Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

My First Binoculars

Laura's new binoculars!

On Christmas Day, 1974, I opened a package from my mother- and father-in-law. As I recall, it was roughly 12 inches square and 4 inches deep—an iconic but generic kind of Christmas present on the outside—too heavy to be clothes, the wrong shape for almost anything I could think of except maybe a couple of really heavy salad plates or a leaded-glass bowl. In other words, it was the kind of Christmas present you just can’t figure out until you open it. And even after I opened it I was a bit mystified. It was a pair of binoculars—something I’d never imagined owning even though I loved birds.

When I was a child, I once asked my mother about binoculars—probably after seeing Nancy Kulp wielding a pair as a birdwatching character on Love That Bob, The Beverly Hillbillies, or The Parent Trap. (I may be the only birder alive who absolutely loved Nancy Kulp and saw her as a worthy birdwatching role model. Looking back, her roles often called for her to be fawning over empty-headed but handsome men—horribly demeaning stereotyping—but I truly appreciated her characters' nerdiness and thought it was something to aspire to. Imagine being able to unabashedly do what you loved and not give a sh*t what people thought about you! That still is cool in my book.)

Considering that Nancy Kulp was so often cast as a stereotypical nerdy birdwatcher, wouldn't you think I could find ONE photo online that showed her with binoculars?!

Well, there's this crappy one from Love That Bob.
But my mother said that nowadays (meaning the late 50s or early 60s), the only people who were allowed to own binoculars were peeping toms and spies. Opening my present, I was thrilled to find out that she was wrong. And these binoculars seemed serious indeed. They were Bushnell 7x50 Insta- Focus glasses, making them big and heavy—not some wimpy little pair of opera glasses. Because of the huge objective, they let in a lot of light. And the 7x magnification seemed huge.

Laura's new binoculars!

Considering how impetuous I can be about some things, I’m surprisingly methodical about other things. For example, I graduated from Michigan State with Highest Honors in elementary education, after being valedictorian at my high school, but felt utterly unqualified to start teaching grades 4-6 until I’d also attended two years of graduate school, taking a bunch of zoology courses and some environmental education classes, all just so I could be a classroom teacher. I was scared my students would ask me questions about nature that I’d not have the answers for and not even know how to find the answers, and wanted to feel well prepared before I could take on that responsibility. And in college, before I ever tried to cook or bake anything, I bought The Good Housekeeping Cookbook and read the entire, long introduction. For each recipe I tried, I read every step first, then set out all the ingredients, and followed the directions precisely.

In the same manner, when I got that pair of binoculars, along with the Peterson field guide I opened in the next present, I didn’t feel in any way prepared to go outside and start looking at birds. I first read the Peterson guide cover to cover, then bought the Golden guide and read that cover to cover, comparing every illustration of an eastern species to its corresponding illustration in the Peterson guide. Then I read Joe Hickey’s A Guide to Bird Watching cover to cover. A little over two months later, on March 2, I finally took my binoculars out of the box and set out to be a birder. Careful looks at the number one bird on my lifelist, the Black-capped Chickadee, made me love that pair of binoculars in a way I’d never loved any material object in my life.

Keeping binoculars on a shelf for a couple of months is a normal thing for most people, but after finally getting mine out, I never put them back. In the last 40 years, I’ve spent more time looking through binoculars than I have looking at television. That spring, I spent hundreds of hours looking at birds. As thrilling as it was seeing new lifers, I stopped for every bird that came in view, new or not, and didn’t stop watching until it flew out of sight. I spent one whole day in a railroad yard watching pigeons, just to study their behavior and flight.

Me looking at my lifer Kirtland's Warbler
Me looking at my lifer Kirtland's Warbler (along with my lifer Northern Mockingbird and lifer Prairie Warbler--they were ALL there!) near Grayling, Michigan, with my trusted Bushnell 7x50s
These 7x50 binoculars built with 70s materials were heavy, but I didn’t mind—I barely noticed their weight. They were extensions of my eyes, and they opened up a whole world to me that I’d never have seen without them. I picked out my lifer White-tailed Ptarmigan on a Colorado mountain with those binoculars. I saw my first prairie chickens and over 30 species of warblers and my first Le Conte’s Sparrows through those binoculars, which helped me get my lifelist up to 357 before they got knocked out of alignment and I bought a second pair 4 ½ years later.

Our first pair of binoculars is, almost literally, an eye opener. I’ve learned with experience that higher quality glasses are important when doing as much birding as I do, but that first pair will always remain dear to my heart.