When vegetation gets thick and the birds close, lower power binoculars, such as 7x or 8x, are useful. Regional tendencies indicate higher power binoculars are more-popular in the West while lower-power glass is favored in the dense forests of eastern U.S.

Binocular? Binoculars?

Formally they are called binocular telescopes, a monocular telescope being the one-eyed piece similar to what Ahab might have used to spot the white whale.

You should call them a binocular, but no one does that. It’s always “binoculars.”

The benefit of binoculars is the ability to use both eyes at once, which gives you depth perception, the ability to judge distances. If you’ve ever tried to judge distances through a monocular spotting scope, you owe a little thanks to whoever decided that two eyepieces are better than one.

While Galileo often is credited with the idea of pairing two monoculars together in 1618, a Dutch eyeglassmaker named Jan Lippershey had applied 10 years earlier for the first patent on a binocular system.

These early binoculars, however, made the world appear upside down, so a big breakthrough came in 1854 when Italian optician Ignazio Porro patented a prism system to bend the image and make it appear right-side up.

By 1894, high-quality binoculars using ground glass lenses and prism erecting systems were available.

Today, most binoculars use either the Porro prism or roof prism system to make distant objects sharp, bright and right side up.

So what do you buy?

The answer depends on how you use them. Binoculars carry a designation such as 7x32 or 8x40. The first number is magnification; the second is the objective-lens opening and alludes to field of view and light-gathering ability.

For sitting at a opera or concert, a 3x or 4x is plenty. But if you’re sitting on a high ridge trying to decide if that distant elk is carrying six points or seven, or if the raptor in a tree in the middle of a field is a red-tailed or a Harlan’s hawk, you might want something like a 10-power.

Birders, in particular, are pretty picky about their choice of binoculars.

Not only do they want to see coloration and patterns accurately, they often stare through their binoculars for long periods of time, and better glasses reduce eyestrain considerably.

And depending on where you’re birding or watching wildlife, your choice of magnification power might change.

“I like 10X and 8X for different situations,”  said Larry Arnold of Grand Junction. Arnold is an avid birder, to put it mildly, and last year he spent several months traveling through South and Central America on birding tours. Floating the Colorado River last month during the Christmas Bird Count, he used his 10-power binoculars.

“That setting for me was best suited for 10x because most birds were not very close and higher magnification was useful,” Arnold said. “However, 10x can be difficult to hold steady, especially on a raft. For nearly all birding that I do locally, I favor 10x because our light conditions are bright and sunny and I don’t need a brighter view.”

But when he’s slashing through the jungle overgrowth, the 8x are in his hand.

“When I’m in a jungle setting, as in the Amazon Basin or in various cloud forest settings, I favor 8x because they typically gather more light and increase the field of view,” Arnold said. “This is good when the birds are close and the canopy filters out a LOT of light. I’ve even thought 7x would be better for some of the jungle walks I have been on when it is both overcast and the setting is ‘jungle’ with several canopy layers.”

Noted birder Coen Dexter also favors 10-power binoculars when identifying birds at distance but goes to a pair of 8x32 when birding in the jungle because those binoculars are lighter and easier to hold steady for close-in viewing.

Steve Ingraham, Birding and Observation Products specialist with Zeiss, USA, said there tend to be some regional preferences but nothing strong enough to be tracked.

“The 8x42 is most popular, followed by 10x42,” Ingraham said. A few advanced birders are leaning toward seven-power, he said.

Also, older birders tend toward 7- or 8-power glass because they are lighter and easier to steady.

The West’s wide-open spaces seem to call for higher-power binoculars.

“I prefer having them at a higher power as I have really good vision normally,” said local birding whiz Jacob Cooper. “So these bring out the birds that are far away or that have hard-to-distinguish field marks.”

Better-quality binoculars reduce eyestrain and have better image quality and light-gathering ability. They also cost more, but, as Ingraham notes, you get what you pay for.

“Spend as much as you can afford and then some, if image quality is important to you,” said the Zeiss specialist. “ Glasses costing $600 to $1,000 are 85-90 percent as good as the $2,000 glasses, but those final percents are important to some of us. You can get decent, workable,
usable birding glasses starting at under $300, and they’ll have 60 percent of the performance of the $2,000 glasses.

“But don’t look through a good pair of binoculars,” cautioned Ingraham. “It will ruin you for anything less.”


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