For the better part of two decades, all of my birding was done with a cast-off pair of Eddie Bauer 10 x 25 compact binoculars that seemed to have fallen down a chimney. The previous owner must have been glad to get rid of them. You could scarcely read a stop sign at 300 feet, and they were covered, inexplicably, with some kind of sooty marl, like a moss-colored gunpowder.
But I was broke, so they struck me as an extravagant inheritance. My first Carolina wren appeared in those fogged lenses as a blurry auburn speck; a black-and-white warbler as a monochrome Picasso slab. I went on like this, willfully ignorant, scanning the dim treetops and windowsills with what felt like advanced cataracts.
When my wife came along, we upgraded to a pair of Steiner binoculars (now lost) and lived briefly in a new visual milieu, utterly fresh and imposing. Things appeared as they never had before. Being owl people, our birding gestalt began to follow an inexorable course toward higher magnification, all the way up to 10x. We’re also urbanites with a young child and do 90 percent of our birding from our porch at sunup, with nuthatches and chickadees flitting about in a hazed cityscape, so we also like a wider 8x field of view. Though slightly less broke, we drool over the sale bins at Target. We’re also fairly lazy, it must be admitted, and would prefer our binoculars to be as light as cotton, and for someone else to do the lifting.
Which are all crucial considerations, as binoculars tend to be highly subjective. It’s helpful to think of a pair as you might a new car: you want a rare symbiotic union of stylistic penchants, pragmatic details and clarity of vision that all mesh with whatever price point you’re willing to live with. Because the moment you drive it off the lot, the resale value craps out. There’s no monolithic pair that everyone should own, no starter set that’s worth the $200 you could just apply towards pricier lifetime binoculars. While cost is often a barometer of quality, it’s not always. Instead, a thornier set of metrics obtains: are you after high magnification for long-range birding — owls and shorebirds and the like — or will 7x or 8x suffice? Do you want a lightweight pair to stow in your glove compartment, carry-on or briefcase? How important is balance, overall feel, focus, and what birders call “eye relief” (basically visual ergonomics) to you? Because they’re different for everyone. In short, will you be driving an Audi 6 or a Ford Fusion?
I’ll try to point the way, with a caveat that my methodology is appallingly unscientific; a field-based approach, you might charitably call it. I used each of these binoculars on assignment in Norway, North Dakota and Vermont, and on my sun-porch in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with an infant in my arms, glassing the horizon for any passerine that might happen to wing into view, as they so often do, seemingly from nowhere. Bearing in mind all of the above, here are five of the best birding binoculars you’ll find.
Maven B.3 10×30
Best Overall: Some birders will undoubtedly quibble with the 10x magnification and 30mm objective lens diameter (8x paired with 32 or 42 is the norm, because the higher the magnification, the more prone binoculars are to hand movement and wobbly images). I get it. I do. But trust me.
I had use of a pair of Mavens customized to these specs while bobbing off a Norwegian glacier in an open boat, trying to pluck a white-tailed eagle out of the storm-laden sky as it wheeled and dipped off a rock face that was the color of slate gray, with cloud cover roughly approximate. It ducked in and out of the shadowed, crenellated cliffs and I tried not to barf. Eventually, I locked onto this magnificent predator with a sharpness that was uncannily vivid. I can still see its fish-hooked, kitchen-yellow beak and almost hear the snap of its wing beat. At a scant 16.5-ounces, the B.3s are some of the lightest premium binoculars on the market, yet at a mid-range price. Baring catastrophe, we’ll be lifelong pals.
Leica Ultravid 8×32 HD-Plus
Best Compact: The Cadillac Fleetwood of birding binoculars, this new iteration of the Leica Ultravid 8x32s is unquestionably worth the price tag, if you can afford it. Lightweight, exquisitely balanced, great in smoldering sun, easy to focus, with a wide field of view and surgical sharpness that stays undiminished in low light, and they just about squeeze into the front pocket of my J.Crew chinos (regular fit).
I happened to have these with me in Vermont when a juvenile peregrine falcon alighted on shore not 25 feet from where I was fishing. In all my years at that spot, I’d never seen one up close. Airborne, yes, kaw-kawing in the broken sunlight, tail feathers flashing. But peregines aren’t in the habit of stop-and-chats. As if in a dream, this one pranced around in the sand, flaunting its ivory cravat. The color and contrast were unlike anything I’d seen birding. It was like opening a book of which you’d only ever seen the cover. I handed the binoculars to my wife, a serious birder, who caught her breath: “Oh, I didn’t realize they were actually blue.”
Eagle Optics Ranger ED 8×42
Best Mid-Range: In The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman describes the sophisticated neural architecture of songbirds, a kind of ornithological ESP that may allow them to know what other birds are thinking. Some birds can do arithmetic, while others are “born Euclideans, capable of using geometric clues and landmarks to orient themselves in three-dimensional space, navigate through unknown territory, and locate hidden treasures.” That seems a good description of the Ranger EDs.
Though a bit on the portly side at 23.6 ounces, there’s a simplicity of design and ease of use that’s hugely gratifying in the field. This may sound like small potatoes, but the tethered lens covers and rain guard are far and away the best I’ve ever come across. Most require substantial wrestling, while these slide right on and off. For what it’s worth, I also didn’t have a minor cardiac event while adjusting the neck strap. With a field of view upwards of 340 feet at 1,000 yards, and amped-up magnification for long-range birding, the Ranger EDs feel like a rare triumph of design over wallet slenderness.
Nikon Monarch 5 10×42
Best Deal: I beat the living shit out of these poor things on a five-day camping trip in western North Dakota (inadvertently, of course). To start, I nearly dropped them in a prairie-dog burrow. Then they went straight into the Little Missouri River and came out as good as new (like most binoculars these days, the Monarch’s multi-coated lenses are impervious to water and fog). At a low point, I considered using them to prop up my shaky camp stove, but thought again. I could’ve done slightly better on size and weight with the Leicas or Mavens, but on durability? I doubt it.
And while a touch big for my pack, the Monarch 5’s were a perfect match for the Badlands, where long, grassy ranges and distant, rolling hills demanded extra magnification and then some. Golden eagles, western meadowlarks, bobolinks, curlews, a ferruginous hawk, spotted towees, northern harriers, western kingbirds, and black-rosy finches — I crossed them all off my list. No matter how you slice it — optical quality, resolution and brightness, eye relief, body mechanics — the Monarch 5’s match up against binoculars that cost two or three times as much.
Vortex Diamondback 8×42
Best for City Birding: As bad as it sounds, rising at 5:00 a.m. has its rewards. Even on a murky spring day, the sky can have a surreal spark. Our resident downy woodpecker, an outlier camped among cardinals and chickadees, begins to lope and scamper in the breeze, tracing a parabolic line from trunk to trunk. We also have some nuthatches, goldfinches, titmice, and very occasionally a yellow-bellied sapsucker. We’re up high, third floor, facing east and west, a real hierarchy of light. Sometimes the morning sun is so enormous it’s as if a great fire is swallowing Back Bay, precisely the kind of place that requires a huge field of view, and the Diamondback has the largest of its class: 420 feet at 1,000 yards.
Thanks to vivid colors, contrast that doesn’t sacrifice sharpness at the peripheries, extremely smooth focusing and rugged, streamlined, compact build, the Diamondback has earned favorable comparisons to the Nikon Monarch 5, though it’s nearly half the price. And the finish feels nicer to me, less like a tennis grip and more like the Space Shuttle joystick, I imagine.