Equipment

As stated in the introduction; if I can’t afford to lose it, I can’t afford to take it.  Yes there are fantastic $2000 binoculars out there, but you can also get a really good pair for around $500 from some excellent companies.  I won’t go into the pros and cons of specific makes and models, there are many reviews by birders that are available on line (Fat Birder, Bird Forum).  I do recommend that when it comes time to buy binoculars, try out several brands in your price range.  Keep in mind that not only is clarity and brightness important, but how they fit your face (eye cup depth and shape) and feel in the hand (ease of reaching and turning the focal knob) can make a difference in your level of enjoyment.  Lighter weight binoculars are easier to use, though if too small, like some travel binoculars, the field of view can be restricted making finding the bird tricky for beginners.

I find roof prism style binoculars (straight tubes) lighter, and more comfortable to use than porro prism binoculars (off set tubes).  They also tend to be of higher quality and so, more expensive.  Without getting into the pros and cons of exit pupil diameters and lens coatings, a binocular’s power is what many birders consider first.  I find that 8x binoculars will typically have a wider field of view and greater brightness than higher power binoculars making them ideal for the beginner or someone whose hands shake a bit. I prefer the extra magnification from 10x bins, but understand that they probably won’t be as effective in low light as the 8x of the same brand and price range, and they will probably also have a narrower field of view.  I also pay attention to how close the binoculars focus and chose ones that focus as closely as possible for looking at butterflies, flowers, and the occasional unsuspecting bird. Typically better quality binoculars will focus more closely, but there are often trade-offs, so again, try several brands.  In the US, and to some extent in the UK (not sure), leading binocular companies give lifetime warranties allowing you to get your binoculars cleaned and, or realigned for no to very little cost.  This is easily verified at the shop.

When considering bringing a spotting scope I go back to rule #1; if I can’t afford to lose it…  Where expensive binoculars are relatively easy to keep with you (in a bag or pack, if not around your neck), a bulky, scope is not so easy to keep an eye on.  If you are going to have a guide for all or part of your trip, it is likely they will have a scope to share.  Check in advance.  If going on a pelagic trip, a scope is not likely to be useful.  If going to spend time looking across an open savannah, or wetlands, it will be indispensable.  If hiking lots of rough jungle trails, perhaps it will be more of an encumbrance, though weigh that against being able to see the canopy birds better.  There are many scope and tripod types, some that are remarkably light weight yet effective.  Again, in addition to reading reviews, try them out and see which one works for you.  Also consider how you might transport it both in the field, and on an airline.

BflyOnCameraI can’t speak to camera equipment other than to say, think about the conditions you will be visiting and the distances you propose to carry these items.  I’ve seen the range from some pretty handy camera backpacks, to 25 pound (or more) lens/camera arrangements that look excruciatingly cumbersome.  Consider your mode of transport, security, and affordability.  Will you have help?  Are the birding sites close to the car? Will you be staying in hotels or be on a tour with security to look after your gear while you go out to dinner or are away from the bus?  I realize bird photography is a passion for many, so this is not meant to dissuade anyone from carrying a D7 and a 700mm lens.  I certainly enjoy seeing the photos on line!  I have no experience with carrying something so awkward, delicate, and expensive.  I suspect the trick is to practice a lot at home and develop a system that works well for you before you attempt to travel with it.

The last piece of equipment that I bring is my laptop.  Though a bit heavy, I find that having a computer with me encourages journaling, allows me to store digital photos, and lets me communicate with friends and family with relative ease.  I only started bringing it along a couple years ago, and now won’t leave home without it.  My laptop fits into a slot at the back of my day-pack, and stays there in a neoprene case and plastic bag whenever I am moving from one place to another.  When not on the move, it stays with my luggage unless the hotel seems very dodgy, then out into the field it goes.  I admit that my laptop is not very attractive to thieves being 7 years old and not an “I-anything”.   Still, I am careful not to store any important documents on it like bank statements, passwords, or anything with my social security number in case it falls into the wrong hands.

Did I write last piece of equipment?  Okay, one more… I also carry a 16G thumb drive for backing up my photos and journals in case my laptop takes a bath.  This typically stays with me either in my purse (if carrying one) or day pack in one of those waterproof containers designed for credit cards.  It makes sharing photos with companions easy, and is a handy place to store a copy of my address book with the phone number of my embassy, just in case.

So after all that, what do I carry?  High end binoculars, pocket camera, low-end laptop, and a memory stick.  With luck, I talk my partner into bringing a scope which I will willingly tote around, but I won’t take one if traveling alone.

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