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Advice and Tips for Kitting-out the Budding Ecologist - Week #5: Optics

For the newly qualified ecologist, the prospect of getting yourself 'kitted-out' is daunting. Not only does a lack of field experience and contact with other seasoned professionals, present a major barrier to getting access to the right kit, but other factors, such as available budget and shear variety of choice, help to add further confusion and hinder getting the right kit for the right job!! However, help is at hand! Over the years I've tried the lot, sometimes I made good decisions and sometimes I didn't. As part of a series of five blogs, I'm going to share with you the sum of my 20+ years of survey experience, with an emphasis on getting kitted-out on a budget!

This final week provides advice and tips on optics, with a focus on buying binoculars and where required, a telescope. However, before I launch into the thick of it, I wanted to take an opportunity to speak about the value of optical fairs. These events present a great opportunity to ‘try before you buy’, provided you ensure there is an adequate selection to choose from a range of makes and models, so I would encourage anyone not familiar with optics to attend one of these events. The following is a sample of fairs that are happening this year in the UK:

  • Scottish Games Fair – Scone Palace (30th June, 1st July and 2nd July 2017)

  • International Bird Fair – Rutland Water (18th – 20th August 2017)

  • Scottish Wildlife Trust Optics Fair – Montrose Basin Visitor Centre (1st October 2017)

If you are aspiring to become an ornithologist, then there’s a high chance you are going to need some form of optics. Obviously there are work and voluntary opportunities out there that do not require any optical investment i.e. a desk job. However, if your chosen path is going to take you into the field, then you’re definitely going to need a set of binoculars or a telescope, or more likely, both.

Purchasing a pair of binoculars and/or a telescope is one of the biggest financial outlays an ornithologist will make in the early days of their career, so it’s important to think carefully before making your investment. My father is an avid photographer and I was raised to appreciate that a second hand item of equipment, that’s in good condition, is just as good as a new one. So, for those of you who are on a tight budget, I would encourage you to search your local independent camera/optical shop or on-line retailer for a bargain. They are plenty out there; all you need to do is search!

There are a plethora of binocular manufactures out there and a wide variety of models to choose from, so it’s understandable an inexperienced person might baulk at the task of choosing a pair that’s best for them.

I own a pair of Opticron BGA WP.PC.AG.N roof prison 8x42 binoculars (very similar to the pair shown in the opposite picture). The first number (8) refers to the magnification, or, how many times closer an object will appear when looking through the binocular compared to looking at the same object with the naked eye. The second number (42) indicates the diameter of the objective lens (the light-gathering lens) in millimeters. From an ornithological perspective, 8x42 presents the perfect balance between magnification and the amount of light entering the objective (front) lenses of the binocular. That said, I have worked with ornithologists who have shown a preference for a slightly higher magnification, for example, 10x42.

The first set of binoculars I purchased were a pair of classic Bushnells, which I bought from Charles Frank in Glasgow. That was back in 1996, shortly after I had graduated and was working for the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW). Unfortunately I soon realised buying a pair of binoculars that weren’t waterproof was a big mistake and they spent many a night in a tub of uncooked rice, drying out, having misted up during the course of the day’s work!

I persisted with the Bushnell binoculars for about six years, which was mostly down to budget; however, after I had successfully gained my first permanent contract, I decided it was time for an upgrade, except this time I did my homework. Other than the issue of my Bushnell binoculars not being waterproof, I also felt the classic ‘Y-shape’ was bulky, so I decided roof prism or straight binoculars, as I called them, were the way forward. After much reading and looking on-line I decided to buy a pair of Opticron BGA WP.PC.AG.N roof prison 8x42. There were a number of very good reasons why I made this choice 1) they were waterproof, 2) they had a straight body, 3) the quality of the optics, although not on a par with Leica or Swarovski, were excellent and were more than up to the task, and 4) their quality and a 30 year guarantee would ensure may years of loyal service i.e. presented good value for money. Fourteen years later and they are still going strong, so it pays to do your homework!

I also recently bought a pair of Opticron Verano BGA PC 10x25 binoculars, which I use when I’m not doing bird surveys, but still want to have a set of binoculars handy, for example, when doing non-bird surveys. These are a great pair of optics, especially as they also double up as an ideal pair of binoculars to take with me when going on holiday.

A telescope is needed for field survey work where your binoculars can’t identify birds at distance. At close range, a telescope will permit some truly excellent views of birds, but you will find that it’s more difficult finding and following a bird at close range with a telescope than with a set of binoculars. If you’ve established a need for a scope, then there are three elements you’ll need to factor in when choosing the right kit 1) the scope itself, 2) the eyepiece, and 3) a tripod. It would be at this point that I would reiterate my advice in terms of purchasing a second hand item of kit, as there is a greater level of saving to be achieved in the purchase of a telescope kit when compared to a set of binoculars. With such a varied selection of scopes, eyepieces and tripods on the market, I would encourage anyone not to make a hasty purchase without trying the scope first!

Scopes range in price from a couple of hundred pounds to many thousands of pounds. The differentiator is quite simply the quality of the optics and to a lesser degree features such as waterproofness, focus, size of the objective (front) lense etc. Generally speaking, the higher the price, the better quality of the optics. I bought my first scope in 1997 (a Nikon RAII Spotting Scope) and one of the key mistakes I made was trusting a third party when I was advised to get a straight body verses an angled body. Over the years I’ve come to realise that a straight body scope requires extra height on your tripod, which in windy conditions means a greater likelihood of image shake. Don’t make this same mistake if you think tripod height is going to be an issue!

Next on the list is the eyepiece… Eyepieces come in two forms: fixed focus and zoom, with an option on wide angle on fixed focus eyepieces. One of the great things about a scope is that you can buy as many eyepieces as you need! However, if you’re on a budget, then you’ll only likely want to buy one. I was advised to get a zoom eyepiece and it’s not a decision I’ve regretted, unlike the fact that my scope isn’t waterproof! I opted for a 15-45 zoom, which in combination with the diameter of the scope objective (front) lens, provides a final overall magnification. One of the key facts to bear in mind about a zoom eyepiece is brightness, a zoom eyepiece is often not as bright but the payback is being able to zoom in on a bird for a closer look! Wide-angle eyepieces are great because they provide wide field of view with a larger sweet spot; however, you’re limited by a fixed magnification, so it pays to think carefully as to the purpose of your scoping!

A tripod is the third and final component of your scope setup. A tripod serves as a platform from which to mount your scope. As with the body of your scope and the eyepiece, tripods come in a range of heights and weights. I used to own two tripods: both made by Manfroto (a 390 and a 055/128LP). The trade-off with tripods is weight verses stability, although the rise in popularity of carbon fibre has muddied the waters somewhat! The biggest piece of advice I can give is to factor in the length of time you will carry the tripod around with you. Quite simply, the tripod might not feel heavy when you lift it in the shop but imagine how heavy it’s going to feel after being on your back all day. Trust me, it makes a difference! I find the Manfrotto Junior 390 provides a good balance between height and weight, but it still feels like I’m lugging around a bit of heavy metal after a day in the field.

If you liked the above blog, then stay tuned for more!!

Image Credit: TETRIX Ecology, One Stop Nature Shop, Nikon Europe, Opticron & Manfrotto

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