“Birding is really inexpensive! All you need is a pair of binoculars and a field guide!” I was trying to explain to my ever-patient husband why this new fascination of mine was such a great idea.
In a sense I was right. Birding can be very low-budget, especially compared to other ways we entertain ourselves. It doesn’t take up much room—you collect the birds in a list that doesn’t require dusting or storage space. Looking at a wild bird is free. And all you really need to get started is a decent pair of binoculars, a good identification book, and a notebook in which to list your sightings.
In the optics department, there are many brands from which to choose, with prices ranging from under $100 to over $1,000. In general, quality and price are closely related.
All binoculars are labeled with two numbers. The first indicates magnification. The best magnification levels for birding are from 7x to 10x. The second number gives you the diameter in mm of the objective lens (which translates into field of view). Usually, the larger the magnification, the smaller an area you can see. Try out several combinations to determine what suits you best.
Other considerations include lens quality and coatings, brightness, eye relief, close focus, water and impact resistance, and warranty. Finally, the pair you buy should be clear, comfortable, and easy to use. Entire articles have been written on what is available and what to look for. Read at least some of these before you buy!
There are several good books available to help you identify the birds you see. You want one that includes every bird you could encounter in the area you are birding. Even beginners might see a rare bird. In general, well-done artwork is more helpful than are photographs.
The guide should include information on the part of the country where the bird can be found at different times of the year. Are the maps convenient to use? General guides cover all of North America. (For birding purposes, “North America” starts at the US/Mexican border.) Some authors divide the region into eastern and western halves, published in separate volumes. Some guides focus on a particular area.
Books differ in their emphasis on describing characteristic behaviors and vocalizations. Several point out specific “field marks” unique to a species.
Another consideration is how large and heavy the book is. Will you carry it with you in the field, or leave it in the car? Most guides list birds in taxonomic order, but others arrange species by similarities in appearance, color, or habitat.
Popular guides include those by National Geographic, David Sibley, Roger Tory Petersen, Don and Lillian Stokes, and Kenn Kaufmann. Since no one guide is perfect, it’s helpful to own several.
I must have convinced my husband to humor me. I received a nice pair of Nikon Monarch 8 x 40 binos for my next birthday. A number of years later, I still find them totally adequate, and they sell for well under $300. While I’ve accumulated a number of field guides and other birding books, they take up less than one shelf on my bookcase. I keep my birding list on my computer, so that doesn’t take up any space at all.
Truly, birding can be a very inexpensive, easy to get into, pastime. (We won’t mention, for now, the spotting scope, camera adapter, bird feeders, backpacks, heated birdbath, MP3 player with bird song recordings, bird-themed T-shirts, and vacations to Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, and the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas.)