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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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!
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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
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……