The Discovery of Birding

It may sound contrived, but I can honestly say that my first view through a spotting scope absolutely changed my life (maybe even saved it) forever! Flashback to a simpler time before the internet, a time with no digital photography, image stabilization or auto-focus, and a time where every phone was connected to the wall by a chord! I was a troubled teen, an underachieving loner described by some as a delinquent, known by local law enforcement due to consistent poor decisions driven by teenage angst & boredom. While trudging home from high school through mounting snow drifts and lake-effect snow squalls, I had the GREAT fortune of bumping into a man looking through a spotting scope at the side of the road, who offered, “do you want to see a Snowy Owl?!?…”. 

I was of course familiar with the white “arctic snow owl” from cigar box top artwork and the like, but to that point, didn’t know if the were real or imagined and surely never expected one within spitting distance of my childhood home. I stepped up and peered through the eyepiece and my mind was blown forever. This near-mythical beast, wholly invisible to my untrained eyes, was there in unimaginable detail. Huge yellow eyes disappeared and reappeared behind slowly-blinking, heavily feathered eyelids, thick black bars ran horizontally across the white breast that appeared so close that it seemed I could reach out and touch it. The man let me absorb this incredible view, for many minutes before finally apologetically saying he had to go. As he collapsed the tripod legs and placed the spotting scope back into his car, I wished so desperately that I could have captured that amazing view somehow. 

By year’s end I had my own binoculars, had quickly learned the birds in my local patch, and even kicked off a career in ornithology (with no additional run ins with Johnny Law). Flash forward to the present, my hair has grayed a bit after numerous decades as professional field biologist, bird and nature tour guide, author and now approaching 20 years as an optics manufacturer representative to the birding & nature markets. I’ve used spotting scopes near daily through this period and still enjoy all of the details provided by this amazing tool that provides 700% more magnification than binoculars alone! In the early 1990s, I documented a pair of courting Red-necked Stints and a vagrant Temminck’s Stint in Barrow, Alaska by holding a disposable film camera behind the eyepiece of my trusty Kowa TSN 4 spotting scope! This was years before “digiscoping” actually since there was no “digi”tal imaging yet, but it was driven out of the desperation of wanting to document the occurrence of these rare birds, and I remembered British friends mentioning they had seen this done in the Scilly Isles in the late ‘80’s so gave it a whirl with great success. 

Years later, the digital revolution began, and I was an active participant in early digiscoping. Earliest digital camera sensors were so pixelated they were near useless honestly, but in the early 2000’s a couple point & shoot models showed consistent incredible results putting “Digiscoping” on the map. Birders developed ingenious, home-crafted adapters with bits of foam, balsa wood, plumbing fittings, bottle tops, copious amounts of duct tape and zip ties, before the first optics manufacturers embraced this growing fad creating the first properly machined adapters.

Happily, we’ve now reached a simpler time with vastly improved smartphone cameras allowing me to very simply and effectively achieving my childhood dream dating back to that first view of that Snowy Owl SOOO many years ago. I still use my spotting scope near daily only now I capture every sighting in amazing high resolution through Phone Skoping!

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