HOW TO BEGIN BIRDWATCHING; The Company for Home Entertainment, Inc. (1998)

Don and Lillian Stokes have released a number of videos based upon their PBS TV series BirdWatch. These videos appear to be collections of segments from their series and, as such, suffer (in varying degrees) from a lack of thematic cohesion and development. How to Begin Birdwatching is approximately 50 minutes long, lists for $19.95, and suffers more from this lack of cohesion and development than do the others I have seen in this series. This is indeed unfortunate as there is a lot of misinformation in current circulation about what birding is and how to join in. This is not to say that How to Begin Birdwatching provides misinformation, as it does not. Rather, its disjointed segments provide incomplete information which can easily mislead, and wanders rather far afield from the purpose implied by its title.

How to Begin Birdwatching starts with 10 “tips”: 1) always have binoculars with you, 2) bird in different habitats, 3) bird edges (where habitats meet), 4) listen for bird sounds, 5) read the text of field guides (don’t just look at the illustrations), 6) use field guide range maps, 7) use checklists that indicate when species occur, 8) use bird finding guides, 9) keep birding records, and 10) use chickadee groups to lead you to other species. While these tips have merit, the lack of time spent on each necessarily results in an incomplete presentation. (They make sense to those who are already in the know, but not necessarily to those who are not. For a much better example of a teaching tool, see Terra Guides’ Backyard Birds of the Northeast by Eric and Marcia Muller.)

Perhaps the most significant example of incomplete information involves the discussion of how to select binoculars (the only really crucial birding tool). While a fair amount of basic information is given, how to actually select a pair is never addressed. (For those interested in one person’s view, I have briefly described, at the end of this review, how I believe binoculars should be purchased.) Another problem is that a lot of the offered information, while interesting, has little to do with how to begin birding. Examples of this include: explaining why birds peck at their reflections, why some birds sing at night, where birds go at night, and why woodpeckers drum. Also misplaced is the section on bird photography which is really an altogether different subject. Again, this information is not bad or inaccurate so much as it just does not belong in a video with this title. On the other hand, discussing how to age gulls is just too advanced a topic for beginners.

One good point the Stokes make involves how to help someone locate a bird you have found in a tree. Think of the tree as a clock with 12 o’clock straight up, 3 o’clock to the right, 6 o’clock straight down, and 9 o’clock to the left. Direct your companion to the hour where the bird is hiding, and how far it is in from the edge. (Would that they had included more information such as this in How to Begin Birdwatching.)

On a scale of 0 (truly worthless) to 10 (the outer limit of human ability), I rate  How to Begin Birdwatching  a 5 and can only recommend it on a limited basis. It presents some reasonable, basic information, but with a lack of completeness and thematic cohesion that is likely to be misleading (especially to neophytes who are the seemingly intended audience). It is priced at $19.95 (and NJAS/CMBO members get a discount), but may not be worth the money for the reasons noted above.

Mike. Hannisian

Purchasing bins (the Cape May vernacular for binoculars) should begin with reading as many reviews (not ads) as you can (such as those written by Pete Dunne). Then determine how much money you are willing to spend. (Skimping here is a major mistake!!!) Next, go to a store, commercial or otherwise (such as NJAS or CMBO) that has a large variety of bins that you can look through (preferably indoors and outdoors), and with knowledgeable people willing to take the time to work with you. It is better to do this on a rainy day as the differences between merely adequate and very good binoculars are best demonstrated in poor light. Take your time. Look through a variety of types, sizes, and models until you narrow your options to just a few. Then take at least three examples of each model and compare them to see which gives you the best image, fits best in your hands, and is the easiest for you to use. It is important to check different examples of the same model because there can be  significant differences in quality. (This is why you should never, ever buy binoculars from a catalogue or online.)

Your bins should also be light enough for you to hold steadily all day. While this is usually only a problem for the very young, the old, and the inexperienced, a more common problem is carrying bins around your neck all day. However, this need be a concern no longer as there now are straps that go over and under your arms. This completely removes all weight from your neck. These straps range in price from $9.00 to $25.00 (and you should not be permitted to buy bins without also buying these!!!). The difference is amazing. In 1991, I bought a 42 ounce pair of bins. My wife said she could never use a pair that heavy because of the weight it would put on her neck. She now uses a 32 ounce pair and has no trouble even after a full day birding because she uses the better strap design.

A final consideration. I recently became interested in butterflies and dragonflies. (This is unavoidable when you spend time with Pat Sutton whose enthusiasm is legend.) Even my wife’s very fine bins were a problem because they focused no closer than 14 feet (mine focused to only about 16 feet). This is simply inadequate for butterflies or dragonflies. As a result, I bought a pair that focuses to within 5 feet. The trade-offs are very shallow depth of field and only 7 power. (Moral: no pair of bins is perfect.)

Mike Hannisian