Saturday, May 23, 2015

Dainty Lady Binoculars; Three Years on the Optics Hunt

I realize this is an odd pulse in posting since the blog has lapsed into silence: Matt is still in CA, I am still in MI. Both indefinitely. I've unsubscribed from the Brewster and Reeves County eBird alerts because my heart just can't take the beating. What news I do get comes from folks who haven't heard, and would like to know if I'll be around when they're in town. Lest I get too nostalgic, let's just say that it's kind of nice to not feel the weight of citizen science on my shoulders every time I'm out birding: Washtenaw County, Michigan has PLENTY of birders who are reporting their sightings.

Reminiscing aside, have some content! This post is not sighting related, obviously, but optics are optics and we've fielded questions about cameras and binoculars in the past - might as well share the learning curve. (Camera reviews may be forthcoming, but Lillian Stokes nails the epic point-and-shoot that is the Canon SX 50 in her review - and warns away from the 60)

A brief history of my binoculars:

Bushnell 7x35s circa 1997-2000
Price: I don't remember, but definitely well under $100 (donated* circa 2003)

Eagle Optics Rangers 8x42 circa 2000-2015
$350? sounds about right

Audubon (Swifts?) 7x35(??) 2003
Won during the Great Texas Birding Classic, donated immediately due to being completely useless for my eyes - retail was probably well under $200

Nikon Monarch 8x42 circa 2007-2014
Gifted to me as spares ~$250? Not sure.

Opticron Traveller** 8x32 2015
Listed around $370, paid closer to $320 due to festival discount.

* Binoculars were donated to the American Birding Association's Birder's Exchange program.

** Zeiss Terra ED 8x32 were ALMOST on the list where the Opticron Traveller now sits. For three long, drawn out, agonizing years, I bided my time, procrastinating. Mostly being too broke to justify replacing the EO Rangers, and too complacent with the Nikon Monarchs as backups. Why the final snap? Everything in my life has completely and utterly been destroyed. Field work in 2014 nailed the coffin on the Nikons (I was chipping GLASS on them - screw destroying the coating, I was annihilating the actual LENS that my left eye was looking through... moral of the story is don't tuck your bins under your left arm when hiking for two months straight and also carrying a clipboard that bumps the eyepiece - or something...) so the Nikons were put into retirement. Then the portion of body where the strap is secured... snapped. My Rangers literally had one connecting point for the strap. Lopsided binoculars + redneck engineering = babied them along for another year, almost. In the meantime, I'd already done my homework to replace the Nikons, but didn't want to think about the cost (upper limit: mortgage payment, lower limit: dog food).

My requirements:

Top priority - IPD of 54 mm or less. IPD stands for Interpupillary Distance. It's pretty irrelevant if you have a big head. Or a medium head. Or are an average-sized human. I weigh roughly 105 lbs soaking wet, and while I might have a huge ego, my head is relatively proportionate to the rest of me. This is problematic. EVERY decent pair of binoculars on the planet* has a minimum IPD of 55 mm or wider (*pers observation, additional citation needed). When looking through binoculars, vignetting and separate-circles are quite problematic if you're trying to actually see/watch anything, much less birds or butterflies. Spoiler: none of the bins that I owned actually fit me 100% and it led to headaches early on and not really using my bins much. The EOs did have decent eye-relief (more on that soon!) which helped a bit. They were definitely better than the Monarchs in that regard.

Second(?) priority - eye relief! I wear glasses. Really, it's tied as top priority. But you have to have them up to your eyes to know the difference. And if they don't work, there's no way you can make them work. Try holding up a pair of cardboard tubes to your eyes... you don't want the tiny light at the end of the tunnel. You want as much of a view in your eyeballs as you can stand. Hands-on testing is required to determine this rather personal fit.

Third priority - close focus! I like big bugs and I cannot lie. But I also enjoy small bugs. And medium bugs. And sometimes they're pretty close to me, so I want to look at them without stepping back a few feet and falling off the side of a cliff. Not that I'm generally bug watching on cliffs, but if I can focus on my toes, I'm happy (admittedly, I'm short... soooo....). The EO Rangers had a close focus that, on tip-toe, was essentially perfect. My spare Nikons would have required me to grow another foot in height to focus on my toes. Meh. Forget about close focus on those first Bushnells, and the Swifts, too. Anything over 8' isn't close anymore.

Fourth priority - size/weight/feel. I don't mind a bicep workout if there's good quality, but I have smallish hands and I don't want a sore neck/back/arm/whatever. I have used - and love - "branocular" harnesses (harnesses with the center-point in the back) because they do distribute weight nicely, but ultimately I wanted something on the smaller end of full-sized binoculars in spite of the improved weight distribution. If you can't hold/lug your bins for hours, you're not going to be happy 15 years later. In the process of deciding on my EO Rangers, I went to an optics fair at Armand Bayou Nature Center (circa 2000) and picked up literally every pair of bins that was 7-8x and after figuring out the closest IPD fit (which wasn't perfect, but mini-bins were not on the menu for me at the time - I wanted to go from 7x35 to 8x at least), the last ones - the ones I couldn't bear to put down - were the Rangers and... I think a pair of Leicas. But there's a pretty hefty difference between $350ish and $800 or whatever it was, especially for a broke high school student.

Research: I poured through Cornell's Binocular Review for hours, among other things.

Bottom line:
Times have changed a bit and I'm no longer in high school (thank goodness), but sometimes I feel that the limitations are the same - parents and dogs are about on par for being restrictive to birding lifestyles. Oddly, finances are almost similar. Give or take a car payment. On the bright side, The Biggest Week in American Birding was perfect for optics shopping and I walked away with a VERY lightweight, crisp, bright, compact set of amazing optics. The poor fellow who worked the Opticron booth, Paul, was exceptionally patient (seeing as he's been trying to set me up with a pair of bins since 2012 or so!) as I tested the Opticron Travellers and Zeiss Terra EDs side by side for the better part of an hour, intermittently, over the first weekend of the festival. I'm thankful that the Travellers were so new that I wasn't already familiar with their spec sheet - had I been familiar with their claim of a 57 mm IPD, I don't think I ever would have even picked them up. The eye cups PULL rather than twist up/down, but unless I'm handing off my bins to people who aren't wearing glasses, I don't see that as a problem. Since I wear glasses I also don't have to worry about one eye being focused differently than the other, so that's handy - rumor has it that it's a beast to twist the right lens into focus... as it should be.  The gear included was pretty basic - lens cloth, case, thin strap, eye covers that I didn't put on (because I'm lazy and/or would lose them). Unfortunately because the glass is so exposed I will probably beat them up a bit faster than the other pairs of bins, judging by my historical use. I can't wait to find out, though!

Costs: How I finally calculated what I, personally, was willing to spend...

Historical mortgage payment
One month's rent with average utilities
One month's therapy costs
Current vehicle payment
Weekly income
Adoption fee for dog
A year's worth of dog food
....average of all of the above. No numbers, you can guess.

It just needed to be a number that wouldn't raise my blood pressure to the point of absolute panic. The Laura Erickson method also applied: I couldn't spend more than I could reasonably afford to replace. Let's go with DEAR GOD I HOPE I DON'T HAVE TO REPLACE THEM. Because, really, life's a bit too unpredictable for that right now.

Maybe there will be photos of my beat up bins here at some point; for now I hope the horrifying descriptions will keep people pampering their optics as much as possible! Recreational birders may not abuse their bins as much, but it's worth thinking about. There are no right/wrong answers with optics - binoculars are like snowflakes and fingerprints and birders/butterfliers/dragonfliers/moth-ers/herpers will all have something different they want. The good news: it's all out there.

Happy trails!!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Trans-Pecos BBS Wrap-up 2015 / Trip Report

The following content was kindly approved for sharing by Stu Wilson, intrepid Breeding Bird Survey adventurer currently living in FL - he's done WTX BBS routes for many years and sent his end of route summary. This is shared with his permission, and with our gratitude for his efforts!

* Post Park was mistakenly listed as being south of Marfa, in Presidio County: it has been corrected to being south of Marathon, in Brewster County. Links were modified to be blog friendly.



I've put together a little wrap-up for my 4-11May2015 central Trans-Pecos BBS trip. Besides my three current BBS routes, I made a number of "general interest birding" stops, many of which I entered into eBird. The area continues to suffer from the effects of drought as well as the freeze and fire of 2011, but there were signs of recovery, e.g. good numbers of Scaled Quail and Greater Roadrunner. In general, neotropical migrants were in short supply anywhere I went.

El Paso Memorial Park (FWTX 9) 4May2015
One of the best opportunities to find migrants within the El Paso city limits is this urban park (El Paso County). However, I found very few- a Western Wood-Pewee, an Audubon's Yellow-rump, and several Wilson's Warbler- amongst 20 species total. eBird checklist here

McNary Reservoir 5May2015
Auduboners generally have permission to visit this water body located about 80 miles east of El Paso in Hudspeth County. I tallied 34 species in an hour including both Western and Clark's Grebes, as well as a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers, possibly a new May record for the area. eBird checklist here

Marathon- Ft Pena Colorado Pk (The Post) (FWTX 28) 5May2015
This popular birding stop 5 miles south of Marathon in Brewster County was flush with water and yielded 26 species, but no rarities and just a couple of migrants. eBird checklist here

Alamito Creek Preserve 6May2015
This was my fourth visit to this cottonwood-lined riparian desert strip 35 miles south of Marfa in Presidio County. I started out the walk with Robert Potts, president of property owner Dixon Water Foundation, as well as Jay Pruett from Tulsa and Bob Ayres from Austin. Those three had to turn back mid-morning to tend to some business, but I walked the full 3.5-mile segment, and return, picking up 40 spp. Although there were some impressive numbers of individuals (52 House Finch, 60 Mourning Dove, 58 Northern Mockingbird, 42 Orchard Oriole, 45 Summer Tanager, and 46 Vermilion Flycatcher), and some good raptor activity (2 nesting pairs of Zone-tailed and 1 pair of Swainson's Hawk), migrants were few... only two species of warbler (Audubon's Yellow-rumped and Wilson's). eBird checklist here

Coyanda Draw BBS (Pecos Co 35 mi WSW of Ft Stockton) 7May2015 Habitat: dry and desolate Chihuahuan Desert scrub
I had to contend with only 2 vehicles the entire route! Veteran BBSers know what a luxury that is. The route produced 25 spp with Northern Mockingbird taking home the bacon at 61 and Scaled Quail trailing with 50.
* The Barn Owls at Stop 1 have apparently been evicted by a pair of Great Horned Owls
* 4 Lesser Nighthawks was very low
* Cassin's and Black-throated Sparrow made nice showings with 28 each
* Cactus Wren (avg 20+) has not rebounded on this route as I had only 2

Balmorhea- Sandia Wetlands (FWTX 20A) 7May2015
I had not previously visited this small facility east of Balmorhea in Reeves County, but was glad I did. I found 25 spp highlighted by Cinnamon Teal, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Baird's Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wilson's Phalarope, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Bank Swallow, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. eBird checklist here

Balmorhea Lake - Sandia Wetlands (FWTX 20) 7May2015
I did a loop around the lake, but it was now late afternoon and there just wasn't much happening. I noted about 16 spp, including both Aechmophorus grebes and a couple late Eared Grebes. A lone Ruddy Duck also seemed late.

Toyahvale BBS (Jeff Davis Co between Balmorhea and Ft Davis) 8May2015 Habitat: Davis Mtn foothills
This route was especially fire-ravaged in 2011. I turned up 32 spp with usual champ Northern Mockingbird taking top honors with 55 just overcoming a strong showing by resurging Scaled Quail at 50.
* The Elf Owl pair, present the last two years, could not be found
* Seven (7) Greater Roadrunner may be record for me for any route
* Twenty (20) Black-throated Sparrow was a strong showing
* No evidence of Cactus Wren recovery on this route (avg 16) as I had only 4
* 3 Painted Bunting and 1 Vermilion Flycatcher added some color to things

Bear Mountain BBS (Jeff Davis Co on the NW flanks of Davis Mountains) 9May2015 Habitat: Davis Mtn foothills (desert transitioning to oak/juniper)
This route has become my favorite for reasons I can't quite pinpoint. Only encountering five (5) vehicles on a route with a nicely paved road certainly helps. I tallied 34 spp with Northern Mockingbird achieving top dog at 27 individuals withstanding a strong challenge from Cactus Wren with 24. The Cactus Wren total is right at the historic average and suggests, on this route at least, the species is recovering.
* Cassin's Sparrow (avg 16) curiously absent from this route
* Six (6) Greater Roadrunner might be a record except for Toyahvale above
* Eighteen (18) Canyon Towhees might be a record for me for any route
* A Yellow-breasted Chat lustily singing in the wide open was a nice surprise

Madera Canyon Trail (FWTX 25) 9May2015
This 2.5-mile loop trail starts (and ends) at the south end of the Lawrence E Wood Picnic Area on TX 118 in Jeff Davis County. Most of the juniper trees are dead or dying lending a desolate air, but I nonetheless managed 17 spp including a rampaging young Cooper's Hawk and a Hepatic Tanager pair where the female was doing the singing. eBird checklist here

Big Bend NP- Chisos Basin 10May2015
I had run into some birders from Maryland at Davis Mountains SP who had just been to BBNP (Brewster County) and told me of the rarities lurking there: Short-tailed Hawk, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Flame-colored Tanager, and Evening Grosbeak. Given my limited time, I decided the latter three were out of reach, but I was on point for the STHA, which I thought I understood them to say was being seen (a dark morph and a light morph??) in the Chisos Basin from the lodge area. It didn't fill me with confidence when each of the five (5) rangers I quizzed indicated they were unaware of any rare hawks, and in the end I failed to turn one up. In the course of things, I did a long mid-day hike through the campgrounds, down to the sewage treatment plant, and out and back on the Window Trail, tallying about 17 species, but nothing unexpected. That evening I hiked up the Pinnacles Trail about a half-mile above the cottages and did a 7-9pm sentry duty listening for Mexican Whip-poor-will, but heard not a one. The mountain lion signs say "don't hike alone" and "don't hike at night" and I must confess this weighed on me as the day's light grew dim. My overnight accommodation was a room in the Emory Peak Lodge area but, despite leaving my windows open all night and doing a couple of short local hikes, I heard no owl nor nightjar at all.

Big Bend NP- Cottonwood Campground (FWTX 40) 11May2015
I got up early for the 38-mi drive to Cottonwood CG, arriving just after sunrise, and was promptly greeted by an Elf Owl. Other nuggets amongst 27 spp found were a Cassin's Vireo, a MacGillivray's Warbler, and several singing Yellow-breasted Chats. The prize, however, and the Bird of the Trip for me was a singing male Lucy's Warbler which I found just across the entrance road from the Amphitheater... my first new Texas bird (#489) since a Canada Warbler at Hornsby Bend in Austin on 19Sep2011. eBird checklist here