How to Choose a Pair of Binoculars

 

With the return of overwintering waders and ducks to the UK, it is a fantastic time to get out with a good pair of binoculars and enjoy the spectacle of thousands of water birds using our estuaries. A good pair of binoculars is an invaluable part of the naturalist’s field kit and they provide some of the most memorable wildlife encounters. There is an overwhelming array of sizes and specifications and it can be difficult to choose between them when purchasing a new pair. In this post we will provide a summary of some of the key features of a pair of binoculars, to help you find the best pair to accompany you on surveys, whilst travelling or when enjoying your local wildlife.

Once you have decided on your budget, there are a few key metrics that will help you decide which pair of binoculars will suit you best. With binoculars it really is worth paying as much as you can afford as the glass, lens coatings and specifications improve with every step up in price. All of the binoculars in the NHBS range are roof prism binoculars, they are all waterproof and come with a case and neck strap.

Magnification

Binocular models generally have two numbers in their description. The first of these relates to the magnification. (For example, 8 x 42 binoculars will have a magnification of 8x). In general, binoculars have a magnification between 8x and 12x. As you would expect, the higher the magnification, the larger objects will appear when looking through them. As magnification increases, the field of view can be reduced and you will need to ensure that you have steady hands or use some kind of support.

Lens Diameter

Larger diameter lenses provide brighter images at dawn and dusk. Photo credit: Paulo Valdivieso – www.flickr.com

The second number in the binocular model description (e.g. 8 x 42) refers to the diameter of the objective lens. Standard size binoculars tend to have objective lenses of 32mm to 42mm whilst lenses in compact binoculars usually measure 25mm. Larger lenses can dramatically improve low light performance and are particularly good for use at dusk or dawn. The trade off is that larger lenses are heavier. The most popular size of binoculars for birdwatching was traditionally 8 x 42, but with advances in manufacture and lens performance, 8 x 32 binoculars now offer fantastic specifications in a more compact body.

Glass Type

The type and quality of glass have a huge impact on image quality. Image by Bicanski via Public Domain Images

The type of glass used to manufacture the lenses can vastly affect the quality of the image. Two types of glass to look out for are extra-low dispersion (ED) and fluoride (FL) glass. These reduce chromatic aberrations giving clearer and sharper colours and reduced colour “fringing”.

 

Fringing is the blurring that can occur between light and dark parts of an image. If your budget allows for an upgrade to ED glass binoculars, you will notice a distinct improvement in clarity compared to binoculars without ED glass. Affordable pairs of ED binoculars include the Hawke Optics Endurance ED, the Nikon Monarch 5 and the Opticron Explorer ED.

Lens and Prism Coatings

The primary difference in performance and the brightness of images between different pairs of binoculars is often due to lens and prism coatings. Light is lost as it travels across every surface inside a pair of binoculars and the aim of a good pair of binoculars is to keep light transmission as high as possible between the objective and the ocular lens. Lens and prism coatings reduce the amount of light that is lost helping to produce a brighter and sharper image. Lenses that are multi-coated have multiple layers of lens coatings. High quality binoculars are fully multi-coated which means that they have multiple layers of coating on all lens surfaces. Roof prism binoculars have a particular problem with “phase shift” where the polarisation angle of the prism causes the light passing through to be split into two slightly out of phase beams. This results in an image which has lower resolution and may look slightly blurred. Prism coatings correct this problem by forcing the split light back into phase. Look out for binoculars with Phase Correction (PC) prism coatings.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina). Photo credit: Ron Knight – www.flickr.com
Key Comparison Metrics

Comparing some of the performance metrics of a pair of binoculars can help when deciding which pair would best suit your purposes. In particular field of view will be useful if you are looking at large landscapes (e.g. whale or sea watching) and close focus is very important if you are looking at insects.

Field of View – The field of view is how wide an image can be seen at a specified distance (usually 1000m). A wide field of view is useful for large landscapes and for fast moving animals. Models with a particularly wide field of view include all of the Kite Optics range, the Opticron Discovery, Traveller ED and Explorer ranges, the Bushnell Prime and Forge ranges and the Swarovski EL and SLC binoculars.

The Opticron Discovery range of binoculars has a fantastic field of view and great close focus.

Close Focus – The close focus is the minimum distance at which the binoculars are able to focus. People interested in viewing insects using their binoculars would be advised to choose a model with a small close focus distance. Models with particularly low close focus include the Opticron Discovery and Traveller ranges, the Swarovski EL and the Kite Caiman binoculars.

Weight – The weight of the binoculars is incredibly important, as it is likely that you will be carrying them around for long periods of time. Higher quality models of comparable specification will tend to be lighter than entry-level models, and those with larger objective lenses will weigh more than those with smaller ones. Binoculars that are particularly lightweight and excellent for travelling include the Opticron Traveller range, the Hawke Optics Nature-Trek and Endurance ranges, and the Nikon Monarch 5 range.

Eye Relief – This is the maximum distance from the eyepiece lens that the eye can be positioned at which the full width of the image is visible without vignetting (darkening of the image around the edges). Longer eye relief is useful for those who wear glasses.

If you have any queries regarding binoculars then our Customer Services team and trained Wildlife Equipment Specialists would be delighted to assist on 01803 865913 or via email at customer.services@nhbs.com.

Recommended Models

Entry Level

Hawke Optics Nature-Trek
One of our most popular models, lightweight with good optical performance

 

 

General Purpose

Opticron Discovery
Phase-coated prisms give optical performance that is a step above entry level, fantastic field of view and close focus

 

Hawke Optics Endurance ED
These affordable binoculars have ED glass to provide crystal clear images, representing great value for money.

 

Travelling

Opticron Traveller BGA Mg
The perfect binoculars for travelling, they have good field of view, great close focus and are amazingly lightweight and compact. For an even more exceptional optical performance try the Traveller ED range.

Mid range

Kite Lynx HD+
These binoculars have an astonishing field of view and exceptional close focus with ED glass for excellent colour reproduction and scratch resistant lens coatings.

 

Nikon Monarch 5
With ED glass for good colour reproduction and dielectric multilayer prism coatings, the Nikon Monarch 5 binoculars provide fantastic optical performance in a lightweight body.

 

Top of the Range

Swarovski EL
The EL binoculars range is hand made in Austria with field flattener lenses, fluoride glass and Swarobright coating to provide an unparalleled optical experience.

 

Banner image features Northern Lapwings (Vanellus vanellus). Photo credit: Tony Hisgett – www.flickr.com

New Bushnell CORE Trail Camera Range

Bushnell trail cameras are renowned for offering excellent picture quality in fast, robust cameras. With their latest range, Bushnell have built on their existing reputation making significant improvements to the design and specifications to provide even more versatility and truly exceptional footage, all with the same lightning quick trigger and recovery speeds.

Camera speed and responsiveness

The key metrics used to discuss the speed of a trail camera are trigger speed and recovery speed. The trigger speed determines how quickly a camera responds to an animal passing in front of the passive infrared (PIR) sensor and takes a photo or starts recording, and the recovery speed determines how quickly the camera can reset to take a second image or video. Trail cameras have traditionally focused on the still image trigger speed but not quoted the recovery speed, meaning that a camera can take an initial image quickly but miss footage before a second image is taken. With trigger speeds as low as 0.2s (still images) and an astonishing recovery rate less than 1 second, the CORE cameras really will capture all the wildlife passing by.

Picture and video quality

The Bushnell CORE range has two models, the 24MP CORE Camera and the Dual Sensor 30MP CORE Camera. The entry level models take high quality 24MP still images and high resolution 1920 x 1080 (30fps) video. The Dual Sensor (DS) models have two lenses, one dedicated to daytime images and the other to night-time images. The result of this is outstanding 30MP picture quality and 1920 x 1080 HD videos taken at 60fps, which combine to produce exceptionally sharp video footage, particularly noticeable at night.  

LED type

Each of the CORE models has two LED options, Low Glow and No Glow. Low Glow models emit a slight glow when the infrared LEDs are triggered, which is generally invisible to wildlife but appears as a faint glow to human eyes. No Glow cameras have an infrared flash that is invisible to humans and wildlife. The night-time flash range is better in Low Glow models (30m for Low Glow models as opposed to 24m in No Glow Models), and the footage from Low Glow models is sharper at night. We recommend that you consider a No Glow model if your trail camera is to be used in a public area, however, as the invisible flash makes them less obtrusive.

Battery life

The battery life on the CORE models has been dramatically improved from previous models, with more efficient circuitry to reduce power consumption. The result of this is that the 6 x lithium-ion AA batteries in the CORE models will last around 9 months in the field (taking still images only), or the CORE DS models will last an impressive 12 months in the field.

Bushnell CORE Low Glow Trail Camera 119936M
#247180

 

  • 24MP images
  • 1920 x 1080 HD video
  • 0.3s trigger speed
  • 36 x Low Glow LEDs
  • LCD B&W text screen
  • £209.95 (inc VAT)

 

 

Bushnell CORE No Glow Trail Camera 119938M
#247177

 

  • 24MP images
  • 1920 x 1080 HD video
  • 0.3s trigger speed
  • 36 x No Glow LEDs
  • LCD B&W text screen
  • £219.95 (inc VAT)

 

 

Bushnell CORE DS Low Glow Trail Camera 119975M
#247182

 

  • Dual Sensor lenses for optimal daytime and night-time footage
  • 30MP still images
  • 1920 x 1080 HD video at 60fps
  • 4 x Low Glow LEDs
  • 0.2s trigger speed
  • 2” colour viewing screen
  • £299.95 (inc VAT)

 

Bushnell CORE DS No Glow Trail Camera 119977M
#247181

 

  • Dual Sensor lenses for optimal daytime and night-time footage
  • 30MP still images
  • 1920 x 1080 HD video at 60fps
  • 4 x No Glow LEDs
  • 0.2s trigger speed
  • 2” colour viewing screen
  • £329.95 (inc VAT)

 

Accessories

Python Lock

AA Lithium Batteries


SD Cards

 

British Dragonfly Week – Author Interview with Dave Smallshire

Broad-bodied Chaser

In order to celebrate Dragonfly Week (13th – 21st July 2019), we interviewed Dave Smallshire, the renowned dragonfly expert and co-author of the excellent Britain’s Dragonflies field guide. Dragonflies and damselflies form the order Odonata and are some of our most iconic insects, with a fascinating life cycle. Damselflies are weaker fliers than dragonflies and have four almost equal length wings that they usually fold up when at rest.

Dragonflies have shorter hind wings and tend to keep their wings out when at rest. Primarily associated with glittering, iridescent glimpses at ponds and wetlands, dragonflies actually spend the vast majority of their lifetime (up to five years) as nymphs in rivers and other water bodies. Both the adult and nymph forms are ferocious predators. Adults are able to move each of their four wings independently and have exceptional vision, giving an astonishing aerial ability that allows them to select a single insect from a swarm.  Meanwhile the nymphs are able to jet propel water behind them and use their extendable hinged jaw (labium) to capture prey at lightning speed.

Johanna Huber

Dragonfly week is organised by the British Dragonfly Society and offers a range of activities designed to celebrate these amazing insects, including the Dragonfly Challenge where you can search for six species and submit your records to the BDS.

Interview with Dave Smallshire by Nigel Jones

1. Could you tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in dragonflies?

As a child I have fond memories of playing around water: dipping into ponds and canals and later fishing (without much success). As a teenager, birds became a passion (they still are), but other things with wings began to attract my attention, notably butterflies and dragonflies. Working in an agricultural entomology department in the 1970s, I was conscious that insect identification keys were useless in the field and it wasn’t until half-decent field guides appeared that I really got to grips with dragonflies and had seen most species by the mid-80s. Soon after, my colleague Andy Swash and I started leading a long series of weekend courses for the Field Studies Council in Surrey/Sussex. When Andy and Rob Still began producing the first of the WILDGuides ‘Britain’s Wildlife’ series, it was a natural progression for us to start work on a field guide to dragonflies.

Banded Demoiselle Copyright 2019 Sarah Clarke

2. Can you give a brief insight into the time and work that goes into producing a field guide such as Britain’s Dragonflies?

First and foremost, writing and producing such a complex book as Britain’s Dragonflies takes twice as long as you think it will! In addition to drafting all the text, we had to source all the images, which for the first edition (2004) meant viewing hundreds of slides and scanning the best. For subsequent editions, it’s been equally laborious to search the internet and choose the most suitable from many thousands of digital images. Then we had to get permissions and high-resolution files from the photographers. I spent many days with Andy editing the text so that it is absolutely clear and concise – not an easy task! On the publication side, Rob Still was guided through his production of both the illustrations and the amazing photomontages. It’s been hard work, but a real honour to be able to be involved in producing one of the best series of field guides available anywhere.

3. Dragonflies are iconic and familiar insects; how are they faring in terms of population numbers and distribution in the UK?

Until recently, we only had occasional atlas maps to show changes in range, but the British Dragonfly Society, in conjunction with the Biological Records Centre, has worked on a method to use ad hoc records from observers to produce national trends using occupancy modelling. We knew that climate change was aiding northerly spread of some species within Britain and colonisation attempts by species from continental Europe (which makes for exciting times to be out watching dragonflies), but we had little objective information on how our ‘resident’ species were faring. The latest analyses support the obvious increases in species such as Migrant Hawker and colonisers such as Small Red-eyed Damselfly, but also much less obvious decreases in ‘northern’ species such as Black Darter. There seem to be more winners than losers, but next year will see a full analysis for a State of Dragonflies 2020. The generally improved water quality and increase in the extent of wetland creation has no doubt helped many species – a general picture which is in stark contrast to the fortunes of other insects, and wildlife in general.

By Sensei Minimal

4. What actions could people take, either within their gardens, or in the wider community to help maintain or increase dragonfly numbers?

In gardens, the obvious answer is to dig a pond – I have two in mine, and they are a constant source of pleasure! Supporting the creation and ongoing management of wetlands in general is also important, so supporting local and national conservation bodies is a good thing. It’s also very important to gather records of dragonflies and help to monitor them, and everyone can help by submitting their sightings (the BDS website gives information on how to do this, as well as how to create a pond for dragonflies).

5. What was your most surprising discovery whilst researching Britain’s Dragonflies?

I have been astonished at how many images on the internet and in social media are misidentified. Even the experts get it wrong sometimes! Take care not to believe everything, and of course buy a good identification guide to help ….

Banded Demoiselle Copyright 2019 Sarah Clarke.

6. What is the biggest challenge when studying dragonflies in the field?

That’s hard to pin down, because I’m aware of so many potential pitfalls! Correct identification is fundamental. Finding out where to see the scarce species to expand your skills is hard, but easier with modern communications. Dragonflies are wary and not easy to approach, so close-focus binoculars and/or a camera are vital – the advent of good quality digital cameras has been a huge benefit. I’ve used a sequence of zoomable Lumix ‘bridge’ cameras over the last 10-15 years to help study wildlife of all kinds, both in the field and back at home. The British weather can be challenging too: a warm, sunny day makes all the difference!

7. Have you got any future projects planned that you can tell us about?

Andy and I have been working for about five years on Europe’s Dragonflies – which is now close to completion and is due for publication next spring. Like all the WILDGuides books, it’s based around high-quality images – in this case over 1,100 of them! It will be presented in a similar way to Britain’s Dragonflies but cover an extra 77 species.

 

Britain’s Dragonflies by Dave Smallshire and Andy Swash is available as part of our Field Guide Sale. For more reading on Dragonflies & Damselflies, browse our Odonata books

Britain’s Dragonflies: A Field Guide to the Damselflies and Dragonflies of Britain and Ireland
Paperback | August 2018
Focuses on the identification of both adults and larvae, highlighting the key features.
£12.99 £17.99

 

Atlas of Dragonflies in Britain and Ireland
Hardback | May 2014
Represents five years work by volunteers and partner organisations to map the distribution of damselflies and dragonflies in Britain and Ireland
£28.99

 

Our top picks for observing dragonflies in all their life cycle stages

Opticron Discovery WP PC Binoculars 

  • Free shipping for this item
  • Great value waterproof binoculars
  • Ideal for close focus work
    £169

 

Kite Caiman Binoculars

  • Exceptional close-focus
  • 15 year warranty
  • Entry-level binoculars with all-round performance
    £249.95

Professional Hand Net with Wooden Handle (250mm Wide)

  • Sturdy yet light and easy to use
  • Available in a variety of mesh sizes
  • Conforms to Environment Agency specification
    £61.99 £62.94

 

NHBS Pond Dipping Kit

This kit contains everything you need to collect freshwater aquatic life in one easy package. £31.99 £38.15 

 

Solitary Bee Week

Although we are all familiar with the important role that bumblebees and honeybees play in pollination, over 90% of the UK’s 267 bee species are in fact solitary bees. Pollinating animals are responsible for one third of the food we consume and solitary bees are particularly efficient pollinators. Unlike other bees solitary bees do not have pollen baskets and so transfer much more pollen between flowers, meaning a single red mason bee provides a pollination service equivalent to 120 worker honey bees. This makes them a critical resource in our gardens and wider countryside and one that we should all be keen to protect. We have collated some information below on how to help encourage and preserve these fascinating creatures.

Ivy Bee © Sophie Cooper

Solitary Bee Ecology

Solitary bees use a wide range of nest sites including tunnels in wood or mortar, plant stems and even snail shells. They lay eggs in a series of cells and then block the entrance with materials such as mud, leaves or fine hair. The female lays an egg with a food source, made from pollen and nectar, before building a partition wall and moving on to the next cell. The bee larvae hatch, eat the food source then overwinter as a cocoon before emerging the following summer as adults.

Solitary Bee cells in the Solitary Beehive

There have been extremely worrying declines in insect numbers recorded across Europe, and solitary bees are no exception. The increased use of chemicals in farming, loss of flower meadow food sources and loss of nest sites in hedgerows and gardens are all combining to drive down numbers. The good news is that it is easy to provide food sources and nesting habitat in your garden to help solitary bees and increase pollination. 

Providing Resources for Solitary Bees

Provide food sources for solitary bees by planting wild flower seeds, native trees such as hawthorn and willow, bee friendly plants such as ivy, foxgloves and lavender and allowing plants such as borage and thistles to flower in your garden. Nest sites can be provided by leaving dead wood and stems standing, creating a patch of bare earth or mud bank for mining bees and by installing wild bee houses. 

BeePot Bee Hotel © Green & Blue

With careful design consideration, bee houses can provide shelter and nesting sites for solitary bees. Bee houses can be manufactured from a variety of materials but should have a good overhanging roof to protect the nesting tubes from rain, nesting holes between 2 and 10mm in diameter and a solid back. It is better to have a number of smaller bee houses, rather than one large house to reduce the risk of parasites finding the nest. Alternatively we have a wide range of solitary bee nesting habitats available on our website.

You can tell which species of bee is using your bee house by examining the material used to plug the entrance hole. Different species also emerge at different points in the year. The most common species likely to populate bee houses are red mason bees who use mud and are active March – July, leafcutter bees who use leaves and are active May – September, and wool carder bees who use fine hairs and are active June – August. Please note that there are fewer solitary bee species in the North of England and Scotland.

Leafcutter Bee in Action © Green & Blue

Solitary Bee House Siting and Maintenance

Insect houses should be sited at least 1m off the ground, facing south or south-east, with no vegetation covering the entrance and in full sun as insects need warmth to keep moving. They should be firmly fixed so that they don’t move in the wind. If your box is likely to be occupied by red mason bees then it is helpful to ensure that there is a patch of damp mud nearby. In order to maximise the chances of adults emerging successfully from the cocoons, it is a good idea to bring bee boxes indoors into an unheated shed or garage during the winter to avoid them getting too damp. The boxes should then be taken back outside in March in time for the new adults to emerge. There is some debate as to whether brick / concrete boxes should be cleaned but they can be cleaned out with a tent peg and pipe cleaner. Boxes with cardboard tubes should have the tubes replaced regularly. Keep an eye out for failed nests and tiny holes in the mud entrance as this can indicate that the nest tube has been taken over by parasites. 

Mining Bee © Ed Phillips

Suggested Solitary Bee Houses

Bee Brick

This Bee Brick can be used in place of a standard brick or as a standalone bee house in your garden or wild patch. Available in four colours. £29.99 £39.99

Solitary Beehive

This unique solitary beehive is made from durable FSC timber and designed specifically to attract solitary bees which are naturally attracted to holes in wood. £23.99 £29.99

 

Red Mason Bee Nest Box

The nest box is supplied with 29 individual nesting tubes, two sets of screws and plugs for mounting, and full instructions. £10.99

 

BeePot Bee Hotel

This is a fantastic concrete planter which doubles as a nesting place for solitary bees. Available in a range of colours and sizes, this is the larger size, the mini version is also available. £42.95 £49.99

WoodStone Insect Block

This WoodStone Insect Block is constructed from durable, FSC certified WoodStone with a nesting area created from reed stems.

£24.95 

 

Urban Bee Nester

This urban insect hotel is part of the contemporary range of wildlife habitats that have a sleek design for city living.

£20.99 £27.50

 

Suggested books on solitary bees

Solitary Bees
Paperback | July 2019| £19.99
An introduction to the natural history, ecology and conservation of solitary bees, together with an easy-to-use key to genera.

 

The Solitary Bees: Biology, Evolution, Conservation Hardback | September 2019| £27.99 £34.99                           The most up-to-date and authoritative resource on the biology and evolution of solitary bees.

 

 

Handbook of the Bees of the British Isles (2-Volume Set) Hardback | October 2018| £130 £150

With photographic material of over 270 bee species, this comprehensive handbook is a once-in-a-generation identification work to the British bee fauna.

 

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland Paperback | December 2018| £27.99 £34.99

A comprehensive introduction to bee classification, ecology, field techniques and recording, a full glossary, and information on how to separate the sexes and distinguish bees from other insects is also included.

 

Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees                Paperback | April 2019| £9.99 

Award-winning author, Thor Hanson takes us on a journey that begins 125 million years ago, when a wasp first dared to feed pollen to its young.

 

In order to increase awareness of how vital a role our solitary bees play in pollination, the first week of July has been designated as Solitary Bee Week. You can get involved by pledging to create nesting sites or plant food sources for bees, writing poetry or recording bee sightings.

 

The Sensory Ecology of Birds: Interview with Graham Martin

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is a fascinating new work that explores the sensory world of birds from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. The author Professor Graham Martin gives us some insights into his inspiration, the incredible diversity of avian sensory adaptations, and how studying sensory ecology can help in developing practical conservation solutions.

 

Professor Graham Martin – Author of The Sensory Ecology of Birds

How did you first become interested in bird senses?

Through owls. As a child I used to listen to tawny owls calling all through the night in a nearby wood and I wanted to know what they were doing and how they did it. My father took me round the woods at night and that experience led me to wanting to know more about the eyesight of owls.

What inspired you to write the book and what kind of readers do you think would find it useful?

I have been studying bird senses all of my working career. Nearly 50 years ago I started to get paid for looking into bird senses; it has been a strange and exciting way to spend my time. After such a long time of investigating the senses of so many different birds I wanted to bring it all together, to provide an overview that will help people understand birds from a new perspective. I think anyone interested in birds will enjoy the book and find it useful. No matter which group of species intrigues you most, this book will enable you to see them from a new perspective. Understanding bird senses really does challenge what we think birds are and how they go about their lives.

Sensory ecology is a relatively new field of research; could you explain a little about what it is and what makes it particularly relevant today?

Sensory Ecology is basically the study of the information that birds have at their disposal to guide their behaviour, to guide the key tasks that they perform every day to survive in different types of habitats.  Different habitats present different challenges and to carry out tasks animals need different sorts of information. Birds have at their disposal a wide range of different sensory information, they are not just reliant upon vision. However, each species tends to be specialised for the gaining of certain types of information. Just as each species differs in its general ecology, each species also has a unique suite of information available to them. Sensory ecology is also a comparative science. It compares the information that different species use and tries to determine general principles that apply to the conduct of particular behaviours in different places. For example how different birds cope with activity at night or underwater.

Sensory adaptations to overcome the challenges of being nocturnal in two species, the Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) and Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Sensory Ecology also looks at why evolution has favoured particular solutions to particular problems.  I think the major result of this kind of approach is that it certainly challenges our assumptions about what birds are and also what humans are. We do not readily realise that our view of the world is very much shaped by the information that our senses provide. We are rather peculiar and specialised in the information that we use to guide our everyday behaviours. My hope is that people will come to understand the world through birds’ senses, to get a real “bird’s eye view”. In doing so we can understand why birds fall victim to collisions with obvious structures such as powerlines, wind turbines, motor vehicles, glass panes, fences, etc. We can then work out what to do to mitigate these problems that humans have thrown in birds’ way.

An understanding of how a species perceives its environment can be very useful in designing practical conservation measures. Could you give us some examples?

Yes, I have been involved in trying to understand why flying birds apparently fail to detect wind turbines and power lines, or diving birds fail to detect gill nets.  These investigations have led to a number of ideas about what is actually happening when birds interact with these structures and what we can do to increase the chances that birds will detect and avoid them.

How do you think that studying avian sensory ecology can enhance our understanding of our own sensory capabilities and interaction with the world?

It gives a fresh perspective on how specialised and limited our own view of the world is. We make so many assumptions that the world is really as we experience it, but we experience the world in a very specialised way. Sensory ecology provides lots of new information and facts about how other animals interact with the world, what governs their behaviour, but equally importantly sensory ecology questions very soundly our understanding of “reality”, what is the world really like as opposed to what we, as just one species, think it is like. This is quite challenging but also exhilarating. We really are prisoners of our own senses, and so are all other animals. Sensory ecology gives us the opportunity to understand the world as perceived by other animals, not just how we think the world is. That is really important since it injects a little humility into how we think about the way we exploit the world.

Could you give us some insight into how birds can use different senses in combination to refine their interpretation of the world around them?

Owls provide a good example. Their vision is highly sensitive but not sufficiently sensitive to cope with all light levels that occur in woodland at night, so owls also rely heavily upon information from hearing to detect and locate moving prey. The nocturnal behaviour of owls requires these two key sources of information but even these are not enough. To make sense of the information that they have available to them the woodland owls need to be highly familiar with the place in which they live, hence their high degree of allegiance to particular sites.  Other birds, such as ducks, parrots and ibises rely heavily upon the sense of touch to find food items. The degree to which this information is used has a knock on effect on how much the birds can see about them. So a duck that can feed exclusively using touch, such as a mallard, can see all around them, while a duck that needs to use vision in its foraging cannot see all around. This in turn has implications for the amount of time birds can spend foraging as opposed to looking around them, vigilant for predators. In many birds the sense of smell is now seen as a key source of information which governs not just foraging, but also social interactions.

Are there interesting examples of species that are specialists in one particular sense?

Usually birds rely upon at least two main senses that have become highly specialised and which are used in a complementary manner. For example, in ibises it might be touch and vision, in kiwi it is smell and touch, in some of the waders it is touch and taste, but in other waders touch and hearing.

White-headed vulture – photo credit: Graham Martin

Probably the most obvious single sense specialisations are found among aerial predators such as eagles and falcons, they seem to be highly dependent upon vision to detect prey at a distance and then lock on to it during pursuit. However, we really don’t know anything about other aspects of their senses and there is a lot left to learn about them.

Can you tell us about any species that you have studied that you find particularly fascinating?

Oilbirds; they are really challenging to our assumptions about what birds are, how they live and what information they have available to them.

Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Oilbirds are the most nocturnal of all birds, roosting and breeding deep in caves where no light penetrates, emerging only after dusk and then flying over the tropical rain forest canopy to find fruit. But they are a form of nightjar! In the complete darkness of caves they use echolocation to orient themselves and calls to locate mates. When searching for food in the canopy they use their sense of smell to detect ripe fruits, they have long touch sensitive bristles around the mouth. And their eyes have sensitivity close to the theoretical limits possible in vertebrate eyes.  They seem to rely upon partial information from each of these senses, and use them in combination or in complementary ways. They really are marvellous, but in truth the senses of any birds, and how they are used, are fascinating and intriguing, it is a matter of delving deep enough, and asking the right questions.

In what kind of direction do you think future sensory ecology research is headed?

We now have available a lot of techniques to find out about the senses of birds, from behavioural studies, to physiology and anatomy. Armed with these techniques, and also with ways of thinking and measuring the perceptual challenges of different tasks and different environments, there are so many questions to investigate. We have some fascinating findings but we have only just scratched the surface with regard to species and it does seems clear that senses can be very finely tuned to different tasks. I like to compare the diversity of the bills that we find in birds with the same diversity in the senses in those species.

Every bill tells a story about form and function, about evolution, ecology and behaviour. The senses of birds show the same degree of diversity and tuning. So to me sensory ecology is a wide open field with lot of questions to investigate. To appreciate the world from a bird’s perspective will, of course, give us a much better understanding of how to mitigate the problems that humans have posed to birds by shaping the world for our own convenience.

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is available now from NHBS

Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: interview with James Eaton and Nick Brickle

Authors James Eaton (centre) and Nick Brickle (far left) with field staff from FFI on the trail of Sumatran Ground Cuckoo near Kerinci Seblat National Park in Sumatra
Authors James Eaton (centre) and Nick Brickle (far left) with field staff from FFI on the trail of Sumatran Ground Cuckoo near Kerinci Seblat National Park in Sumatra

Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea is a new field guide dedicated to this major region which contains a massive 13% of the world’s avian biodiversity. Featuring over 2,500 illustrations, it describes all 1,417 bird species known to occur in the region.

Co-authors James Eaton and Nick Brickle share some of their birding insights and in-depth knowledge of the region’s avifauna in this interview with NHBS.

Could you tell us a little about how you became interested in birding and what drew you to this region in particular?

James – My Grandmother gave me a copy of Benson’s Observer’s Book of Birds when I was six, and, wanting to see some of the birds in the illustrations in real life, my father agreed to take me to the local nature reserve to look for them, and from that point on it became an obsession!

Nick – Similar story. I got hooked before I was 10 years old, partly thanks to Choughs, Peregrines and my dad’s old binoculars on family holidays to Pembrokeshire. Ten years later and I found myself surveying White-winged Ducks in Sumatra and never looked back.

What inspired you to create a field guide that covers the entire Indonesian Archipelago? It must have been quite a challenge to cover such a diverse region.

All four of us are pretty obsessed with the region’s birds, both as a hobby and professionally, and all of us have travelled pretty widely in the region over many years. During this time the region has gone from having no bird field guide at all, to having a variety of books covering different parts of it; some now already long out of print. We all decided it was time to put our passion into a project that could do justice to the spectacular diversity to be found here, and so agreed to work together to create the new guide.

Could you explain a little about the unique biogeography of the region which makes it such a biodiversity hotspot?

Hard to sum it up in a sentence! It’s a fantastic combination of Asian and Australasian bird families, spread across 1000s of islands, with Wallace’s famous line running down the middle, and spectacular endemism throughout. For more, read the biogeographical history section in the introduction to the field guide!

Who is your target audience for the book?

Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea

Anyone with an interest in the birds of the region! Visiting and resident birdwatchers are the obvious user, but given that it includes over 13% of the world’s birds, anyone with an interest in birds should enjoy it. In due course we also hope to produce an Indonesian language version of the guide, so as to make it more accessible to the growing number of local birdwatchers.

For someone visiting the area for the first time, what are some of the most exciting sites, and the key species that you recommend looking out for?

Where to start! Within Indonesia, the best places for an introduction are probably the mountains and forests of West Java, which are easy to visit from Jakarta, and where many of the most sought after Javan endemics can be seen; or perhaps North Sulawesi, where a trip to see hornbills, endemic kingfishers and Maleo can be combined with beaches and diving; or Bali, where one of Indonesia’s rarest and most spectacular birds – the Bali Starling – can be seen with a short trip from the beach resorts.

Another choice for an easy introduction is the Malaysian state of Sabah in the north of Borneo. Here many spectacular and endemic birds can be seen from the comfort of first-rate hotels, including Great Argus and the completely unique Bristlehead. After that, the opportunities are limitless!

How do you kit yourself out for a birdwatching trip to the region, and can you recommend a great birding gadget or app?

At the simplest, you don’t need much more than a pair of binoculars (and maybe a rain coat or umbrella!). Beyond that it depends a bit on where you are going and what you’d like to see: a telescope can be useful, but is rarely essential, sound playback or recording equipment can be very useful, a camera if you like to take photos, camping equipment if you plan to visit very remote regions. If you plan to explore off the beaten track (and there are lots of parts of the region that qualify as this!) then a phone and google maps can be a surprisingly useful way to look for patches of forest, and then all you need to do is try and make your way towards them!

Do you have any favourites among the species in the guide? Are there any that proved particularly elusive or challenging to observe?

James – Difficult question, can I give two answers? One would be Helmeted Hornbill. Such an iconic bird that symbolises the region’s rainforests. You know when you hear the bird’s incredible mechanical laughing call you are in the rainforest, but equally you are reminded how it is disappearing from many areas due to illegal hunting for its casque. Another would be Bornean Ground Cuckoo. Once a mysterious bird, largely unknown due to its shy nature, feeding on the rainforest floor, but now as our understanding of the species has grown it is possible to see it. Nothing gets the adrenalin pumping quite as much as looking for this species.

Nick – Too many to choose from! For me it would have to be something that walks on the ground… pretty much any pitta, pheasant or partridge is a candidate. Maybe Banded Pitta (any of the three species…)? Or the spectacular Ivory breasted Pitta? Then of course there is Rail Babbler… Actually, more often than not my favourite is the last new species that I have seen, or the next new one that I want to see!

With so many endemic species, there must be some that fill very specific ecological niches?

Endemism is very high in the region, and many species are only found within very small ranges, such as Boano Monarch on an island only 20km wide, or Sangihe Island, only 40km long at its widest point, and with five endemic bird species. Damar Flycatcher too, found in the dark understorey of a tiny island that requires two days’ boat travel from the nearest city. Kinabalu Grasshopper Warbler is only found on the top of two mountain tops in Borneo. When it comes to specific niches, however, small island endemics are often the opposite, in that they often expand their niche due to the absence of competitors. Birds filling very specific niches are probably more a feature of the large islands groups like Borneo and Sumatra, where the overall diversity is much greater.

It is quite well publicised that one of the biggest threats to the conservation of all Indonesian species is rapid deforestation to create palm oil plantations. Are there other threats to bird species which also need to be highlighted?

Deforestation is a big issue. There has been a huge loss of forest over the last decades, but vast areas still remain, and their value is finally starting to be more widely recognised. Hunting for the captive bird trade also remains a huge threat, particularly to those species most desired as pets, such as songbirds and parrots. Local and international groups are working hard to try and reduce this trade, in particular the public demand, but there is still much work to be done to change attitudes.

How can the international community help to support conservation efforts?

As birdwatchers one of the simplest and best things you can do is to visit the region and go birdwatching! Coming here, spending time, spending money, staying in local hotels, eating local food, using local guides, all serves to create a value to the forests and the wildlife that lives in them. This is not lost on local people or the regional governments. Beyond that think carefully about the products you buy from the region, to make sure they come from sustainable and fair sources. If you have money invested make sure that is not going to support destructive or exploitative practices in the region. Finally, support a good cause! There are many, many local NGOs established and emerging in Indonesia and the wider region, all working and lobbying hard to protect the region’s forest and wildlife. Your support will help them achieve this.

Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago: Greater Sundas and Wallacea is available now from NHBS

The World’s Rarest Birds: an interview with author and birder Erik Hirschfeld

The World's Rarest Birds jacket imageThe World’s Rarest Birds is a sumptuous visual treat for birders, featuring a gallery of competition-winning bird photos from around the world. But it is more than that: Erik Hirschfeld – and collaborators Andy Swash and Rob Still – want everyone to be engaged with the plight of the rarest bird species. Here’s what he has to say about the book:

The World’s Rarest Birds compiles information from many different sources and represents a great conservation collaboration. What were your aims in writing the book?

I wanted to give the term “bird conservation” a more recognizable face. In order to evoke feelings, funds, and engagement for a cause, it is essential to make the cause recognizable. By presenting each one of the world’s rarest species in text and image, and sorting them in a geographical context, there is a bird for everyone: regardless of where you live, it should be easy to find the birds in your vicinity. I work much with beginners to birding, as a guide and lecturer, and the taxonomic order does not make sense to them. I think it is important to convince these newcomers about the conservation needs. It does not matter if you are a beginner or expert, Swede or Polynesian – there is a bird in the book that everyone can feel for in conservation terms. And that was my aim, as I think it is extremely important to spread knowledge about endangered birds.

Could you tell us a little about how you became a fully fledged conservation author?

My professional career is in an unrelated sector but I am basically a birder, and was heavily involved on the Swedish twitching scene in my early birding years. Over time my interest in birds has widened – I hardly keep lists any more, and I appreciate the birds’ context in nature more, as well as my own personal experiences of them. I am right now enjoying watching Rooks doing clever things on my street more than twitching a Yellow-nosed Albatross at my local patch (although I did twitch it…). I have always written: identification papers in the eighties, in British journals, and much about migration and faunistics. With the maturing of my interest it was quite obvious I should do something on conservation. I have been a staunch supporter of BirdLife International for 20 years, and am very happy that I could make them benefit from this book. It is important to remember though that the book is a team effort by Andy Swash, Rob Still and myself.

New Caledonia - The World's Rarest Birds page detailThere are some beautiful and striking images in the book, which we loved. Do you feel that the images are an essential way of engaging people with the species?

Yes, as I touched on in the first question. It is a matter of applying simple marketing principles from commercial contexts also in conservation and the NGO world, to make people aware of the birds. You know the old saying: a picture means more than a thousand words.

Some of the image contributions were from winners of an international photographic competition – did you get a good response?

Absolutely, I had tried it out with the Rare Birds Yearbooks so we knew it was going to be a success. The timing has also been good. With the digital photography boom, many people can take decent pictures, and you see much more camera equipment in the field now than 30 years ago when you had to wait a couple of weeks to get your films back. And we are very grateful to the photographers who submitted their images.

The World’s Rarest Birds is quite different in format and content from your previous series The Rare Birds Yearbook, did you also have a different audience in mind?

No, actually not, I thought that basically the same people would buy them. Andy Swash and Rob Still have been instrumental in the evolution to The World’s Rarest Birds and I was convinced by them from the beginning this was the way to go. I remember Ade Long at BirdLife suggesting already after the first edition of the Rare Birds Yearbooks that I should go more for photos and less for texts.

The East Asian-Australasian Flyway - The World's Rarest Birds page detailThe purchase of this book contributes towards supporting the BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme which is a fantastic cause. Could you tell us about any notable conservation success stories that you have seen since your involvement with the project started?

Several. The Madagascar Pochard project in which the species population recently has quadrupled. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper project with artificial hatching and building up a captive population. The project that established a breeding centre for Spix’s Macaw, and now will release birds into the wild this summer. The banning of diclofenac in the Indian subcontinent which, slowly, helps vultures. Even if they are not saved yet, it is not all gloomy! And the many dedicated people and organizations behind these and other positive trends are success stories in themselves.

Buy a copy of The World’s Rarest Birds

Available Now from NHBS