What identifies someone as a bird watcher

Nothing identifies a person as a bird watcher more readily than binoculars. Indeed, binoculars are the universal tool of birders, a common denominator between the casual backyard observer and the nearly possessed lister. For many bird watchers this essential piece of equipment is merely an optical aid, but for some us, the relationship between owner and binocular is a bit more complex.

I have used the same binoculars for more than four decades. From the start, I figured those field glasses were a pretty useful gadget, but 40 years ago I could never have predicted the bond of companionship that would develop between us. Our relationship began during a fishing trip in the pine barrens of Northern Wisconsin. It was an unremarkable September afternoon, except for that noise. For the better part of an hour, there was an intermittent, yet persistent, rustling coming from somewhere in the undergrowth. It was impossible to ignore. Eventually, I grabbed the binoculars that a friend had recently given me and plowed into the brush to unravel the mystery.

After squeezing through several clumps of conifers, and stopping more than once to free myself from a thorny tangle of briers, I found the source of the commotion, a dark, unidentifiable blob bouncing around in the leaves 50 feet in front me. I raised the field glasses to my eyes and carefully adjusted the focusing knob. The binoculars’ magnifying lens transformed the indistinct blob into a well-defined bird, handsomely attired in a dapper combination of black, white and chestnut. (It was, as I would learn a few days later, a Rufous-Sided Towhee.) I was fascinated. Confronting me was an object of unexpected beauty and in a broader sense, a universe that was suddenly a bit larger and fuller than I realized. It was the birth of a passion and the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Through those glasses, I began to notice new creatures all around me. As the binoculars brought things closer, my world expanded.

Today, I go nowhere without my “binocs”. Birding trip or visiting grandkids, it doesn’t matter. Since that first towhee, we have been together through 48 states, hundreds of lifers (a new bird that you have never seen before), and three different neck straps. There is the occasional formal event, the graduation, a sporting contest, but most of our time together is spent birding. In that pursuit, we have traveled by plane, car, bus, boat, bicycle, horseback, and on foot. Miles and miles on foot. And with each passing mile, the partnership has grown stronger.

Those binoculars, Bushnell 7 x 40’s my friend gave me, are actually a very basic pair of field glasses: seven power magnification, a conventional offset design, weighty metal construction. Nothing fancy, really. Frankly, they are built a bit like a 1955 Buick, on the dumpy side, but solid. So solid in fact, that they once survived a nasty fall directly onto a railroad track. The blow shattered the yoke encircling the eyepieces, but the lenses not only remained intact, miraculously they stayed in perfect alignment.

There have been several other close calls. Neck strap number two, for instance, decided to call it quits as I was rock-hopping across a mountain brook. Before I could react, and while in midstream, the glasses just dropped from around my neck. In that instant, they were gone. Lost. In a near panic, I fell to my knees and desperately began thrusting my arms into the shoulder deep water. After several wild stabs, my hand wrapped around one of the barrels and, clutching the glasses against my chest, I half crawled, half swam, out of the creek. I must have looked rather ridiculous during that episode, especially as I sat on the bank soaking wet and hyperventilating. But at the time, I wasn’t worried about my appearance; I only wanted my binoculars back.

Admittedly, I have fooled around with other binoculars over the years. I thought I needed to upgrade in order to keep pace with my expanding birding skills and wildlife interests. So I purchased a pair of glasses with higher magnification for hawks and waterfowl watching and later, a sleek little pair that seemed more appropriate for backpacking. But both times, after a brief period of infatuation, I realized that the newcomer couldn’t really compare, and the experience only served to accentuate the virtues of my veteran glasses.

The clarity of the old optics remains unrivaled. The image through those glasses is crisp and undistorted from the center to the very edges of the field of view. Even in the waning light of early evening, the view is bright and the colors true. Not surprisingly, my old ‘binocs’ remained my glasses of choice on the hawk-watching hill, and in spite of their weight, they soon found their way back into my knapsack.

Both of us are showing signs of age. I don’t have as much hair on the top of my head as I used to, and my binoculars have lost a lot of their original paint. The one eyepiece that you should be able to fine tune for vision correction, now spins like a top, the internal threads stripped from years of adjustments. But as in any good relationship, we have adapted. There may have been some dents and scratches on the old binoculars, but my fingers just seem to fit naturally in those worn spots. Of course, there are some things that never change. The last time I used my glasses (to watch a soaring peregrine falcon), the eyepieces still fit snugly beneath my eyebrows and the focusing knob responded as quickly and as surely as ever.

As it turns out, that was to be the last time I used those glasses. Recently, my binoculars were stolen. I left them overnight in my car, which I forgot to lock, and the next morning they were gone. I searched the car, and everywhere else I could think of, a dozen times, but I knew the search would be in vain. I miss those glasses. Ever since they were taken, I have felt like part of a what’s-wrong-with-this-picture quiz. There I am, standing in a field, staring up into the sky with an empty pair of hands cupped around my eyes. It is very frustrating for a bird watcher to be without binoculars, everything seems to be just out of visual reach.

By now, I’ve had time to sort through my feelings and to gain some perspective on the situation. I know I lost a thing, only a material possession, that I can replace; Many places run ads for binoculars, and the choice is mine to make. But in all honesty, I feel an emotional loss as well. Those binoculars accompanied me during most of the true adventures of my life. It is difficult for me to accept the incident as a simple loss of personal property. It is even more difficult to accept that someone else has my binoculars. (Wherever they are, I still consider them my binoculars.)

This was not the way I wanted our relationship to end. For 40 years I took those binoculars wherever I went. They performed unflaggingly in the worst weather conditions, over 150 Christmas counts (CBC’S) and through the roughest care. Ours was a partnership, and my partner was always there for me.

Perhaps it is because of that fidelity that I am most disturbed, I feel that I let my good friend down.

Peter Dring is a retired nature biologist and phenologist who lives in the Land ‘O Lakes area. To comment on this story, visit the “Outdoors” section of StarJournalNOW.com.