Thoughts on Birding Without Binoculars

An interesting topic came up about the virtues of birding without binoculars. I have only really done this when I’ve forgotten my binoculars but had some desire/need to go out anyway. One time, it ended up being a fun exercise for someone I was mentoring in their beginning birding journey.

First off, it’s humbling: you’re reduced to your mere mortal eyesight, and your optical superpower is gone. It puts you back in leagues with everything around you, which is a good feeling while being out in nature. In other words, your senses are limited to your species capability, and nothing else to aid you. You and every other species you encounter only has their natural equipment to help them take in the ecosystem around them, so the playing field is a bit more leveled. Also, in getting back to your species capabilities, I had to be all the more careful stalking a bird, because I needed to be closer to it to get a good look. This may even lead the observer to be more careful, and less apt to flush: it’s tempting to flush a bird when you know it will perch more out in the open, but birding without binoculars means you still need to keep it close enough to look at. Does this promote “lower impact” birding in the sense of less disturbance to a bird? Also, does it promote more careful, quiet walks in the woods as opposed to car birding to check out things at a distance/take in as many species as easily observable from a spot?

I tend to be, like perhaps everyone else, more thrilled with close, naked-eye looks at birds than through optics. Those sightings are pinnacle observations to me anyway. Not only is it best to see them without needing any aid, but it’s also just the thrill of a wild animal coming close to you, and the delicate nature of the situation required to “earn its trust” if even for a few moments. You learn even more about nature when you have to be careful, and achieve your goal of getting close without disturbing it. Also, in those times where you’re so close that a movement could flush a bird, you carefully watch in awe until it leaves you, which means you may spend more time watching it than you would from a distance. For me, that enhances connection to the birds I’m observing.

So, with this “handicap” of not having optics, what do you observe? What cues do you have to rely on more? Do you even notice things you may not have otherwise? I experienced a bit more of a “gestalt” of the bird community around me: patterns of activity, and perhaps a more nuanced appreciation of micro-site habitat use areas. It goes without saying that I relied on my ears all the more, as it became sometimes the only clue for even birds I would have otherwise been able to look at. In that, even being able to identify “small sounds” became all the more critical. Instead of a chip note pointing me toward the presence of a bird, the chip note itself became more important, and thus more desirable to identify.

Also, trying to “turn up a rarity” sort of goes out the window. You’re more focused on what you know to be around you, than picking through far-away birds for the sake of finding an unusual species. This can help get you out of “listing mode” and more into natural appreciation. I’d say there’s a time and a place for both, but it’s possible to lose appreciation for the common when you’re listing (and to be fair, it’s also possible to do both with mindful attention to nature).

I think the use of binoculars, all things considered, hinders birding…I think of binoculars in the same manner that I think of cars…In the dead of winter, you’ll see a lot more Red-tailed Hawks per hour from a moving car than just by walking or standing around. But imagine if you always stayed in your car while birding. Most of the time, I would say, it’s good to get out of the car. And most of the time—indeed, almost all of the time, I would say—it’s good to leave your binoculars behind.” – Ted Floyd

Ted goes on to describe outings that specifically encourage you to leave your binoculars at home, and the nuances in bird ID you learn along the way! In his group outing, they made extra effort to not only identify to species but age/sex when possible, which required careful observation. He also claims that they could have overlooked warblers if they had been using binoculars, which is counterintuitive. Yet, he claims that the dynamics of the group changed to being less disruptive, and also potentially more cohesive.

At the very least, it could be a new frontier for you, and a new challenge if you’ve been birding for awhile and are looking to up your game. Maybe planning for it will ease my angst about sending off my binoculars for a much-needed cleaning and tune-up, where I’d be without them for a few weeks. Hey, it’s scoping season around here anyway on the big lake, so I could always a hybrid approach instead of “cold turkey” this time of year…

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