Let me tell you what you’re doing wrong. After another busy season of guiding bird walks and tours, I’d estimate that I’ve tried to help 200 people see a warbler in a tree. Usually, I failed.
Binoculars are not the simple tools they appear to be. They are fiendish devices designed to perplex. I’ve decided that September is binocular month in this column. I’m here to help.
Binoculars do three things. Two of them are bad. Binoculars magnify objects, and that’s good. But they reduce the field of view, and that’s bad. Using binoculars is like looking at the world through a toilet paper tube. All peripheral vision is eliminated. Worse, binoculars eliminate depth perception. They focus on a particular plane and everything else is blurry. It takes a surprising amount of coordination to overcome these discrepancies. Learning to ride a bicycle is easier, though admittedly I’ve never fallen off my binoculars.
Hunters make great birders. They are instinctively attuned to movement. The hunter’s eye ignores objects propelled by gravity, like a falling leaf. But if something moves up or over, they’re on it like an owl on a vole.
The number one mistake I see people make is: they search for the bird with their binoculars,scanning around, hoping it will pop into view.
My number one piece of advice is: don’t do that.
First, locate the bird with your naked eye. Wait for it to move. Don’t sacrifice your peripheral vision and depth perception until you’re pretty sure where to look. Then, continue to stare at the bird while bringing the binoculars up to your eyes. Keep staring. The binoculars won’t be in focus, but keep staring.
Focus. Did it work?
No, I didn’t think so. This coordination becomes quicker with experience. Try it a few times on stationary objects. Practice on a flag, a signpost, the moon, or the moons of Jupiter. Stare at the object, bring the binoculars to your eyes while staring, and the object should be in the center of your vision. Quickly bring it into focus. Soon, it becomes instinctive. The binoculars become an extension of your normal vision.
Experts develop a second instinct. It becomes such an unconscious habit that I’ll bet many experienced birders don’t even realize they are doing it. Experts take note not just of the bird itself, but also of its surroundings. They’ll notice almost without thinking that the warbler is near a fork in the tree. It’s a foot below the top of the bush. It’s to the right of a rock. It’s in front of a cloud.
Find the object, find the bird.
Try it. Did it work?
No, I didn’t think so. The bird moved. Put the binoculars down. I’ve seen it a thousand times this summer. The bird has flown across the road, but the birder is still staring through the binoculars at the spot where the bird was, trying in vain to find it. As you’ll recall, that’s mistake number one.
There are only two occasions when binoculars are useful for locating birds. The first is when the bird is at a great distance, like a hawk on the horizon. In such a case, the disadvantages of binoculars disappear. You have a broad field of view and can focus on infinity.
The second is when the bird isn’t moving. If you know exactly where the bird is, note the surroundings with your naked eye, then find and follow the landmarks to the spot with your binoculars. If you don’t know exactly where the bird is, listen to someone who does. Put the binoculars down. I mean it. Put the binoculars down. There are some people so determined to make mistake number one that I can’t even get them to find the right tree, let alone the bird in it.
The secret to using binoculars is not how fast you can raise them, it’s how fast you can lower them. Binoculars are for watching birds, not finding birds.
Here’s an easy way to test your increasing skill with binoculars. Watch a golden-crowned kinglet. The little twerp never stops moving. The only way to see them through the lenses is to follow them with the naked eye, then pop the binoculars up whenever they hold still for more than a millisecond.
That’ll be my grading system on your final exam. Anyone can spot a turkey through binoculars. Most can spot a robin. Warblers are hard. Kinglets are impossible. Achieve the impossible and you get an A.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.