Hawkwatching with seven powers?

By Luke Tiller

In the world of hawk watching, the ability to pull distant shapes out of the sky and rapidly arrive at a correct identification for those shapes, is king. In fact, some people get pretty competitive about it; so when David La Puma from Leica Sport Optics suggested I try a pair of seven power Ultravid HDs (7×42 to be exact) I have to admit I was initially a little nervous. The more I thought about it the more that scene from The Untouchables came to mind, complete with flashes of Sean Connery muttering something about bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Piling on the pressure for the day I would spend with the Ultravid 7×42 HD’s was that I was being joined by a legend of hawkwatching and a group of trainee hawkwatchers from across the country for a potentially good raptor flight at the watch. Though I was happy to give the bins a once around the block I don’t mind admitting that I also intended to throw my old ten powers in my backpack as well, just in case the panic set in.

Braddock Bay Hawkwatch - Catherine Hamilton

Braddock Bay Hawkwatch – Catherine Hamilton

As if it’s not immediately obvious, I guess I should quickly explain I’m not an optics expert in the technical sense. I didn’t run a series of laboratory tests on these bins, but what I did do is use them and use them hard in demanding conditions. I would say eight hours of peering into an essentially blue sky at often extremely distant birds gives you a pretty good idea of how well any optical device handles in difficult conditions. With numerous birders swinging by the watch, and my innate curiosity, I also get to compare many different binoculars. In fact I find just looking at birds in flight can often be a fine way of testing the quality and usability of a pair of binoculars, and sadly even some quite highly rated binoculars don’t stand up to that test so well.

My first impression of the Ultravids was that, in keeping with everything that Leica produces, the binoculars looked and felt incredibly well made. Dare I say it, they are even a little sexy? It’s hard to beat matte black with the little red dot for optics cool. The rubber coating felt good and the thumb rests added some comfort and security in the hand. The view through them though was what was really important and I could immediately tell they were easy on the eye, with a natural, crisp, bright, clear image; simply breathtaking!

As I pulled my clickers, counters and data sheets out of my bag I realized that horror of horrors: I had forgotten to pack my 10x’s! I was out here on the platform without a safety net. As I scanned across the expanse of pale blue sky I soon spotted my first passing speck, and as I brought the glass to my eye I was greeted by a stunningly bright and crisp image of Red-tailed Hawk: all sharply defined patagials, belly-band and even a visibly pale throat: the borealis subspecies. Best of all the view felt comfortable and rock solid. I had always convinced myself that the trade off of extra magnification for a little post morning caffeine shake on the image was worth it, but as I locked onto raptor after passing raptor I was rapidly reassessing that view.

Red-shouldered Hawk - Luke Tiller

Red-shouldered Hawk – Luke Tiller

With these binoculars I was getting excellent tremble free views of the passing birds and the more I thought about it the more sense it made. It doesn’t take long for even a novice birder to realize that magnification is not the be all and end all of birding, if it were we’d all be using those 100x pairs they advertise at Sharper Image. My fears of being ‘outgunned’ had rapidly dissipated as I picked out beautifully clear images of passing raptors. Where shape and flight style and perhaps glimpses of color are of highest import I suddenly realized more magnification was not necessarily where it was at and that really a crisp bright image was the key.

Of course all the regulars and assembled visitors at the watch were excited to give the optics a try and in between bursts of Turkey Vultures a few of them put the binoculars to the test. I think it would be fair to say ‘wow’ was the overall response, though a couple of times a less printable version thereof, even from the initially skeptical grizzled veterans on the platform.

As I said I’m not a technical expert on optics, but the easy views afforded by the birds meant that eight hours of almost constant scanning and 2726 raptors later I was still feeling pretty good, even better thanks to a rare dark adult Swainson’s Hawk and an always welcome sub-adult Golden Eagle that I’d picked out during the last hour of the flight. After a long day watching raptors I often feel like I look like something out of a Don McCullin photograph. Sometimes it can feel like you want to just take your eyes out at the end of the day and soak them in a nice cooling glass of iced water and I often joke about going to go lie down in a dark room for a few hours after the watch. That day my eyes felt pretty darn good, perhaps partly a feature of the lower magnification, but surely of the crisp, naturally bright view they afforded.

Luke and Frank Nicoletti - Catherine Hamilton

Luke and Frank Nicoletti – Catherine Hamilton

When people ask me about optics at the watch, I always say to buy the best binoculars that you can afford. In my opinion a scope is a luxury, and your binoculars are the mainstay of any birding experience. Unlike some experts I don’t eschew the use of scopes at a watch altogether, but I do always recommend that you want to get the best primary resource that you can and these are one heck of a primary resource!

Though I love raptors, I like birding in different places around the world and in different situations. I’d always thought that ideally you’d want a pair of seven power binoculars to give you the brightness and field of view you require for forest birding in the tropics and a pair of ten powers to get you through a day at the hawkwatch. I think I might be reconsidering that opinion now though as these Ultravids seem to pretty much do it all.