Birding with M.E.
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In need of a hobby that would a) get me out of doors, b) keep me out of the pub and c), not leave me a frazzled wreck, I decided to give birdwatching a try. Now, when I was growing up, I viewed birdwatching (mostly referred to as birding these days, apparently), as second only to train-spotting when it came to futile pastimes! Now, though, I'm a convert.
The first stumbling-block was the high price of equipment in the UK – there was no way I could afford it, so I spread my net wider, in particular to the US, where I was able to buy a very good spotting scope for sensible money – see below.
This is my equipment:–
Note:- Details of my current scope can be found in the Birding Blog. I've outgrown this one.
Barska 60mm objective spotting scope, with 20x–60x zoom. The 45–degree eyepiece rotates (click–stopped), to allow alternative viewing positions. As an affordable, decent-quality, scope, I'd whole-heartedly recommend this one. Sharp scissors and a steady hand are required, though, to reduce the egg-cup sized rubber eye cup to a sensible size - about 5mm. Update: It's too long for use in a hide! Still, it gave me an excuse to buy a new scope - see Birding Blog for details.
The scope comes in a soft carry–case, which offers little protection, so I've put a couple of old cushions in the back of the car.
Update: I can no longer recommend buying abroad for items of this size. Buying it was fine, the subsequent hassle with FedEx, who seem a tad dishonest, made it not worthwhile.
Long after I expected it, I got a bill for VAT from the couriers, FedEx (this has been covered in the Birding Blog). The bottom line is that VAT is payable on the cost of the item plus the cost of carriage, which is nothing more than legitimised banditry - how can VAT be payable on a carriage transaction that took place in another country? Anyway, I checked with HM Customs, and it is. I could live with that, but FedEx are trying to charge VAT on a carriage figure almost TWICE what I actually paid, and I am simply not going to pay it. I'm legally obliged to pay VAT on the actual carriage, and I will; I'm not paying VAT on FedEx's fictional figure - it's nothing short of fraud.
Further update: April 13 2007 - FedEx have scrubbed the invoice as a gesture of goodwill - put another way, they can't justify applying VAT to a figure substantially more than the actual carriage charge, so rather than admit they were trying it on, they've given up.
My advice, now, would be to not buy abroad if there's the slightest chance of FedEx being involved. In fact, as I've now found a source of decent-quality, affordable scopes in the UK (see Birding Blog), there's probably no need to.
This will depend on your budget, but an all-metal tripod is essential. I've tried using normal, photographic tripods, with plastic heads, but they flex too much. Try one by all means, if you're cash-strapped, as it's better than no tripod at all, but you'll soon see I'm right. The cheapest all-metal tripod I can find is this one, at £79.99.
A folding chair – standing up for hours is no fun.
8x40 Binoculars. Anything with a higher magnification will be very hard to hand-hold. Even when using a scope, a low-magnification pair of bins like these is handy for anything that pops up close by; they're about the right size for wandering around reserves, and general birding too. Mine are a waterproof pair of 8 x 42 roof prism bins - see Birding Blog). I also have a pair of 10 x 50s, with a tripod mount (a cheap tripod is fine for these).
8x21 Binoculars. Small enough to keep in you pocket or the car. Which, by the way, makes an excellent hide – the car, not your pocket.
You may want to take photos of your birding activities. You can find details of my camera outfit here and here .
This is bargain–basement birding, but that doesn't mean the equipment is poor quality – far from it. Be warned, though – it can be a ferociously expensive hobby. You can – though you don't have to – easily spend £1,000+ on just a scope, a £100 or more on a tripod, with another £600+ for binoculars. So if your income, like mine, is low and fixed, take care not to get out of your depth. Nice though high–end kit is, it's not essential.
So, having assembled my kit, it was time to go out and play with it. A good place locally is the Dee Marshes, in South Wirral, as high spring tides drive the marsh birds inshore where they can be seen, otherwise they’re mostly hidden from view (I've found out since I wrote this that there is decent birding to be had at any state of the tide - if you want to know where I go, drop me an email). Spring tides, by the way, are nothing to do with the seasons – they’re simply the highest point of the tidal cycle (the lowest being called neap tides), and if you’re birding on the coast, or a tidal estuary, get yourself a tide-table before leaving home - £1.50 from WH Smith, or sea-angling shops.
It was a very mild day here on February 19, 2007, for my first outing, so I loaded my gear into the car, picked up my mate Alan, and headed for the Dee marshes. The first surprise, when we arrived, was how bitterly cold it was, given that it was only 10 miles away (note for next time: take a flask and gloves), as a result we were both under-dressed and frozen!
Anyway, we stuck it out for about 40 minutes, and I was extremely impressed with my new scope. Given how cheap it was (the equivalent of £36, though had I bought it in the UK, it would have been about 4 times that! See ** below), it performed far better than I expected. It has a 60mm objective lens, and a 20x to 60x zoom. I fully expected the view to be sharp at the lower end of the range, and to fall off at the top end. Nothing of the sort – I got a bright (allowing for the misty weather), crisp image at all magnifications, with no colour fringing or other aberrations. I was impressed to see a flock of swans about a mile away, that weren't even visible to the naked eye, quite clearly – if a little small at that distance – still big and clear enough to identify as Mute swans, though. I also got an excellent view of a buzzard, stooping on something small and squeaky...
**No, this isn't an exaggeration – another scope from this manufacturer is available in the UK, and the seller had simply switched the dollar sign for a pound sign – something that happens all too often.
So yes, I'm convinced that – like archery before it – birding is a viable pastime for people with ME. I should say, here, that the walk from the car to the viewpoint, yesterday, was only a few yards, so be sure to check your destination on a good map – you don't want to get there, especially if it's a long way, only to find you have too far to walk. Ordnance Survey 1:50,000-scale maps are the minimum, and 1:25,000 is preferable. Or Multimap online.
There is, too, a bonus with birding – you don't have to spend money endlessly on all the bits and bobs that other pastimes – like archery or fishing – seem to need. The basics – a scope, a tripod, and a pair of binoculars, with a flask for cold weather, or if you can't go without your tea or coffee – are pretty much all you need, as most of us have warm clothing that can be pressed into service when needed. Oh yes, and you will need boots of some kind (I wear walking boots), as the countryside can be inconsiderately muddy.
Scooter or powerchair users might like to consider a monopod instead of a tripod, as it will be much easier to handle, though it's not self–supporting, like a tripod, so needs care. With a manual chair it's going to be hard to use anything other than binoculars, unless you have six hands, though you could secure a monopod to a frame tube with cable ties, which would also enable you to use a scope, with care.
If you're a wheelchair/scooter user, you need to consider access. The best places to go are probably reserves, either RSPB or Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust – the latter have wheelchairs for loan at some (all?) reserves, and have no objection to electric scooters/powerchairs. In either case, and especially if you need a loan chair, phone first to check. Note that RSPB reserves are members-only. If you want to join the RSPB, either download the PDF form from the website here, or use the form that will probably fall out of any UK birding magazine – that way you can pay monthly, quarterly or in one lump, by Direct Debit. Individual membership is £32 a year whichever way you do it. If you want to pay the full amount in one go, you can join online. You get a quarterly magazine with all adult subscriptions, and a bird book with all subscriptions except the concessionary one (£17 p.a.).
Magazines: The only one I've read so far is Bird Watching (monthly) – a read through the ads will frighten you out of three years growth – prices are terrifying. Content isn't bad, and there’s a useful, detailed, 10 places to watch birds section. Some great pics, too.
And before anyone takes me to task for bitching so much about prices, this information is aimed at people with ME, most of whom, I suspect, are not exactly rolling in money! I'm certainly not. What I'm trying to show here is that it needn't be ruinously expensive to dip your toe, quite deeply, into the waters of birdwatching.
Note: I had intended to delete this section, as digiscoping seems not to be possible without throwing substantial sums of money at it, but I'll leave it for now. However, I'm not about to try it (as at mid June 2007), using a 35mm SLR. If it works, it will keep the cost down a hell of a lot. See also my camera page, and Birding Blog.
Taking photos through a scope with a digital camera is called digiscoping. The most usual type of camera is the compact, which rather left me with a bit of a problem as my camera, as I mentioned above, is larger than that. It's the Fuji S602 zoom:-
Photos are excellent, so I'm reluctant to give it up (and I can't afford a new one anyway), but after a few day's thought, I think I've cracked the problem. It really is a cracking camera, see here.
This is the normal type of universal camera mount:-
(These pics aren't to scale, by the way). You can see how a compact camera fits, and I figured that if I get a rectangle of aluminium, or rigid plastic, I can bolt that to the camera mounting platform, and with a suitably-drilled hole, mount my camera in the optimum position. The adapter is £30, plus whatever it costs for an offcut of aluminium or plastic and a few bolts, washers and nuts.
Because of the design of my camera, there'll likely be a degree of vignetting (a circular image, rather than rectangular). This can be fixed in Photoshop, or simply left alone - I can live with round pics!
Note: This page was getting far too big, so I've started a Birding Blog to ease the load. Am I good to you or what?
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