The weekly report from the world’s birdwatching capital… by Seymore Thanu
Well, I just had quite an education. Fun, too. The optics gremlins over at the Cape May Bird Observatory just ran their hands through shelves of binoculars to determine which was Best in Show at price points ranging from less than $100 to stroke-inducing.
I was invited to slam the door and look under the hood, too.
In all, we tested about a hundred instruments; some from brands you know, some that were new to everybody, even me: Leica, Zeiss, Nikon, Swarovski, Bushnell, Kowa, Leupold, Minox, Vortex, Vanguard….
Uh huh. With so much stuff coming out of Chinese factories, start-up enterprises can just walk in the door, lay out a bunch of specifications (field of view this big, close focus this close, eyecups that offer this much eye relief, resolution to any level) and have an instrument that looks and performs like a (pick one) Pentax/Brunton/Minolta/Nikon/Vortex. Heck, they build cars this way, why not optics?
The trick becomes finding the binocular that tweaks in the right places and doesn’t compromise performance where it counts. Like a responsive focus. Like an image that doesn’t make you go cross-eyed at 20 feet because some marketing person insisted that “super-close focus” is the rage and that their new model must focus close enough to see the lint in your navel.
Heads up to you butterfly watchers with binoculars that focus down to three feet: have you ever heard of the term parallax? Well, chances are your binoculars (and your eyes) suffer from it.
Anyway, those optics gremlins at the CMBO tested all kinds of things. Resolution, close focus, field of view, brightness, color distortion, parallax, depth of field… All the things that make binoculars user-friendly.
It was illuminating, not to mention insightful. I’m not going to steal their thunder and give you the results. I’m sure you all want to know who was Best in Show.
Was it Zeiss? Leica? Swarovski?
What I can tell you is that all but one of the grandly-touted alpha instruments performed as promised.
Good has gotten better, and better is approaching best. If you purchased binoculars twenty, even ten years ago, you will simply be amazed at how good this stuff has gotten.
And I’m not talking about the high-end instruments, although the stuff priced up in the nosebleed range will simply take your breath away.
No, I’m talking about how binoculars in the low and mid-priced range ($100-300) have improved. 30 years ago, there were maybe three binoculars on the planet that were specked for nature study. Now almost everything out there focuses fast and close, with a big field of view and color accuracy.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. With the eco-tourist market exploding, it follows that binocular manufacturers would try and spec instruments to meet the expectations of people who travel to places where a poorly functioning binocular can ruin a trip.
There is a lot of great stuff out there. That’s the good news. It’s also the bad news, because with so many options, binocular buyers are bewildered. The next step is bamboozled. That’s why the folks at CMBO did the test. To make sure they had only the best of the best.
When you go into the store and test the wares, the results are clear as glass. Tell them Seymore sent you. That and a CMBO membership will get you a fantastic discount.
If you want to get a clear view of what’s out there, stop over at the Cape May Bird Observatory, THE place for anything to do with nature. You can try all the binoculars fit for birdwatching, boating, butterfly and dragonfly watching. The CMBO (609-884-2736) is located at 701 East Lake Drive overlooking Lake Lily in Cape May Point and is open 9:30am to 4:30pm every day. Ask our staff or volunteers – they are always glad to help with anything you need. Check out the latest in books (including the newest Bayshore Summer by Pete Dunne), bird feeders, and some great new merchandise – including our exclusive CMBO logo jewelry, clothing, and more. Take a look at the sightings log or our website to check what’s being seen, scan the bookshelves, pick up a bargain from the vintage books section, look at some of the wonderful Charley Harper merchandise, or just browse. If you aren’t fortunate enough to be in the area, visit us online at www.BirdCapeMay.org – where birding Cape May is only a click away.
Seymore Thanu is none other than New Jersey’s own Pete Dunne, Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and Chief Communications Officer for New Jersey Audubon. Author of several books on nature (available at the CMBO), he has written for virtually every birding publication and for The New York Times.