Okay, picture the scene…yes, I used that line to open yesterday’s blog, but it’s been a long (and utterly fantastic day) so while I will attempt to tread an original path you’re going to have accept the odd stumble onto a more well-worn one every so often I’m afraid…
So, picture the scene. Some of the world’s finest birders and journalists and me are piling out of a bus after a dawn drive from Trajillo into the absolutely stunning Parque Monfragüe, an SPA and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve rising out of the Dehesas (the characteristic managed landscape in this part of Extremedura which consists mostly of pruned Holm and Cork oaks, grazed grassland, and shrubby rocky crags). It’s just getting light, there’s a cold mist rolling off the hills, we can hear Chaffinches and Song Thrushes singing, Serins are nipping overhead, and all of us are grabbing our brand new EL50 Swarovisions because out over the reservoir and rocks to our left are squadrons of Griffon Vultures, huge, heavy birds that are somehow finding lift in the cold air and rising high over the peaks.
We’re here – in this exact spot – for three reasons. One, the guides leading us (the expert and very knowledgeable Dr Martin Kelsey and Godfried Schruer) know that birders want to see vultures and this is the best place to see them as they take off from their roosting sites; two, if you’re out to test new and very powerful optics what better way than to point them at waves of mobile vultures that range from ‘whoa, they’re close’ to ‘hey, there’s even more way over there in the distance’; and, three, because the sun is rising behind us, the light is perfect, and there are birds all over the place. And birders just love birds, perfect light, and new binoculars.
Griffon Vultures Gyps fulvus
So, what to talk about first – the vultures or the binoculars? It’s understandably obvious that the team from Swarovski (most of whom are birders themselves but are anxiously watching us rather than the birds) would prefer me and the other writers they’ve brought out here to talk about the new EL50 Swarovisions – and certainly not unload enough cameras and lenses to stock a small shop and point them skywards instead of their binoculars…So, I’ll do the decent thing and write more about the binoculars than the birds, which is anyway a task made far easier by the fact that without a binocular as good as the EL50 the birds wouldn’t look half as good so they – the bins and the birds – do go very much hand-in-hand if you get my now very frazzled drift…
Tim Appleton tries the new ’10/12 EL50 Piggyback Swarovisions…”
Okay, then. I’m using the 12x50s. If you read last night’s post you’ll discover that I was randomly given the 12x EL50s rather than the 10x and was pretty much stunned to discover how lightweight they were and how sharp the image was (and, yes, before you ask, I did once own a pair of East German Zeiss 12x and using them was like looking through two straws while weight-lifting). My ‘normal’ pair of binoculars are the now-discontinued Swarovski 7×42 SLCs, which are great optics with a 42mm objective lens, a wide field of view and which are excellent in many ways: looking at distant raptors, though, is not their strong point as you might imagine. Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the SLCs, as many people will know, don’t have the same ‘open bridge’ design of the ELs – which means they way a user holds them is different. You can’t wrap your fingers around the barrels of the SLCs as there’s no gap to put them into.
All of which means this would be the first time I had used the ELs of any type so would have to adjust my grip, would be using a binocular with almost twice the magnification I was used to and which would be much heavier, and would be – I assumed – trying to find birds in a tiny field of view. So how did I get on?
Before I write another word I just want to make something clear. Yes, Swarovski have paid our flights and accommodation and they would obviously like us all to be impressed, but the people they’ve asked to come along have reputations to uphold as well, and are renowned birders and writers in they’re own right. I can’t speak for everyone of course, but I’d be willing to bet that none of us would bend the truth one iota (even if an unconscious urge not to bite the hand that’s feeding us tried tugging at out critical faculties), so when I say that within a few minutes of use I’d almost forgotten that I was using 12x50s, that they were extremely easy to hold and are exceptionally well-balanced, that the image is totally colour faithful, sharp to the edge, and as bright as any binocular I’ve ever used you’re just going to have to believe me.
Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus
I’m very much aware that for the last two days I’ve been tweeting Swaro, writing Swaro, and passionately promoting Swaro – but in all honesty it’s hard not be excited when you’re amongst the very first people to ever use these things in the field and they turn out to be this damn good! I’m a birder, after all. I love new bird-related stuff. And it’s very hard not to still be on a high even nearly fourteen hours after first piling out of that bus because there is just something that makes you feel good when you know that you’ve been privileged to come on a trip like this (and God help me should I ever get to the position of being blase about an all-expenses paid holiday birdwatching in a place like Extremadura with equipment like this!) and you’ve been genuinely surprised about just how much an already world-renowned pair of binoculars can be improved.
No, I’ve not used ELs before but most everyone else here have, and the verdict appears to be absolutely unanimous – the 10x50s and the 12x50s are a major a step up from the 8x and 10x42s. Swaro have been recording mini-interviews all day with us which I think are going on YouTube but in every one I’ve heard so far the same comments are coming up again and again: the light gathering is exceptional; the image is extremely sharp; they are ergonomically superb; and after a while you just don’t notice you’re wearing them. These are light, bright, and tight. Easy to use, easy to hold, and easy to lift to the skies.
Yes, some of the group said they might prefer their 7x or perhaps 8x in forests, but – amazingly – the 10x50s especially have such a wide field of view and focus down enough that the differences in ease if use and the speed with which you can pick up and then follow a bird through foliage genuinely appear pretty marginal. Which is not something I would have thought I’d be saying 24 hours ago. In fact, I spent all day with the 12x and genuinely had no more trouble finding eg Firecrests or Blackcaps in the oaks than a short-sighted, spectacle-wearing middle-aged bloke like me normally has. And again that was something I genuinely didn’t expect 24 hours ago.
Crested Lark Galerida cristata
In fact time after time I picked up flying birds as easily and as quickly as I would have done with my regular 7x42s: from Crag Martins skittering overhead, a Common Sandpiper fluttering away over the water, or a Hawfinch bouncing heavily over the trees. And more to the point I could see birds clearly that I’d never have been able to identify – a very distant Blue Rock Thrush sitting only half visible on a distant peak, a Black Redstart flycatching from a far off bush, and far more importantly being able to see the white shoulders on a tiny speck of what was (through the 12x EL50s) most definitely my first Spanish Imperial Eagle.
To say that I was (and still am) hugely impressed is an understatement. Thinking about it though, I was not as impressed by the end of the day than at the beginning – and that’s simply because after an hour or two you forget you’re using a new GBP2000 binocular and just get on with birding, enjoying the image in the glass, getting on with the everyday ‘stuff’ of what birders do when they’re out in a great place seeing great birds. I moved effortlessly from a small, lightweight 7x binocular to a 12x with out even realising, which is remarkable – absolutely remarkable…
Okay, this really is sounding like a press-release and not the first reactions of a very tired blogger so I’ll leave it here and quickly edit some images up (which by the way are almost embarrassingly poor compared with what the pros standing next to me we’re getting, but I’m fairly happy with them) before I go blurred and fall asleep over the keyboard.
Tomorrow, by the way, we’re heading towards the ‘steppes’ and I promise I’ll write more about the birds…
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.