There are things that fill the dreams of many a birder. For some its trips to exotic locations that promise a bucket of lifers, for others, it is seeing a special species such as an African Pitta displaying and showing off their stunning plumage, and others it is owning a pair of Swarovski Binoculars.
As a birder, I have been able to visit many special places, and seeing an African Pitta is still a dream of mine. However, over the last few months in some small way, a small dream was realised when I was able to use a pair of Swarovski Binoculars.
The reality is that all too often the idealistic dreams of how certain things pan out do not always match up. Would this be the case with a pair of dark green binoculars with a Northern Goshawk as its logo?
These binoculars at first glance may invoke mixed feelings in many a birder.
You see, I have been using 10x40 binoculars up until now, and when you first see the CL Companion 8x30 binoculars they seem a little too small. Birds are often small and many times when one sees them, they are not as close as you would want them to be. The first thing that will go through the mind of some birders is how will a pair of 8x30’s suit my needs (I know this was something that crossed my mind).
The pair I used came in a stylish dark green colour with subtle touches of grey on the bridge and on the eyecups. They were accompanied with the UJ (Urban Jungle) Accessory Pack, which included a simple, yet at the same time stylish, green bag and a grey strap that allows the binoculars to hang on your hip. I found the strap extremely comfortable as it took the strain off the back of the neck. The strap attaches to the binoculars with a button mechanism that ensures that it is securely attached. This may seem like a small detail, but I have had a pair from another brand that has come loose resulting in irreparable damage, so I am happy with this small yet important feature.
The CL Companions are part of Swarovski’s compact series, so they only weigh around 500 grams (just over 1Lbs). They are approximately 13cm long and 12cm wide when opened. When I initially held them in my hand, what surprised me was that even though they were small and lightweight – the magnesium housing which is reinforced with rubber ensured that they still had a solid feel and are durable.
What is impressive about Swarovski as a manufacturer is their attention to detail. After first receiving the bins, I noticed how even the boxing is well presented and carefully considered. I know that what matters most is the performance in the field, but when you look at the box and open it up – there is a sense of pride that rises up and there is a sense of awe.
When it comes to birding (and going into the wild in general), keeping your equipment clean is generally not easy. I have had many pieces of dirt getting trapped in often hard to reach places in the binoculars I have owned. With the CL Companions, the eyecups are removable – this makes it super easy to clean them once you get back home. While in use, once the eyecups are extended, they need to be twisted to return to their storage position or to offer those with prescription glasses eye relief. This ensures that you don’t have to constantly deal with eyecups unnecessarily twisting back into the body. The diopter setting is in an interesting place (the control knob that allows one to compensate for differences in sight between your two eyes). On most pairs of binoculars, it is usually found on the right eyecup. What tends to happen, especially with aging binoculars, is that it keeps slipping out of alignment and needs to be constantly adjusted. On these binoculars the diopter setting is found on the middle barrel between eyecups, this allows one to set it or make subtle adjustments without it being accidentally adjusted by bumps or shifts when twisting the eyecups. I must admit, this is a setting that I do not use often on binoculars so it’s difficult to say if this is a good position not.
There are ergonomic thumb indents along the two outer barrels which ensure that they fit comfortably in your hands. This is noticeable whilst you keep them ‘glued’ to your eyes when you're fixed or panning in search of birds.
As we know, binoculars are not simply made to be admired in a box, what really matters is how they perform in the field. How well do these binoculars operate on the field, especially with birders in mind?
The first day I took them out in the field for a test run, was thankfully a great day for birding – good light, not much wind, and birds calling all around me as I got out the car. The location I chose to test them was at one of my local spots, along the Illovo River walking a trail (outside Durban in South Africa) that many local birders frequent. I wanted to test these binoculars and see if they could really deliver the goods in a variety of scenarios and light conditions. I also wasn’t interested in seeing birds that were a few meters away – that was just too easy – I decided to look for a bird across on the other side of the river bank to judge the magnification versus my usual pair of 10x42s.
The Illovo River isn’t one of Africa’s great and majestic rivers, but it’s wide enough that you need a decent pair of ‘bins’ to see small birds on the far bank. I didn’t just look for any bird, I decided to look into the dark and shaded areas that are caused by overhanging vegetation lining the banks of the river – the place where it’s really easy to miss birds if you don’t look well enough. I scanned the bank until I found a bird – I can’t remember which bird it was – but what I do remember is that I could clearly see it, confirming that the magnification was not going to be a major hindrance to my usual birding. Not only was the magnification good, but I could also even make out the colours of the bird skulking in the shadows. Straight away I was impressed! I noted that although their magnification was not as great as my previous pair, the quality of the optics more than made up for it in terms of performance.
They focused smoothly and seamlessly when I needed to see birds that were moving fast – this is an area in which I noticed a marked improvement compared to using a cheaper pair. A lot of birding is done in light conditions that are far from ideal – for example under thick forest canopies, early morning or harsh direct sunlight. I had the chance to test them late one afternoon in very low light, where I parked my car on a bank that overlooked a section of the Illovo River. I took some time to scan the river to see what I could find (really hoping to find the elusive African Finfoot) – there was an African Black Duck perched in a branch in the water. The bird was about 50 meters away, once again in the low light conditions, I could still make out the subtle colour variations on the bird. The CL Companions let through a lot of light which helps in conditions like these.
Seeing birds with the CL Companions in decent light (and even in light that is not perfect) it was as if I had started birding all over again – the colours of the birds exploded through the quality of these binoculars. Birds that I had seen many times before took my breath away again as I was able to observe their colouration to a greater extent than ever before.
I know that many birders may be put off when they read that these are in the compact series, but I believe that it’s their compact size that is their strongest selling point. Birding and bird photography is growing at a rapid rate across the world, and the optics market is vast and competitive. I am a bird photographer which means that I end up carrying a hefty 400mm lens around with me in the field. I can’t only bird with a camera, I need to have binoculars with me. The weight of the CL Companions along with the strap that allows your binoculars to hang to the side means that for any bird photographer this pair is a winner. It makes it easier to carry both your camera and binoculars with ease for a day. They also fold up nice and small which means that when you need to pack lots of equipment for birding trips, they don’t take up lots of space.
So, is it worth spending a little extra to get a pair of good binoculars? I do admit that Swarovski may be a little expensive for some birders, but the CL Companion is a lot more affordable than a lot of the other options in their range. I feel that they are a more accessible option for many birders wanting to acquire quality glass. Swarovski binoculars may not make you the best birder around, but they will definitely help you grow as a birder with the improved visuals of the birds that you see.