Product Review: Swarovski Habicht 8 x 30 W.


The Swarovski Habicht 8 x 30 W package.


A Work Commenced February 20 2024

Product: Swarovski Habicht 8 x 30 W

Country of Manufacture: Austria

Exit Pupil: 3.75mm

Eye Relief: 12mm

Field of View: 136m@1000m(7.8 angular degress)

Dioptric Compensation: +\_ 5

Close Focus: 3m advertised, 2.68m measured

IPD Range: 56-72mm

ED Glass: No

Light Transmission: 96%

Waterproof: Yes(4m/13 feet)

Fogproof: Yes

Operating Temperature Range: -25C to +55C

Weight: 540g advertised, 536g measured

Accessories: Cordura carry case, neck strap, rain guard, lens cloth, instruction manual.

Warranty: 10 Years(+1 year if product registered online)

Price(UK): £875.00

The Swarovski Habicht 8 x 30 W exudes quality from top to bottom.

Anyone with an interest in binoculars and their history will undoubtedly be familiar with the Swarovski Habicht Porro prism binoculars, the company’s oldest continuously developed product line, which began production immediately after WWII.  This review will concentrate on arguably the most popular of the Habicht line: the compact and lightweight 8 x 30 W.

First Impressions:

Belly Up.

The instrument was bought from a reputable dealer: The Birder’s Store in Worcester. The instrument was dispatched via expedited delivery and arrived within 24 hours of purchasing. The package was delightful: a nice presentation box with a beautiful alpine scene. The instrument was found encased in a lovely green Cordura case together with its rain guard. The package also contained a logoed neck strap, instruction manual and microfibre lens cleaning cloth.

The serial number reveals the year and month of manufacture: December 2022.

The instrument was immaculately presented with a serial number beginning with the numerals 12 indicating that its year of manufacture was 2022. The rubber eyecups are very comfortable but afford minimal eye relief at 12mm. This didn’t present a problem for me as I don’t wear spectacles while glassing. However, some folk have endeavoured to acquire the longer rubber eyecups that accompany the more heavily armoured GA model for better eye relief. 

The focus wheel moves smoothly and very precisely. Just over one revolution clockwise takes you from closest focus to a little bit beyond infinity. Unlike quite a few other reports, I do not consider the focuser on the 8 x 30 W to be overly stiff. Indeed, I very much liked it right out of the case! What I especially appreciated though was the + and – markings on the side of the focus wheel facing the ocular lenses: which allow the user to dial in the approximate focus for objects close at hand and in the middle distance without ever having to look through the instrument! 
I was very relieved to see the dioptre compensation ring moves with a fair amount of tension. This means little to no wandering while operating in the field. Indeed it is just about as good as that found on the Nikon EII 8 x 30.

I was particularly relieved to discover that the dioptre compensation ring under the right ocular is nicely frictioned to prevent wandering in field use.

The leatherette armouring on the 8 x 30 W seems more organic to me, less artificial, than that found on the Nikon EII body. It is slightly more elastic and grippy too. It didn’t take me long to find the best way to handle the instrument, which is a joy to hold in one’s hands. Being intimately acquainted with the haptics of the EII 8 x 30, I would say the only significant difference between the two models is the slightly wider spacing between the barrels and the central shaft of the Habicht, making it easier to wrap one’s fingers round. The latter is also a bit more streamlined than the former: a fact confirmed by comparing their weights – 565g for the EII and 536g for the Habicht 8 x 30 W.

The ocular lenses are a little smaller than those found on the Nikon EII and thus are ever so slightly harder to engage with.

Eyepieces: six elements apiece.

The 30mm objective lenses have immaculately applied coatings and are recessed a few millimetres from the binocular frame.

The Habicht 8 x 30 W objectives have very derp coloured multicoatings.



The leather neck strap is a real work of art it must be said, and an absolute pleasure to use. Beautifully crafted from traditional materials it’s adorned with the fetching silvered avian Swarovski logo on either side. Indeed I have yet to see a better neck-strap than this one!

The beautifully fashioned padded leather neck starp accompanying the Habicht is a worthy accessory for a product of this pedigree.

Although I elected not to store the instrument in the supplied green Cordura case for everyday use, it will serve as an excellent travel case when I need it.

All in all, the Habicht 8 x 30 W is a most charming and impressively designed instrument with a great deal of attention to detail immediately in evidence!  

Optical Testing:

My first optical tests were to check the collimation and look for internal reflections. Collimation was spot on as my star testing revealed. Directing an intensely bright beam of light from across my living room into the binocular revealed excellent results: just two very insignificant reflections noted with no diffused light or diffraction spikes( the standard result for a Porro). This was a most excellent result indeed!

This was confirmed by glassing a bright, waxing gibbous Moon in the February sky and a bright yellow sodium street lamp after dark, both of which showed the same great results.

Next I took some shots of the exit pupils, which you can see below:

Left pupil.


Right pupil.

As you can see, both pupils are perfectly round with very little in the way of any false pupils in their vicinity. You can however make out some light leaks well beyond the exit pupils which may be responsible for manifesting some glare and off axis flaring. More on this later.

The view through the Swarovski Habicht is simply out of this world! In careful tests involving my EII 8 x 30, Zeiss Victory Pocket 8 x 25 and a Leica Ultravid HD Plus(UVHDP)8 x 32 , it was the clear winner in terms of sheer central sharpness, brightness and contrast. Really quite incredible!

Particularly memorable was a shootout I conducted with a new villager, Davey, who had just completed building a new home overlooking Loch Carron, just a few miles from my home. He recently acquired both an 8 x and 10 x 32 Leica UVHDP, as well as an older Leica Trinovid BN 8 x 32, and invited me up to his place to have a look around. Observing the loch and the surrounding forests from his porch, he got a good chance to compare the views in both the Habicht and his 8 x 32 with their similar sized fields. We both declared the Habicht to have the superior optics but his jaw dropped when I told him that the Habicht was half the price of the Leica!

It makes for wonderful viewing in any kind of lighting conditions, but really excels in dull, overcast lighting where its extraordinary light transmission(an astonishing 96%) pulls it readily ahead of all the competition. Comparing it most carefully to the EII 8 x 30 I would describe the Habicht as peeling off that last layer to reveal its subjects in breathtaking clarity.

I do want to mention another brief test though. My former student and astrophysics graduate, Joe Stearn, joined me one afternoon with his dad’s Oberwerk SE 8 x 32. Joe reckoned his dad’s instrument was sightly better than his own unit which he left back home in rural Massachusetts. We compared the views and decided they were very close; with the nod going to the Habicht in ferreting out low contrast detail in dull overcast. Like I said before, the Oberwerk SE 8 x 32 with its ED objectives is an exceptional performer but at 800g it’s not a glass you want to carry round your neck all day!

Chromatic aberration is  better controlled in the Habicht compared with the EII, particularly off axis, but this might be due to the former’s smaller field of view(7.8 compared with 8.9 degrees in the EII).  Pincushion distortion is also vanishingly low in the Habicht, even at the extreme edges of the field, rendering it a most excellent instrument for studying architectural features. The sweet spot on this unit is quite generous: maybe covering the central 60 per cent of the field, after which gentle field curvature gradually distorts the outer part of the field of view. The Habicht has a very uniformly illuminated field though. Moving the gibbous Moon from the centre of the field to the edge revealed little in the way of light drop off. Some lateral colour and a touch of astigmatism were also in evidence by studying the bright star Procyon as it was gradually moved from the centre to the field stops.   
Notes from the Field:

Roof prism binocular killer.

Several Habicht 8 x 30 W users have reported that the instrument suffers from excessive glare. I can report that this is grossly exaggerated. Yes, it behaves less well against the light than the Nikon EII or Zeiss Victory but I have never perceived it as excessive with the worst cases easily improved by shielding with an outstretched hand over the objectives. The Habicht does exhibit strong off axis flaring however. But placing a bright Moon just outside the field of view reveals this fairly easily. 

Close focus was measured to be 2.68m: better than the advertised 3m but this can actually be improved owing to the large beyond infinity reach of the existing focus wheel. By resetting the position of infinity closer to the end of its travel, a significantly better near focus  value could be obtained. I am aware of a binocular repair company that can provide such a service. 

I have not had any issues with the focus wheel on the Habicht. Reports that it can’t be used for extensive birding activities because of the sluggish movement of focus wheel are also untrue in my experience. I’ve been able to track birds flitting from nearby bushes to trees in the middle distance with no problems at all. In short, it’s called skill and practice makes perfect!

Depth of focus and the wonderful stereoptic view only provided by Porro prism instruments are very similar in both the EII and the Habicht. Indeed they render roof prism models decidedly ‘flat’ in comparison.

Storage:

Easy access.

I elected to store the Habicht 8 x 30 W in a dry box: just like all my other non/waterproof Porros. It’s much easier to access the instrument using this set up compared with storing it in the zipped Cordura case supplied with the instrument.

Closing Remarks & Conclusions:

primus inter pares

The Swarovski Habicht 8 x 30 W exhibits the best optical performance I have personally experienced in the 30mm/ 32mm binocular format, with ergonomics that don’t fall far behind it. If anything it underscores my conviction that compact alpha roof models are a profligate waste of money.  If you are after world class optics in a small, lightweight and weather resistant chassis, check this binocular out! It will delight its owners with years of flawless optical and mechanical performance.

Very highly favoured!


Neil English’s new book, Choosing and Using Binoculars: A Guide for Stargazers, Birders and Outdoor Enthusiasts, is now available for purchase.

De Fideli.

Product Review: Celestron Granite 7 x 33.

The Celestron Granite 7 x 33.


A Work Commenced January 27 2024

Product: Celestron Granite 7 x 33

Country of Origin: China

Chassis: Rubber armoured magnesium alloy

Exit Pupil: 4.71mm

Eye Relief: 15mm

Field of View: 159m@1000m( 9.1 angular degrees)

Close Focus: 2m advertised, 1.64m measured

Coatings: Fully Multicoated, phase corrected Schmidt Pechan roof prisms

ED Glass: Yes

Waterproof: Yes

Nitrogen Purged: Yes

Weight: 601g

Status: Discontinued

Over the years I’ve reviewed a number of Celestron binoculars and have been impressed by their efforts to bring higher than average quality optics and ergonomics to the market at prices that are affordable to many, such as the Trailseeker line and the more advanced Regal ED, for example, being the most recent examples to come to market. However Celestron actually began their foray into advanced roof prism binoculars about 12 years ago, when they launched their sophisticated Granite series, featuring an open bridge design, ED glass, fully multicoated and phase corrected optics. Initially, the series included 8 and 10 x 42 and larger, 10 and 12 x 50 models. But the general success of these instruments led to the marketing of a further two smaller models:7 and 9 x 33 Granites.

In my new book, I showcased a mini review of the 7 x 33 contributed by Philip Grimsey, a keen birder and amateur astronomer, based in Hitchin, England. My first encounter with Phil came through a purchase of a classic Russian 7 x 35 binocular, which turned out to be a very pleasant surprise and since then I’ve discovered that Phil is a kindred spirit, having a very similar taste in optics to yours truly. 

Phil contacted me asking if I’d like to test drive the 7 x 33 Granite for myself. Curiosity got the better of me and I accepted his kind offer. 

Ergonomics

My first impressions of the instrument were very favourable indeed. The magnesium alloy chassis is overlaid by a thick layer of matte black rubber, which affords excellent protection from the elements as well as accidental knocks and bumps. In addition, the underside of the instrument has shallow grooves for resting your thumbs in while glassing. The Granite was one of the earliest econo models featuring an open bridge design for superior handling. 

Belly side up.

Tipping the scales at just over 600g, the Granite is nifty, light-weight binocular that can be taken pretty much anywhere. 

The nicely machined metal eyecups are overlaid with soft black rubber.  They are very firm, with one intermediate position between fully retracted and fully extended, locking rigidly in place in all configurations. I think they’re excellent: a little smaller than the larger frame of Celestron’s more recent models, but right up there with those I’ve seen on models costing much more. Eye relief is very generous too: I was easily able to engage with the entire field wearing my eyeglasses.

The Celestron Granite 7 x 33 possesses excellent twist -up eyecups and a smoothly operating central focus wheel.

The large, centrally placed metal focus wheel is overlaid with raised strips of rubber which greatly assist with its turning. I would describe this focuser as being on the fast side, taking a little over one revolution to go from closest focus to a little beyond infinity. 

The dioptre compensation wheel is quite sensibly placed under the right ocular. It’s good and tight and held its position very well.


The Celestron Granite 7 x 33 has very nicely applied antireflection coatings which present a fetching bluish bloom as seen in broad daylight. Clearly they’ve held up very well over the years since its manufacture.

The Granite’s antireflection coatings are very evenly applied.

In the hands the little Granite 7 x 33 feels great, with plenty of room to position one’s hands to get an optimal grip. I had one minor niggle with the central hinge though. I felt it was a little loose for my tastes but in practice it never presented a problem. 

I did like the ocular covers though, which are tethered via a bracket on the underside of the barrels. They snap into place to seal off the objective lenses from dust and moisture. 

Optics

I checked to see how the Celestron Granite handled an intensely bright beam of light. It did very well indeed. Internal reflections were very well subdued and while I did detect a small diffraction spike around the light source but it amounted to little or nothing when I turned it on a bright sodium street lamp after dark and also on a bright gibbous Moon.

Examining the exit pupils also showed good results with only a fairly inconspicuous light leak around the main pupil(see below):

Left exit pupil.

The view through the Granite is very good: it has excellent central sharpness with some peripheral softening as the field stops are approached.  The large smooth focuser makes dialling in the precise focal plane easy. There is also a modest amount of pincushion distortion in the outer field. And boy what an expansive field it possesses at 9.1 angular degrees! I would describe the colour tone of this instrument as distinctly warm. Colour correction is excellent: there’s effectively none within the sweet spot and I could only detect a trace in the outer portion of the field while glassing through denuded winter tree branches against a bright overcast sky. 

As you’d expect from a 7 x wide angle glass like this, depth of field is very generous, being noticeably deeper than 8x or 10 x instruments, thereby requiring less frequent focusing.  Close focus distance was measured to be just 1.64 metres: an excellent result and well below the advertised 2m. 

Having readily enjoyed a 7 x 35 Porro prism binocular for quite some time, I’ve come to appreciate the sheer comfort of a larger exit pupil with an expansive field of view. The Granite served up a field quite reminiscent of the Porro but with a flatter, less 3-dimensional view.

I was able to ascertain more about the aberrations in the outer field by testing the unit under the stars. Stars remained tiny pinpoints of light within the sweet spot, which extends to about 60 per cent out from the centre, after which the same stars began to slowly morph and bloat as the field edges are approached. A lot of this could be focused out, indicating that field curvature was the main contributor, but some coma and astigmatism was also clearly present right at the field stops. Examining a bright gibbous Moon as it was panned from the centre to the field edges showed much the same thing. 

Glare suppression is very good in the Celestron Granite 7 x 33 too, performing well against the light but also handling veiling glare very effectively.

In Praise of the 7 x 33/35mm Format

In chapter 30 of my new book, I discussed some very charming 7 x 35 instruments from yesteryear, including a number of classic Porro prism binoculars such as the Nikon Action Mark I with its excellently corrected 9.3 degree field, the Swift Holiday Mark II with its 11 degree field, and the Sans & Streiffe sporting a  whopping 13 degree portal on the world. But companies like Leica (formerly Leitz)also marketed iconic roof prism models such as the Trinovid 7 x 35B manufactured from the 1960s through the 1980s and recently revamped in the ornate 7×35 ‘Retrovid’ with its upgraded coatings.

The ornate Leica Retrovid 7 x 35. Image credit Holger Merlitz.

The Celestron Granite 7 x 33 was the first Chinese manufactured instrument to break the European and Japanese monopoly on these instruments and did a rather excellent job to boot. Sadly the Granite 7x 33 was rather quickly abandoned for reasons unknown to this author but I hope this article will encourage other manufacturers to take up the gauntlet to produce a new 7 x 35 at prices that won’t break the bank. The advantages of such an instrument include:

Small. lightweight and portable

A wide and stable viewing experience

Improved depth of field over higher power models

A large exit pupil for improved performance in low light.

Such instruments are likely to prove very popular with birders, and outdoor enthusiasts and even for doing some casual astronomical viewing. It would be remiss of me not to also mention the Hawke Endurance ED Marine 7 x 32 with its 8.3 degree field, although this particular model was created for marine use. Will we see a model like the 7 x 33 Celestron Granite making its reappearance in the market? Time will only tell!

My thanks to Philip Grimsey for lending me the Celestron Granite 7 x 33.

Thanks for reading

You can read a great deal more about hundreds of other contemporary and classic models in my new book, Choosing & Using Binoculars: a Guide for Stargazers, Birders and Outdoor Enthusiasts.

De Fideli.

My New Binocular Book is Out!

ISBN: 978-3031447099

523 Pages

Foreword by Holger Merlitz, author of The Binocular Handbook

Price: £20.84(UK)/$32.99(US)

Available Now

Dear Reader,

My new book on binoculars is ready for purchase from Amazon and all good booksellers. Below is a list of the chapters presented in the book.

I hope that you will support me in my work.

Sincerely,

Neil English

Product Review: Zeiss Victory Pocket 8 x 25.

The Z is eiss Victory Pocket 8 x 25 package.

A Work Commenced December 27 2023

Preamble

Product: Zeiss Victory Pocket 8 x 25

Country of Manufacture: Japan

Exit Pupil: 3.13m

Eye Relief: 16.5mm

Field of View: 130m@1000m (7.5 angular degrees)

Dioptre Compensation: +\- 3

Chassis: Magnesium alloy overlaid with black rubber

Coatings: Zeiss T* Multicoating, LotuTec coatings on objective lenses

Light Transmission: 91%

Close Focus: 1.9m advertised, 1.65m measured

Folding Mechanism: Single asymmetric hinge

ED Glass: Yes, Schott Fluorite containing objective

Waterproof: Yes (1m)

Fogproof: Yes

Accessories: Cordura clamshell case, neck strap, lens cleaning cloth, instruction sheet, warranty information

Dimensions: 11 x 11 cm

Weight: 290g advertised, 289g measured

Warranty: 10 Year (European)

Price(UK): £649.00

Although I fully acknowledge the superiority of larger compact and mid-sized binoculars, pocket instruments have always remained a charming proposition to me, especially when ultra portability is the desired endgame. That’s why my new book, Choosing and Using Binoculars, has a large chapter dedicated to such instruments.

In this review I’ll be setting down my thoughts on arguably the most sophisticated small binocular ever made: the Zeiss Victory Pocket 8 x 25, which caused quite a stir when it was first brought to market in 2017. Zeiss, of course, has a long history of creating sophisticated pocket binoculars. For example, I’ve already extensively showcased the less expensive Terra ED 8 x 25 in previous blogs, where I’ve extolled its many virtues. 

The original Victory Pocket had an 8 x 20 format, just like Leica’s Trinovid BCA and Ultravid BR models. It too had an asymmetric single-hinge design, folding down neatly so that it could fit inside a typical pocket, but Zeiss decided to completely redesign their flagship pocket glass, packing it full of features only found on their larger Victory models. Gone are the small 20mm objectives which were replaced by larger 25mm lenses, with magnifications of 8 x or 10x. I decided to test the more popular 8 x 25 model in this review with a view to answering an intriguing question raised  in the fascinating Birdforum thread highlighted in the preamble above: can the performance of this little 8 x 25 come close enough to a top-rated 30 or 32mm model to justify abandoning the larger format altogether?

First Impressions

The Victory Pocket 8 x 25 folded up.

Considering the fact that Zeiss has bestowed their Victory label on this instrument, I was expecting an attractive presentation box. I wasn’t disappointed. The rigid, white cardboard box opens up to show a picture of a bear family in the wilderness. The instrument is laid in a foam cutout adjacent to the grey Cordura clamshell case, which also contained the supplied neck strap. The only two other accessories:- an instruction sheet and Zeiss microfibre lens cloth are tucked away at the sides. Given the considerable expense of this instrument I was surprised to see no ocular or objective covers for the instrument included in the package. More on this later.

Ergonomics

As mentioned earlier, the instrument has a single, folding hinge offset to the left. Having only used more conventional, dual-hinge models, I found I had to totally re-think how I was going to handle this binocular but I’m delighted to say that after a little practice, I took to it like a proverbial duck to water. I found the most stable arrangement was to wrap my right hand round the right barrel, resting some of my fingers on the bridge and using the left index finger to rotate the focus wheel. This neatly avoids any contact with the dioptre compensation wheel mounted at the opposite end of the bridge. With a little bit of practice, I found this to be a considerably more comfortable arrangement than any dual- hinge glass I’ve experienced before.

The focus wheel is covered in textured rubber and is noticeably larger than that found on all other pocket binoculars. The motion is silky smooth and very precise, taking 1.75 revolutions clockwise to go from closet focus to a little bit beyond infinity. Having a larger focuser is a real blessing,  especially when wearing gloves.

The large, textured focus wheel makes using the binocular a joy.

The Magnesium alloy chassis is overlaid by thick black texturised rubber armouring helping to bulk out the instrument for better gripping. I did note that it attracts dust and other debris rather easily however.

The twist-up eyecups are well made and hold their position firmly.

The twist up eyecups lock firmly in place. Overlaid by black rubber, they are very comfortable to rest one’s eyes against even for prolonged viewing periods. Eye relief is generous, especially for an 8 x 25 format. However, I was just able to see the entire field of view when the cups were retracted, but I wouldn’t describe the experience as comfortable. Luckily I don’t wear eyeglasses so this wasn’t an issue for me. In retrospect, I felt the Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 BR was easier to use with spectacles on, even though it has less quoted eye relief.

The ocular lenses are 20mm in diameter, so fairly large for this format. 

The large(20mm) ocular lenses are very easy to engage with.

The objective lenses are decently recessed for a pocket binocular, providing a few millimetres of protection from stray light and the elements. I noted different antireflection coatings on the ocular and objective lenses(purple). 

The small 25mm objectives are decently recessed.

The supplied neck strap is a scaled down version of the bigger Victory SF models. And while many complained about how difficult it was to pass the loops through the tiny lugs, I didn’t find it overly fiddly to attach. Round the neck it sits very comfortably and is an ideal match for the weight of the instrument(289g). 

All in all, the ergonomic qualities of the Zeiss Victory Pocket( VP) are a good step up from the Terra ED pocket previously showcased. 

Storage

One of the other issues commonly raised in the preamble thread link was the security of the dioptre wheel. Many reported that it moved quite a lot. Others even reported that it came right off! One would hope someone from the Zeiss team was listening as these reports came out. That said, the wheel on this unit seems firm and has a decent amount of inertia against movements. When set in the zero position,  the wheel slots into a small groove. Moving it either clockwise or anticlockwise reveals no other grooves. For the first few days of my tests, I placed the folded up binocular in the supplied case, wrapping the neck strap around the barrels. But I quickly noticed significant departures of the dioptre wheel from my ideal setting just taking it out of its case. Clearly the wheel was either catching on the top of the case or the neck strap, or both. 

To store the Zeiss VP 8 x 25, first double fold the neck strap under the bridge as shown.

I soon hit on a solution however, by storing the binocular with the barrels fully extended and the neck strap doubly folded under the bridge. Stored this way I have not encountered any movements. Problem solved. 

Next place the fully extended binocular flat on the floor of the case.

I do like the case however, a miniature version of those supplied with the bigger Victory SF models. I think it’s a very good match for the instrument. 

Optics

My first tests involved seeing how well the Zeiss VP 8 x 25 handled a bright beam of light from across a room. I’m delighted to say that it passed this test easily. I saw no significant internal reflections, no diffraction spikes and no diffused light around the target. This was a significantly better result than the lower-cost Terra ED 8 x 25 units I tested, which did show a prominent diffraction spike when pointed towards strong light sources after dark.

The appearance of the exit pupils in the Zeiss VP was not quite as excellent as those I recorded with the Terra pocket however, as you can see below.

The Zeiss VP 8 x 25 left exit pupil.


The Chinese-made Zeiss Terra ED 8 x 25 in comparison.

While the Terra produced an excellent result with a dark, cavernous blackness around the bright pupil, the Zeiss VP showed more light leaks, with a slight false pupil near the main entrance pupil. More on this a little later.

The image served up by the Zeiss VP is truly excellent: tack sharp from edge to edge, bright and contrast rich. Colour correction is excellent. I see none within its very large sweet-spot and only a few splashes of colour fringing near the field stops.  

I also noted that unlike the vast majority of other instruments I’ve tested, this well corrected field is seen both vertically and horizontally.  

Pincushion distortion is very well controlled in this instrument too, only appearing very mildly at the extreme edges of the field. The Zeiss VP 8 x 25 performs well against the light with very good control of glare: something pocket instruments are not renowned for. All in all, I can easily see why this little Zeiss binocular is a true member of their prestigious Victory series. 

Notes from the Field
I found that the flexi plastic rain guard offered by Opticron to be a decent fit for the Zeiss VP. Objective covers are unnecessary in my opinion, as these lenses hang downwards while the instrument is being transported around your neck. In addition, the objectives are treated with Zeiss’ proprietary LotuTec coatings to repel water and dirt during field use.

The Opticron flexi rain guard can be used to protect the ocular lenses of the Zeiss VP.


Reading through the many threads on the Zeiss VP 8 x 25, including the preamble linked to above, I noted the number of people who claimed that this instrument had replaced their 8 x 32 Alpha glasses, citing the VP’s large field of view(~7.5 degrees), its generous eye relief, superb optics and much better handling than any other pocket sized instrument. One seasoned naturalist even claimed that the Zeiss VP 8 x 25 was a “revolutionary” instrument or even “one of the great binoculars of our times.”

At home in nature.

I can certainly understand these sentiments having tested it under a variety of different environmental conditions. It most definitely behaves much more like a 32mm glass than I had expected. 

Close focus was a little underwhelming however, as I fully expected a value near 1.5m based on so many other reports. My measurements revealed a 1.65m close focus value: very good in the scheme of modern roof prism binoculars, but not exceptional.

Focusing is buttery smooth and easy even in sub-zero temperatures.  On a family visit to Braemar in the Scottish Highlands over the Christmas holidays, I subjected the VP to temperatures as low as -6C and it performed flawlessly, with no stiffening up of the focus wheel. Indeed Zeiss claim that the instrument operates flawlessly in temperatures ranging from  -25C to +63C!

I did detect a slightly increased amount of glare glassing strongly backlit targets near or just after sunset. I attribute this to the minor false pupil engaging with my dilated pupils under these lower light conditions. 

During a very windy spell of weather in early December, I often found myself out in open fields glassing with the Zeiss VP. I found it was sometimes very difficult to hold such a lightweight instrument steady as 50mph winds swept across my line of sight. It was at moments like these that I started pining for my more bulky 8 x 30, which handles these blustery conditions much more convincingly.

Can the Zeiss VP 8 x 25 Replace an Alpha Compact 8 x 32?

Comparing the venerable Nikon EII 8 x 30 (left)to the Zeiss VP 8 x 25(right).

Millimetre for millimetre, the Zeiss VP 8 x 25 is a little sharper than the Nikon EII 8 x 30, but at this level of quality there is never very much between them. Having said that, the Nikon is the easier glass to use, because it’s all about lots of little things adding up:

Better handling

Greater mass to dampen vibrations better

A larger exit pupil for easier eye positioning

A far more relaxed view

Better performance in low light conditions

A much wider and more immersive field of view

A much more enhanced stereoscopic image

Greater aperture allowing for more astronomical targets to be enjoyed

So while the Zeiss VP 8 x 25 brings you very close to a top performing 8 x 32 roof, it just can’t compete with the sheer, unabashed insouciance of a top performing compact Porro like the venerable Nikon E II. 

Recommendations

Superb optical performance in a great ultraportable package.

The Zeiss VP 8 x 25 delivers superb optical performance in a highly ergonomic, low weight package, making it ideal for lots of activities including travel, watching sports events, studying flowers and insects at close range, birding, trips to the theatre and/or museum, hiking etc.

For many it can and has replaced larger formats but in my opinion it will never match those unique views served up by a top quality 8 x 30 Porro system such as the Nikon E II, Swarovski Habicht, or Nikon SE 8 x 32. However and, acknowledging those marker stones, if uncompromising daylight optical performance and ultra-portability are your main requirements, the Zeiss VP is an easy choice to make. It is, in my estimation, the best pocket binocular ever made!

Kudos Zeiss Sports Optics!

Read more about this binocular and many other models in my new book, Choosing & Using Binoculars: A Guide for Stargazers, Birders and Outdoor Enthusiasts, now available for purchase on Amazon and all good book stores


De Fideli.

Binocular Memoirs.

Inspiring glass: The Nikon E II 10 x 35(left) and the 8 x 30(right).

Five years ago, I began to explore the wonderful world of binoculars. After doing solely telescopic work for 38 years, I felt I needed to find a way to combine my love of the great outdoors with my deep and abiding interest in phenomenalistic optics. And what better way to amalgamate these two interests than to use a fine glass to explore the natural world in all its glorious complexity.  I’ve had the pleasure of owning and using many fine instruments in this binocular golden age we live in. But in the end, two instruments have captured my imagination more than all the rest combined; my Nikon E IIs; a little 8 x 30 and its larger and more powerful sibling, the 10 x 35. But why these two?j

Well, for one thing, I prefer Porro prism binoculars to their roof prism counterparts. They have an elegant, classical simplicity that greatly appeals to me, delivering extraordinarily sharp, bright and high contrast images, with vivid three dimensionality in most lighting conditions.  They are precision optical instruments made to the highest optical and mechanical standards, with very light weight die cast magnesium alloy chassis, yet are very strong and durable. These are undoubtedly world class binoculars. The 8 x 30 weighs scarcely more than half a kilogram(575g), whereas the larger framed 10 x 35 tips the scales at just 50g more(625g).  If properly taken care of, they should easily outlive this author.

The EIIs have magnificent wide-angle eyepieces delivering impressively large true fields; 8.9 degrees for the little 8 x 30 and 7.2 degrees for the 10 x 35 instrument. Both instruments are a joy to use; with a silky smooth focus wheel, and an excellent, stable dioptre adjustment. Both handle superbly in field use, providing instantly gratifying vistas the moment you bring them to your eyes. Despite having smaller exit pupils than the commoner garden 42mm instruments, I’ve never experienced blackouts or the dreaded rolling back effect with these instruments; just simple, reliable performance time and time again. Indeed, these are unquestionably the easiest binoculars I have used to date.

Though neither instrument is waterproof, unlike most contemporary binoculars, it’s never been a dampener to my modus operandi. I’ve used these instruments in all weathers; brilliant sunshine, grey and dull overcast, chilly dark nights under the stars and even in light rain without ever experiencing significant issues. Through experimentation, I’ve found an easy and convenient way to keep them dry and fog proof, simply by storing them in Tupperware dry boxes laced with sachets of desiccant. This storage procedure has allowed me to use these instruments in much the same way as a regular nitrogen-charged waterproof binocular. They can be deployed in cold, humid conditions and I can bring them into the warm indoors without any fear of them fogging up inside.

Both instruments hang high on my chest to minimise any oscillatory motions encountered while travelling over all kinds of terrain, as well as reducing the chances of their optics being bumped out of alignment.

Ireland July 2023: Glassing the Great Shannon River

River Shannon: Limerick July 2023.

I brought the 8 x 30 on a short trip to my home city of Limerick, Ireland in July. It’s so small, inconspicuous and lightweight that it fits into an ordinary pocket, though I decided to carry it about in my rucksack. The great River Shannon, the longest river in the British Isles, flows through the city and the binocular provided excellent views of this magnificent water course. The day was warm and sunny, affording excellent visibility as I soaked up the views: the swirling waters, myriad babbling bubbles, the subtle undulations of the vital liquid over rocks and stones on its sojourn to the open sea. A variety of Seagull species of all ages were present, as were numerous Mute Swans and even the odd Cormorant. The photo above shows King John’s Castle across the river in the oldest part of the city – King’s Island – which dates back to the 13th century and named after King John, Lord of Ireland, and brother to Richard the Lionheart. Archaeologists have unearthed much earlier settlements though that date back to the 9th century AD when it was founded by the Vikings. I enjoyed glassing the old stone walls, made alive with the comings and goings of Swifts and Swallows screeching in the warm summer air.

While staying at my sister’s house in Dooradoyle, I had the immense good fortune to glass a group of boisterous Starlings at very close proximity. In the morning, they would land just a few metres away on the grass lawn, hoping to pick up seeds my sister had dispersed earlier on. I find Starlings to be endlessly fascinating birds. In the evenings, they were fond of hanging out on a mature bamboo tree at the far end of her garden. Indeed, I was amazed how comfortable they were in my presence, displaying their magnificent summer plumage – an arresting purplish green iridescence – the details of which were richly on display through the 8 x 30. This is how I remember these birds from the days of my youth, when they were very plentiful indeed. At home in Scotland, far away from the cities, Starlings are far more timid but still highly entertaining. Such cheeky birds, I’ve glassed up to a dozen members flying low at breakneck speed across the valley and all landing on the back of a single grazing sheep! I’ve yet to see a ‘murmuration’ in real life, but have high hopes of one day observing this wonder of the natural world. Maybe my luck will change later in the autumn.

Chough Watching in Pembrokeshire, Wales, late July 2023

Glassing the cliffs with the 10 x 35 on Marloes Sands Beach, Pembrokeshire, Wales , late July 2023.

Towards the end of July, I brought both the 8 x 30 and 10 x 35 on vacation to Pembrokeshire, Wales. Last year, during a boat trip to Ramsey Island, I was introduced to the rarest of the corvid species to grace the British Isles – the Chough. On that trip I took my Opticron SRGA 8 x 32 to make by first observations of this interesting bird, but as I reviewed my journal notes for that trip, I had wished I had a little more magnification to see these shy cliff birds better. I’m delighted to say that the 10 x 35 proved to be the perfect choice; lightweight, optically excellent and delivering that extra magnification to enable me to glass these creatures a little better. During a trip to Marloes Sands Beach, which overlooks great red sandstone cliffs dating back to the Silurian Period (c. 430 Myr), I spent a few minutes scanning the tops of the cliff and was soon rewarded by the appearance of several groups of crows gliding on the summer thermals. Despite their respectable distance from me, I was easily able to pick off a couple of Choughs, red billed and red legged against the cobalt blue sky, among the murder of crows frequenting this 1.5-kilometre stretch of cliff face. With a concentrated gaze, I was also able to distinguish them from other crows by their deeply fingered wing tips. Consulting my copy of the superbly illustrated British Birds, I note the Choughs are also doing well in Ireland, inhabiting the north, south and west coasts of the island in decent numbers.

I’ve been especially delighted with the 10 x 35 since I first acquired it back in the early summer. I’d describe the images it serves up as vibrant, ‘delicious’ even, Indeed, I rate it slightly ahead optically of its little brother, the 8 x 30. Even though they employ the same wide-angle eyepieces, I think they work that little bit better with the longer focal length of the 35mm objectives. There are slight differences between the coatings on these instruments too, which might also explain some of the differences.  Whatever it is, the 10 x 35 is an amazing instrument to hold in one’ hands and look through. Like I described in my review of this instrument, it’s like having the field of view of a typical 8x glass with 25 per cent greater magnification. I have very fond memories of walking this beautiful beach, glassing the waves and the surf crashing onto the golden sands before me. The 10 x 35 handles glare extremely well. I’ve been extremely impressed by how well it performs while glassing strongly backlit scenes. It’s also a surprisingly good performer in dull light conditions, at dawn or at or after sunset, when many binoculars show their weaknesses including glare, which manifests as the eye pupil opens up and engages with any light leaks in the vicinity of the exit pupil. No such problems encountered in the 10 x 35. It goes on delivering long after the sun falls out of the sky.    

Seeing Up Close

Spot the Grasshopper?

One of the other surprising features of the EII Porros, apart from their slightly larger than advertised fields of view, is their close focusing distance. While the official specs state that the 8 x 30 and 10x 35 focus of 3m and 5m, respectively, my measurements have yielded much closer values; 1.96m for the 8x 30 and 2.96m for the larger 10 x 35. In retrospect, this is hardly surprising as Nikon tend to be quite conservative in their estimates of these parameters. And while it has been widely reported that focusing this close up is uncomfortable with these small, compact Porros, I’ve not had any issues with either glass. The trick is to reduce the interpapillary distance down to their minimum values by pushing the barrels together, in much the same way as you cross your eyes when an object is placed just in front of your face. The sub-2m close focus of the 8 x 30 puts it on par with the majority of roof prism binoculars, allowing it to serve as a long-range microscope. Indeed, just before I took the above image of the grasshopper leaving Marloes Sands Beach, I had glassed it first using the 8 x 30 using this very technique. This good close focus has also allowed me to obtain some excellent images of the less timorous bird species, such as Robins and Chaffinches which often allow you to get as near as 2.5m.

Speaking of roof prism models, I’ve often been asked in email enquiries how well it stacks up to higher-end roof prism binoculars. My response has been to say that Porros and roof prism binoculars produce qualitatively different viewing experiences, but a few weeks ago I hooked up with a resident of our village who has enjoyed a classic Leica Trinovid BN 8x 32 to glass the waters of the Carron Dam just a few miles south of my home. On this occasion I happened to have my 8 x 30 with me and he was kind enough to allow me to do some quick A/B comparisons between the two instruments on an unseasonably warm early September day with mostly overcast skies. My impressions were that they were very close. Indeed, I can’t remember an instrument that came as close to the E II in terms of colour tone, sharpness and contrast than this old Leica glass. The only significant differences we could note were the EII’s larger field of view and greater stereoscopic impressions on objects set in the middle distance. That said, I could see why he loved the Leica BN 8 x 32 so much: it’s built like a tank and has wonderful ergonomics. Indeed, I think these older Leicas look even more stylish than their current crop of instruments.

Of course, a picture paints a thousand words. Here is some recent footage made through the E II 8x 30 captured by YouTuber BlackForestRecon, from a beautiful alpine vantage. The reader will note that the E II he imaged with is an early 2000s model and so will not have as good antireflection coatings than more recent models. I  hope you’ll agree that the images look superb!

Exploring the Endrick Valley

The Endrick Valley in high summer with the Campsie Fells in the background.

As well as walking, I also enjoy taking rides on my mountain bike outside the village to explore the Endrick Valley, especially when the light is good and strong. The Nikon binoculars are easy to carry in a padded case with a good neck strap, and as soon as I arrive at a suitable vantage point, I dismount the bike, fetch my binocular and drink up the views. The wide-angle eyepieces in the Nikon EIIs are ideally suited for studying landscapes like this beautiful place on the backroad to the nearby village of Balfron, with fields that seem to go on forever and verdant hills on either side towering majestically above the valley floor. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a glimpse of a Red Kite or Sparrow Hawk surveying the fields below for prey. Places like this are ideal for watching migrating geese moving in graceful formation for miles across the valley, but also to watch large groups of Starlings return from their feeding grounds down in the fields to their roosting spots in nearby woods and high up on cliff edges.

Scotland is blessed by regular rainfall that keeps the fields and hills vibrant and colourful. Often a few days of rain are followed by settled weather with blue skies and excellent visibility affording ideal conditions to enjoy binocular views to the full. The evening I took the above picture was just a day after the summer solstice after 8pm in the evening. Indeed, during high summer, the skies this far north never get truly dark, and twilight rules the wee small hours. If the sky remains clear, I’ll bring my binocular along for a walk up the castle drive after local midnight to study the ghostly wisps of noctilucent clouds located high in the stratosphere, where its constituent ice crystals are illuminated from the Sun just below the horizon.

Noctilucent clouds over Srtonend, Stirlingshire, 1.30 am, June 16 2023.

Many folk mistake these clouds for auroral displays since they too are seen hugging the northern horizon. But unlike the aurora borealis, noctilucent clouds can be studied using binoculars, with the 10x glass being my instrument of choice to garner that little bit extra detail.  Sometimes the views can be downright enchanting. Delicate gossamer streams of light, like some kind of giant, luminous spider web, fill the field of view with a backdrop of the deep, purple twilight..Noctilucent clouds are best observed between the end of May and the end of July, after which they vanish with the arrival of dark skies once again. They are part of the magic of living at such high northerly latitudes.

Among the Thistles

A field ripe with thistles, Early September 2023.

The first week in September brought lovely warm weather to our shores, creating a brief Indian Summer of sorts. I took advantage of the amenable warm spell with its wonderful light to venture along to the old village football field on the afternoon of Sunday September 3, which can be accessed via a short walk through the woods. This time of year, the prickly purple thistle flowers had transformed into a sea of white seeds, with a texture more like cotton than anything else. As I made my way along the path in the middle of the field, I soon honed in on the tinkling trills of Goldfinches. A gentle breeze was blowing, carrying off some of the seeds into the air, but as I began to glass the field with my little 8 x 30, I soon uncovered a group of Siskins and Goldfinches, tiny birds perched on the tops of the thistles dancing on the breeze in gentle autumn sunlight.

I stood in sheer amazement as I observed how beautifully dextrous these 17g wonders of God’s creation were, so effortlessly maintaining their balance on the thistle heads, gorging on the seeds all the while.  Being rather timorous, I could not get too close to the action though, and I soon pined for my 10 x 35 glass which would have brought me that little bit closer to the action.  However, the next day was almost a carbon copy of Sunday, so I took the opportunity to return to the field with my 10x glass. I was not disappointed. Soon I was glassing an even larger group of Goldfinches, the majority of which were juveniles, based on their paler facial colours, helping themselves to the nutritious thistle embryos. The views through the 10 x 35 were quite simply breath taking! Keeping as still as I could, I was able to glass some individuals as close as 8m away, the glass producing exquisitely fine details of their plumage. And sure enough, there were some Siskins in among them too. I watched them for about 15 minutes before they moved on in unison to the next thistle bed further along the field. When I returned home, I consulted by newly acquired guidebook of British Birds only to discover on page 496 that Goldfinches and Siskins do indeed hang out together. I remembered the many entries in my journal where I’d recorded these birds together earlier in the Spring, when I’d often catch them feasting on Dandelion seeds at the sides of the roads. Just charming!

Birds of a feather really do flock together!

The Night I Watched the Moon Speed Through the Heavens

Moon Watching September 29 2023.

The night of September 29 2023 was particularly memorable. A bright Harvest Moon was in the sky, but strong westerly winds brought frequent rain showers in from the Atlantic, with some brief dry spells. I have come to love such nights; drawn outside by the energy of the air and the prospect of seeing one of nature’s most beautiful light shows. Grabbing my 10 x 35, the ideal tool for watching our natural satellite owing to its powerful magnification and relatively enormous field of view, I watched as the rain clouds raced past its silvery face, creating wonderful displays of light and colour.  As the clouds approached the Moon, atmospheric refraction coloured them in beautiful pastels of yellow, pink and red. But the winds were so strong that night that it created the distinct impression that the Moon was racing through space at breakneck speed! I had watched the full Moon many times before on such atmospheric evenings, but on this vigil a wonderful shift in perspective switched reality for illusion; but oh what a thrilling illusion it turned out to be!

Not Just for Dry Days

Don’t let let rain dampen your enthusiasm.

The Nikon EIIs are often described as ‘fair weather binoculars’ owing to their lack of waterproofing. But that has not deterred me from using them in adverse conditions. In general, I don’t like glassing in the rain, as the visibility becomes very poor, especially at distance, but the Scottish weather is so changeable that inevitably you’ll find yourself exposed to the odd downpour. Last winter, I discovered a way to dry the interior of these instruments simply by storing them in a dry, airtight Tupperware box filled with about 200g of desiccant which renders them functionally fog proof. But I have used them in light rain many times too, and simply don’t worry about them. They’re effectively splash proof as they are. When I return home, I simply dry them off with a cotton towel before returning them to their dry box. On days where I’m out for several hours at a time in unsettled weather, I carry a lightweight case to protect the instruments from the worse of the rain.

Case Closed.

Thus far, I’ve not encountered any problems with moisture. Indeed, I downright refuse to let their lack of sealing deter me from using them. Many resourceful outdoor enthusiasts used instruments like these for many decades before waterproofing became fashionable. I’m happy to carry on that tradition!

Jay Watching

The Eurasian Jay.

As a beginning birder, it’s always a thrill to encounter new birds on one or more of my local
patches. Living just outside Culcreuch Castle Estate, Stirlingshire, I’m fortunate enough to have extensive woodland on my doorstep, where I’ve logged many an interesting bird, but it’s only recently that I’ve discovered a rather elusive resident to these woods; the colourful and clever Eurasian Jay(Garrulus glandarius). The woodlands on the estate are a mixture of conifer and deciduous species, especially oak trees, some of which are many centuries old. On my walks, either alone or with my wife, my first encounter with Jays came in the form of loud, rasping screeches emanating from patches of woodland just off the road. At first, I thought these sounds were rather like Magpies, but having studied the latter in greater detail, I realised that I was dealing with an entirely different creature. For several months, I recorded their sounds to get an idea of their distribution, and gradually learned that they inhabit a large swathe of wooded terrain extending over a few miles around the estate. Throughout the spring and summer of 2021, I never once caught sight of one, and had to contend myself with hearing their distinctive calls.
A British Bird of Paradise

But my luck changed during the afternoon of November 29 2021. On this grey, overcast day, I was testing a new 10 x 42 binocular while strolling through the old football field about half a mile from my home. The field is straddled by wooded terrain on either side, but at this time of year the lack of foliage allows me to penetrate these areas better with binoculars. I was suddenly alerted to some loud calls issuing from trees about 30 yards in the distance. And when I turned to fix my eyes on the spot, I was met with sudden flashes of colour – electric blue, white and salmon pink moving among the trees. Bringing the glass to my face, I was amazed to see a stunningly beautiful bird; an adult Eurasian Jay in all its glory. Slightly smaller than a Wood Pigeon, it had a raised crest on its head, a coal black ‘moustache’ and pink belly. Its wings were arrayed with black, white and blue feathers with a long, handsome black tail. A few moments later, it took to the air, flying the full breadth of the field, when I estimated its wingspan to be about half a metre, landing in some trees surrounded by thick bushes, before disappearing out of sight. I remember thinking how fortunate I was to have a 10x glass with me at the time, as it afforded that little bit more image scale to allow me to see it in greater detail.


Over the weeks leading up to Christmas 2021, I read up about these fascinating birds. The first surprise came when I learned that, unlike so many other birds where the males are more highly coloured than their female counterparts, both sexes of the Jay – and juveniles too for that matter – present with similar colouration. And though their average lifespan is about four years, some Jays have been known to live to the ripe old age of 17! The Anglo-Argentine ornithologist, W.H. Hudson, writing in Victorian times, once referred to Jays as being,” not altogether unworthy of being called the British Bird of Paradise.” As my curiosity about these birds grew, I began to think that Hudson’s astute description of this bird was not too far off the mark.

In the opening weeks of January 2022, I was lucky enough to enjoy a few more sightings of
these curious birds. More often than not, I’d hear them far more often than I’d see them, but on the afternoon of January 15, I was glassing through some brushwood under trees and caught sight of one, hopping about silently in search of food; quite possibly buried acorns. Unlike the ubiquitous Blackbird or Robin, which move through the leaflitter randomly dislodging leaves or twigs in search of worms or other insects, this Jay cleared a large, roughly circular area of litter before using its beak to dig into the topsoil. This was not the behaviour of a happy-go-lucky forager; I got the distinct impression this bird knew there was something worth digging for at that spot.

Just a couple of days later, at the entrance to the football field, I got my best sighting yet of this fascinating bird. It was a bright, sunny afternoon with excellent visibility. Instantly alerted to its distinctive calls, I looked up into a tall conifer tree and spotted one flitting from branch to branch. It became very vocal, so much so that it was irritating a whole raft of other birds that were also resting in the tree. An unhinged Nuthatch clearly had enough of the kafuffle, flying off, as if in protest. As I brought my binocular to my eyes, I could see the Jay was staring right back at me with its gorgeous yellow eyes and upraised head crest. A few moments later, it too flew off, across the field.

Mimicking a Buzzard?

On the chilly and partially overcast morning of January 20, another visit to the old football field yielded a sighting of not one but two foraging Jays! Once again, they were completely silent, even as a vocalising Buzzard hovered high overhead, hopping about on the ground picking and digging. From the beginning of my birdwatching forays, I frequented this spot because I would almost always see Buzzards here. But on the afternoon of January 22, as I walked by the River Endrick, which runs adjacent to the field, I sighted a single Jay, some 40 yards distant, perched on a tree stump surrounded by Rhododendron bushes. It was preening itself and sharpening its beak, but there was something else; I could hear the sound of a Buzzard coming from the same general direction as the Jay. I scanned the skies round about, hoping to pick up its movements, but to no avail. Puzzled, I centred my gaze back on the Jay, and once again, I heard the sound of a Buzzard. Then it dawned on me, I had learned that these clever corvids mimic the sounds of other birds. Could I have witnessed such an event? Like many true birds of paradise, was this colourful Jay also displaying its powers of mimicry? Alas I couldn’t be sure, but it certainly was
intriguing!


An Enduring Fascination
My journals record only a few sightings during the summer months of 2022 and 2023, but in the autumn the Jays of Culcreuch Castle Estate have become very vocal and active again, as they flit from tree to tree in search of acorns. Some days I return from my walks without sighting or hearing a single bird, but on other days, I’ve been thrilled to hear their distinctive communication calls and sight several members of the group in the space of a few minutes. My personal ‘discovery’ of groups of Jays eking out a living at some of my local patches has been nothing short of thrilling! I look forward to watching and studying these fascinating “British Birds of Paradise” in the months and years to come.

Preparing for Winter

Objective covers for the 8 x 30. Neat huh?

Having used both the 8 x 30 an 10 x 35 extensively in the field, I’ve come to prefer the ergonomics of the larger 10 x 35 glass. It’s just that little bit easier to hold with its longer barrels that engage with the fingers on my hands that little bit better.

A while back I purchased some objective covers for the 8 x 30; simple rubberised units with the same leatherette texturing as seen on the chassis – what a stroke of luck! They fit remarkably well, as seen in the images presented here. Indeed, placing both instruments side by side, they look remarkably similar don’t you think?

Snug fit and deeply recessed objectives.

The objective covers also act as effective shades against rain, wind, extraneous light and very cold air, which might cause the objective lenses to fog up after exposing them for several hours. I fitted them onto the 8 x 30 this afternoon and tested their effectiveness at reducing glare- peripheral and veiling – when tested under less-than-optimal lighting conditions when most binoculars show weaknesses in this capacity.

The 10 x 35 and 8 x 30 side by side. But which one’s which?

I can report that these kinds of glare are further reduced using these neat little objective covers. What’s more, they are very lightweight so don’t significantly increase carrying load. I think they will increase my enjoyment of this little instrument throughout the winter months when dull overcast conditions will create more challenges.

Return of the Migrating Thrushes

A Redwing in a Rowan tree: October 31 2021.

During the afternoon of October 19, I was carrying the Oberwerk SE when I got my first view of migrating Redwings at one of my local patches, inside the grounds of Culcreuch Castle Estate. During my walk, I sighted a group of birds flitting from tree to tree in an open field. At first, I thought they were Starlings, but once I got a little closer I managed to glass a few individuals perched high in the treetops, the prominent cream stripe above their eyes and brick-red underparts betraying their presence. On the bright and sunny afternoon of October 21, I took along my 10 x 35 Nikon to the same spot to see if I could garner a closer look at these beautiful members of the Thush family. Once again, I scanned with my eyes looking for movements in the trees, as Redwings are quite timorous and tend to move to the tree tops if they sense danger. No sign of them on this afternoon, but I had the presence of mind to scan the field at ground level and it wasn’t long before I made my first(conscious) sighting of another relative of the Thush family – Fieldfares – in their dozens, foraging on the ground in search of food. Both Redwings and Fieldfares travel to the British Isles in autumn from northwestern Europe.  I was so glad I brought the 10x glass on this afternoon. It really does help you see these magnificent birds at greater distance without disturbing them too much.

Enjoying Autumn Colours

Like, seriously, who could paint like that?

Fall brings cold nights, early sunsets and damp or even frosty mornings,  but we can all recognise the tell-tale signs of that seasonal transition in the riot of colour from the dying leaves. 

There is something utterly magical and beautiful about these closing months of the year; the smells, the sounds, the long, invigorating walks through country paths laden with fallen leaves. The fields are still green, the bracken paints the hillsides a deep brown and the trees are arrayed in yellows, reds, oranges and golds, providing a breath-taking backdrop to clear autumn skies of cobalt blue.

Our God is a great artist!

These scenes create an irresistible urge for photographers and nature enthusiasts alike to seek inspiration from the great outdoors. This is a perfect time to enjoy the views through my 8 x 30 and 10 x 35 which deliver radiant colours to my retina especially during the late morning and early afternoon when the light is still good and strong. It’s only later in the afternoon where these small glasses show their limitations and it’s a good time to switch to an instrument that lets through more light: times when I switch to my 8 x 42 with its larger objectives and more expansive exit pupil. 

While Redwings and Fieldfares make great glassing targets this time of year, so too are the cute little Robins looking plump and handsome: a far cry from their dishevelled appearance earlier in the season. They’re everywhere: in the hedgerows, trees, and foraging in the leaf litter on the country roads. I never tire of glassing these beautiful small birds, especially when they suddenly appear within a few metres of you; all plucky and pretty with it. Their energy levels are prodigious too- no doubt attributed to their ferocious hearts beating some 1000 times per minute! 

Their eyes are big and dark: proportionally larger than humans in fact, which greatly endears them to so many people. And if you think Robins are most commonly seen this time of year, the truth is they are probably more commonly heard than seen. That’s because they continue to sing throughout the late autumn and winter when many small birds fall silent. Indeed, within minutes of me leaving the house I can hear their boisterous trilling all over the place. 

Murmurations

Murmurating Starlings.

I spoke earlier about glassing Starlings, both in Ireland and in Scotland. While I’ve seen large groups of these fascinating birds resting in trees or foraging in the fields round my home. My journals had catalogued many observations of small,  fast-moving groups of Starlings moving south across the valley in the evenings. But just before sunset on November 19,  while on a walk with my wife around Culcreuch Castle Estate, we followed a group of low-flying birds with our binoculars. But instead of just disappearing over the horizon,they joined a much larger group which began to move in unison with graceful swoops and swirls, contracting and expanding against a clear twilit sky. We continued to watch for several more seconds before this great communion of Starlings finally dipped below the horizon out of sight. This was the first murmuration we had personally encountered. And the very next evening, I encountered yet another one! 

No one knows why Starlings engage in these spectacular aerial displays. Some biologists have suggested ‘safety in numbers’  as an effective deterrent to birds of prey but there are many other species that roost in similar numbers and they don’t behave the same way. Doubtless it must also have something to so with their high intelligence. They’re excellent mimics. Indeed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was so taken by the copycat antics of one Starling that he is rumoured to have composed his ‘Musical Joke’ in honour of it! 

Recent research suggests that each individual bird can only communicate with seven other birds in their vicinity. And each of these heptads in turn communicate with neighbouring heptads in such a way that the flock can quickly move with astonishing synchronicity, like one giant organism. I like to think that Starlings engage in murmurations simply because they can. And they delight in it!

Regardless of whys and wherefores, it’s arguably one of Britain’s most awesome natural spectacles. Look out for them near sunset wherever you are! 

The Glories of the Winter Sky

9pm January 11 2024: looking south.

The days of mid-winter are woefully short this far north. The best of the light is to be had for just a few hours between 11am and 2pm and darkness falls by 4. With these very long nights, it should come as no surprise that I spend more time watching the heavens with my binoculars and telescopes than observing by day. Double stars and Jupiter occupy most of my telescope time but I also enjoy drinking up the views of the great showpieces of the winter sky. By midnight in mid December, Orion the celestial hunter is perfectly situated on the meridian with the splendours of Taurus higher up to its west, while off to the east, Gemini and  Cancer are becoming more prominent. Higher up in the sky, the sprawling constellations of Auriga, Perseus and Cassiopeia follow that majestic river of starlight characterising the Northern Milky Way.

10x is my preferred magnification for casual binocular stargazing. For serious observing, I’ll choose a traditional 10 x 50, but for tomfoolery stargazing with a handheld optic, my favourite instrument to grab is the Nikon EII 10 x 35 with its expansive 7.2 degree field. The small exit pupil of 3.5mm presented by this instrument reveal the stars as tiny pinpoints of light against a jet black background sky. Even in the twilit nights of our northern summer, the 10 x 35 darkens the background sky enough to make stargazing eminently viable. The same is true on bright Moonlit nights when the 10 x 35 struts its stuff. Indeed, since acquiring this instrument back in the late spring of 2023, it has utterly transformed and enriched my binocular stargazing adventures.

To be Continued……

De Fideli.

Book Review: The Binocular Handbook: Function, Performance and Evaluation of Binoculars by Holger Merlitz.

A technical treatise on binocular optics.

Title: The Binocular Handbook: Function, Performance and Evaluation of Binoculars.

Foreword by Neil English, author of Choosing & Using Binoculars

Publisher: Springer Nature

Author: Holger Merlitz

ISBN: 978-3031444074

218 Pages

Price UK: £39.99(Hardback)

It was with a great sense of anticipation that I finally got my hard-back copy of Holger Merlitz’s new book, freshly and expertly translated into the English language. Anyone who has expressed even a cursory interest in binoculars will be familiar with Holger’s accumulated writings on his website(http://holgermerlitz.de), where he has built up a formidable portfolio of work covering all aspects of binocular optics, reviews and theoretical speculations. His new book, The Binocular Handbook: Function: Performance and Evaluation of Binoculars, represents the culmination of many years of work.

Holger presents a full treatise on binocular optics in this book, covering everything from the design and execution of theoretical optics and their applications to building binoculars, a detailed overview of how the eye-brain interfaces with the binocular before launching into some fascinating chapters covering the testing and evaluation of binoculars during field use. In total, 9 chapters arranged in 3 distinct parts, walk the reader through pretty much everything you need to know about the fascinating world of binocular optics.

Instead of exhaustively covering the material, I would like to highlight just a few interesting topics covered in the book. I was most impressed with Holger’s use of an aeroplane’s ride from the North Pole round the world as a way of explaining why phase coatings are needed in roof prism binoculars. I also enjoyed his inclusion of discussions on unusual, cemented prism formats, such as the Uppendahl and the Perger (page 51-54) arrangements, the latter of which doesn’t require a phase correction coating and is used in the design of the third-generation Leica Geovid. Holger believes there are no binoculars containing Uppendahl prisms, but I have heard it on good authority that the little Leica Ultravid 8x and 10 x 25 may still be using such prisms. 

I found section 4.8 to be particularly amusing when Merlitz discusses sealing and gas purging. The use of the noble gas, argon, in particular, has been touted as being superior to molecular nitrogen owing to its greater molar mass. But as Holger astutely points out on page 97, the very low ambient concentration of argon in air(less than 1 per cent) would create a powerful concentration gradient causing the argon to diffuse out faster than if it were filled with nitrogen under the same circumstances. But it’s worse than that: a binocular filled with argon will cause nitrogen to diffuse inward and increase the pressure enough to eventually damage the seals! It neatly explains why all the big European binocular manufacturers have stuck with nitrogen purging.

Chapter 5 is written by Gerhard Eller, a fellow binocular enthusiast and engineering veteran, who describes the construction of a fascinating 12 x 62mm binocular using twin Leica Apo objectives and Porro II prisms serving up an impressive field of view of 113m@1000m.

The book has full colour illustrations.

The discussion on depth perception in chapter 7 and 8 proved to be fascinating entries, especially since I’ve cultivated a particularly strong fondness for compact Porro prism binoculars over their roof prism counterparts. Merlitz discusses the Japanese made RISO-1 7 x 40 instrument which were employed by the US navy during the Korean War. Indeed, he further informs us that specialised stereoscopic binoculars used in precision range finding measurements had enormous separations in their objective lenses of the order of several metres! That said, while the enhanced stereoscopic effects of Porro prism binoculars are greatly appreciated by yours truly, Holger also discusses some disadvantages of this design, such as inferior close focus performance and an optical illusion called the ‘cardboard effect,’ which was previously unknown to me.

The human eye takes centre stage in the final few chapters. With its 3-megapixel colour camera(cones) and 120 megapixel light detectors(rods), it can respond to changing ambient light levels and even alter the spectral response of the human eye. I’ve always wondered why, for example, many older glasses I’ve viewed through have a yellow tint. In discussing the differences between regular BaK4 and BK7 glass versus their HT equivalents, for example, companies like Zeiss have been able to increase the transmittance at blue wavelengths which helps in low light observations when the human eye becomes more responsive to shorter wavelengths (so called scotopic vision).

Sections 8.2 through 8.4 discuss the interesting topic of binocular efficiency and dim target detection as well as the factors – magnification, aperture, exit pupil and eye pupil size – that determine the outcomes in broad daylight, twilight and under darkness. Magnification alone determines efficiency in daylight, but the situation becomes far more complicated during twilight and full darkness, enabling binocular enthusiasts to experimentally determine the relative importance of these factors in target resolution and detection. Indeed, I’m currently busy comparing and contrasting my two main binoculars – the 8 x 30 and 10 x 35 Nikon EII – with their similar light transmission and exit pupil size – under twilight and true darkness based on Holger’s analysis, to determine if these predictions are validated.

Section 8.7 offers an excellent overview of atmospheric scattering and I really like how the author brings some basic physics such as Rayleigh scattering into the mix. Later in chapter 9, he discusses colour bias in binocular images, explaining why many binoculars having a so-called warm tone exhibit better contrast by (Rayleigh)scattering shorter wavelengths of visible light. On the contrary, he also explains why instruments delivering a cool colour tone are often better for low light work, when the eye becomes increasingly sensitive to shorter wavebands.

These are but a few invaluable nuggets of information presented in this book. The reader will note that much of this surmising is not just based in optical theory but derives from the rich storehouse of practical experience with many fine binoculars he has amassed over the decades. In short, The Binocular Handbook will prove invaluable to keen binocular enthusiasts eager to determine the best instruments to use in their arsenal, with the author gently encouraging active experimentation under real life conditions. Like most good books, it raises more interesting questions than it answers, but rest assured, there is enough content in this timely volume that will keep you thinking and looking for years to come.

Highly recommended!

De Fideli.