Binoculars for birding: What the experts use

Birders are only as good as their tools – in particular, their binoculars.


A decent set of binoculars is vital to help a birder spot those tiny tell-tale traits, to help you know your Yellow canary from your Brimstone canary, or Spotted Eagle owl from your Cape Eagle owl.

We chatted to some of the Overberg’s top birders, to find out what they use when they’re out birding.

Wim de Klerk (Agulhas Plain Birding Project): Bushnell Legend M series 10 x 42.

Wim’s advice: “I simply wanted a value for money product. I decided the M series Bushnell is the best buy. Just be careful: all brands have a cheaper and an expensive range and you get what you pay for. If it is cheap, there is a reason for it!

Eugene Hahndiek (Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area Conservation Manager): Nikon Monarch 5 10 x 42

Eugene’s tips: “These binoculars are good value for money, with a 10-year warranty on manufacturing faults. I’ve used mine heavily every day for five years now and have had no problems.

Odette Curtis-Scott (OCG Board member and Director: Overberg Renosterveld Conservation Trust): Swarovski 8 x 40

Odette’s tips: “These were given to me by my grandfather, who used them before me. And they’re still working perfectly. It shows that good quality binoculars can last a lifetime.

Mick D’Alton (OCG Board member and NWSMA member): Zeiss Terra ED 10 x 42

Mick’s tips: “I did a lot of research before buying the Zeiss Terra. They matched my budget, and the quality is excellent. There’s a lot of good information available on what binoculars to buy, which guided me in my decision.

Keir Lynch (OCG Chair & Bionerds): Swarovski EL 10 x 42


How to choose your pair of binoculars?


There’s a huge range of binocular brands available, which are sold from a hundred Rand, to around a hundred thousand Rand. So how do you go about choosing a pair?

Firstly, you should determine your available budget. That’ll help guide your initial search. Many binoculars with the same specs have a broad cost range. As Wim notes, the more expensive pairs will offer a better-quality result.

Then, ask yourself how you’ll use your binoculars: birding in a vehicle, or birding while hiking or backpacking? If you’re a hiker, consider a compact or midsize set of binoculars, which is waterproof, and has a rubber coating. Also, consider a binocular harness or straps which prevents the binoculars from bouncing while walking.

If you’re birding from a vehicle, then size will not be such an issue, and you can consider a full-size pair, although holding up a larger full-size pair can be difficult for long periods.

The design

You get two designs. There are the more old-fashioned porro-prisms – where the eye piece and the wide barrels at the end of the binoculars aren’t aligned. Then there’s the roof prism – where the eyepiece is aligned to the barrel. The design doesn’t impact on quality, but it does impact on size.

What do the specs mean?

All binoculars are accompanied by a set of numbers, such as 8 x 42. The first number (8 or 10) refers to the magnification – so how many times closer the bird is to you. Note that when an object is magnified 10 times, it’ll be more important to hold the binoculars steady in order to see the bird (which is not as difficult with an 8-power pair of binoculars).

The second number (40 or 42 etc.) is called the objective lens size (or aperture). If you choose an 8 x 42 set, then you will have a 42mm objective lens size. The higher the number (such as 50), the more light the binoculars let in.

It’s also handy to calculate what’s known as the exit pupil. If you have an 8 x 42 pair, then your calculation looks like this: 42 divided 8 = 5.25mm (the exit pupil diameter). The higher the number, the brighter the image. A higher exit pupil diameter is handy in low-light situations (such as birding in a forest, or at dusk).

Also consider the eye relief – or the distance between the eyepiece and your eye. This is relevant especially if you wear glasses. The experts suggest buying a pair of binoculars with eye relief of 11mm or more if you wear specs.

Finally, happy testing, trialing and shopping, as you find the ideal pair of binoculars to suit your needs.

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