So, yesterday (which feels like sometime last week already – we may be having fun but blooming heck we’ve put the hours in) we put the new EL50 Swarovisions through their paces watching Griffon Vultures, Spanish Imperial Eagles, and a host of predominantly aerial species. Today the plan apparently is to see what these wonders are like (and they are wonderful, and Dale if you’re reading this I’m well into the mindset of “You want them back before I go home then you’ll have to tear them from my cold dead hands” already) in different habitat in the east of Extremadura: the ‘false-steppe’ and dry pasture for fabulous birds like Great Bustards, Red Kite, Stone Curlew, and Southern Grey Shrike; rice-paddies and wet agricultural areas for White Storks, Common Cranes, and harriers; and the cork oak open woodlands of the dehesa for Common Cranes again (thousands winter here feeding on acorns under the trees!), Corn Bunting (I have never seen so many in one place – at one point it seemed every tree had a least one in it), Wood Lark, Sardinian Warbler and whatever else we can find. Sounds good eh…
Before racing around Extremadura though let me set the tone for the day with a little story. Our birding and trialling of what all of us already think are the best binoculars in the world starts with a contest set by one of our guides to find Stone Curlews in a rocky, bumpy field which is viewed from a path formed along a disused railway line out of Madrigalejo station. There are apparently at least fifty hidden somewhere in this ‘magnet for Stone Curlews’ – who will find one first? The sky is still post-dawn pink at this point, and the group, still bleary-eyed and wrapped up as if we’d just been dropped off somewhere north of the Arctic Circle, do not look to sure how to react to this news: which considering the number of ‘top dogs’ amongst us is quite surprising – but (it seems to me anyway) important. We stumble off, serenaded from nearby wires by Spotless Starlings, quickly picking up Black Redstart, Southern Grey Shrike, Zitting Cisticola, and scanning surreptitiously for Stone Curlews – some of the group (like me) who start off convinced that we’ll be beaten to the punch anyway so why get involved try to look like we aren’t really trying, while others pick up the pace so they can get to the best looking area up the track of the rest of us.
Right at the back of the straggly line Pete Dunne (Cape May legend, fearsomely good birder, and an American who’s never seen a Stone Curlew) calmly steadies himself, sets up a tripod, and methodically scans the pasture until – bingo – he scores the first Stone Curlew. And do you know what, not a single person here – top guides, highly-respected authors, artists, ace photographers etc etc – reacted in any way other than warmly congratulatory. No bruised egos, no mumblings of dissent, no damning with faint praise. It’s a small thing perhaps, and you may wonder why I’m bothering writing about it, but that one moment has for me encapsulated the mood of this short trip and now that I’m sat thinking about it at nearly midnight at the end of Day Three I know why: because we all knew that just to have been standing in that field was a privilege in itself. Of all the people Swarovski could have contacted to come on this Launch Event it was us who were here – this morning’s competition had been effectively won by each one of us when the Invitation to come had dropped through the letter-box.
I’m probably over-reacting (it wouldn’t be the first time, won’t be the last), but the spirit on this trip so far has been revelatory. The more experienced experts have been totally willing to share their knowledge, and if they don’t recognise a call or are not sure of an ID to ask the rest of the group what they think. Telescopes have been set up on great birds and handed over immediately so that someone else can get a look straight away. Species from rarities to the more common are shouted out and everyone is making sure everyone else sees everything. Maybe saying it’s a carnival atmosphere is pushing it a little, but it is a wonderful and uplifting experience – and sitting, as if in the centre, as if surrounded by great bird after great bird, are the Swarovski team and their amazing new binoculars.
Yes, of course, seeing a thousand Common Cranes on a specially-managed wetland would put anyone in a good mood. Flocks of White Storks and Great Bustards and singing Wood Larks and Sardinian and Cetti’s Warblers would put a smile on the face of the grumpiest of birders. Ending a long day in the field watching Lesser Kestrels zipping around just a few hundred metres from the hotel we’re staying at would be a pick-me-up for the most jaded of birding journos. But it has to be acknowledged that when you get to do all that with such a great group of people and get to see those birds through binoculars that over the space of just two days have demonstrated that they are several steps beyond the reach of their nearest rivals, you just have to acknowledge that sometimes you really are one lucky b*stard, and that life – in birding terms – is rarely quite as good as this.
And it really has been very good indeed. Extremadura is every bit as good as I’d read, and at the risk of endlessly repeating myself the EL50s are superb and becoming more and more beguiling. I’m finding myself looking at the same bird for longer, or looking at birds I know well more often, simply because I’m genuinely amazed at how user-friendly, ergonomic, and outstandingly bright these things are. They’re actually fun to use – more than a tool, they actually contribute to the day’s birding.
I used to be a bit of a hi-fi nerd, buying ever more expensive equipment because better speakers and a better amplifier revealed more of the music, an unheard bass-line, or a subtle bit of production. The better the equipment the closer I was getting to what the musicians themselves had heard. In the end I had to stop when I reached the limits of what I could afford to spend – I wasn’t happy, but that’s life etc. These Swaros seem to me to take optics on the same curve I took in listening to music: better and better binoculars allow you (or should allow you at least) to get closer to what is in front of you without putting anything in the way because the glass and the coatings are so well matched that the image appears unfiltered and complete, so that you see the bird exactly as you would if you were standing right next to it in other words. They are without question the best binocular I have ever used and are an absolute joy to look through, and using them is honestly as close to viewing an image with nothing ‘in the way’ as I’ve ever seen. Granted they’re not cheap, but they are far, far more affordable than a Naim six-pack or a pair of Quad ESLs….
Swarovski EL50 Swarovisions and Extremadura – you got me, I’m hooked!
Dick Forsman’s “Who needs a tripod?” Swarovski tripod destroyer
as modelled by Swarovski’s Dale Forbes
Lesser Kestrel - a Vulnerable falcon that has undergone rapid declines in western Europe, equivalent to c.46% in each decade since 1950.
My thanks to the entire Swarovski Optik team for inviting me on this amazing trip, and don’t forget that as well as producing some lust-inducing optics Swarovski are great contributors to conservation and are co-species Champions for the Critically Endangered Sociable Lapwing – see eg ‘The Amazing Journey‘ for details.