The current binocular that’s equivalent to mine in price and quality is the Vortex Optics Diamondback Binocular, 8×42 which should be a very nice set, but I haven’t tested them yet. The new Viper HD is closer to $500, which is out of my budget; the Diamondback is around $225.
A couple of notes about all of these numbers. Binoculars typically have two numbers assigned to them, as in 8×42. The first number is the magnifying power, or how closer they make things look. You can find binoculars that start at about 6 power (fairly weak) and go all the way to 14 or 15 power (amazingly strong). Most birders use binoculars in the 7-10 range. The tradeoff here is the ability to look at more distant birds, but you see a much smaller part of the area you’re looking at. With a bird that’s moving around, it can be difficult actually finding the bird with the binoculars or keeping a moving bird in the field of view. I find the ten power binocular is nice for distant and stationary critters, but when I’m moving around and the birds are moving around and I’m looking at birds both closer to me and further away, the 8 power is more flexible, so that’s what I carry when I’m out in the field.
The second number is the size of the exit lenses in milimeters. Generally speaking, larger exit lenses capture more light; binoculars that capture more light work better in dim and poor light, so they do well staring into the depths of trees, on cloudy days, or in the edges of day around sunset and sunrise. The downside of larger lenses is that the binoculars are larger and heavier. You need to make the call how much you want hanging around your neck for hours at a time. I find the 8×42 to be a nice tradeoff between weight and performance.
If you’re wondering about the differences between my two pair of binoculars and whether it’s worth spending $225 instead of $125? I think so; the smaller binoculars are nice, but on cloudy and dreary days, birds turn into grey lumps quickly. With the larger lenses of the 8×42, I get better detail and color rendition on those birds in these poorer lighting conditions. Just about any quality pair of binoculars will work well in bright sun; the reality is that the more serious you get about birding, the more birding you do in bad lighting conditions. That’s why the most serious birders put the money down for those $1500 and more binoculars; they are usable in these poor conditions when the rest of us have given up and gone inside.
If you really want to get insane about binoculars, you can get something like a 14×100. I have a pair I use for astronomical viewing (mostly). It weighs about 15 pounds, you have to use a tripod, and they can get brutally expensive to own. I use them sometimes for sea watches because it lets me look with both eyes instead of the single eye of a spotting scope, but in reality, binoculars of this size and power are more for staring at Jupiter than birds.
As you get more serious about birding, you’ll find yourself wanting to look at more birds farther away, and as you run into birders in the field, you’ll see many of them carry spotting scopes. Spotting scopes are single-eye devices and look a lot like small telescopes, because in reality, they are. They are a lot bigger than binoculars, a lot more powerful than binoculars, but you need to put them on a tripod to use them so they’re a lot less portable. They’re also fairly worthless for close up birds, so they supplement binoculars; you end up carrying both.
I’m on my third spotting scope (broke one, upgraded once; I’m not easy on my gear, but honestly, no matter how careful you are, you’re going to drop your binoculars or knock your tripod over, and sometimes things are going to break…). Most birders use a scope with a fairly long tube; you can start a good religious fight over whether to use one where the optics come straight out the back, or whether to use one where the optics angle up at 45 degrees. I use the latter; it’s more comfortable for me, and I find they’re easier to set up so that people of differing heights can share a scope without resetting the height or having to crouch or stretch to reach the eyepiece.
Vortex Optics Diamondback 20-60×60
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Minox MD 16-30×50
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I use a scope different from many birders, the Bushnell Legend 12-36×50 Spotting Scope. This scope is more popular with hunters. It’s a very compact scope (only about 8″ long vs 15″ for more typical birding scopes) but modern optic engineering allows for a good quality image using this compressed form factor. It’s optics are tilted 45 degrees which I find makes it more comfortable to use than the straight through versions. I like it and it is a lot more portable and fits in my camera bag if I want to haul it around with my photography gear. It is unfortunately no longer produced. As alternatives, a couple of scopes I can recommend are the Vortex Optics Diamondback 20-60×60, the Minox MD 16-30×50, and the Bushnell Legend 12-36×50 Straight through version. This straight through has the optics most like my current stop, while the Minox is the one with the closest shape and size of my scope. The Vortex is a really nice scope that’s a more typical, full-sized scope that’s straight through. If you aren’t sure what to get, I’d suggest giving a call to the nice people at Eagle Optics and letting them explain options and sell you the best scope for you.
The numbers in each scope’s model name help you understand it’s capabilities. The first numbers indicates it has a zoom capability; I can adjust the power of the scope much as you can adjust the magnification of a zoom lens on a camera. The tradeoff when you raise the power is reduced sharpness; in practice I find this scope’s zoom usable to between 20 and 25 power. Compared to an 8 power binocular, you can reach out and see something at a much greater distance.
Scopes require tripods. I must admit (with some shame) that I currently own four tripods; two for my camera work, one for my spotting scope, and one that sits at home because I haven’t gotten rid of it since I upgraded the last time. I used to share my camera tripods with my spotting scope, but I found (seriously!) that there were too many times when I had the need for more tripods than I had brought — setting one camera up to do timelapses, another as my bird camera, and a third for the spotting scope. When I decided to buy a dedicated tripod for my spotting scope, then, I was looking for a few things: I wanted it small and very portable, so it needed to stow in as small a size as possible, I wanted it as light as possible since I had to haul the thing around, and I didn’t want to spend much money on it.
MeFoto Travel Tripod Kit
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Someone recommended the MeFoto Travel Tripod Kit. It’s carbon fiber, so it’s light. It’s amazingly inexpensive at around $100. It’s tiny when stored and it’ll fit in a daypack for your hike. It’s a pretty good tripod for its price. The weak spots? I’m finding some of the nuts and bolts work loose, so I have to remember to tighten them up occasionally, and eventually I’ll need ot tear it apart and hit these with some Lock-Tite. The legs fold to a small size for storage because they have five segments, so there’s more time and hassle setting it up and closing it down. And because it’s small and really light, it’s flexible so it gets wobbly in a wind. It’s not a tripod I’d put a camera on in a wind and expect to get sharp pictures, there’s too much vibration in it, but it makes a good scope tripod where weight is more important to me than rigidity. It’s a good tripod for this kind of use, especially at that price.
I talk about my cameras elsewhere. Please take a look at Getting Started in Bird Photography: Choose your Weapons and my Canon Birding/Wildlife Camera Gear Kit for information on that.
The rest of the gear
Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America
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I do still keep a printed guide in my car, because sometimes I still find it handy, especially to show a species to someone else, and for that, I use the Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America. Again, note that book is due for an update in the next few months with a significantly changed new edition. I’m on my third copy for the car, which is one reason I like the electronic versions. One went on a birding trip with me and somehow didn’t return, and another got dropped in a mud puddle on another trip, which is a great example of why I’ve switched from paper to ebook. Of course, that won’t help if I drop the iPhone into that puddle…
The other mobile device tools I use with my birding is the eBird site and mobile app to help me locate interesting birds and report in the birds I see.
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One final birding tool is the hat. I use a Tilley Endurables with a big, floppy brim. The hat serves a number of purposes: that brim keeps a lot of the glare out of your eyes when outside in sun, but unlike a baseball cap, moves out of the way when I bring a camera of binoculars up to my eye; you don’t need to juggle removing or reversing the hat to look at something. Since my hairline is slowly sinking into the sunset, a hat is critical for avoiding sunburn when out in the field for the day. And the big reason birders wear hats? You want one when a flock of 5,000 geese take flight and fly over you on the way out. Trust me on that.
(last update: April, 2016)