By Bill Chaisson
A single duck has been sitting out on Marshall Pond in Unity, New Hampshire for a couple of weeks. We have seen it over on the north end of the pond. The road through the woods that goes by the pond is on the south side. It is big pond — 17 acres — so I have not been able to hold my binoculars steady enough to get a good solid look at this bird, which it just sits there peacefully afloat. This is when you need a spotting scope.
Spotting scopes are telescopes, but they have different specifications than the ones used by amateur astronomers or formerly used by mariners at sea — “spyglasses” as they are called in the Patrick O’Brian novels that I am presently plowing through. If you go online to research this topic, make sure to search using the terms “spotting scopes for birds.” You do not want to get into the same market as Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window.” Also, don’t bother going to manufacturers’ or retailers’ sites, as those reviews will be biased to move certain brands, rather than give you what you need.
The Audubon Society’s site has a page for this topic that begins: “Sometimes binoculars just don’t cut it.” That was the case for me at Marshall Pond. I just could not make out the field marks on this bird with any sort of confidence as it was about 300 yards away, according to Google Earth. Not only have my binoculars seen better days, but the day was cold and so they kept fogging up as I kept them in front of my eyes and continued breathing.
This was an occasion to push binoculars to their limit. Most binoculars owners will have noticed the 0 with the + and – on either side of it on the right ocular. This feature is meant to bring your binoculars into the sharpest possible focus, which is most necessary at the outer limits of their abilities. One of my eyes is far-sighted and the other is near-sighted, which is not quite perfectly corrected by my glasses — which I do not take off while using my binoculars — so I focus both lenses as well as I can with the left eye, keeping the right eye shut, and then I close my left, open my right eye and use the focus ring on the ocular to match the sharpness I have in the left ocular.
Last week, after having gone through this exercise a few times, I tentatively decided that this might be a bufflehead. There was a good deal of white on the head, the breast was white and the flanks were darker, which corresponds fairly well with the illustration of a female bufflehead in my Peterson’s guide.
Then, the duck turned on the water to face into the light of the morning sun and its breast shone brilliantly white and the flanks appeared to be a light brown. That is all wrong for a female bufflehead or even a male out of breeding plumage; the breast should be more of an off-white, tending to gray and certainly grayish on the flanks. This is most clear in Sibley’s guide, which has a different illustrative philosophy from Peterson’s. Roger Tory Peterson is on record as saying that his duck illustrations, especially in older editions, were meant to show you the birds in less than optimal lighting, which how you are most often going to see them in the field.
Yesterday morning we went for a walk at the pond again and on the way out to Sam’s Lookout we didn’t see anything at all on the glass-like surface. On the return trip, however, I spotted a duck off the point that appeared to be a hooded merganser, but it dived immediately and did not reappear, perhaps surfacing around the point. Then we spotted a trio of ducks on the far side of the pond, where we had seen them before. I returned to the location where I had attempted to see last week’s bird.
Either the light was better or it helped to have three ducks instead of one, but this time I could make them out well enough to see the distinctive black “spur” that divides the very white breast of the male hooded merganser from a vertical white bar behind it. I could not make out the second black spur that is behind the white one but could clearly see the brown flanks. I could see the large white patch on the head, but not the black border. Nor could I make out the thin merganser bill that distinguishes it from other ducks but does make them look a bit like cormorants. All these field marks that I could not see, I could have seen easily with a spotting scope.
Getting a detailed look at distant waterfowl is one setting for a spotting scope. A scope has too narrow of a field to follow a rapidly moving bird through vegetation. What are the situations in which the equipment is apt? It is not just at long distances, but the setting should also be open. Obviously, this applies to other aquatic species, like gulls, terns, loons, and phalaropes.
Phalaropes are that odd “shorebird” that floats, but a spotting scope is also quite useful at a beach or in a marsh. There you can watch migrating sandpipers, plovers, curlews, and godwits feeding along the intertidal sands and muds. You will want to see details, as many of these species are similar one to the other, especially in their fall plumage.
I have often wished for a scope when I have been watching the winter open country birds, the buntings, larkspurs, horned larks and pipits, as they hop and walk across the stubbled snowy fields, often hundreds of yards away. I have also seen scopes recommended for watching migrating hawks, but you have to be in a spot where they gathering in “boils,” spiraling slowly upward before heading off to the north or south on their migrations.
In any case, the spotting scope is an investment. If your birdwatching to takes you into any of the above settings it might be worth the cash outlay. Audubon’s divides them into three categories, over $2,000, over $1,000, and under $1,000.