Use a binocular. Any decent binocular will do. Be sure to try it out before purchasing. Here’s a nice guide to selecting a binocular, written by the vice president of the Audubon Society. My birding binocular is an older model of the Nikon Monarch 8×42 without the new extra-low-dispersion glass found in the Monarch 5, but I feel I couldn’t be more satisfied with it. Here’s another good guide to selecting a binocular that discusses the updated Monarch line. I also have an Olympus Tracker 8×25 that I run with. However, my favorite is the featherlight Pentax Papilio II 6.5×21.
Update 12/17/17: the above binocular reviews are now outdated. I now recommend using this excellent guide.
Just a few days ago, I used my Papilio, which is optimized for looking at small things like insects and flowers at very close range (it focuses down to 1.6 feet), to watch a honeybee darting in and out of jasmine flowers in my mother’s backyard, spilling pollen from its legs as it acrobatically climbed all over the flowers like a squirrel climbing a tree. I’d never observed a honeybee this closely before, nor with such a shallow depth of view (the background was blurred, so it was easy to focus on the bee). I watched it fall off and fly back up as petals broke off . I watched it flex at jointed segments as it strained for nectar in each flower. A common sight–a honeybee flying from flower to flower–became an incredibly beautiful experience rivaling any nature documentary I’ve seen.
At the Houston Zoo a few weeks ago, I looked through the Papilio and saw that the great hornbill I was admiring didn’t have the monotone black feathers I thought it had with my naked eye: each “black” feather was one of two slightly different hues, and each hue seemed equally represented on the wing.
Months ago, when I first bought the Papilio, I saw the iris of a Carolina anole‘s eye for the first time as it eerily stared back at me. I suddenly realized–even though I’ve seen this lizard regularly for many years–that its lower eyelid is a shade of blue unlike the upper eyelid, which is green like the rest of the animal. I could see each individual scale on its back and sides. I could see that some weren’t green at all but a much darker color.
I’ve also used this binocular at museums to see individual brushstrokes on paintings. With the Papilio, one enters the world of small things in high-definition and with an artistically shallow depth of view. It’s analogous to using a spotting scope to observe distant birds: both experiences reveal subtle details one never would have noticed otherwise.
*Note: I wasn’t paid to promote these binoculars or any other product I discuss on this blog. I purchased them myself. These are my “unfunded” views about them.
Update: I do not recommend the Pentax Papilio for serious birding. Its field of view and depth of field are too small, and its image is too dark for forest birding.