I’ve been getting questions about what people should bring with them on a birding trip, and while I’ve written about this in the past, it makes sense to do an update and share what I’m carrying now, and to make some suggestions on options and alternatives for those just starting out as well.
A clothing primer
To be honest, you can go out birding wearing your normal clothes and carry nothing special, and have a great time. You don’t need anything special to bird, just to somewhere and look around.
At its essence, birding is often walking around finding and looking at birds; I typically recommend new birders treat it like a day hike, so wear comfortable clothing, especially shoes. Depending on how long you plan to be out, you might need a jacket, you might want to carry water, and you need to remember your sunscreen, and depending on where you wander, mosquito repellant.
There’s a saying that Good Birders Don’t Wear White, and what they’re really suggesting is that what you wear and how you move can attract the attention of the birds you’re trying to look at and cause alarms and scare them off, and so it’s a good idea to dress not to be too noticeable. To me that means avoiding bright colors and patterns; I tend to wear clothes in solid, darker colors. In practice, I think my suggestion is don’t worry about it and wear what’s comfortable for a good walk.
I do want to emphasize the shoes. Good, comfortable, well-fitting shoes will make or break your walk. Blisters suck. You don’t need to spend on hiking boots or anything expensive, but if your feet hurt or your shoes slip around as you walk, you will be miserable.
Wear a hat
One suggestion I do make is a hat. A good hat with a flexible brim. I wear a Tilley Endurable T3, but whatever works for you is fine. There are a few reasons for this:
- The brim cuts glare into your eyes, allowing you to see better. The flexible wide brim does this a lot better than the fixed brim of a baseball cap, plus you can move it out of your way when you need to. I find photographing with a baseball cap problematic because the bill is always hitting the camera; with the Tilley, it just moves out of the way.
- When you’re out birding, you’re out in the sun. Wearing a hat keeps the sun from beating down on your head and helps prevent sunburn. Depending on how follicularly challenged you are this might be a minor or major problem, but you’ll be more comfortable with the hat protecting you.
- There is no thrill quite like having a clock of 30,000 geese suddenly take off into the air all around you and flying around yodeling at the top of their lungs. It’s a beautiful thing — until you realize you now have 30,000 geese in the air directly above you. At that moment, wearing a hat can be a really good thing, just in case. And yes, it has happened. Fortunately, the birds typically aren’t aiming for you. Except for the gulls. And the occasional raven.
Birds rarely cooperate in letting you get too close, so birders typically carry binoculars which allow them to get magnified looks at birds at a distance.
Binoculars are basically a must, but the good news is over the last decade optic technology has improved massively and brought smaller, lighter and much better binoculars into the market and quite reasonable prices. You can still spend a lot of money on a pair of binoculars — top end Swarovski binoculars can run you close to $2000, but you don’t need to. There are really good beginner binoculars under $200 and decent ones under $100.
Zeiss 8×42 Binoculars
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About a year ago, I upgraded my binoculars, choosing to pick up a set of Zeiss 8×42 Terra Roof Prism Binocular, which cost me about $350. They replaced a pair I’d been using for about six years that cost me $200 at the time. The upgrade got me better visibility in poor light, better contrast and the ability to see some color more clearly in bad light. I really like these binoculars, but they are to me an upgrade set — the differences from my old binoculars are fairly subtle and I don’t expect a newer birder would notice the differences.
I am a big fan of not over-spending on your gear, especially when starting out. If nothing else, I’d rather people save the money and spend it on trips to go and do the thing they are interested in, not the tools.
Pentax AD 10×25 Binoculars
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I also recently invested in a pair of binoculars to travel with. They’re smaller and lighter than my main pair so they fit in my pack when I get on an airplane. They don’t bring in as much light, but that’s a tradeoff I’ll make when I travel; I’d rather have a good pair of binoculars in my hand than a great pair sitting at home, so size and weight matters for something you’re going to carry everywhere in case you might want them.
What should you buy for binoculars? I have a few suggestions, but first I have to explain a couple of numbers.
What are those numbers, anyway?
When you look at a pair of binoculars, you’ll see most of them have a couple of numbers attached to the name. My main pair of binoculars are 8×42, my travel pair are 10×25. Those two numbers define the capabilities of the binoculars for you.
The first number indicates the magnification power of the binocular. The higher that number, the higher the magnification and the closer the object you’re looking at is. Most binoculars on the market these days are typically 8 or 10 power, although you can get them as low as 6 and high as 15 or more. You might think more is better, but there are tradeoffs: the bird seems closer in 10 power than in 8, but it’s harder to aim the binoculars at the bird and get it in view, and if it’s moving around, it’s harder to keep the binoculars trained on the bird. The lower power lets you see more or the area near the bird, which makes it easier to actually get your eyes on it and keep it in the binocular field of view.
The second number indicates the size of the opening of the front lenses, in millimeters. How big those openings are directly relates to how much light enters the binoculars and how much light reaches your eye. More light means better seeing, both in poor light or when birds are in shadow, but also usually means better color rendition and better contrast, so you see more detail. That can mean the difference between a good ID of a bird and a brown blob hiding under bushes that you just can’t see well.
The tradeoff on this second number is size. 25mm lenses are smaller than 40mm lenses, so in general, the lower that second number, the smaller and lighter the pair will be. The bigger that number, the larger and heavier the binoculars will be.
In other words, getting the right pair of binoculars for you is a tradeoff; you’re trading off size and weight for better seeing and perhaps more magnification.
Your main binoculars
My recommendation for most birders is to find a good pair of 8×42 binoculars. If you want something small and compact, consider a travel pair of 8×25. You can ask me in six months whether my new pair of 10×25 are a mistake or not, it’ll take me some time to figure that out, but I wouldn’t go to a 10x pair until you’ve been birding for a while and understand what you can and can’t do with those 8x42s.
It may seem tempting to get some big, powerful binoculars, like the Celestron Skymaster 15×70, but those weigh almost 3.5 pounds. That’s double the weight of a set of 8×42, and having those slung around your neck for two or three hours? That kind of power is often useful while birding, but it’s better to buy a spotting scope and put it on a tripod than try to wear it.
So, what to buy? Here are a few suggestions:
There are manufacturers I’ve found consistently put out quality products at good value; they include Celestron, Nikon and Vortex. A good beginner set would something like the Celestron Nature 8×42, a bit more than $100 as I write this. For a bit more, the Nikon Prostaff 7S has better weatherproofing and adjustable eyecups which are nice if you wear glasses.
As the price of binoculars go up for the same size optics, other factors come into play. Weatherproofing is one aspect, and better binoculars are less likely to be damaged by the rain or fog up in humidity. You also start seeing terms in the descriptions like ED Glass and lens coatings and… and endless amounts of jargon. Basically, though, as you spend more money, you get higher quality glass in the lenses, and coatings that reduce glare and improve detail and color, and which will hold up to rough handling and bad weather better. The difference between the binoculars I just discussed and something like the Nikon Monarch 5 (around $250) is the quality of the lenses and the coatings Nikon has put on them to protect and enhance them. Is it worth it? If you’re starting out, I’d suggest no, but as you advance as a birder and know what you are trying to accomplish, it may make sense to upgrade, as I finally did.
If you want something small and portable that you can carry with you everywhere or in a pocket, then consider travel binoculars. These would also be really good beginner binoculars for a child, because they tend to cost less and give good performance without being heavy or bulky. They won’t perform as well as a decent pair of 8×42, but they’ll still get the job done for you in many situations. Where they’ll tend to struggle is in low light conditions, but it’ll still be an improvement over bare eyes.
For travel/child binoculars, I’ll recommend something that’s 8×25. That’s a good tradeoff of capability, weight, size and price. A good value here is the Celestron Outland 8×25 at about $50. So is the Nikon Travelite at about $100.
Want the best possible pair? Then look at the Swarovski Optik 8×25 Pocket, at only around $850. Or you could to what I did and buy the Celestron and save the rest of the money to pay for a couple of nights of hotel rooms for a birding outing.
Spotting Scope and Tripod
Celestron Regal S2 65ED
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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 fourth scope in the last decade: broke one, upgraded twice. My current scope is the Celestron Regal S2 65ED, which costs around $450, but has upgraded ED glass and good detail and contrast in the field. It also includes a zoom eyepiece that gives my the ability to shift from 16 power (compared to 8 or ten in the binoculars) to 48 power, and it has 65mm front lenses, compared to 25 or 42 for the binoculars. This lets you get a lot of reach to look at birds at a distance with good detail and color.
This scope is what I’d call an upgrade pick; you don’t need to spend that much on your first scope. You are going to have to spend a bit, but you can get a decent scope for under $200. Be careful, though, the really inexpensive scopes might seem a bargain, but usually come with poor optics leaving you with grey, blurry blobs where the birds should be.
With a scope you’re going to need a tripod, it’s not something you can hold in your hands and use reliably. What I want in a tripod is something that’s solid and sturdy, light and compact and inexpensive. My favorite right now is the Neewer Carbon Fiber, which at $99 is more expensive but rock solid. Many of the less expensive travel tripods will save you money but tend to wobble and jiggle in a wind making a stable image difficult. I’ve also had some trouble with the inexpensive tripods not holding up well under use and needing to be replaced.
If you’re just starting out? You don’t need a scope. Wait to buy one until you find yourself wishing you had one. Often if you’re in a group you can borrow looks through someone else’s scope and not have to bring your own. If you get serious about birding you’ll ultimately decide you need one, but this is a purchase that can wait until that happens.
If you are interested in a good spotting scope, here are a couple of suggestions: Celestron 65mm Ultima Zoom is a good, basic scope at around $100. It comes with an 15-55X zoom eyepiece, but my experience is that inexpensive zooms get blurry when you zoom and that it’s not too useful to go beyond something like 25x. For a bit more money consider Celestron’s 80mm Ultima Zoom at about $175. This is a solid scope and one I bought and used for for a number of years — and then dropped and broke. It’s still a good value.
When in the field, you often want a reference book to help you identify species. It used to be we’d carry a printed field guide in our pocket or pack. These days, it’s more often an app on our phone. There are many options here, and I cover them in detail in another piece I wrote called A Birdwatcher’s Library.
Bird Photography options
I frequently get asked about about buying gear to get started in bird photography, primarily from people who have outgrown their point and shoots and are interested in upgrading. The reality is that you aren’t going to go far in Bird Photography with a standard point and shoot, a low-end DLSR with the standard “kit” lens, or your phone camera.
There are options depending on your interests and budget, but most bird photography solutions start as “really? that much?” and work their way up to “you’re joking, right?” — and then continue all the way to “Not a chance. My spouse will kill me.”
Birds rarely want to have their pictures taken, and out in the wild, if you move towards a bird, it will fly off and laugh at you as it leaves. Because of that, your photography gear needs to be able to take photos of small feathered things from a fairly large distance. That means it needs to have significant magnification power. Camera gear typically defines that power in terms of millimeters, or MM. A 24mm lens shoots very wide and is used for landscapes. A 200mm lens is known as a telephoto and shoots a narrow slice of the area it’s pointed at, but magnifies that area so it looks to be close. This kind of magnification is what we need for birds.
An “average” DLSR kit will usually have a couple of lenses that cover a range of about 24mm to about 200mm. The sweet spot for a bird photography lens starts at about 300mm and goes to between 400 and 600mm, with some photographers using huge lenses and teleconverters to build unbelievably powerful (and expensive) telephoto setups. It should be obvious that the kind of equipment we’re talking about isn’t what most photographers carry.
I find 400mm to be the right trade-off between cost, portability, power and usability. If you can find a lens that gets you to or near that power, you’ll be able to go a long way in photographing birds. Lenses with this power aren’t exactly cheap, but they’re affordable without taking out a 2nd mortgage.
Can I use my phone?
The answer is, maybe.
If you carry a spotting scope, then one option is to try digiscoping, by holding your phone up to the eyepiece and getting it to take a picture through the scope. I know birders who can do this quickly, reliably and with great results. I am not that birder, and mine always look like I pressed the shutter by mistake and regret. Some birders carry a digiscoping attachment that aligns your phone to lens. I’ve experimented with a number of these, and I’ve generally found them awkward to carry, easy to break, hard and slow to set up and frustrating to use.
The good news is they’re pretty cheap, so if you want to experiment, go ahead. The Gosky model is the Amazon choice as I write this, only $18 and similar to the ones that caused me the least hassle the last time I experimented, so give it a try and see what happens.
The other option is to consider a clip-on telephoto that attaches to your camera sensor. I’ve tried three different sets of these and liked the quality of none of them. It’s been a couple of years so if you want to try this, be my guest, but I have no suggestions on recommendations. One thing to be aware of: most of these lens sets are specific to a given phone model, so if you upgrade your phone, you’re likely going to have to buy a replacement set of lenses for the new phone rather than use the old ones with it. That can get expensive.
what about inexpensive cameras?
If you’re interesting in getting started in Bird Photography but don’t want to spend a couple of thousand dollars on a real birding lens and camera, well, I don’t blame you a bit. Fortunately, there are options.
You can get some good point and shoot cameras that are good values for not a lot of money. What you want to look for is a style of camera called a superzoom, which, like those zooming eyepieces on spotting scopes, lets you dial in the magnification of the camera to get closer to the bird you want to photograph.
My recommendation for the last few years has been the Nikon Coolpix P900. It runs about $600. I’ve used one and I know a couple of dozen birders who have used it on my recommendation and they all like it, and it’s been a good, solid beginner birding camera and it’s still generally available. It’s still my recommendation if you are looking for a starter camera for birding. The P900 is being replaced by Nikon with a new model, the P1000. It looks like a really interesting camera but is more expensive, about $1000. I expect that price to come down over time, but that’s hard to justify right now.
There are a couple of other cameras you might want to consider. The Canon Powershot SX60 is another good superzoom that’s a little cheaper (around $450) and not quite as good as the P900, but still a nice starter camera. I used to carry the previous generation around in my car in case I needed a camera and wasn’t carrying my expensive camera with me.
For even less money (about $350) you might consider the Lumix FZ80. My wife and I both used earlier generations of the Lumix cameras and it was my carry around camera before I invested in the big birding systems I have today. The image quality of the Lumix is good, but it’s not as capable as the P900. Still, if budget is absolutely an issue, you can do good work with it.
Wrapping it up
To wrap it up, here’s what you need to go out and go birding:
– Good, comfortable shoes
– Clothes you can walk around in comfortably
– A good attitude
That’s it. Everything else you do enhances the experience, but it’s optional. To get the most out of birding, though, I suggest you add a few things:
– a good daypack for carrying stuff
– a jacket or windbreaker for when it cools off
– a water bottle to stay hydrated.
– Don’t forget your hat! Sunburned scalp sucks.
– A good, basic pair of binoculars, like the Celestron Nature 8×42
The rest — scopes, guides, etc — can all wait until later. Go out and bird, learn what you enjoy, and let that enjoyment and your curiousity dictate when and how (or if!) you upgrade your gear. What matters here is the birds and you’re going out to see and enjoy being around them, not the gear.