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Tips for Using Binoculars and Spotting Scopes

A few suggestions for making the most of your optical investments.

By Gibbs Milliken

In this age of high technology we have available the finest optical devices that have ever been made for distant and close observation of wildlife. To make the most of the technology, you must first make sure you buy the right equipment for your particular needs and learn to use it properly. Here are a few tips from Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists.

  • One of their best suggestions is to ask companions on field trips what glasses and scopes they like and why. If possible, borrow several and use them hands-on until you find the ones that work for you.
  • Most agree one should purchase the best quality optics you can afford. In time, they can come to feel like a trusted friend and provide decades of viewing pleasure on your outdoor adventures.
  • Hand-held binoculars work best at lower magnifications of 6- to 10-power with most users finding that beyond 10x some form of stabilization or support is necessary to eliminate handshake. Several brands now offer internal stabilizers to noticeably reduce vibrations and allow for higher magnifications without a tripod.
  • With high-power spotting scopes, the key to sharp images is a good tripod with a fluid head. The latest carbon-fiber tripods are easy to carry. Some models have a hook on the bottom of the center column where a daypack or nylon stuff-sack filled with rocks, sand or soil can be hung for added stability. (These new designs are expensive but are more compact, lighter and sturdier when compared to most aluminum units of the same size).
  • For security and comfort, try a soft stretchy-foam neck strap on your binoculars. These are wide non-slip designs that take the stress off your neck and shoulders. Some are made to keep the binoculars snug to your chest and release instantly for viewing.
  • It is best to pre-adjust your binoculars to the correct span between your eyes, eye relief position, and diopter setting in advance of any field trip. Practice with both eyes on the subject keeping your head still and slowly bringing the glasses up for fine focusing in one fluid motion. Glancing down at your bins can cause instant loss of a creature hidden in its habitat.
  • Shading your eyes and optics will increase contrast and clarity. Direct light coming in from the front, top or sides and striking the lenses will cause flare and deteriorate the image. This is especially true if you wear eyeglasses that catch reflections. A brimmed hat or bill cap will do the trick as a constant source of shade.
  • Binoculars and spotting scopes with short-travel focus knobs allow quick and continuous adjustments on moving quarry. Often birds, insects and mammals are darting in and out of a dense habitat, giving only a brief moment or two for observation and identification.
  • In cold weather, slowly acclimate your optics to the outside temperature to prevent condensation and fogging on the lenses and internal parts. In hot weather, never leave your optics for long periods in direct sunlight or in an auto that can heat up and ruin the instruments.
  • Avoid touching the rubber coating of binoculars and scopes with Deet insect repellent on your hands. This chemical can dissolve some coatings and cause hands to stick to the lens barrels.
  • Optics free of dust, dirt and fingerprints perform better, but improper cleaning can damage lens coatings. To clean safely, use a soft sable brush or air-bulb puff of wind to remove coarse particles like sand. Follow up with a drop of lens cleaning fluid applied to a lint-free tissue to gently remove stubborn smears or fingerprints. Try not to habitually rub the lens surfaces or wipe with a shirttail every time a speck or two of dust appears.
  • Some binoculars and scopes are not completely waterproof. An easy fix is to carry an oversize plastic freezer bag for a handy rain cover. It will also serve as protection against salt spray, boat splash and road dust.
  • And finally, it is best to have optics that are the correct size, weight and magnification for you to carry comfortably on a consistent basis. Too often is heard the phrase “If I only had my binoculars,” and this is usually due to their being too large and heavy for convenient transport and handling.

Binoculars and spotting scopes are essential gear for “hunting with your eyes” and greatly increase your chances of seeing wild, elusive creatures in their own territory.

Author’s Note: Many thanks to professional biologists Marsha Reimer, Mike Quinn and Cliff Shackelford of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Wildlife Division for sharing their practical insights on using optics in the field.

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