How to Significantly Increase Your Enjoyment of Zoos, Museums, Hikes, or Even Your Backyard

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Update 12/17/17: the above binocular reviews are now outdated.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.


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