Best Equipment for the Birds

Superior-optics binoculars are the top priority. Then, if you want to follow Whitney's lead, digital recorders and a digital scope/camera combination.

by Courtesy Leica; courtesy HHB

BINOCULARS

Nearly every serious birder is serious about binoculars. Top-of-the-line models from Zeiss, Leica, Swarovski or Bausch & Lomb offer clearer, brighter images — and often less weight, increased durability and water resistance, and closer focusing — than their cheaper counterparts. A current favorite is the new Zeiss Victory II ($1,100), which combines light weight and superior optics. Until fairly recently, lower-priced binoculars required severe quality compromises. But two recent models — the Minox BD 10×42 BR ($500) and Nikon’s Monarch ATB 8×42 ($300) — provide an excellent balance of quality and price, with better-than-average optics. At the higher end, Leica‘s new Duovid model (far left, $1,450) has selectable magnification — a unique and potentially handy feature: At 8x, you can steadily spot and pan as you search the skies for birds; flip to 12x, and you get a 50 percent larger view.

SOUND RECORDING DEVICES

The next wave in professional field recording is the hard-drive-based, ruggedized audio unit. The HHB Portadrive (left, $11,000) is an eight-channel recorder that captures up to 12 hours on a built-in 30-gigabyte disc. The unit can be hooked directly to a computer or can offload onto an optional DVD-RW. But many ornithologists are now using much cheaper MiniDisc recorders and getting excellent results. One favorite is Sharp’s MD-DR7 ($300), a Japanese model available from specialty importers that is well liked for its rugged aluminum case, bright control screen and excellent sound quality.

DIGISCOPES

Though several manufacturers combine digital cameras and spotting scopes (or binoculars), the resolution is far too low for serious bird viewing or photography. Birders tend to get around this with a low-tech solution: They press the lens of a high-end digital camera against the eyepiece of a scope. Scopes from Bushnell, Nikon and TeleVue start as low as $250. Leica recently introduced a slicker solution: the Televid 77 ($1,250), a spotting scope that can be mounted to the company’s Digilux 1 camera ($1,000), resulting in focal lengths of up to 6,000mm. Other companies are working on similar, less costly systems. (For more information on optics, including purchase advice, pay a visit to betterviewdesired.com or the American Birding Association’s “Buying Optics” tutorial.)