Whether you’re a hobbyist birder, a field technician, or a seasoned raptor biologist, you know that gear can be expensive. Optics alone will cost you a pretty penny, and then there are all of those hidden costs, like apparel that protects you from the elements and buckets of sunscreen. To help you navigate what is worth the investment, I polled our staff to see what they load in their packs for days in the field.
Cody wearing Bird Collective gear and Vortex binoculars. PC Jesse Watson.
You can’t talk birding without talking binoculars. Unsurprisingly, Swarovski came up as a high-end option, and staff considers them the best optics on the market. In fact, we use their scopes for all our Golden Eagle work. Vortex, however, is by far the most commonly owned among our team. The Vortex Vipers have “the clearest vision for the best price,” says Frankie Vierela, our Raptor Survey Lead Technician. Ashley Mertens, our Golden Eage/Sage-grouse Field Technician, says that Vortex binoculars are “quality and affordable with a lifetime warranty!” We would also be remiss not to mention that Vortex has fabulous customer service.
Our Educator, Laura Cleveland, shared a valuable perspective “The best binoculars are the ones you have with you,” she said. To us, that means if your binoculars are too big and clunky, it doesn’t matter how good they are. And if you can’t afford to spend money on a high-end pair, even an old or inexpensive pair will get you outside.
Guide Books and Digital Resources
Photo of our In-hand Guide by Taylor Barnes.
Regarding ID materials, there is one name that came up in every reply: Jerry Liguori. Hawks at a Distance specifically gives you a real taste of what IDing really looks like with birds high up in the sky—small silhouettes. If you are looking to see plumage up close or are a raptor biologist learning how to photograph and handle birds in hand, our publication, the In-hand Guide to Diurnal North American Raptors, is the right choice. We realize our staff may be a bit biased, but we genuinely believe this guide is top-tier. Lucky for you, we stock all these guidebooks in our store.
For digital resources, the Merlin app is a fan favorite. Educator Chris Butler shared that Merlin is helpful for IDing raptors and birding in general.“The app makes it very easy to figure out a bird when songbird ID isn't your strong suit,” he said. The Sibley app and books also came up because, as Jordan Herman, our Research Biologist, states, “they have the best drawings.” Other notable mentions include the Raptor ID app for all things raptors and the Audubon Bird Guide.
Sun protection is no laughing matter! Here Tori models every form of sun protection.
If there is one thing our staff agrees on, it is sun protection. Hats are a must for hawkwatching to keep the sun out of your eyes when scanning. Wide-brimmed hats are a must for the most sun protection, but Cody Allen, our Field Biologist, loves his Golden Eagle flat-brimmed hat from Bird Collective. Our staff also recommends getting a good sun shirt, and if you are extra cautious, like our Field Biologist Tori Thorpe, she recommends Outdoor Research’s Sun Gloves and BUFF neck gaiters.
Field pants are one of the hardest purchases to get right, and our team has a lot of recommendations for women. Laura C loves “any Columbia women's hiking pants. As a solidly plus-sized hiker, it can be hard to find clothes that fit, but Columbia is very size-inclusive compared to many other outdoor gear brands.” Frankie shares that she “likes Fjallraven pants and Dovetail pants because they are designed for women and have thermal lining options,” and she feels they fit better than Carhartt. Last but not least, Jess Matyas, our American Kestrel Conservation Intern, recommends Frogg Togg rain pants for wind which she describes as “life-changing.”
Photographing raptors, or any bird, is no walk in the park. Our team favors Nikons, mainly DSLRs. Laura C recommends the Nikon D750 paired with a Sigma 600mm lens, Dustin uses the Nikon D500 as it has a fast shutter for quick shots, and Tori uses the Nikon D7500. Jess uses the Nikon Coolpix P900 (discontinued), which is a “compact point-and-shoot with incredible zoom and impressive focus tracking.”
Salty and sweet continues to prevail as the go-to snack for outdoor enthusiasts, with GORP or trail mix coming out on top. An alternative to hitting that same flavor profile is chocolate-covered pretzels. “They haven't done me wrong yet,” Chris shared. Our Raptor Survey Technician, Laura Kwasnoski, says that chocolate is her favorite and that it seems like “breaking out the chocolate during a slow bird afternoon is a sure way for everything to pick up again.” This superstition appears widespread as our Corpus Christi HawkWatch tells the same tale. They keep a stash full of chocolate to hand out during slow times to get the birds flying again.
Jordan hawkwatching, but make it pirate-chic!
Last but not least are the items to level up your pack from good to great. I believe bringing a portable charger/battery bank is a must. Keeping your phone charged to access ID apps, take a quick photo, or navigate is essential for me, and often the harsh sun or cold of winter drains your batter fast. Some sort of seating vastly improves the quality of life when sitting in one place for a long time. Whether it is a good old folding camp chair or a Crazy Creek Chair, some padding goes a long way. Often overlooked, eye protection is a must when spending hours squinting and straining looking through scopes. Jordan recommends an eyepatch when using a scope to not tire out your eye. Tori suggests packing some eyedrops for aftercare. Finally, to really drive home our passion for sun protection, good sunscreen is a must! Jess suggests Piz Buin Mountain sunscreen lip balm, and I recommend Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen for a face sunscreen that doesn’t leave your skin feeling greasy and leaves zero white casts.
We hope this list has helped you sort through the endless products and pick out the items worth the spend. Remember, the things you already have are also the most sustainable choice. If you do go on a shopping spree, consider shopping secondhand through resources like Facebook marketplace, Patagonia Worn Wear, Geartrade, or your local used outdoor retailer.
This blog was written by Sammy Riccio, HWI's Donor Engagement Coordinator.
You can learn more about Sammy here.