Lightweight Scope Alternatives Revisited

In my last post I went over some options for lightweight, carry-able optics with high magnification, as a tool somewhere between normal binoculars and a full-sized scope.  My favorite of the group was the Vortex 15x50 Viper HD binoculars, which weigh the same as many 8x binoculars, but give a much closer look at distant birds.   Since then I've been using them in tandem with my Leica 8x32s, and they have been a useful supplement when I'm walking a trail and don't want to haul a scope and tripod (in other words, always!).  

After a little use, I started to wonder about other high-magnification binoculars.  Two stood out in my mind - the Vortex 20x56 Kaibobs, and the Zeiss 15x56 Conquests.  So I got a pair of each to test, and here are my results. 

First, let me say that both of these binoculars cost twice as much and are nearly twice as heavy as the Vortex 15x50s that I have.  So there is an issue not just of carrying them around, but also of hand holding them - the extra weight can add a little stability when hand holding, but they also wear out your arms much more quickly.  

Secondly, these binos are much bigger, as you can see in this photo.  

  From left to right:   full-sized Swarovski 80HD scope (58 oz.), Zeiss 15x56 Conquest (46 oz.), Vortex 15x56 Kaibob (43 oz.), Vortex 15x50 Viper HD (28 oz.), Zeiss 7x42 Victory (26 oz.), and Leica 8x32 Utlravid HD (19 oz.).  

From left to right:   full-sized Swarovski 80HD scope (58 oz.), Zeiss 15x56 Conquest (46 oz.), Vortex 15x56 Kaibob (43 oz.), Vortex 15x50 Viper HD (28 oz.), Zeiss 7x42 Victory (26 oz.), and Leica 8x32 Utlravid HD (19 oz.).  

For my testing, I brought everything to the local tidal flat in good sun, and looked at distant birds, both handheld and resting the binoculars on a tripod.   I tried to be specific about what I was looking for: for example, I would see if could identify the eye color on a distant gull.  I tried all the binoculars, including the 8x and 7x, to see how the balance between magnification and stability of view played out.  There is definitely a point where the shakier view that you get with a higher magnification seems to negate the closer image.  I also saw a big difference in resolution and contrast in some of these binoculars, and that also plays an important roll in trying to pick out distant details.

My conclusions were as follows:

Zeiss Conquest 15x56 (about $1400)

The largest and heaviest binoculars of the bunch, but also a noticeable step up in image quality from either of the Vortex binoculars.  The extra weight can actually make the binocular seem a bit more stable, and I was able to comfortably scan distant shorebirds, at least for short periods of time.  The depth of field was very good, and I didn't have to do as much focus readjustment as I did with the vortex.  Overall build quality was excellent, and felt like a solid piece of hardware.  The best in the group for resolving things like eye color and other details.  

Vortex Kaibob 20x56 (about $1400)

Also large and heavy, these binoculars are a bit stiff in adjusting the width of the binocular, and focussing.  The armor seems solid, but the build quality feels less elegant than the Zeiss.  I had a lot of trouble adjusting these binoculars to get a sharp look at anything, and eventually gave up on them.  I found that I actually had to adjust the diopter differently at different distances to get both barrels sharp.  I also found that of the three high magnification binoculars, these had the least resolution of distant detail, probably due to the greater 20x magnification, along with optics that seem less contrasty and sharp than the Zeiss.  The focussing requires a lot more movement of the knob that the Zeiss does, and the depth of field is narrower so I found it was difficult to get a precise focus quickly.  I may have had a bad experience, but these did not work well for me.  

Vortex Viper HD 15x50 (about $650)

The winners of the last round of testing, these stood up again and turned out to be my favorite bang-for-the-buck bins.  They are nearly half the weight and are much smaller than the other two.  Changing focus takes a lot more turning of the knob than the Zeiss, and the depth of field is narrower, but the problem was not as pronounce as the Kaibobs, and I didn't find that it interfered with normal scanning.  Resolution was very acceptable, as was brightness.  Field of view is a bit restricted, and not as good as the Zeiss, but my purpose with these bins is for looking at specific objects rather than scanning, so that was less of an issue for me.  Of course, they're also half the price of the other two!

In summary, even after testing these more expensive binoculars, I'm happy with my choice of the Vortex Viper HD 15x50s.  At about $650 and a lightweight 28 oz., they are a nice fit for a second pair of binoculars that give you a little extra reach when you need it.  The Zeiss 15x56 definitely gave an excellent performance, and if I were looking for a pair to only keep in the car or boat, they would definitely be high on my list.  The image quality is a step above the Vortexes, and if it were between that and the Kaibobs I wouldn't hesitate to get the Zeiss.  But at a hefty 46 oz and $1400, they don't work for me as a carry-able second pair.  

Lightweight Scope Alternatives

Full disclosure before I start this article:  I hate scopes.  I hate them for the same reason I hate tripods - they're heavy, clumsy and they get in the way.  Carrying a scope over my shoulder means missing a shot of that Goshawk that just sped by me.  It also means a sore shoulder at the end of the day.  As a photographer, it's one too many pieces of gear I have to carry.

That said, I love the view a scope gives me.  Just about every day I see something that I wish I could get a closer look at...a seabird in the distance, a small songbird far off in a tree, or a hawk way off in the distance.   The magnification a scope provides is invaluable in these situations, and can be the difference between making an ID or not.  

This conflict has driven me to search for a scope alternative, something that's portable and unobtrusive that will give me that magnifying edge when I'm out in the field, and that I can pack easily into a carry-on on my next birding trip.  This magical device would be small, lightweight, sturdy and powerful.  Note that I’m not looking for something to replace my Swarovski 80HD scope to do hours of seawatching - the only thing that could replace that is, well, another Swarovski 80HD. Instead,  I’m looking for a sweet spot between that serious scope and my carry-around Zeiss 7x42 binoculars.

In my search I came across four different tools that might fit the bill.  I’ve had all four for about a week and have been testing them side by side: from the car, out the back window, and of course walking around birding.  My usual kit when I’m birding are my Zeiss binoculars and my camera - a Canon 7D II with a 300mm f/2.8 lens.  It’s a hefty setup, so the challenge was to have a companion tool that wasn’t going to weight me down, but still added value to the experience.  Here are the contenders:

Vortex 15x50 Mountain Scope Monocular - not unlike a single barrel of a binocular, this lightweight monocular weighs 15.2 oz, is 7 inches long, and has a field of view of 215ft.

Canon 15x50 IS Binoculars - image stabilized binoculars create a rock-steady view even when handheld; 41oz, 7.6”, and field of view of 236 ft.

Vortex Viper 15x50 Binoculars - roof prism binoculars weighing in at a light 28.4 oz, 6.7inches long, with a field of view of 210ft.

Nikon 13-30x50 Fieldscope - the classic, lightest-weight scope of any value.  20 oz., 8.2” long, 157’ field of view at 13x.

Here they all are for a size comparison:

 Left to Right: Vortex 15x50 Mountain Scope; Vortex Viper 15x50HD binoculars; Canon 15x50 IS binoculars; Nikon 13-30x50 Fieldscope

Left to Right: Vortex 15x50 Mountain Scope; Vortex Viper 15x50HD binoculars; Canon 15x50 IS binoculars; Nikon 13-30x50 Fieldscope


I started with the Vortex 15x Mountain “Scope” - it’s basically an oversized monocular.  The lightest weight and smallest of the group, this is definitely a pocketable item.  It also has metal clips to attach it to your belt, and a tripod socket that might be good with a monopod or pocket-sized tripod.  Optical quality was very satisfactory.  So far so good!  But there were two important downsides for me.

First, the focus is very tight and awkward to use.  It has rigid tabs that give you a little better grip/leverage when turning the focus knob, but it’s still very difficult to focus, especially on a moving target.  That, coupled with a narrow depth-of-field, made them hard to use on birds.  Strike one.

Second, it was just too difficult to handhold.  The small size and light weight actually worked against it, and I found it was giving me the shakiest view of the four optics I tried.  Maybe if it was braced on something, or on a monopod, but that defeats the purpose for me.  So despite the appealing size and weight, this wasn’t going to solve my problem.

Next up was the Nikon 13-30x50 Fieldscope, an absurdly light and small scope, with a 13-30x zoom eyepiece.  One of the sharpest of the group optically, it fit easily into my jacket pocket, although it was longer and bulkier than the Mountain Scope.  Maybe because of it’s size, I was able to stabilize it more effectively when I handheld it (certainly not what this scope is meant for, but it’s what I’m looking for!).  Even better, it shipped with a very light, compact shoulder stock.  With the scope screwed on to that, I found I could get a very steady image from a standing position.  Of course, you could also easily get it on a monopod, beanbag or other rest and get a super stable image.  

The problem for me was that the field-of-view was very narrow.  It feels a lot like looking through a rifle scope, or through one of those old-fashioned brass telescopes.  And while the optical sharpness was certainly acceptable, the brightness left something to be desired, so overall the images felt dim to me.  Finally, the 30x zoom was nice by also very hard to get any value from handholding, and I found it didn’t give me much advantage (in that situation) over the 15x optics.  

I now turned to the Canon 15x50 IS binoculars.  The biggest and bulkiest of the group, I knew from the start that they would probably not be the portable sidekick that I was looking for.  But wow are they fun!  They had the most open field-of-view of the group, which gave me a nice feel when scanning across the ocean.  They are moderately sharp - not as good as the other optics I tried, but certainly acceptable.  

But the real excitement with these binoculars comes when you press the little button on the top of the casing.  That activates the Image Stabilization, and your shaky handheld image is suddenly transformed to a perfectly steady view.  The difference is remarkable, and the amount of detail your eyes can gather with a stabilized vs. non-stabilized view is considerable.  You can feel your eyes relax, now that they don’t have to work chasing that shaky image, and I understand why some seawatchers prefer stabilized optics for all-day scanning (the Zeiss 20x60 stabilized binoculars are great for that, although too big for my purposes).  

The experience is seductive, and I found myself wishing that all optics were stabilized.  But after some extended use and careful viewing, I had to let these binoculars go.  For one thing, they’re just too big.  Not only heavy, but quite bulky, they’re better suited for a car or boat than for carrying.  Also, as much as I like the stabilized image, there is a noticeable softening of the image when IS is turned on.  I would love to have a pair of these just for fun, but as a carry around birding tool they didn’t fit the bill.

My last pair was the Vortex Viper 15x50HD binoculars.  There are some other 15x50s out there - notably Swarovski, Zeiss, and Leica - but they all run in the 40+ oz. weight range, and they’re all pricy (starting at $1300).  For a secondary tool, that’s a little too heavy for me in weight and cost.  The Vortex’s, on the other hand, are about $650, and weigh a scant 28oz.  As a point of comparison, the new Zeiss 8x42 Victory binoculars weigh 27.5oz!  Somehow Vortex managed to squeeze a lot of power into a lightweight package, and that was a good start.

I found these bins had the sharpest and brightest image of the bunch.  The field of view wasn’t as wide as the Canon’s, but it was certainly acceptable and not nearly as restricting as the Nikon Fieldscope.  The fact that they are binoculars makes them much easier to hold steady (vs. a scope or monocular), and I can get a very stable image from them even over an extended scan.  

So until I find something even better, the Vortex Viper 15x50s are the winner for me! Sturdy, waterproof, and relatively lightweight, I can carry them in a big jacket pocket, on my shoulder, or even instead of my 7x bins when I want a longer reach.  I’m looking forward to really putting them through their paces in my upcoming trips, and I’m very excited to have this new tool in my bag of birding tricks.


Photo Big Day 2014

In the past few years, photography has become increasingly more prevalent in the birding community.  Digital cameras continue to get cheaper, better, and easier to use;and as a professional photographer and self-professed "photobirder", I am heartened to see an increase in birders taking advantage of these new tools. Whereas I might have had only one or two people with cameras on a birding walk in the past, now I might see the majority of people in a group with cameras, and often very sophisticated ones.   The question is, what do we do with all those photos?  How can we focus that energy (if you'll pardon the pun), and bring it up a level?

 Competition!  It's a tried and true way to get people motivated, and this year a group of us are going to do some serious motivating.  Around April 21st (the date is a little flexible to account for weather and migration), four of us are going to do a 24-hour Photo Big Day in Texas.  Like a traditional Big Day, we're out to get as many species of birds as we can in 24 hours, but with the extra burden of photographing them all.  Many of you may know that a team from Cornell set the US Big Day record in Texas last April with 296 species seen.  We don't expect to get that many, but we do hope to set a US record for birds photographed.  In the process, we also want to design a set of rules so that in the future, anyone can do a Big Photo Day, whether it's for a national record or just a record for their backyard.  

 Photography adds a dimension of fun to birding that's hard to beat...not only do you have to find the birds, but there's also the challenge of getting that photograph.  In a Photo Big Day, that image is everything...if you can't ID the bird from the picture, it doesn't count!  Knowing a wide range of ID points  for the birds can help you add species to your list.  For example, Fish Crow and American Crow have slightly different lengths of flight feathers, and can be separated visually if you have a shot of the open wing.  So that means if we see a crow, that flight shot is key! 

Our team will consist of myself and my Warbler Guide co-author Tom Stephenson; expert Cape May birder and photographer Sam Galick; and Cameron Cox, co-author of the Peterson Guide to Seawatching.  Also on the team will be birder extraordinare Tom Johnson, who will be helping scout our route, but won't be there for the actual day.   We're also getting a lot of support from NYC Audubon, who is setting up a site for organizations to fund-raise and host their own Big Photo Day events; Zeiss, who has generously donated scopes and digiscoping gear that we'll be using throughout the day;  Princeton University Press (publishers of The Warbler Guide and many other excellent titles); and of course the ABA, who will be live-blogging and tweeting the event, as well as publishing an article on our Big Day in the Birder’s Guide to Listing and Taxonomy.

 Another great thing the ABA is doing is helping to set up a site for people to share their own Photo Big Days.  Anyone can join and share their personal Big Days for any area, from a backyard, to a county, state or even the whole country.  This is an exciting way to share experiences, argue over ID points, and generally get better at birding and bird photography, and we're thrilled that the ABA is joining us in promoting this new event!

Audio Quiz: Buzzy Songs Question

btblwa quiz fin.JPG

This buzzy warbler song is fairly common in the spring in the east during migration. Is this a Prairie Warbler, a Cerulean Warbler or a Black-throated Blue Warbler?

Audio Quiz: Buzzy Songs Answer

 Our Quiz Song - buzzy quality, 2 Sections.

Our Quiz Song - buzzy quality, 2 Sections.

All three of these warblers sing songs that could be considered at least partly buzzy. By examining the structure of each of their songs we can quickly get to the correct species.

 Prairie Warbler Sonogram

Prairie Warbler Sonogram

Prairie Warbler’s song is very similar. The Elements are all of a similar length and quality to the first Elements of this song. However, Prairie’s Elements are all basically the same length.

 

 Prairie Warbler Elements are all equal length. 

Prairie Warbler Elements are all equal length. 

In our target song the last Element is much longer, and has a different pitch contour than the prior 8 Elements.

 The mystery song shows a longer element at the end.

The mystery song shows a longer element at the end.

Also, Prairie’s Elements slowly rise in pitch. The Elements in the target song are all basically the same pitch until the last, longer Element.

So Prairie must be ruled out.

 Cerulean Warbler Sonogram

Cerulean Warbler Sonogram

Cerulean Warbler’s song is more complicated than Prairie’s, and so maybe that will match our target song. But looking at the typical Cerulean song we see some important differences.

Our target song has two distinctly different Sections. One has several Elements of similar length. It then has one longer, rising Element in the last Section.

Cerulean’s song is even more complicated. First, the song is organized into three distinctly different Sections.

 Cerulean has three distinct sections in its song, not two like our target song.

Cerulean has three distinct sections in its song, not two like our target song.

The Elements in the first are somewhat similar to our target song, but are actually more complex, with distinctly 2-Element Phrases. 

 This enlargement reveals that some phrases in Cerulean's song are made up of two elements, not one.

This enlargement reveals that some phrases in Cerulean's song are made up of two elements, not one.

The next Section has 4 higher, faster Elements that are repeated at trill speed, so fast we can’t really count the number easily. There are no trills in our target song.

The last Section is higher than the the first two. Note that in our target song the last Section’s Element rises in pitch. However in Cerulean’s song the pitch in the  last Section is steady, even though the overall Section is the highest in the song. For these reasons, Cerulean can be ruled out.

 The last section of Cerulean's song is a steady, not rising.

The last section of Cerulean's song is a steady, not rising.

So the answer must be Black-throated Blue.  Black-throated Blue songs are most often 2 Sections, the first containing a variable number of buzzy Elements that are of similar length and pitch. The second Section is a longer, Buzzy, Element that rises in pitch, just like the structure of our target song. 

Here are two examples of Black-throated Blue Warbler songs, each showing the same basic structure.

btblwa quiz sono ans 1.JPG
btblwa quiz sono ans 2.JPG

One quick way to identify this song would be to use The Song Finders found in The Warbler Guide. Since this is a Buzzy song, we can go to that part of the Finder. There we see Prairie Warbler and Black-throated Blue as the main choices. The target song has two clearly different Sections, and matches the Black-throated Blue’s quality and structure.

song finder quiz 1v2.jpg

Cerulean’s song, while sometimes confused for Black-throated Blue, has a different structure and quality, as evident by its place in the song finder. Cerulean’s song is never entirely buzzy, which also separates it from our target song.

Using the Song Finder and the Song and Call Companion playlist, it’s also easy to play any potential song and compare them with an unknown species.

Audio Quiz: Song Structure Question

We hear this song in an eastern forest during the spring time. The singer repeats the song over and over but proves hard to find. In this habitat we might find Magnolia Warbler, Yellow Warbler, American Redstart, and Hooded Warbler. Which is it?

yelwar quiz sono fin.JPG

Audio Quiz: Song Structure Answer

 Our quiz song has three sections - section 1 has 3 elements, section 2 has 2 elements, and section 3 has 1 element.  

Our quiz song has three sections - section 1 has 3 elements, section 2 has 2 elements, and section 3 has 1 element.  

Before we start examining the possible songs, let’s take a minute to examine the structure of our target song. First, it clearly has three distinct Sections. Sectional boundaries are created by obvious changes in pitch, speed or type of Element. The first Section has 3 similar Elements, the second has two and the last is one down/up Element. 

These Elements sound very bright and high. To be more specific, they are fairly Expanded, meaning the pitch range of the Elements is wide. The Elements are also short, which emphasizes the brightness of the song.

 Hooded Warbler Sonogram - Elements are long, low and Compressed

Hooded Warbler Sonogram - Elements are long, low and Compressed

Now let’s examine our possible suspects. Hooded Warbler’s song is of a similar length. However they sound lower and less bright. Again this is because the Elements have a much less Expanded pitch range. This is also emphasized by the length of the Elements, which are longer, giving our ear time to hear all of the pitches: thus they sound more “musical” or mellow.

The other three candidates are very similar, which explains why this song is often confused in the field. 

American Redstart has one characteristic that is very helpful in identifying this species. In addition to singing a multi-Section song, similar to our target song, Redstarts very often alternate their primary song with a much simpler, one-Section song. 

 Primary American Redstart Song - note that the elements are compressed and sound less bright and emphatic than our target song.

Primary American Redstart Song - note that the elements are compressed and sound less bright and emphatic than our target song.

 This simple American Redstart song is often alternated with the primary song.

This simple American Redstart song is often alternated with the primary song.

This combination of alternated simple and more complex songs is a very good ID point for American Redstart, and separates it from our target song, which is repeated regularly, as stated in the description.

The Elements are also less Expanded, and so sound less emphatic, or thinner, than our target song.

There is one other important distinction that is very easy-to-hear in the field and can help us solve this quiz. American Redstart, Magnolia Warbler and Hooded Warbler sing songs with 3 or more Sections, just like our target song. However the second Section is always only 1 Element: they never repeat an Element in this second Section.

Magnolia Warbler’s song only has 1 Element in the second Section

 The second Section of Magnolia Warbler song only has one Element, unlike our target song which has two.

The second Section of Magnolia Warbler song only has one Element, unlike our target song which has two.

Yellow Warbler, on the other hand, always repeats the Element in its second Section twice, and often several times. Our target song has two Elements in the second Section, nailing down the ID to Yellow Warbler.

 Yellow Warbler always sings two Elements in its second Section.

Yellow Warbler always sings two Elements in its second Section.

In The Warbler Guide, the master pages of any of these species will contain these similar species, with notes on how to separate them.

Yellow Warbler’s Master Pages include comparisons with all similar-sounding species

 

yelwar mp COMP.jpg

Audio Quiz: Swamp Answer

 Quiz song - one Section of repeated, 4-Element Phrases - pitch moves in one direction.

Quiz song - one Section of repeated, 4-Element Phrases - pitch moves in one direction.

So this is a 1-Section song. It consists of one Phrase that is repeated over and over. (A Phrase is a group of different Elements that are repeated several times.) The Phrase is intricate, with 4 Elements. 

Notice that each Phrase covers a lot of frequencies, including some that are very low. The first Element of each Phrase looks like a very straight line. This indicates many frequencies being sung at the same time, creating a very strong accent or even noise-like sound.  Although it really has two Elements, it's so fast that it sounds to us like one Element, and so we treat it as such.  The Elements in the rest of the Phrase sound staccato, as they are short, and have a much smaller pitch range.  And they rise in pitch, one to the next.

All of the suggested species share this same basic structure: 1 Section with several repeated Phrases, each of which consists of a few Elements. Let’s first look at Kentucky Warbler and see if it fits.

 Kentucky Warbler: the Elements are low and Compressed in pitch range.

Kentucky Warbler: the Elements are low and Compressed in pitch range.

The first thing we hear (and see) is that all of these Elements are very similar to each other. There is nothing like the variety of sound we hear in the target song. Also, the pitch is low and doesn’t cover nearly the same range, making the song sound duller and less strident.

Common Yellowthroat’s song does have a lot of variety in its Elements.

 Common Yellowthroat: less accented, slower, and higher, with up/down pitch movements.

Common Yellowthroat: less accented, slower, and higher, with up/down pitch movements.

And it covers a very wide range of frequencies, although it doesn’t go nearly as low as the target song. Also, the Elements are somewhat longer, and thus sound less staccato or accented. The speed of the Phrases is also noticeably slower, in fact about half as fast. That enhances the more melodic quality of the Common Yellowthroat’s song.

Finally the pitch profile of each Phrase is a slower, more gentle, up/down form. All in all, Common Yellowthroat sounds more mellow or sing-songy than the target song, which has a very strong accent followed by a rapidly rising series of short Elements.

All of the features of the target song fit the various, variable songs of Carolina Wren. The key to identifying this species, and separating it from other species, is each Phrase’s very fast, sharp, accented Element that is then followed by a series of short Elements with either a rising or falling overall pitch profile. The fairly fast speed and wide pitch range, adds to the song’s effect.

 

Audio Quiz: Swamp Question

carwre quiz fin.JPG

This species is a very vocal singer, has many variations, and is often confused with other species, especially from the distance.

This one Section song could be Common Yellowthroat, Kentucky Warbler or even Carolina Wren. Which is it?