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A Work Commenced June 17 2021
The old Scottish adage, “what’s for you will not go by you,” is especially appropriate in consideration of the Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 binocular. After three years of buying-in, testing, and either selling-on or gifting to friends & family, all manner of binoculars from the pocket, compact and mid-size classes, I hope to provide a comprehensive overview of why I’ve settled on this remarkable instrument, and the many adventures I have thus far enjoyed with it after just a few months of use.
Make no mistake about it: the Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 is arguably the finest binocular I have had the pleasure of looking through. Featuring state-of-the-art European optics from one of the premium binocular manufacturers, this little pocket binocular has been my constant companion on my daily walks through green fields, forests, hills and river paths, and has shown me extraordinary sights. It even served as the inspiration behind my first published feature article in a leading birding magazine that hits the shelves next Spring.
My choosing of this small, yet ruggedly built instrument was based on two principal requirements; uncompromising optics and ultra-low weight. I discovered that as I increased my daily walking excursions from a a few miles to several miles, and often across difficult terrain, weight became a supremely important consideration. Even slightly larger instruments, such as the versatile 8 x 32 models couldn’t quite cut it when having to carry such an instrument ’round my neck for a couple of hours or longer each day. The Leica Ultravid BR 8 x 20 tips the scales at only 243g and so represents one of the lightest premium binoculars currently available. When scaling down from the 8 x 32 Trinovid HD I had the pleasure of owning, I was able to reduce the carrying weight by a factor of about 2.7 – an instantly noticeable change. The dual-hinge design of this binocular also means that I can take it anywhere – literally! Folding down to 9 x 6.5cm at its smallest, it’s a true pocket-sized instrument that never gets in the way, whether in active service or not.
Though they are physically small when fully deployed with the eyecups extended, they are, ergonomically speaking, very easy and intuitive to use. Although I had some reservations about how they would fit in my hands, my apprehensions proved largely baseless. The instrument feels very comfortable in my medium-sized hands and the large, central focus wheel means they are very easy to operate in field use.
The small, 20mm triplet objectives and the aspherical elements built into the eyepieces of this binocular deliver stunning optical performance with particularly wonderful correction of spherical aberration. Images snap to focus with absolutely none of the ambiguity you get with lesser instruments The state-of-the-art phase and broad-band anti-reflection coatings applied to the complex assembly of lenses and prisms in the Leica Ultravid render images of the highest contrast with exceptional control of glare. Chromatic aberration is, to all intents and purposes, non-existent. This is especially remarkable since the instrument does not employ extra-low dispersion(ED) glass elements in the optical train. Only in the most challenging observing conditions, can one detect a trace of secondary spectrum – and only at the extreme edge of the field when observing very high contrast targets. Indeed, it has less false colour than the optically excellent Trinovid HD, which does feature ED glass. The instrument therefore provides a powerful reminder that superlative optical performance can be achieved without using fancy modern glass types. But you really have to experience the images first-hand to become a believer!
The field is reassuringly flat, with only very mild field curvature and pincushion distortion seen at the field stops. The images are very bright for such a small instrument. Indeed the highly regarded optics evaluator active on Bird Forum, Gijs van Ginkel, has measured the light transmission of the Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 as exceeding 90 per cent and reaching 95 per cent over red visible wavelengths. This is achieved via the advanced coating technology employed in these instruments but it’s exceptional transmission figures may also be augmented via the prisms used; Uppendahl rather than the more ubiquitous, Schmidt-Pechan variety. The Uppendahl is a cemented triplet prism structure, which eliminates two of the four reflections used in the Schmidt-Pechan configuration, helping to increase light transmission by a few per cent. Uppendahls were more widely used in the early days of roof prism optics, when anti-reflection coatings were considerably inferior to today’s treatments, but still confer a small advantage in the case of this small, ultra-portable binocular.
I contacted Gijs directly, enquiring about his recollections concerning this small Ultravid binocular. He kindly responded as follows:
I tested this binocular about 15 years ago, the test is published on the WEB-site of House of Outdoor. Apart from the excellent housing design and ideal handling comfort for such a tiny binocular, it is also an optical jewel. Light transmission is exceptionally high for this type of binocular and that is an important factor that contributes to its bright image. Furthermore, the optical system is very well designed as a basis for the beautiful image quality. The exit pupil of 2.5 mm “fills” in many circumstances the size of your eye pupil, so no light is “wasted” and your visual system is optimally “fed” so to speak.
Gijs’ response set my mind racing, as I’d been thinking about why so many of the better quality small exit pupil binoculars(and boy have I tested more of these than you could shake a proverbial stick at lol!) serve up such delightful images. The answer came to me serendipitously a while back while searching for my eye glasses across a large living room. I realised that I was squinting my eyes to see the glasses more clearly. Specifically, squinting is a very natural way near-sighted individuals, such as yours truly, resort to in order to see objects in the distance better. Indeed, as I subsequently discovered, opticians have long-since described this optical trick as the pinhole effect. By restricting the aperture of the exit pupil(see the diagram below), image sharpness, contrast and astigmatism are all reduced.
Schematic showing the phenomenon called the pinhole effect.
The phenomenon even gave rise to specialised (pinhole)eyeglasses still in use today. You can try this at home by cutting out some holes in a cardboard substrate and peering at some object placed in the distance. By blocking off the peripheral rays that contribute most to the aberrations inherent to the human eye, the blur circle is greatly reduced, glare is minimised and image sharpness as well as contrast improves. Thus, in coupling a state-of-the-art-binocular with the best part of your cornea-lens, you are, in effect, achieving the best possible images a binocular can deliver!
The joy of knowing things!
And yet, there is still more to know!
Restricting the size of the exit pupil pays other dividends. For one thing, the depth of focus of the human eye is increased by stopping down the pupil diameter. I have noticed this in a few of the better pocket glasses I have tested in the past. But the Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 has very impressive focus depth. Indeed, it easily exceeds my Series 5 8 x 42 Barr & Stroud, and is better than my wife’s 8 x 25 Opticron pocket glass. Indeed, the 8 x 20 Ultravid has slightly better focus depth than the Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21! The latter result was very surprising, since its reverse Porro prism design and lower magnification(6.5x) both ensure that its focus depth would be large. That it was exceeded by the 8 x 20 Ultravid was a revelation!
A large depth of focus is a very desirable attribute, as it reduces the amount of focusing one needs to perform while observing wildlife on the move, or just enjoying a rural vista, thereby increasing the instrument’s versatility.
The field of view of the Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 is 6.5 angular degrees or 113m@1000m. While this is an impressively large field as pocket binoculars go, it is significantly smaller than the 7-8 angular degree fields usually seen in mid- or full size instruments. But as an observer who enjoys studying objects in detail, I find having smaller, better-corrected fields to be more desirable than one that offers super-wide vistas. Sure, a large field of view is beneficial for scanning and birding, but it can also be a distraction if one wants to concentrate on an interesting feature.
The small exit pupil (or eye box) of the Leica Ultravid is often cited as being difficult to square on with one’s eyes. I would agree that it does present more of a challenge than say an 8 x 32 or 8 x 42, but with just a little practice that challenge is all but eliminated. Truth be told, these small binoculars are actually very easy to use and very comfortable to look through. Practice is the key. There are no blackouts and no eye fatigue, even after many hours of continued use in the field, thanks to the instrument’s very precise factory collimation.
The instrument was designed to be used and not treated as an ornament. It is ruggedly built, with excellent handling. I carry it high on my chest to keep the amplitude of its oscillations small, thereby minimising the effects of accidental bumping off tree branches, sandbanks or rocks while on the move. Although it is advertised to be water resistant to a depth of 5 metres, I have my doubts that this is really true. It’s tiny size means it can go everywhere with me. I store it inside a small clamshell case, which zips closed, with the eyecups extended(see the image above), together with a small sachet of silica gel desiccant. Unlike the padded pouch that accompanies the instrument, the clamshell case is smaller and affords greater protection from the elements when not in use. There is no dithering about whether one should take it on vacation or not either. I’ve seen countless reports from nature enthusiasts who are reluctant to take their expensive binocular on a holiday for fear that it might be stolen or broken, and instead buy up a less expensive instrument for such trips. Personally, I don’t understand that mentality; you buy a premium instrument for the views as well as the ergonomics, right?. Why compromise?
I suspect the real reason is another justification to hoard equipment; something I’m just not into. Choose your poison, and live with that poison!
So, there you have it! These are just some of the reasons I have settled on the Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 as my only daytime binocular. I’ve even used it for some limited astronomical excursions too, as I’ll explore later.
The Buzzard Field
The Buzzard Field.
It’s been a very cold Spring, not just in the UK, but in much of the Northern Hemisphere. Even today, on the Summer Solstice, temperatures in parts of Britain(13.2C) were actually lower than on the last Winter Solstice(13.5C). Of course, that’s not been discussed much on the main stream media because it doesn’t fit their climate alarmism narrative, but it’s certainly true.
Over the last few months I’ve been expanding my range of local patches to observe many species of bird. One of those patches is a field about half a mile away from my home as the Crow flies, where I have been watching a mating pair of Buzzards which patrol the skies round about. The Buzzard field, as I have come to call it, is a magical place, and as the days slowly brightened throughout the Spring and the air warmed, an abundance of fresh grass has grown up, fed by regular rain and grazed upon by dairy cows. The edges of the field has long grass that is a joy to wade through, maskless and happy, though one must be careful to cover up well as it’s all too easy to get bitten by ticks and horseflies( locally known as clegs). Wild flowers – butter cups, several varieties of daisy, red and pink campion -explode in a riot of colour, bringing back memories from my youth when I loved to explore the fields of standing grain on my uncle’s farm in South Tipperary, Ireland.
A pair of Buzzards noisily watching the goings on as I walk through their territory.
The Buzzard nest is located on some tall pine trees that border the field, but I often observe them perched in the branches of old oaks that follow the course of the Endrick river, on the lookout for prey. They are quite territorial raptors. Once they lay eyes on me as I walk through the field, they often take to flight, soaring high overhead and becoming quite vocal. Their haunting shrieks fill the air and I get the distinct sense that I am unwelcome, but they are far too majestic to just ignore. To get the best views, I often lie still on my back on the grass and use my 8 x 20 to get as close as I can to them as they soar on the updrafts on sunny afternoons. I have enjoyed amazing views of these birds of prey, their wonderful, variegated plumage sharply focused in the binocular. But it also pays to remember that since a Buzzard’s eye sight is 8-10 times better than a typical human, they can probably see me as good or better than I can see them! Sometimes they come close enough for me to make out their amazing eyes, talons and strong, hooked beaks. The sexes are easy to distinguish, with the female being larger than the male.
The view from the tree trunk rest.
My ultimate destination takes me a few hundred yards southward from their nesting site, to a trunk of a fallen tree by the water. Here, I can sit for many minutes on end, catching some Sun and scanning the river for Sand Martins. But more often than not the 8 x 20s pick up a few noisy Oyster Catchers that patrol the stony terrain in and along the river. They are comical birds, avian Pinnochios lol, with their long, orange beaks, darting about in search of fresh river tukka. And when they take to flight with their amusingly short wings, they never cease to put a smile on my face. How can something so ridiculous looking ever take to the air lol? But boy can they fly!
Culcreuch Pond, looking East.
My next local patch – Culcreuch Pond – is located about half a mile’s walk from my home. The walk itself is very pleasant, passing through a wooded area, some open fields full of young lambs and the majestic Fintry Hills off to the east beyond Culcreuch Castle. From mid-May to mid-June the air is laced with pollen and airborne seeds. Everywhere I turn my 8 x 20 I can see myriad particles suspended on sunbeams – countless terra-bytes of genetic information stored inside exquisitely designed structures far in advance of any human technology. If they find their way to the right plants, shrubs and trees, they’ll fertilise the next generation of green & bloom.
The photo above is the view from my favourite spot, but is much more challenging to get to during high Summer, when lush vegetation makes the already narrow path more difficult to negotiate. Having a small binocular is a great advantage here, as I’ve lost count of the number of knocks, scratches and dents my larger binoculars have had to endure moving through the brush. On calm days, the pond is very still and large parts of the surface water are covered in a scum of pollen, which serves as an important food source for many other forms of life. For much of the year, my staple glassing targets here include Mallard, Mute Swans, Waterhen, Grey Heron and even the odd Cormorant, but during the warm and bright days of Summer, magnificent Swallows frequent the place. I like to sit quietly at the water’s edge, studying the extraordinary aerobatic displays of these seasonal visitors to our shores, moving with breath-taking agility and screeching as they course through the air in search of flying insects.
On rainy days, I move to the shelter of a tree which keeps the binocular lenses dry and clear. But it’s often during these inclement hours that I’ve witnessed the most awe-inspiring stunts from the Swallows, which very often confine their flights much closer to the surface. The razor sharp optics of the 8 x 20 is ideal for studying this behaviour and on many occasions I have seen the Swallows come all the way down to the surface of the pond, moving with breakneck speed to tuck into the swarms of insects that hatch there. My guess is that low pressure systems prevent the insects from soaring very high on such days, and the Swallows respond by flying near the surface where they are more likely to catch their next meal.
The hills which soar above the valley beyond the pond also present marvellous glassing opportunities. Throughout April and May, Gorse bushes paint the hills in a vibrant yellow colour, and in other parts, large swathes of bluebells can be seen glinting in weak Spring sunshine, but by the time June arrives, Hawthorn trees that dot the landscape are adorned with beautiful white flowers that greatly brighten the hills for weeks on end. After that, dark browns and tan once again become the normative hues. And every now and then, I’ve captured great views of paragliders taking advantage of fair weather days, as they launch themselves off the summit and slowly glide their way down to the open fields below. Very cool! Brave souls!
A Walk through the Woods
The Mill Lade.
Forests and wooded areas are a godsend on hot Summer days, providing welcome shade from the ferocity of the Sun. For much of the year, the woods of the Mill Lade – yet another local patch of mine – provide excellent spots for birding, particularly from late Autumn to mid-Spring, as the deciduous trees have not yet put forth their leaves, so providing much better opportunities to spot your feathered friends across greater distances. But it also provides much more light to glass your targets. The walk through the woods of the Mill Lade extends for over a mile and carries the rambler up over the Denny Road on the south side of the village of Fintry, to a lovely arched bridge over the River Endrick. Follow the road upwards towards the Carron Dam and you gain magnificent views of the valley below, but if you decide to re-join the main road, you can also enjoy a pleasant walk back into the village, past the old Kirk and the open fields of Bogside Farm, where you’re free to enjoy magnificent views of the Fintry Hills beyond.
The woods are fed by a number of small streams that lie below the main forest pathway, and I often stop and watch to see if wild birds will come there and water up. Little Wrens are the most common visitors to these watering holes, but every now and then, I get a real surprise like a Greater Spotted Woodpecker which descends from the trees for a cool drink. Your eyes are as important a tool as binoculars in this terrain, as you’re constantly on the look out for sudden movement, either across your line of sight or in your peripheral vision. Blackbird, Chaffinch, Robin, Tree Creepers and Nuthatches are most commonly glassed here, but I’ve also enjoyed magnificent views of Song Thrush singing their little lungs out in the late evening.
While the forest floor is much more in shade during high Summer, where one might naturally choose a larger instrument which gathers more light, I have conducted a series of tests comparing the views through a number of high-quality mid-sized binoculars with my Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 BR. And what I discovered genuinely surprised me. Despite the larger instruments delivering noticeably brighter images in these shady environments, the little Ultravid still produces sharper views with more detail than the larger glasses. You see, I have become very accustomed to using the little Leica glass with its 2.5mm exit pupil, so much so that when I bring even a good quality 42mm instrument to my eyes under such conditions, I immediately notice quite a bit of ambiguity creeping in as I try to obtain the sharpest image with a larger exit pupil. Try as I may, they never quite serve up images in the same league as the 8 x 20. In particular, I’ve noticed myself chasing micro-focus constantly to coax the best views out of larger glasses, but with the 8 x 20 there is no such searching necessary. It just snaps to focus on whatever object I train it on. And the more I confine myself to the small Leica glass, the more pronounced those differences become.
Bigger is not always better you know!
But here again, there is a rational basis for these findings, as I explored in the beginning of this blog. The human eye resolves the best details in the 2-3mm exit pupil aperture class, so it ‘s hardly surprising I find the images through the optically excellent 8 x 20 so much more compelling than with larger glasses. And here’s another report exploring exit pupil size and resolving power which also comports with these findings. Only when the light fades in the very late evening do I see the obvious advantages of larger binoculars with their greater light gathering power. After all, you do need enough light to see details. Of course, just as I discovered in my explorations with the astronomical telescope, I have come to notice and appreciate things that few if any other folk have bothered to notice. Just like the world of telescopes, some folk never really progress in the hobby, even after decades of ‘looking’ or just ‘looking the part’.
‘Experience’ and ‘insight’ can mean entirely different things!
The View from on High
Panoramic view from just below the summit of Dunmore. The village of Fintry is seen in the centre, while the Fintry Hills beyond rise up 1,000 feet or so above the valley floor.
Dunmore, the hill which rises some 900 feet above the village of Fintry, is yet another of my ‘local patches.’ The route involves following a meandering dust road beyond the old ochre quarry, following a burn upwards toward an open field which gets you to the path to the summit. The climb is not especially challenging, but there are some steep parts that can be a bit tricky to negotiate, especially in winter and on wet days. It’s during these ascents that a small, lightweight binocular really comes into its own. I’ve climbed Dunmore with all sorts of equipment in the past, mostly cameras, rucksacks and even the occasional spyglass, but more recently, with binoculars. Specifically, I’ve had 42mm, 32mm, as well as a number of 25-30mm class instruments accompany me on the climb over the last few years, but nothing comes close to the comfort level and the optical rewards I have reaped by taking the little 8 x 20 along with me. It’s just so small and light that it never gets in the way. Even with instruments in the 350 to 500g weight class, I feel their heft round my neck far more acutely than with the 240g Leica wonder glass. During any such ascent, the strap can chafe the skin on your neck causing rash or even blistering to occur, but the low weight of the 8 x 20 as well its high quality, woven fabric carrying strap, eliminates all such discomfort.
During the Summer months, the path upwards towards the summit is graced by rich swathes of bracken, and while the climb itself gets the heart racing and raises a sweat, you’re rewarded by magnificent views of the valley below, as well as a cool, refreshing breeze even on the hottest days. The 8 x 20 provides the icing on the cake by serving up crystal clear views of the village below and the Fintry Hills right across the valley to the east. But in the last few years, Dunmore has also become the home to a mating pair of Peregrine Falcons that nest in some of its most inaccessible crags. These wonderful raptors hover in mid-flight, intently scanning the fields below in search of prey, and at this time of year, there is no shortage of fresh game – field mice, moles, rabbit, adders and bats, to name but a few.
Stone dykes erected in previous generations provide excellent areas to scan for interesting avian species.
Old stone dykes crisscross the hill-scape. These provide great places to scan with the 8 x 20, as sometimes they turn up interesting birds; Turtledoves and the odd, glorious Yellowhammer. But Dunmore is also a place where one can just escape from the human world, at least for a while, to offer up a prayer to the Living God in gratitude for such small mercies; to pay homage to His illustrious, verdant creation………………. while I still can.
The River Walk
It’s always best to spend a penny before taking leave of the house for a walk by the river – yet another one of my local patches. The sound of running water, or even the sight of it flowing over rocks is enough to strongly stimulate the urge to urinate. I believe psychologists call this the power of suggestion lol.
The Endrick River itself meanders some 20 miles through the valley from its source in the Fintry Hills all the way to Loch Lomond. After prolonged bouts of heavy rain, the river swells in size and depth, fed by cascades of water that drain from higher altitudes. During warm July days, the air above the river teems with swarming insects that live out their entire lives in just a few days. Brown trout sprats gorge on them in the evening and the feasting continues well into the wee small hours of the morning, as any fly fisherman will tell you. These young fish are in turn preyed upon by river Lampreys that do not migrate to the sea, as other eels do, but spend their entire adult life in the fresh waters of the Endrick and Loch Lomond. And where there are eels, you’ll also find Otter, though I’ve yet to see one here. Some local naturalists inform me that they are best observed at dawn and dusk, times I do not generally glass, so no real surprises there.
Many kinds of birds frequent the river. There’s always a few Mallard around and sometimes you get a glimpse of mating pairs of Gooseander moving up and down stream. The females always look anxious to me. The ruddy feathers in the back of their neck stick out comically as they move past you. Mind you, one can never get too close to these birds. Come within 20 yards of them and they take to flight. The same is true of Grey Herron which fish these waters.
It was earlier this year that I first caught sight of Dippers feeding in the river. Indeed they are the subject of my first birding feature article, so I’m sworn to secrecy about those just now. Arguably the most common birds on the Endrick are the Pied and Yellow Wagtail that flit among the shallower, rocky parts of the river in search of insects. Sand Martins make their nests in the raised clay-rich bank, away from the main village, but I’ve also noticed many Wrens which seem to like living near the water. I’ve seen countless examples over the weeks and months, skulking about in the holes and shaded crevices along the river bank. I’m pretty sure some have even nested there.
The glorious light of July makes glassing the surface of the river a supreme joy; the cadence of the water as it flows over and around the rocks fascinates me. If you look closely at it with the 8 x 20, you’ll soon realise that every moment is different, a new swirl, new bubbles and foamy organic froths, one moment coalescing and breaking up in the next. Fixing my gaze on one spot on the river, flower blossoms, leaves, twigs and the odd deceased insect flow by on the water, making every field of view new and exciting. Nature is in constant flux, never ceasing or stopping to take its breath.
Visiting Local Lochs
Loch Venachar, Stirlingshire, with Ben Venue in the background.
Here in rural Central Scotland, we’re blessed with many freshwater lochs that dot the landscape, providing excellent places to take a cool dip or to engage in a number of water sports. My boys have taken up paddle boarding and enjoy nothing better than taking off across the smaller lochs in search of adventure. Even though Loch Lomond is one of the most popular destinations for many outdoor enthusiasts across the Central Belt, it tends to get a bit too crowded during the hotter days of July, and so we tend to visit less populated lochs a little further away. One destination we have tried out a few times is the Lake of Menteith (yes it’s a lake, the only lake in Scotland), which is actually closer to us as the crow flies, but it’s not ideal (the Lake is about 700 acres in area) as smaller waterways are more prone to algal blooms, which can irritate the skin.
Port of Mentieth Kirk and fishery centre where you can hire a boat to do a spot of fly fishing.
But no matter where we go, there’s never a shortage of interesting people. On one afternoon, we were joined by a young lassie who launched a rather sophisticated drone over the lake. My eldest boy, Oscar, happened to be out in the middle of the lake when she captured this aerial shot of him on his paddle board. Cool or what?
My boy paddle boarding on the Lake of Menteith. Aerial drone shot.
Larger lochs, on the other hand, such as Loch Venachar, are far better suited to such activities and the boys have thoroughly enjoyed their many trips there. Venachar is only a mile wide at its widest extent and so the boys can never get too far out of sight, especially when their dad is glassing them with his little 8 x 20!
My younger son, Douglas, taking off across Loch Venachar.
My wife and I usually enjoy walks along the shore or even the odd paddle in our bare feet. There are many glassing opportunities at these places. Sometimes, you get sight of some geese flying low over the loch. Black headed and Common Gull are regular attendants, as well as Pied Wagtails which fly low along the stony shoreline in search of insects. And if there’s no avian subjects about, I just enjoy glassing the hills around the Loch, especially if the long distance visibility is good. The little Leica is just dandy for moving along the shores, especially on the hottest afternoons, when carrying anything larger becomes a real pain.
The little Leica Ultravid 8 x 20; a fine companion on bright sunny days.
We’re making the very most of these warm and bright Summer days of freedom, especially for our sons, who need space to grow up happy, confident and healthy. But sadly these happy days will not last forever. The autocratic powers that be will find more reasons to lock us up again, if not for Covid 19 ‘scariants’ the masktards salivate over, then for climate ’emergency’ lockdowns the global Marxist scumbags are now rumoured to be plotting. I don’t trust the government or the lies peddled by the main stream media, and I’ve accepted that life will never be the same again. But all the while, the signs are off the charts that God is starting to wrap things up anyway. Given the escalation of human wickedness now in the world, I can’t say I blame Him. Even so, come Lord Jesus!
A Visit to the Welsh Seaside
Overlooking Fishguard, Pembrokeshire, South Wales, August 1 2021.
At the end of July, we hooked up with my brother’s family, who have settled in Pembrokeshire, South Wales. Their home is a renovated late-18th century building only 6 miles as the crow flies from the Irish Sea. As you can imagine, there are many wonderful birding opportunities running all along the coastline, loved and often visited by keen twitchers and other wild life enthusiasts. Usually I take a telescope with me to take advantage of the clear, dark skies available here, but this year I decided to bring three binoculars along; my trusty 8 x 20 for extensive daytime glassing, a 10 x 42 for stargazing, and a curious little 8 x 32 ED binocular for further testing.
There’s a lovely cliff walk connecting the seaside villages of Goodwick and Fishguard, where we enjoyed magnificent views of the calm sea below, with many people engaging in all sorts of water sports – old fashioned sailing, kayaking, paddle boarding and jet skiing, to name but a few. The rocky shoreline is home to many delightful sea birds and on Sunday, August 1, I used my 8 x 20 to glean some exquisite views of several species of Sea Gull of all ages, Oyster Catchers and other waders, and even the odd Cormorant. In addition, some of the wooded areas around the villages are home to magnificent but decidedly raucous Raven that eke out a living here.
The Carp Pond.
There is a small pond on my brother’s residence that is stocked with Carp and a few other coarse fish species. This time of year, beautiful Lilies decorate the water’s edge with their large colourful flowers. Here, as in Scotland, I’ve managed to observe Swallows picking off insects by swooping right down to the surface of the pond. What amazing creatures they are! Of course, there is no shortage of wonderful insects like Dragon flies, Pond Skaters, Water Striders and Boatmen that attract fish and bird alike, which I can enjoy with the wonderful close focussing distance of the 8 x 20, which enables me to get as close as 1.8 metres. The 8 x 20 is particularly comfortable for glassing insects and flowers in close proximity because its dual hinge design allows me to decrease the inter-pupillary distance more than most mid-sized binoculars which affords very comfortable close-up viewing. It’s only competitor in this capacity is the venerable Pentax Papilio II 6.5 x 21, with its amazing close focus of just 0.5 metres. In the coming days, I wish to increase my tally of wading bird species logged up on visits to more open beaches along the south Wales coastline.
Monday, August 1 proved to be a warm and sunny day across much of Wales, and our family made the most of the clement Summer weather. A short trip to Freshwater West, near the seaside town of Tenby, allowed the boys to do some paddle boarding, and while my wife soaked up some rays, I took off along the beach to glass for seabirds. Well, it wasn’t long before I caught sight of the largest flock of Oyster Catchers I have ever seen – at least knowingly- and watched as they took to the air, noisily flying off across the bay at breakneck speed. Looking out beyond the shore to some rocky outcrops not too far removed from a group of people enjoying the sun, sea and sand, I discerned the outline of a Cormorant with my 8 x 20. But I wanted to get a closer look, so I inched my way across rocks and piles of seaweed, getting to within about 70 yards of the bird. Its wings outstretched, it was drying them off before heading back into the water. Sensing that it might not be there for much longer, I put my iPhone up to the eyepiece of the 8 x 20, focused as best I could, and took some images of the bird. Later, I was able to identify it as a young Cormorant owing to its dusky(rather than dark) plumage.
A young Cormorant imaged through the 8 x 20 simply by holding my phone camera lens to the ocular.
Within about ten minutes of my capturing images of the juvenile Cormorant did my eye catch hold of a large, white bird flying across the shore, not far out to sea. Unlike regular gulls, this bird possessed very distinctive, black-tipped wings and, as I brought the 8 x 20 to my eyes, I could clearly make out its yellow cap and long, razor-like bill. It was an adult Gannet; a bird I had never before seen in the flesh. But things were about to get a whole lot more exciting when I saw it make a vertical ascent before turning and diving towards the water with incredible agility. Wow! Luckily I had re-united with my wife at that time, and so we both witnessed the same event! It was only later, when I consulted my RSPB handbook that I learned that Gannets are not usually seen so close to the shore and tend to spend most of their lives far out at sea. To observe one so close to shore was entirely unexpected but what a sight to behold!
The estuary at low tide; Newtown, Pembrokeshire.
Tuesday, August 2 proved to be almost a carbon copy of the day before. This time, we stayed closer to home by visiting a lovely beach at Newtown, a few miles along the coast from Fishguard. While my boys and my nephew took to the water, I took off across a golf course, following a Bracken path that led me along the estuary. In the hills overlooking the bay, I glassed yet another Buzzard gliding on the warm afternoon thermals in search of prey. Sea Gulls were seen to be attacking the raptor, or at least trying to scare it away.
With the tide out in the mid-afternoon, I enjoyed magnificent views of Gulls of all ages and varieties; some foraging on the mudflats, some bickering among themselves but many just lying still, soaking up the warm sunshine bathing them. But I was on the lookout for other types of birds – waders to be precise – and a careful scan with the little Ultravid soon showed up new finds. Specifically, I was able to identify three Greenshank, with their long slender legs, slightly upturned bills, sweeping from side to side as they gingerly inched their way through shallow brine pools. Admittedly, they may not have been as exciting as a diving Gannet, but it’s always a thrill to ‘bag’ a new species, as it were; one more variety of God’s flying feathered creatures.
Returning Home to Rain, Lots of Rain
The hot and dry July gave way to a very rainy August, especially here in Scotland. But I see rain as a godsend, making the grass grow for the farm animals and keeping our hills verdant and beautiful. It has also cooled down considerably, which makes walking long distances more pleasant and sleeping more comfortable at night, especially when I see the rest of Europe and North America sweltering in heat waves and fires igniting all across the Northern Hemisphere, and as far north as Siberia. You can keep your 40C + summer temperatures further south. We’re very happy with 20C!
The little Leica travelled well and fulfilled all of my daytime needs. My brother and sister in law were quite taken with its elegant design and exceptional optics. I might even have convinced them to acquire an 8 x 20 for their own use! I also learned a new technique to align the optics perfectly with my eyes. I was reading an account of a chap called Alexis Powell on Birdforum, who described using the little Ultravid much more like you one would use the Zeiss Victory Pocket, with its asymmetrical hinge. Because the Ultravid has well defined hinge stops, I simply extend the left barrel to the end of its travel, hold it up to my left eye, and then swing the right barrel down into position on my right eye, perfectly merging both images together. It is wonderfully accurate and faster than my original method, which involved moving both barrels at the same time. Give it a try! Works a treat!
Speaking of other top drawer pocket binoculars, I did consider both the Zeiss Victory Pocket and the Swarovski CL Pocket models briefly, since they retail for about the same price as the Leica Ultravids. I decided against the Swarovski based on its considerably greater weight than the Leica, and while the Zeiss enjoys quite a loyal fan base, and undoubtedly has excellent optics with an impressively wide field of view (7.5 degrees for the 8x 25 model at least), I have always felt it looks rather cheap compared with the Leica and have heard more than a few stories of the dioptre ring (located at the end of the bridge) falling off. That will never happen with the Leica, with its locked-in dioptre system – just like the larger Ultravids. In my experience, Leica make the most elegant binoculars money can buy. They have a timeless and understated look to them which I find especially pleasing to look at as well as through. In the end, there’s no accounting for taste!
Stargazing & An Unexpected Sighting of a Red Kite
As August gives way to September, the weather has settled down again and we’re currently enjoying a bit of an Indian Summer, with warm sunny days, although temperatures can fall off a bit at night, especially if it’s clear. I’ve been using the little Leica to test all manner of larger binoculars, especially in regard to ascertaining how well corrected their fields are. On the last night of August and on into the wee small hours of September 1, I got to see just how beautifully corrected the field of the Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 really is. Compared with some really sophisticated binoculars, such as the Nikon Monarch HG 8 x 30, which has a built-in field flattener, I discovered that the Leica kept star images much more in check even at the edge of the field than the HG. Actually, it was in a completely different league in this regard to everything else I tested it against that night!
The Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 has a better corrected field than high end binoculars with built-in field flatteners, such as the excellent Nikon Monarch HG 8x 30(right).
On my walk in the mid-afternoon of September 2, I came by a patch of land on the eastern side of Culcreuch Castle Estate. I cast my gaze out over a hay field, the grass from which had been freshly cut, and noticed some commotion going on in the air above it. Several gulls were flying about, but as I brought the 8 x 20 to my eyes, the corner of my eye detected a flash of colour. Lo and behold, as I re-directed my sight, an adult Red Kite (as I later learned on consulting my RSPB handbook) entered the field of view. It was enormous; larger than a Buzzard, adorned with a reddish brown and white body, somewhat angled wings and a deeply curved, salmon coloured tail. For five swiftly passing minutes, I watched the Red Kite intimidate the Seagulls that had probably gathered there in search of tasty earth worms. After flying in a circle above the field, the Red Kite homed in on a target on the grass below, swooping with extraordinary celerity toward terra firma in order to ambush its prey. Unfortunately, I was unable to ascertain just what exactly it had caught as there was a pronounced bevel in the field, but what a thrill to see this beautiful raptor thriving less than a mile as the crow flies from my front door!
Note to self: three raptor species now logged on my local patches!
Second note to self: Consultation of my notes revealed that this was, in fact, my fourth raptor logged- Buzzard, Peregrine Falcon, Sparrowhawk and Red Kite.
The road to Culcreuch Castle, September 18 2021.
The Robins Return
Autumn comes early in Scotland. In the far north, changes are afoot as early as the end of July. Here, just north of the Central Belt, the same signs that Summer is coming to an end are well in flux by the end of August. But as Summers go, this year hasn’t been too bad. We’ve had plenty of warm sunny days and plenty of good light to go glassing. One thing has become clear to me though; Summer is probably the worst time to watch birds. It’s not that that there are none around; far from it! The Swallows and the Swifts have stolen the show, but finding smaller, less mobile birds becomes much more challenging owing to the profusion of leaves that decorate the trees. Soon enough, they’ll be much easier to see!
I’ve missed the Robins. They’ve been conspicuously absent from many of my local patches over the last couple of months, but all of a sudden, they’ve re-emerged! I began hearing their tic-tic-tic calls on the airwaves during my strolls through the forest. At first, it was just the odd call here and there, but in the last couple of weeks, not only have their calls become more common, they have reappeared…..everywhere!
Just a few short months ago, Robins were more like fattened, flying cherubs, but now they look completely dishevelled, haggard and worn out, presumably from a busy season rearing chicks. But they’re a joy to see again. I needn’t venture out of my house to see them either. I leave my little Leica glass by the window, either overlooking my front or back garden, and plenty of them come and oblige me with their charming antics. The youngsters can be a little bit more difficult to spot though, as they’ve not developed their lovely red breasts. Indeed, they look for all the world like miniature Song Thrush, only more brazen and adventurous. And as the days grow colder and shorter, their delightful company will certainly be appreciated.
Many consider a small glass like the Leica Ultravid 8 x 20 a bit too small to be of any lasting use exploring the heavenly creation. But while there is a great deal of truth in this, I have nonetheless used this beautifully designed pocket binocular on the night sky more often than I had anticipated.
The Moon is instantly gratifying at any time, in any place. Following its phases from night to night can be very rewarding in a small glass. The splendid Earthshine of March and April, or peering at a rising Super-Moon late on a delightful May evening. Just imagine chancing upon an extraordinary vantage; that splendid silvery orb framed within an ‘arch’ woven from shrubs and branches, as seen along my particular line of sight!
“Splendid vignette,” I penned in my diary.
The twilight of Summer is rather barren for us sky gazers living this far north of the equator. At this time of year, it never gets truly dark, with only the brightest luminaries visible to the naked eye. But I have cultivated a rather quirky use for the 8 x 20 during these bereft, twilit months. Because of the instrument’s small aperture and exit pupil, it serves to darken the sky, making the stars appear more naturally, as if I were looking at them with a slightly larger glass under darker sky conditions. It works a charm!
And as Summer gives way to Fall, the full glory of the dark night sky returns, and with it, some old friends that have greeted me since my childhood. Late in the night, Cygnus moves into the north-western sky, which is considerably darker than those to my south. Still, the little 20mm objectives shows innumerable Milky Way stars, and those countless suns it cannot resolve present like fine, white smoke, billowing through the dark. The magnificent Pleiads are a fine sight in the wee small hours of a Moonless October morning, when it has risen high in the sky, where atmospheric extinction is least impactful. The 8 x 20 serves up very beautiful images of this celebrated jewel of the northern heavens. What makes the view especially memorable is the pristine stellar pinpoints presented right across the field of the little Leica glass. And though I’ve spent the last few months exploring the potential of much larger binoculars, it is unquestionably true that, millimetre for millimetre, there is nothing to touch this tiny, optical wonder!
By 2.00am local time in the middle of October, bright deep sky targets, such as the Double Cluster, are almost at the zenith, and even with the 8 x 20, this visual treat presents surprisingly well in the Leica glass, as does the Alpha Persei Association and the Great Spiral in Andromeda. I have even enjoyed picking up the ghostly wisps of light from the brighter Messier Objects, such as M35 in Gemini, and all three of the open clusters coursing through the heart of Auriga the Charioteer- M36, 37 and 38.When stuff like this is at its zenith, the little 8 x 20
I have even stayed up until Orion crosses the meridian to see how well the 8 x 20 presents the bonnie bright Belt Stars and the Sword Handle. And though not as instantly gratifying as a larger glass, the pocket Leica still presents a stunningly beautiful image of these Yuletide glories. Lovely too are the colour contrasts of fiery red Betelgeuse and brilliant white Rigel, and what about coruscating Sirius? Surely, all worthy objects to explore, even with a small glass, during the long, dark nights of a Scottish Winter!
The brighter planets too can be rewarding to observe; the brilliant, steady, yellow-white Jupiter is always a delight to glass. With an unwavering hand, you can make out the positions of its four major satellites, and following in the steps of Galileo, it can be rewarding to record their changing positions relative to the Giant Planet. Brilliant red Mars looks angry through the 8 x 20, hellish Venus – blinding- and the soft yellow light of Old Man Saturn always pleases the eye .But when finally Spring comes ’round again, I always look to viewing large, sprawling communions of suns in the 8 x 20, such as the Beehive Cluster, framed within Praesepe, and the Coma Berenices Cluster, rising later in the night.
Limited only by your imagination.
Truth be told, there is always something of interest within the grasp of the little pocket binocular, and sometimes its tiny, convenient size is all one really wants to observe with!
Horses for Courses
Balloch Castle Country Park, October 25 2021.
The ravishing colours of autumn are now manifesting themselves in their full glory, and when the light is good, even a small glass like the 8 x 20 can be used very profitably to study their intricate details. But as the days rapidly shorten, good ambient lighting conditions can become a major constraining issue that really challenges a glass with objectives only 20mm across.
This became most apparent to me while comparing the 8 x 20 to my very good and less expensive 8 x 42 binocular that accompanied me a few times on a forest walk. With the leaves not yet shed, dull overcast days make glassing with a 20mm much more challenging, to such an extent that it can be difficult to see the finer details of the creation. When I switched to using the 8 x 42 with its much lager objectives and larger exit pupil, those same targets were considerably brighter and easier to see. Truth be told, no matter how well made a little glass like the Leica Ultravid is, there is simply no beating greater aperture under such challenging lighting conditions. And while in principle I could keep using just the 8 x 20 as a sole daytime binocular, I realise that bigger is sometimes better. My Barr & Stroud 8 x 42 ED makes up for the limitations of the little pocket glass, serving up a considerably brighter image under these low light conditions, and enabling me to see details I struggle to discern with the optically perfect Leica pocket binocular.
There! I tried!
While bigger isn’t always better, it most certainly is sometimes better!
Horses for courses!
Up with the Birdfeeders
Towards the end of October, our family decided to resurrect the birdfeeders in the garden. So out came the assorted nuts and energy-rich fat balls. Within an hour of them going up, they were visited by a riot of Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Great Tits, Robin and Chaffinch. And after a couple of days, they were joined by Nuthatches and even the odd Magpie. The 8 x 20 remains my instrument of choice for kitchen birding, as it’s so small, lightweight and unrivalled in optical excellence to anything else I own.
Speaking of Magpies. I’ve noticed that they are especially loud and conspicuous on these autumn days. They seem to turn up everywhere lol and you invariably hear them before you see them! Just like last year, a few have taken up residence in our Rowan tree to settle down for the night. Ever the clever avian, they work their way into the middle of the tree just before sunset to protect themselves from predators lurking in the night.
A brazen Magpie hunkering down in our Rowan tree just before sunset.
The Mute Swans up at the Pond didn’t fare so well this year. Although they successfully hatched and reared seven beautiful cygnets, all of them succumbed to predators. Please God, they will be more successful next season!
To be continued in Part II