For the Birds Radio Program: Spotting Scope Revelations

Original Air Date: June 7, 1996

From Mourning Warblers to winnowing snipe, Laura Erickson’s been seeing a lot more since getting her new spotting scope. 3:44

Audio missing


Birdwatchers progress through many skill levels, from rank beginners through cocky intermediates to advanced birders. Sometimes, the higher up we get, the less we pay attention to easy, common species, but that’s a loss. Ever since I got my new Kowa spotting scope, I’ve been noticing details of common birds that I hadn’t paid attention to in years, and I’ve seen some exciting things I would never have looked at without my scope. It’s not that I needed the spotting scope to actually see these things—I don’t think I’ve seen anything through it that I couldn’t have seen through my binoculars. But once I made a quick identification with song or a snatch of a look, I’d pretty much stopped searching out and looking at a lot of birds—until I got that eye-opening scope.

In order to add a bird to my Kowa list, I have to actually see it through the scope. Suddenly my goal isn’t to see or hear as many species as l can on a trip—it’s to get really good looks at as many species as I can, which means I don’t cover as much ground or go as fast. It’s an easy matter to see a Trumpeter Swan pair swimming gracefully through the gravel pit pond on Canosia Road, but a lot trickier to locate a Mourning Warbler skulking through the underbrush or a Philadelphia Vireo singing behind some leaves in the treetops. But that grueling search through the foliage is well worth it—the scope not only shows minute details of plumage, but the sparkling eyes and quick breaths of these little wonders. With a 20-power scope, I can be eyeball to eyeball with a bird while keeping far enough away that the bird feels safe and acts normal.

But the best thing about the scope is how it’s changed my whole attitude about seeing birds. Even when I don’t bring the scope along, I’m looking at birds far more carefully now. Last week when I saw a Common Snipe flying through the sky, I kept my binoculars on it for several minutes, and for the first time ever actually saw it do its winnowing sky dance. Seeing this was thrilling, and made it clear to me why it took centuries for ornithologists to figure out how snipe produce this peculiar sound. The bird I watched flew in wide circles around me, suddenly flared out its tail, and swooped through the sky. The air from each wingbeat rushed against the erect tail feathers, making a whooo sound. I saw clearly how the second outermost tail feathers stuck out. These specialized feathers are stiffer than the other tail feathers, but you can’t see that with your eyes—you have to hold a snipe in your hand to check that out.

Looking at birds for minutes instead of seconds shortens my daily lists, but each bird has become more valuable, a visual memory to treasure long after my checklists are forgotten. And, as it turns out, the spotting scope was only the trigger —just as Dorothy didn’t really need to go all the way to Oz to finally see the beauty there in her Kansas home all along, it turns out I didn’t really need a scope—I simply needed to open my eyes.