At the height of the pandemic, sourdough starters were spreading faster than the latest variant of concern. People went all in on new hobbies. Gardeners, runners, knitters, pottery makers, puzzlers, and yogis scratched, scrambled, prodded, pulled, searched, and stretched their way toward distraction. A flock of new bird watchers peeped. Participation in birding jumped by roughly 2.41 million in 2020 over the year before. Though interest has dipped since summer 2020 highs, there has been a sustained increase in birding-related searches even as lockdowns waned. Moreover, bird watching has been gradually attracting a younger, more diverse audience. People share their sightings on Instagram, and birding is big on TikTok, too. One sure sign the dam has broken is the fact that you can now buy hip binoculars courtesy of Nocs Provisions, a design-forward brand that makes stylish, colorful binoculars targeted at the new group of young, diverse birders who wear less tweed than their forebears. In 2023, this nerdy, niche hobby is, dare we say, cool?
The good news is that the old guard is happy to take baby birders under their wing. Geoff LeBaron has been the Christmas Bird Count Director at the National Audubon Society since 1987. He welcomes any interest in birds and notes that novice birders can play an important role in conservation efforts through the Christmas Bird Count and Backyard Bird Count. “We welcome beginners. Beginners are great because, you know, they’re looking at everything, and they’re like sponges. And you don’t have to know what something is to be the first one to see it.”
On the front line of the new birding is Isaiah Scott, a young ornithologist and Cornell student who’s as serious about birding and conservation as he is looking good doing it (he calls his colorful fits “birding drip”). Scott is also partnered with Nocs Provisions as a “Nocs Naturalist.”
Both LeBaron and Scott say that they credit the stickiness of the birding craze to the accessibility of the hobby. It’s not expensive – the only real requirement is a good pair of binoculars – and birds are most active in the dawn hours before work starts. There has also been a big push by Audubon to sign up chapter members, and newer organizations are bridging old-school conservation and intersectionality. The Feminist Bird Club has chapters across the country, and events like Black Birders Week draws crowds. Birdability connects birders of varying physical and mental abilities to birding through crowdsourced maps of accessible trails.
All birders really need to get started is a pair of binoculars and a field guide, but LeBaron notes that many birders are relying on their phones instead of traditional guides. Free apps like Merlin, Audubon, and eBird make it easy to find birds and document sightings. That means the real challenge for beginner birders is buying their first binoculars.
How To Buy Binoculars
With pairs ranging from $20 for kid’s binoculars to several grand for high-end bins, it can be tough to know how much to spend. And while you might not need the $4,000 binoculars, LeBaron says it’s worth investing in a quality pair. “You can buy really cheap binoculars, but it’s like buying really cheap anything. They’re probably not going to work very well, and the first time you drop them, they will be useless.” According to LeBaron, those on a budget can find binoculars for bird watching in the $100-200 range, but argues, “if you go for the high end that’s likely to be your pair for life.”
LeBaron also points out that different binoculars work for different faces and suggested handling them to see which works best for you and considering factors like how far apart your eyes are, your face shape, and whether or not you wear glasses. “One of the highest-end binoculars that are out there are called Leicas. They’re from Germany; they’re absolutely fabulous optics. I can’t use them because they don’t fit well. I wear glasses. I don’t know why, but there’s something about [Leicas] that just don’t work as well for people with glasses.”
LeBaron’s other piece of advice for the bespectacled is to keep your eyewear on. “I think some people who are glasses wearers feel, ‘Oh, I should take my glasses off and then put the binoculars up.’ Nope, you’re never going to see anything.”
How To Choose The Right Size
Binoculars list two numbers, such as 10×80. The first number refers to magnification. A bird will be 8 times bigger than it is with the naked eye if you’re using 8x binoculars. The second number is the lens aperture of the objective lens. A larger objective lens will let more light in, giving you a brighter image, especially in low-light conditions. The drawback is that a larger objective lens adds weight and bulk to the binoculars.
LeBaron says a larger objective lens is a plus but discourages going too high on magnification. He suggests that beginners look for “something in the 8X40ish range” and added, “you definitely don’t want to start with a higher magnification for your first pair of binoculars because they’re going to be harder to use.”
Isaiah Scott echoed that sentiment, noting that “once magnification rises above 10x, the image can be pretty hard to hold in hand steadily.” The advantage of a lower magnification is, in part, the wider field of view, which can help keep an eye on a hopping finch or a circling raptor.
To help you get started, we rounded up the best binoculars for birding based on advice from our experts, and we picked out some handy field guides as well.