There are many types of optics used for birding – we are often asked what will suit different people with different disabilities. Below are article which may help. The first is for those who need lightweight solutions.
My Quest for Weight-Comfortable Optics and Supports
Progressive muscle fibrosis and neuropathy in my neck, back and arms has meant that, over the past few years, walking has become increasingly uncomfortable and carrying equipment for birding more difficult. My desire for quality optics has not helped since in general, the better the equipment the heavier it seems to be, especially telescopes where the lenses play a big part in weight. This article explains my efforts to ease my discomfort whilst retaining the best in equipment. I hope some of my findings and experiences along the way may be of help to fellow birders.
First let me acknowledge that of course, we will all have different carrying abilities as well as optics needs to match our birding aspirations [not to mention budgets] and we should choose accordingly. Fortunately, advances in the quality of optics in recent years is reflected by a large choice such that there should be something to suit everyone.
A large choice however, means that there is a lot to consider when buying, and, in addition to weight, you have to look at such aspects as angled or straight, light gathering, depth of focus, resolution, standard or high definition lens (ed/fluorite etc), which size lens, waterproofing and focusing. This is where you need good advice and fellow birders and optics dealers should be consulted. Here in the UK the monthly birding magazines Birdwatch and Birdwatching carry regular product reviews and buying advice and deserve credit for this help. With their April 2002 magazine, Birdwatching issued an excellent optics supplement which holds as much information as you could need to prepare you for purchasing. Hopefully, this will be an annual issue.
I gathered all such information quite recently before making a purchase, with fellow birders being especially helpful because someone you know often has something you like, and if you know that someone particularly well, you can spend as much time as you wish quizzing the owner and sampling the goodies.
With this as important background, I can now return to the title of this piece. In the mid- 1990’s, my troubles were less than they are now and moving up to the new Kowa 820 series (1.6kg including eyepiece) was not a problem although my tripod was at 2.2kg – a [now old, but good] serving Slik D2. I could no longer carry a scope/tripod combined. So, I began to carry the scope hanging from my shoulder using an adapted bungee strap with the tripod in my hand. However, screwing the scope onto the tripod every time was a nuisance and as time went by, I found myself carrying the tripod for just occasional short trips only and even leaving both tripod and scope behind altogether – no support, no scope! Then I discovered the excellent Cullman Quick Release system which involves separate attachments to the tripod head and scope body which enables rapid connection. I was back in business! Removal or attachment was now quite simple although I could still only carry the tripod for short distances because of its weight. NB. Many modern tripods incorporate such a system.
I even experimented with a golf trolley to carry all my equipment but this was uncomfortable for my back as well as being impractical (because of uneven terrain, obstacles etc) and this idea was soon abandoned. As I do a fair bit of birding from hides my next purchase was a hide clamp. Wonderful! But what about birding along the way – not the right support for me I’m afraid! Unless you are hide-birding only, they are not so hot, although they are good pieces of equipment in themselves. Some tripod manufacturers produce a combined tripod/hide-clamp but I have not been down this road – although from what I’ve seen they seem well worth a look if that’s what takes your fancy.
I went on for four years or so with this uncertain carrying situation but then one day a friend suggested that I ought to try a monopod. It had crossed my mind in the past but I had never been too sure because of stability difficulties. However, I thought I should pursue the idea and asked fellow birders on UK Birdnet for their experiences. I soon received several helpful responses through this excellent medium and I would single out Steve Dudley (inter alia Birdwatching Magazine optics team and BOU) as being particularly helpful. The outcome of this most useful advice was that I soon became the owner of a Manfrotto 449 (carbon fibre) weighing 520g – not cheap at just a shade under four times the price of an aluminium version – see www.manfrotto.com) – but it revolutionised my birding. No additional head is required and when attached to my scope which hangs from my shoulder, (and also carried in my hand depending on how I am feeling) I hardly know that I’m carrying the extra weight. My adapted bungee strap is a real help here too and without doubt absorbs some of the bumps as I walk along. These straps made by Optech for both binoculars and telescopes are available from most good birding optics retailers. The scope strap costs around £20 and is designed (if I remember right) to carry a scope/tripod combo. However, with a little ingenuity you can adapt it to attach to a stay-on-case for more comfortable carriage. It really is worth the investment.
Now that I am a fully established monopod birder, I find it quite surprising how few such supports are used in the field regardless of carrying abilities. They are excellent in hides taking up no extra room and quick to extend. They are quite steady and of course they give you that support when birding between hides. Windy conditions outdoors are undoubtedly a problem but use of lower magnification and as low a level as you can manage (which is easier with an angled scope), will help as will sitting down. At all times, resting one hand on the top of the scope gives that extra stability. A monopod cannot be better than a tripod but it may mean the difference between carrying a scope or not and as someone once said, the best scope is the one you have with you! By the way, never forget that you cannot share the same view with someone else; letting go of your scope may have very serious consequences!
I have not mentioned up to now, another very useful part of my armoury – a simple folding angler’s stool of inconsequential weight. My wife added a shoulder strap and I am never without it. Great, not only for resting but also for low-level monopod (and tripod) birding.
My monopod has been so successful that my tripod remained in the cupboard for a couple of years but as indicated above, the recent purchase of a new scope (of which more below) and with my wife, a first-class tripod carrier, having an increasing, albeit slowly, (taken nearly 30 years up to now) interest in my hobby, it has caused me to review the situation. The upshot of all this is that I am now using my tripod again but the monopod is still favourite for anything but stationary or very short-walk birding. My next move will be a new tripod because the twist grips are a problem to me and clips such as those fitted to the monopod will help no end.
On the subject of my own telescope choice, I had been thinking about a part-exchange for several months and did a fair bit of looking, pondering and reading before eventually splashing out on a new Swarovski ATS65HD. Why? Well, it is superb optically, it is a comfortable weight/size (1390g including eyepiece, 65mm, & c 325mm length), the helical focusing ring is just spot on, it has an excellent zoom lens avoiding for me, tricky lens inter-changing and I wanted to switch from straight to angled. It is a tad expensive I know, but I was fortunate to already own a scope with accessories which had a decent trade-in value so it didn’t seem quite so bad!
It is not the lightest scope I could have chosen but a super-light scope was not an issue for me and as I have already mentioned, quality lenses usually involve an increase in relative weight. However, I did consider very closely, the long-time well-rated and comparatively light Kowa TS613ED (770g ex eyepiece) which along with the standard version is currently very good value since it has now been superseded but the lack of waterproofing, a recommended 27x optimum lens (I wanted a quality zoom) and age of model put me off in the end. But, if a good quality light-weight scope (with case for weather protection) is your requirement then snap up one of these while they are still around. Very few dealers now stock them (see below).
If you want even lighter weights (and price), there are such scopes available (see below) but don’t expect bright, sharp images or good performance in dull conditions which a decent light-weight 60mm scope will provide. These scopes seem to be marketed as second or travel scopes but they should do a very good job for those with a need for ultra-lightweight portability for use in good light.
As for tripods, although I still have my D2 I have been doing some looking and reading and like optics, there will be a fair bit to consider besides weight. With as we know, vibration and shaky images being the main problem stability is vital and this usually means a relatively heavy tripod and again good advice will be required. Consulting fellow birders, dealers and the birding press is a must. Yet again, Birdwatching magazine comes up trumps with its March and May 2002 issues carrying extensive tripod surveys. Suffice to say however, that it seems we have to carry around 2kg and pay £60-£100ish for decent supports (and much more for carbon fibre).
Before I conclude, just a few words this time on binoculars since if you are not careful with your choice, they can also be a considerable weight around your neck! For me, the Leica 8×32’s at 625g are still the best for a combination of weight and quality birding optics with the latest BN’s providing excellent short focus for insect watching.
My final words of advice would have to be that you should never forget that there is no substitute for testing equipment for yourself, to see how it works for you, so take advantage of all opportunities to do so.
Good Birding – Mister G.
Bo adds: When choosing tripods remember that weight often equals stability in windy conditions and this is especially true of sea-watching. I have a heavier tripod that I can use for sea watching provided I watch close to where the car is as it is not too far to carry. For lightweight bins I have found that the old fashioned style Optolyth Alpins were very very light and with an acceptable standard for optical quality, although the newest Opticron and Swarovski binoculars are far lighter than they were and worth the trade off – i.e. a bit heavier but so good optically!