Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
Much of my birdwatching is done through the lens of a camera. I’ve worked my way through five different cameras and several lenses in recent years. I mostly sought good telephoto lenses. I owned a Nikon 300mm f2.8 lens for a few months. It was a great lens. I work hand-held. The lens was too heavy for that. It wore me out. I sold it. In its place I bought a 500mm Tamron lens. I liked it, but could not get a sharp image. I sold it.
The camera I use most often is a Nikon D-700. It has a full-frame sensor, a real asset if you are cropping into images to enlarge the subject. For the last three years my long lens of choice has been the Nikon ED AF-S VR Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8. It’s light in weight, easy on my arms and shoulders, and gives a sharp image. 200mm is not a long reach, however, so I boosted this with a Nikon 2x teleconverter. I liked that rig, but began experiencing problems that I blamed on the converter; I think there is an issue with the electrical contacts.
So, visiting about all of this at National Camera in Golden Valley a few weeks ago, I was introduced to a Tamron 200-600mm f5.6 lens. “Well,” I said, “I’ve not been impressed with Tamron.” The salesperson said he understood. But, this one was different. It’s sharp, he said. Given National’s 30-day trial period on camera/lens purchases, I said I’d give it a try. There was one other reason, beyond supposed 600mm sharpness: the price was $1,069. You can spend many thousands more for a lens of that reach.
The lens is sharp. It’s wonderfully sharp. You probably could improve the sharpness by spending another $9,000 or so. I neither need nor want to do that. The lens is light for its size. The camera and lens together weigh seven pounds. I wouldn’t want that combo heavier, but I can hand-holding without a problem. I like the lens. I’m going to keep this one.
You could take issue with the f5.6 speed (f6.3 at 600mm). Low light levels can be a problem. The camera, though, gives me good images at up to ISO 2000. You’re not necessarily going to make posters of photos taken at that speed, but I don’t do posters.
Below are two images taken with this lens. The first is of brush at the back of our yard, distance to the subject 150 feet, image cropped by half. The cardinal in the second photo was 30 feet from me, the enlargement eliminating about 70 percent of the original image. (The photos on these blog pages are limited to five-inch width, 100 dpi.) For a thousand bucks, looks good to me.
Holiday gift ideas from birding consultant Paul Baicich, an experienced birder and educator (with over 800 species on his North American life list):
Shade-grown Coffee — This is a wonderful gift, ideal to bring along to a holiday party. It should start up a conversation about shade-coffee vs. sun-coffee and the ways that certified arabica shade coffee helps sustain our Neotropical migrants in coffee country throughout much of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp — The "Duck Stamp" is a fine gift, and a great conservation-supporting item. Since almost all the funds collected from the stamp go to building wetland and grassland habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge System, it sends a great message, too. Besides, you will probably be at the Post Office anyhow, so picking up a $15-stamp or two should be easy. You can also download a free and unique stamp-related certificate describing just how much one stamp secures in habitat, attach the stamp, put it in a frame, and you're set!
Bird Art — Speaking of frames, how about some bird art? No, not an original piece of expensive artwork, but a quality print. Whether your recipient favors waterfowl, gamebirds, raptors, shorebirds, hummingbirds, orioles, or warblers, the options are vast. Just search online!
Bird t-shirt — Yes, lovely bird t-shirts are often perfect gifts. In fact, you can combine the previous two suggestions — the "Duck Stamp" and bird art — in one t-shirt purchase. Buy a t-shirt with a Duck Stamp design on it! You can find one here: http://www.friendsofthestamp.org
Bird Feeder - Few backyards are so full of bird feeders that another one
wouldn't help. Another tube feeder? A suet feeder? A hopper feeder?
Bird Seed — And there should be quality feed to fill those feeders. A large bag or two of high-quality bird seed can go a long way. Think especially about getting black-oil sunflower or Nyjer.
Window Protection — Birdseed and feeders are great gifts, but they can also attract birds to potentially dangerous windows, a situation with creates unfortunate collisions. Short of retrofitting entire windows, some outdoor hanging bird-screens or large "one-way-view" stickers or films can alleviate the situation. These are fine gifts for the season.
Catio — Also in the realm of backyard bird protection, there is the opportunity to address the issue of outdoor cats. There are an estimated 84 million pet cats in the U.S., and perhaps 36 million of them are let outside to roam. This is deadly for our wild birds. Now cat owners who wish to allow their cats outdoors have a bird-safe alternative. These are called a "catios," and they come in a variety of configurations available in various sizes and finishes. Check out these two sources for catio ideas: Catio Spaces and Catio Showcase.
Optics Gear — No, it doesn't necessarily have to be new binoculars, but it could be associated optic gear. How about a new binocular strap-harness? A traveling case? A quality cleaning kit?
Field Guide — There are so many excellent field guides out today that it may be hard to choose. But pick one that fits the individual recipient. For kids? Try a Thompson guide. Otherwise, you might consider a National Geographic, a Kaufman, a Sibley, a Crossley, a Stokes, or even a classic and ever-reliable Peterson. They all have their own individual advantages.
American-grown Rice — A festively-wrapped bag of fine American-grown rice is another great gift that sends a message about habitat for our wetland-associated birds (waterfowl, shorebirds, long-legged waders, and more). No other mass-produced U.S. crop can claim to have such benefits for our birds.
Gift Membership or Subscription — There are a number of bird, nature, and conservation organizations or magazines that offer special annual gift memberships or subscriptions at this time of year. This is sometimes an ideal quick solution to your shopping problems, and the recipient is often contacted directly about your thoughtful gift.
15 Things Every Birder Should Have
Sense of adventure
Audio source for bird calls
Note pad and pencil
Wellington or rubber boots
Jacket with many pockets
Rain jacket with many pockets
Choosing binoculars is often an effort to combine best price with best quality. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has reviewed a wide variety of binoculars ranging in price from less than $200 to over $3,000. A helpful graph showing choices was published in the Autumn 2013 issue of the Lab's magazine, "Living Bird." You can see it at <http://www.allaboutbirds.org/Page.aspx?pid=2675>
Kids: The Binocular Trap
by Paul J. Baicich
Why is it that when you share binoculars with an adult, perhaps a beginning bird watcher, you make sure that you share a solid, quality, even impressive, pair of binoculars, but when you go afield with a child, say, between 8 and 12 years of age, almost any pair of binoculars will do?
Worse yet, why is it that inexpensive and light "compact binoculars" are almost always ascribed to kid use?
It's a big mistake.
Too often, the very people whom many bird educators value the most, youngsters, are left with the worst in introductory binoculars. Nothing will discourage continued bird-watching activity and learning in the field more than an initial experience with binoculars that are, essentially, junk. It's just no fun.
There are important optics features that need attention when dealing with youngsters. These may include the ability for the young folks to get their hands around the binoculars, access the focusing knob, and adjust the interpupillary distance (to match the closeness of the eyes among the youngest kids in the group).
Finding the bird in the tree or bush is difficult enough for beginning birders — of any age — without having to deal with a narrow field of view or a high magnification that may have the image almost bouncing around.
Try a lower power — between 6X and8X — and definitely stick to a wide field of view.
Training and help — from a parent or other adult — is essential. Learning to bring the binoculars to your face, while constantly watching the bird, needs practice. (Focusing on a far-off sign — and reading simple text — is a fine way to learn locating the object and focusing properly.) While practice makes perfect, that practice can be squandered if the binoculars are unserviceable.
Today there are many options for binoculars appropriate for youngsters. Relatively good quality binoculars can be secured for around $100 or even less. Some of these are porro-prism binoculars that can be outstanding. There are many options. (Editor’s note: Talk to a binocular expert at one of the National Camera stores in the Twin Cities.)
A final point to be aware of is warranty. Some manufacturers will offer a unconditional warranty, a relief when binoculars get dropped, slammed against a tree, or run over with a lawn mower.
Don't sell the kids short. They usually arrive in the field eager to learn something new. Don't make it difficult for them at the very outset. Make it fun.
[Paul Baicich is a birding consultant. He is former editor of the American Birding Association's magazine, "Birding." Ben Lizdas, Tom Rusert, and Dave Watkins provided advice for this article]
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