BINOCULARS
Small Travelite III binoculars Good naturalists carry binoculars nearly always when afield because, in nature, you just never know when something amazing will pop up. One way of thinking about it is that we humans are stuck between two fabulously interesting worlds -- the tiny, up-close world we can get a better view of with our hand lenses, and another too-far-away-to-see-well world, for which we need binoculars. Binoculars are especially important for viewing birds.

WHICH BINOCULARS TO GET?

Acquiring a good pair of binoculars is an important project. Toy binoculars are no good for our purposes. They magnify images but they distort the images so badly that the fine details we must see are lost. Nice binoculars can be found in the camera departments of shopping malls for less than $100, often even less.

Nowadays small, lightweight "traveler's binoculars" are popular, and you'll know why if you've ever lugged around a large, heavy pair for long. The Nikon Travelite III TM binoculars shown above, for instance, weigh only eleven ounces, and fit into a small case carried on the belt.

Such small binoculars, however, aren't necessarily the best for beginners. The problem is that with small binoculars you may be able to see something with your naked eyes but when you look through the binoculars you can't locate what you're looking for. Talk about frustrating! The problem is that the small binoculars' field of vision is too narrow. You get the magnification OK but it's like looking through a pea shooter.

The narrow field of vision problem also prevents higher-powered telescopes from being good for typical bird watching. By the time you finally locate the spot you're looking for the bird usually is gone. Telescopes are good, however, in the special case of looking at seabirds and ducks far from shore.

HOW POWERFUL?

Just about every pair of decent binoculars has numbers stamped on its back -- two numbers separated by an x, such as 7 x 35, or 8 x 40. The number to the x's left tells how many times images are magnified. Therefore, binoculars stamped 7 x 35 magnify seven times, and those stamped 8 x 40 magnify eight times. Obviously, the larger the number, the more powerful the binoculars. The Travelite III shown above is stamped 7 x 20.

The best general-purpose birding binoculars are not the most powerful ones. That's because the greater the magnification, the closer-up things look, but the less the thing you're looking at fits into your binoculars' field of vision. Powerful binoculars have the same "narrow field of vision" problems that small binoculars have, just for different reasons.

For birders, binoculars with seven or eight power are about right. If you're a practiced spotter and your hands don't shake, you might prefer ten to fifteen power.

The number on the right of the binoculars' x tells how large the big lenses, or objective lenses, are. In 7 x 35 binoculars, for example, they're thirty-five millimeters in diameter; in 8 x 40's, they're forty millimeters. The larger the number, the wider the lenses, thus the more light that enters into the binoculars, and the brighter the images appear. Also the larger the depth of field, and that's good. Unfortunately, the larger the lenses, the heavier the binoculars are, too. For birders, 7 x 35's and 8 x 40's are about right.

You just have to decide what's most important to you -- lightness, a broad field of vision, or magnification. If you're big and strong, and don't mind extra weight, you might choose a pair with large, heavy objective lenses, so that colors show up better. If you're well practiced with binoculars and able to immediately spot what you want to see, small, light-weight binoculars with narrow fields of vision might be perfect.

USING YOUR BINOCULARS

Of course there's more to using binoculars than merely looking through them. For one thing, there's the problem of binoculars shaking, which causes the images to dance.

Therefore, a good rule is, before you look at something, make sure that no wobbly, wavering points exist between the binoculars and the ground -- in other words, that you are stable. If knees are gyrating or hands are shaking, your images will bob around.

If you're standing while using your binoculars, plant your feet firmly on level ground. If you stand with your feet together, you'll be much less secure than if you spread your legs. You can test the leg-spreading technique right now. Just get up and stand in the middle of the room with your eyes closed and your feet as close together as possible. If you're like most people you'll feel yourself swaying a little, and may even lose your balance. Then spread your legs a couple of feet apart and just feel how solidly you become anchored.

Your hands should automatically assume the correct position around binoculars, but you may need to pay attention to your arms. The natural tendency for many of us is to thrust our elbows far away from our bodies, like a pairs of wings. This is the least stable position, and also the most tiring. To lessen jiggling and make it easier on your arm muscles, bring your elbows below the binoculars so that your arms rest solidly atop your chest. Your forearms should rise vertically, like pillars, below the binoculars. This means that your elbows will be about as far apart as your nipples.

Sometimes, as during a strong wind, you may need to lean against a tree, or plant your elbows on a boulder, or even lie on your belly with your elbows on the ground.

MASTERING YOUR TECHNIQUE

Here are three ideas for mastering your binoculars:

#1As you bring the binoculars up to your eyes, keep looking exactly at the thing you want to spot, not glancing at the rising binoculars. Do it slowly, keep your eyes and mind focused on the thing you want to see, and just let the binoculars slip between you and the object.

#2If you're having a problem, analyze what's going on. Maybe you'll find that you always aim to the right, or too high. If you do, compensate by consciously aiming a little too far in the opposite direction. Always strive to do better than the last time.

#3Practice, practice, practice! Aiming binoculars is very much like shooting a pistol from the hip: The more you practice, the more frequently you'll spot your quarry "the first shot." With practice, even small binoculars with narrow fields of vision can be used for quick spotting.

IF YOU WEAR GLASSES

People with eyeglasses can use binoculars, too. Binoculars usually have rubber rims around the eyepieces. This prevents the binoculars from scratching the eyeglasses' lenses. If your binoculars' eyepieces are hard and you wear glasses, you can apply a rubbery substance around the eyepieces' rims. One good "rubbery substance" is Shoe Goo TM, available where athletic shoes are sold.

Most good binoculars have one lens that can be focused independently from the other, for people with eyes of different strengths.