Birding Paraphernalia; the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Too Much Stuff

Too Much Stuff

A few years ago there was a popular song by Delbert McClinton called Too Much Stuff, which describes the trap most of us fall into as we go through life.  Birders are no different as we accumulate various birding gadgets, aids, clothes, etc. over the years.  I thought it may be helpful to the rising birder to describe what has worked and what has not worked for me.  I perfectly understand that one man’s albatross, (no offense to albatrosses), may be another’s favorite tool, so take these ideas as personal opinion only.

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

The Good

1) After years of toting around my favorite, well-worn, and dog-earred bird guide, it barely fitting in my pocket and weighing down my trousers on one side, I finally listened to a friend and went digital.  It was a good move.  I now have two bird guide apps on my smart phone, iBird PRO, and Sibley Birds, which have all the same info as the book, and more.  The bird calls are now available and I frequently play them in the field to refresh my memory and use this valuable ID tool.  The phone is also a safety link to civilization when I bird alone, and has a GPS if I get hopelessly lost.  It has a decent camera to take those vista shots that my birding lens can’t get.  Also my trousers no longer droop on the right.

2) Cornell’s program eBird (www.ebird.org) has been one of the greatest breakthroughs in birding.  Its not just the tracking of your lists, but the access it gives you to others’ observations.  Now when I travel to a new birding destination I go to eBird first and see exactly what people are seeing at that spot, at that time of year. If its a new bird for me I can review what to look and listen for before heading out.

3) Traipsing around for hours with things hanging around your neck gets old and leads to headaches.  Get a “figure 8” shoulder strap for your binoculars to take the weight off.  Speaking of straps, try a UPstrap (www.upstrap-pro.com) for your camera.  I find that the manufacturer’s shoulder straps tend to slip off, but the UPstrap is wider and has a rubber/friction surface that makes it much more secure and comfortable.

4) Invest in an extra camera battery. You know why.

5) Last, but most important is the glass.  I’ve gone through a slew of binoculars; big and small, cheap and expensive.  For a while I thought small and light was good, but they just don’t have the light-gathering capability and field-of-view you need for birding. Then I went large to 10X, 50mm, and even tried the impressive image-stabilized binoculars. They’re just too heavy for the field. For me the sweet spot is 7-8X and about 40mm.  And I’ve tried cheap (less than $100), medium $100-$1000, and expensive >$2000 glass. One of my greatest eureka moments in birding was when one of the birding pros at Cape May took pity on me and my cheap, small binoculars and let me borrow his extra high-end Zeiss glass for the day.  What a difference!  The field-of-view even seemed brighter than real life and birding was easier and much more fun.  The lesson is to spring for the best glass you can afford.

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren

The Bad  

1) There are some situations when you need a good scope and stable tripod, but not many.  I have one ready in the car as I drive along the dikes at Blackwater Refuge in Maryland, or Bombay Hook in Delaware, or occasionally when on a bluff or wide beach, but for general birding they’re just “too much stuff”.

2) I feel sorry for the birders pushing the carts filled with the huge telephoto lenses, multiple cameras, etc.  It reminds me of the young parents in airports with car seats, strollers, diapers, etc. trying to board a plane.  For me those days are over.  Only take what you can easily carry.  For me that is binoculars and camera with a small telephoto lens.  I’ve gradually gone from 200mm to 300mm, and now to Canon’s 400mm F5.6L.  That’s turned out to be a great portable birding lens, used by many for years, and for me the largest lens one can comfortably carry.

3)RAW vs. JPEG photos.  This is where I’ll get some push back.  Keeping with my philosophy of K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) I have returned to JPEG.  RAW is great and necessary if you plan to sell or publish your pictures, but for me the data storage requirements and post-processing time were more than I bargained for.  For now, at least I’m a JPEG man.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

The Ugly

“Ugly” may be a little strong, but I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that birders are not slaves to fashion.  We are practical folks who wear what works.  Just look around on your next group birding trip.

1) I’ve learned the hard way that sun protection is key, both with material defense and chemical warfare.  Long sleeve sun shirts and caps with earflaps are now standard garb for me–life is not a fashion show.

2) For a while I thought you could not have too many pockets.  The long baggy cargo shorts with large pockets (perfect for guide books), and fly fishermen vests with 17+ small pockets were standard.  Since I’ve gone to a smart phone and have lost too many things in all the pockets, I’ve scaled back. (K.I.S.S.)

3)  If you’ve ever had Chiggers you know why many birders wear long pants tucked into socks with bands around their pant legs, or wear tall boots, even in the hot weather.  I had 3 or 4 infestations and itchy, sleepless nights before I learned that they were the barely visible larval forms of a mite which lurk in the grasses waiting for unsuspecting birders to walk by.  They get inside your pant legs and borrow into the skin.  Luckily they are not a vector of disease like the deer tick, but just do their damage by causing local irritation, inflammation, and cellular chaos.  You’ll survive, but you’ll think twice about your next trip into the grasslands.

The Ugly

The Ugly?

So for what its worth, that’s one birder’s opinion of our paraphernalia.  Good luck and good birding.

8 thoughts on “Birding Paraphernalia; the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Excellent summary of an enormous amount of information and experience. I like your Clint Eastwood setup. Very nice hat.

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  2. Exactly, I agree with all that you mentioned. I still have rather inexpensive binoculars, but have used the good scopes and binoculars of the fellow birders. Still not yet ready for that expense. My camera and 400mm lens is all I take. The tripod just does not set up most places and I thought it better to learn to stay steady than carry all that stuff.

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