- The basic optical characteristics of binoculars are described by two numbers written in the form A×B, where A is the magnification, and B the exit diameter. For instance 8×42, 10×50…
- For birds you need a magnification between 7 and 10 (lower you won’t see details, higher the image shakes too much and you struggle aiming your binoculars at a bird). If you do not use binoculars regularly I recommend a magnification of 8.
- The larger the exit diameter the more field of view (which makes finding birds easier and reduces eye strain) and the more light you get (which is especially useful at dusk), but the heavier the binoculars get. If you are used to carry lots of equipment around your neck in the heat, you can go up to 50. In general I would recommend 30, 40, or 42.
- What matters more than those numbers is the quality of the glass, coatings and lens architecture. You don’t have to know the details, but it is where price and quality differences come from.
You may find binoculars in many different shops. I had a good experience dealing with Bintel in Sydney: https://www.bintel.com.au/product-category/binoculars/birdwatching-favourites/?v=322b26af01d5 (I think, don’t take my word for it, that the offer better prices than shops in Canberra).
If you have a large budget (2500-4000 AUD) and want to invest in binoculars that last a few decades, look for those brands:
- Swarovski (currently the best)
- Zeiss (not far behind)
- Leica (excellent but clearly behind)
If you go for Swarovski, I recommend the EL 8×32 WB, because they are super light, exceptionally comfortable, especially if you have astigmatism (they were designed with that in mind). If you feel very serious about birding, go for something more powerful (but heavier), EL 8.5×42 WB or EL 10×42 WB. Second hand Swarovski could be an option too: despite less advanced technology and yellowish glass, 30 years old Swarovski may still beat 1000 AUD binoculars from other brands.
Very good binoculars at a more reasonable price:
- Nikon Monarch-series. In particular Monarch 7 which come in 10×42, 8×42 and 8×30 seems like a good balance of image quality and price (around 800 AUD). The Monarch 5 are cheaper and still okay but visibly of lesser quality.
- Kowa BDII.
- Kite Bonelli and Ibis.
Other brands that are pretty good be I don’t recommend (because over-priced or I did not enjoy some aspect of image quality when I tried):
If you want cheap binoculars that will do an okay job and may or may not last beyond a few years:
- Bushnell (for instance series H2O, or Prime, or Engage; from around 100 AUD to 300 AUD)
Spotting scopes are useful for distant birds (often on wetlands, for raptors high in the sky, for seabirds…) or to get very detailed views. I don’t think you need one for this trip, but happy to chat if you want one. The story is about the same as for binoculars: Swarovski rules, Nikon, Kowa and Kite do a good cheaper job.
Bird guide book
You don’t need a book, we will have one, but bring one if you enjoy. Always choose a bird guide with drawings rather than pictures. This is somewhat counter-intuitive, but there is much more useful information on a drawing.
The best book for Australia is currently “The Australian Bird Guide” by Menkhorst, Rogers… It is that large blue book published by CSIRO and Bloomsburry.
There are a few birding guide apps with pictures, drawings and/or sound recordings for Australia. If you want the equivalent of a bird guide (with sounds) on your phone I recommend you install Merlin (for free) and another (not for free) app.
Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab (For free; Mb size depends on device and pack installed)
I use this app mostly for sounds and for maps. If you have no idea, the app helps you identify birds based on a series of questions (location, date, size, colour, behaviour).
Species are illustrated by picture only, which is sub-optimal.
There is little written description of each species.
Maps are up-to-date and accurately drawn.
Quality sound recordings are available for most, but not all species. Also, sometimes the recordings are not of the most typical sound of a species.
One bonus is that you can link the app to ebird and see which species you have seen already or not.
Morcombe’s Birds of Australia (29.99 AUD; 330Mb)
Species are illustrated by drawings, with highlights on essential criteria. That is the right approach in my opinion, but some drawings are of low quality.
Texts are rich and full of useful information (habitat, behaviour, tips to spot…)
Sounds are pretty good. Most recordings are of typical sounds, which is very useful. A few species still do not have sounds though.
Some maps are outdated or not accurate enough to be useful.
Pizzey and Knight Birds of Aus (30.99 to 49.99 AUD; 917.6 MB)
Species are illustrated by drawings and example pictures. Drawings are nicer and more accurate than those in Morcombe’s.
Texts are pretty good but I think a bit less rich than Morcombe’s.
Good collection of sounds.
Maps are approximately up-to-date but not super accurate.
Main disadvantages are price and amount of memory it takes on your phone.
Far from essential, but it can be fun to records bird sounds and soundscapes. The H2N and H4N recorders by Zoom (I have seen prices from 150AUD to 400AUD) fit in the pocket and give good results. They are quite tough, you never have to change batteries (I would guess you can record 30h on one set with the H2N).
- Spotting scope
- Bird guide book
- Phone applications
- Sound recorder