A few weeks ago we stepped outside to look at stars on one of those clear summer nights when all the house lights behind us were turned off. It was easy to scan the summer Milky Way from the “heavenly W,” Cassiopeia, in the northeast across the zenith and down to the southern horizon. Then we took out our trusty 10×50 binoculars and swept the same arc through myriad stars until the southern vista virtually exploded above the teapot, Sagittarius. The great gas clouds jumped out across our field of vision.
Binoculars are wonderful tools in the outdoors, especially for night skies. The advantages of binoculars over telescopes are obvious: they come to the eyes in an instant, looking exactly where you want them to look. There’s no setup and very little weight to carry (by comparison). Though the field of vision of binoculars is generally less than 1/10th of the field spanned by the naked eye, it’s more than enough at full angular magnification (usually seven to 15 times) to quickly find the object you’re looking for. No matter how good the skies are, you should be able to see objects like star clusters, gas clouds, even galaxies, that are up to six times dimmer than the naked eye can pick up.
Ever since we began fishing years ago, we were always fascinated by night skies. Today’s beach anglers are especially fortunate to have skies in many locations along the East End, which are every bit as good as those we once knew north of New York City and in New England. If one is dedicated, however, there are always places to “get out of the lights” and find deep shadows, even when you don’t have the ocean or the Adirondack Park. For example, there’s plenty to see back west provided you get on a golf course and pick a direction away from the city when there’s no bright moon to flood the sky with light (unless, of course, you want to view craters). The best objects to look for in urban skies are located away from the haze of the horizon, even though it’s tough on the neck to keep looking directly overhead for any length of time.
But binocular use for night skies is only one application. The same glasses used for the heavens are essential for birders and wildlife observers, too. Just this summer, we’ve had a lot of activity across our driveway where a birdhouse and a birdbath are located. There are also colorful flowers just outside the screened-in porch where we sit for coffee every morning.
Photographers always swear by blinds, and a porch where you can sip coffee and not have to worry about the dawn mosquito patrol is perfect. The fun begins around dawn just about every day. The show is visible enough from where we sit, but putting binoculars on the individual actors makes it even more interesting. There were bluebird babies that hatched early in the summer, hummingbird fledglings after that, and baby robins all summer long. By dawn’s early light shadows predominate, but binoculars gather light much better than human eyes because light gathering power is proportional to the area of the instrument.
Sooner or later you get around to bird identification, I suppose, but all the field guides seem to suffer from a profusion of little brown birds, yellow birds (O.K., the finches are easy), long-tailed birds, robin and starling-sized birds, etc. Fortunately, except during the migrations of late summer, we can scan the avian mob on a daily basis and eventually pick most of them out. Besides working around the birdbath and nearby shrubbery, field glasses also do nicely when kestrels, red-tailed hawks, or corvids, both crows and ravens, stand sentinel on the limbs of the dead or dying trees across the field.
In the outdoors we carry our binoculars a lot. In a boat offshore or inshore you can spot diving birds above feeding fish. On the beach, you can spot those same clusters as well as the crowds of anglers and trucks attracted by the fish! Want to watch deer, turkeys feeding or courting, woodchucks, foxes and coyotes? Grab a pair of binoculars.
Binoculars range in magnification from 7x all the way to 25x, and are formatted generally from 35 to about 70 millimeters. We like lightweight 10x50s for most expeditions, but have found 12x63s to be even better if we want to do some stargazing. We’ve considered a new pair of 15x70s, but anything much larger is tough to steady without a mount of some sort. Costs can run anywhere up to a couple of hundred dollars.
When I teach astronomy courses I require my students to purchase and use binoculars. In all likelihood, they’ll use them all their lives after that.