EIGHTEEN

Wow! Another year has come and gone … but not without plenty of adventure. The year 2018 was a very exciting one here at BirdTheRock – I was blessed beyond words to share the natural wonders of Newfoundland & Labrador with so many visitors, travel to amazing places both near and far, and experience countless special moments along the way. I have so much to tell … but as they say “a picture is worth a thousand words“, and maybe that’s the best way to share this long overdue summary of the year that was. Below are 18 images from 2018; chosen to represent just a fraction of the many, many highlights from my year.

It’s been difficult to keep my blog updated during this busy year (and even this month — it has taken me weeks to write this post!) – but be sure to follow me on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram for more regular highlights and often daily updates from ongoing tours! I’ll continue to update this blog as often as I can 😉

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I started 2018 with a fantastic winter tour for two wonderful clients. Dovekie was, of course, a prime target and they didn’t disappoint — we had several close encounters (some so close we probably could have touched them!), and ended up seeing dozens and dozens following a January windstorm. And so many other other great winter birds …

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Winter is also the best time to enjoy the great numbers and diversity of gulls that St. John’s has to offer. I helped host a “Winter Gull Workshop” for NatureNL in February – and despite less than ideal weather, more than 50 participants showed up to learn and share our passion for birds! It was a lot of fun, and an exciting indicator that the love of birds & birding continues to grow in our province.

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Early spring was a busy time for public engagement – I enjoyed sharing my passion and experience with some very different audiences: a public presentation at our largest library, local tour guides looking to learn more about province’s birds, and many of my tourism partners across the island. I’m always excited to talk about the wonders of birds & birding, and hope to spread the word even further in 2019 😉

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The opportunity to travel and go birding in new places is one of the perks of being a tour leader — and this year was no exception. In May, I co-led an Eagle-Eye Tours trip in southern Ontario, visiting several “bucket-list” places along the way – Point Pelee, Long Point and Algonquin Park among them. It’s a fun and awe-inspiring way to experience the excitement of spring migration!

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The “Point Pelee & Algonquin” tour was also an opportunity to see LOTS of beautiful, often iconic, species — like this Prothonotary Warbler. These brilliant birds are scarce and very restricted breeders in Canada. While I’ve been lucky to see a couple in Newfoundland during fall migration and in the tropics during winter, it was especially rewarding to see them in their typical breeding habitat.

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Without a doubt, this Purple Gallinule was a highlight for Newfoundland birders in 2018. First discovered while I was away in Ontario (on a river just minutes from my house, no less!), I arrived home in time to enjoy this beautiful bird. Although there are a surprising number of records on the island, almost all were immature birds and/or in winter – and most have been found moribund or already dead. Not only was this a stunning adult, but the first that birders have been able to enjoy. Newfoundland can be weird, sometimes 😉 It was seen for weeks and may very well have stayed all summer! (More details here.)

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Early June brought with it an opportunity to explore my province from a different perspective – on an expedition cruise around the island. I was invited to join the crew of the Hebridean Sky as it circumnavigated Newfoundland – visiting beautiful, quaint and often isolated communities along the way. June can still be a volatile time in the waters off northern Newfoundland – and this year was no exception. Arctic ice and rough weather toyed with our plans at every turn, but we didn’t let it stop our adventure! Here I’m standing on the arctic ice floe in the Start of Belle Isle, with Labrador (and our ship) in the background.

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I was honoured once again to lead several exciting trips for Eagle-Eye Tours — a total of four in 2018! The “Grand Newfoundland” tour is always a highlight of my year, and this year it was sold out – a testament to just how popular a birding destination our province is becoming. We had a great 12 days exploring the island and its array of landscapes, birds and other natural wonders … I’m already looking forward to doing it all again later this year!

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It was a very busy summer, with lots of visiting birders and nature-enthusiasts joining me to explore beautiful Newfoundland. We enjoyed visits to spectacular seabird colonies (like Cape St. Mary’s, above), strolled through rich boreal forests full of sweet bird songs, hiked across the coastal tundra to see fossils of some of the world’s oldest complex animals, stopped to appreciate beautiful and unique wildflowers growing in the most unexpected of places, and were treated to surprises and wonderful experiences at every turn. I’m already looking forward to more in 2019!! (Check out your opportunity to join us here.)

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Nemesis down!! I’m always thrilled to help a client find a “target” bird when leading a tour, especially here in Newfoundland. However, it is extra exciting when that same bird is a target of my own. Northern Three-toed Woodpecker has been a so-called “nemesis bird” for me – one of just three breeding species on the island that have managed to elude me since I started birding ~18 years ago (the other two being American Woodcock and Northern Hawk Owl – both scarce and local breeders in the province that I just haven’t connected with yet). We found this male attending (or maybe just prospecting?) a potential nesting site while hiking a trail in Terra Nova National Park. I’m not sure who was more ecstatic – my guests or me!

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Once again, August was punctuated by the Eagle-Eye Tours “New Brunswick & Grand Manan” trip. Joined by co-leader Kyle Horner (Wild Ontario), we explored this beautiful part of Atlantic Canada. As always, a major highlight of this tour was the incredible flocks of Semipalmated Sandpiper migrating through the Bay of Fundy. We had point blank views of 35,000+ as they roosted on a narrow strip of beach at high tide. (To read more about previous tours I’ve led in New Brunswick, check out this blog post.)

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Another highlight of this trip is our visit to Grand Manan island and the wonderful birding there. I have a special fondness for seabirds, and the pelagic trip into the rich waters of the Bay of Fundy never disappoints. We has a gorgeous day for this year’s trip, encountering hundreds of shearwaters, storm-petrels, phalaropes and other pelagic species along the way – often right alongside the boat!

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In October, I was invited to join the team at Adventure Canada as their expedition ship “Ocean Endeavour” circumnavigated Newfoundland. It was an exciting opportunity to explore my home province from a unique perspective – often calling in to small, remote communities. I even got to see a few places I’d never been before, including Little Bay Islands (above) which neighbours my late grandfather’s childhood home. I was honoured to work with the incredible team at Adventure Canada, and to spend ten days with their fun and interesting guests … and I look forward to doing it again in the future.

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Sailing around Newfoundland also gave me a chance to get reacquainted with one of Newfoundland’s most enigmatic birds – Leach’s Storm-Petrel. These tiny seabirds nest in huge numbers along our coast, but usually stay far out at sea and out of sight (coming and going from their burrows only under cover of darkness). They are often attracted to the lights of ocean vessels, so it is not unusual to find them stranded on the decks during the night or early morning and in need of “rescue” (a gentle toss over the side to get them airborne). I was able to use this phenomena to educate guests and other staff not only about seabirds in general, but also the impact that our activities can have on them. After making some changes to reduce our light emissions, we saw a dramatic decrease (to nearly zero) in stranded birds during the course of our travels.

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The busyness of fall 2018 didn’t leave me with much time for birding on my own time (something I love to do in fall), but when I did I was thrilled to be joined by my oldest daughter, Emma. She seems to have caught the birding “bug” this year, and nothing could make me happier than see my kids connecting with nature. In this photo, Emma is “digiscoping” a Gray Heron in Renews – a mega rarity not only for Newfoundland, but all of North America. (Notably, Emma is using my trusty Kowa TSN-883 scope in this photo – for a detailed review of my Kowa optics check out this blog post from a few months ago).

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December snuck up on me quickly – along with a happy return to Trinidad & Tobago, leading my third Eagle-Eye Tours trip to this awesome destination. We had a great time – enjoying the amazing birding at Asa Wright Nature Centre, across the varied habitats of Trinidad, and then to more relaxed but equally bird-filled Tobago. This Guianan Trogon was just one of many many highlights! (You can find many more photos and stories from my earlier trips here and here.)

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A personal highlight from Trinidad & Tobago 2018 was an encounter with four American Flamingos (lifers!). Somewhat unusual in recent years, these were part of a group that had been hanging out around the famous Caroni Swamp, and may have arrived from Venezuela following an earthquake earlier in the year.

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Although it’s been challenging to keep this blog updated during a busy 2018, I did post lots of updates on other social media channels (see above). These were my most popular Instagram photos throughout the year (note that not all photos were actually taken in 2018). Be sure to follow along for more stories and photos this year!!

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Geese, Herons & Quality Time

I was thrilled this weekend to spend a fun morning birding with my oldest daughter, Emma (9) … a morning which quickly turned “epic” as we ended up scoring two ABA (North American) rarities together!

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Emma enjoying the second of two ABA (North American) rarities of our morning – a Gray Heron hanging out in Renews. A lifer for her, my second for Newfoundland, and just the ~5th record for the province and Canada.

It’s not always easy to find balance in life as a birder, professional nature guide and a parent of two busy girls. I have no shame admitting that I spend far less time birding “recreationally” for myself these days (I do, of course, spend a lot of time birding with tours and clients – but as fun as that is, it’s not quite the same) … and I spend most of my other weekends involved in an array of family activities. I encourage my girls to appreciate and explore nature and (especially) birds, but I have never pushed it on them. Much to my glee, Emma has been expressing lots of interest lately and has even been asking me to take her to see two rare PINK-FOOTED GEESE that showed up in St. John’s recently — something I was excited to make happen. We got up early on Saturday, grabbed a “birder’s breakfast” (Tim Horton’s muffin and coffee/hot chocolate!) and made the short drive across town under cover of darkness. The geese have been spending nights in a city pond, but consistently fly off within minutes of sunrise to spend the day at a currently unknown location — so the key to seeing them is to be early.

We were able to spot the two Pink-footed Geese, along with more than a dozen Canada Geese, through my Kowa scope while it was still quite dark. Joined by another local birder, we walked along the trail for a closer vantage point and waited for the light to trickle in, eventually enjoying longer and better looks. True to form, the entire flock of geese picked up shortly after sunrise and flew off over the nearby neighbourhood – no doubt to a farm field in nearby Kilbride or Goulds. The hadn’t stayed long enough to allow for decent photos, but our views has been excellent!

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Two Pink-footed Geese have been hanging out with a small flock of Canada Geese in Mount Pearl (just outside St. John’s) since at least October 24. As on most mornings, they flew off before the light got nice enough for decent photos, but still provided some great views.

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Emma celebrating her “lifer” Pink-footed Geese, spotted with the help of my Kowa scope well before the sun came up.

We still had the full morning ahead of us as we arrived back at the car, and were looking forward to some more birding … maybe driving around the local fields looking for the geese or a wayward Cattle Egret (numerous had been reported in eastern Newfoundland the past two days). Suddenly my phone buzzed with a message that an intriguing heron in Renews from the evening before had been confirmed as a mega-rare GRAY HERON and was still there this morning. Emma was gung-ho for the adventure, so we hit the highway south for what has always been one of my favourite birding locations. We chatted non-stop for the 1.5 hour drive (mostly about birds), and Emma even honed her eBird skills by entering a checklist all on her own.

We arrived at Renews to find fellow birder Peter Shelton looking at the Gray Heron on a rock across the inner bay – distant, but well within scope range. Emma was also thrilled to find a Harbour Seal on the rocks much closer to us. Eventually the heron picked up and flew around the harbour, eventually landing a little closer to the road on the other side where we enjoyed somewhat closer views … and met up with lots of other birders as they began to appear. Emma was in her glee enjoying the birds, meeting the other birders (although a little shy, I think she liked the attention she garnered as they youngest birder there!) and trying to photograph a very rare heron.

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My poor record shot of this huge rarity from Europe – a Gray Heron. Very similar to its North American cousin, the Great Blue Heron, it is distinguished using several key features such as clean white (versus rusty) thighs, lack of rufous in the leading edge of the wing, and even more subtle differences in bill and plumage patterns. Even in my less-than-ideal photos you can see the overall gray appearance of this bird, lacking the bluish tones of Great Blue Heron.

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Though pressed for time (afternoon obligations – did I mention our girls are busy?!?!), we made a few quick stops on the drive home enjoying other notable birds such as a beautiful Bald Eagle sitting right beside the road, a late Greater Yellowlegs, and even Emma’s first ever Mourning Dove (not overly common in these parts). All in all, it was incredible morning of birding and one of the most memorable adventures I’ve had the pleasure of sharing with Emma. I think she’s hooked, so I look forward to many more 😉

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A Year with KOWA Gear

“Optics” are an integral part of a birder’s life. Binoculars and (for many) spotting scopes are without a doubt the most important pieces of equipment we use … essential for almost every birding excursion or outing we make. And the more birding we do, the more important “quality” equipment becomes. We all want optics that are durable, weather-resistant, comfortable to use and, above all else, provide a bright & sharp image for our enjoyment.

I’ve owned and used several pairs of binoculars during my ~20 years of birding … starting with my father’s old Tasco tanks, which he used mostly for the occasional moose hunting trip. I bought my own first pair in university, when my birding hobby got serious, and moved up to a “mid-range” pair a few years later. I purchased my first scope in 2003 – a quality, second-hand one that had been only used a few times and was going for a “steal”. Those optics saw me through a lot of wonderful experiences – beautiful birds, rare sightings, and travel to some very cool places.

But last winter, I found myself needing to replace both my binoculars and my trusty scope. What better time for an upgrade to top-of-the-line equipment?!?! After a little research (reading reviews, chatting with a lot of birders in my network), it didn’t take long to decide that Kowa was the way to go. Kowa scopes are consistently rated at or near the top of the market for image and performance, and their new high-end line of binoculars were getting great reviews (although they hadn’t become popular in North American markets yet, so I knew very few birders who had them!). After talking with some of the lovely people at their North American offices, Kowa very generously offered to provide me with the gear I needed at a price I could appreciate. As a guide and tour leader, many birders from all over the world would enjoy an opportunity to try out, and likely be impressed by, their equipment every year.

I was like a kid on Christmas morning when the package arrived last March … and first impressions were everything I knew they would be. The sleek shape and elegant casing on both the scope and binoculars were a treat to look at, and the feel when I first picked them up were a real joy. These optics were made for my hands 😉  They had arrived just in the nick of time … I was leaving for a birding trip to Honduras the very next day, and the brand new Genesis 10.5×44 binoculars were going to get their first real test in that tropical paradise (I left the scope home for that adventure, but it has traveled everywhere with me since).

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I was honoured last year to earn the support of Kowa Optics, and upgraded my worn-out gear with their top quality equipment. I’ve had so much fun using this Prominar TSN-883 spotting scope and Genesis binoculars – and sharing the experience with so many of my guests. The optics are amazing!

I’ve been using my Kowa gear for well over a year now, so it’s time to tell you what I think. And, overall, I think it’s great! My new scope is a Kowa TSN-883 Prominar … an 88mm spotting scope that is often ranked the best in market by professional reviewers. I opted for the angled version – a switch from my old straight scope I loved so much – mostly because of  the flexibility it offers when birding with groups, as I almost always do. Angled scopes can be set up a lower level and still be accessible to people of most heights, and many birders insist that angled scopes are in general more comfortable and result in less neck strain when using it for long periods of time. It did take me a while to get used to the new perspective, but I have to say it’s been a positive change overall. That being said, the TSN scopes are available in both angled and straight models, and it’s really a matter of preference.

Despite the large objective size (88mm), the scope itself is relatively compact and light – making it easier than my previous model for both carrying and traveling. Without the eyepiece, it measures just 13.5 inches and was even able to fit in my carry-on satchel or camera bag when taking a flight (Note that Kowa also makes Prominar models in 77mm and compact 55mm sizes if travel and transport outweigh your need for a large objective). The TSN-883 has a magnesium alloy casing – making it lighter but reportedly just as strong as other brands in its class. The green finish on the casing is quite nice, although the lack of a rubber coating may leave it a little vulnerable to the elements. For added protection, I opted for a Kowa fitted scope cover which does a nice job of shielding the entire scope without making it impractical to use and has a very useful carrying strap. Of course, the scope itself is nitrogen purged and waterproof – like any optics at this end of the market should be.

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Kowa TSN-883 Prominar proudly at work … helping me score an increasingly rare “Newfoundland lifer”. Even the tiny Eared Grebe couldn’t hide on the open ocean with this beauty at my side 😉

All scopes in the Kowa Prominar line have one important thing in common – the objective lens is made of pure fluorite crystal, the standard in optical quality, and has a blend of Kowa’s special coatings to enhance both image and resilience. The result is a wonderful viewing experience – very bright, sharp and excellent colour resolution. Compared to my old scope, and most others that I’ve tried, the brightness of image really stands out when using my TSN-883 — and that matters! I’ve been able to use this scope at dusk and dawn, when many other scopes would have been all but useless. Brightness is also important when looking out over the dark waters of the ocean or on a grey foggy day (things we do a lot in Newfoundland). Birds and details appear very sharp in the scope, and focusing is fast and easy using the dual focusing wheel. Depth of field has been deep (wide?) enough that honing in on a subject isn’t impossible, but narrow enough that foreground and/or background are not too distracting. That sounds simple enough, but not every piece of optics can claim that “sweet spot” in the field of focusing. Notably, the image stays bright and sharp to the very edges of the image – something that can be annoying with lower quality lenses.

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Like all good birding buddies, my Kowa TSN-883 Prominar has been tagging along on all my adventures. Here it is trained on a Red-billed Tropicbird off the verandah of our hotel on Tobago (Trinidad & Tobago 2017)

I love the flexibility of zoom lenses, so I opted for the Kowa 20-60x eyepiece when choosing my gear. The ability to scan an area and look for birds at low magnification but zoom in on a distant target when necessary is a very useful thing – especially when you’re like me and spend a lot of time watching seabirds and shorebirds. Like the scope body, Kowa eyepieces are also nitrogen purged and waterproof – an important feature considering it is one part of the system that is always exposed to the weather when in use. The eyepiece connects easily to the body, but has a push-button release mechanism that keeps it safely in place until you actually “want” it to come off. Zooming occurs smoothly with a twist of the eyepiece, meaning its easier to stay on a target (even a moving one) when doing so. The image of course loses a little brightness at high magnifications, but less than I was used to with my old scope and zoom eyepiece … and sharpness remains surprisingly good even at 60x. I haven’t for a moment regretted my choice of eyepiece – but for those interested, there are several other options including a 30x wide angle and 25x long eye-relief models.

* Don’t just take my word for it … Many of my tour guests over the past year have commented on the clear, sharp and bright views they enjoyed while using my scope; including experienced birders who own or have used other top brands. Sometimes, it was as much a conversation piece as it was a piece of equipment 😉

As much as I use and enjoy my scope, it should come as no surprise that I (along with most birders) use my binoculars far more often. Binoculars are the essential, if not diagnostic, trademark of a birder — the one piece of equipment that makes us recognizable in the outdoors world, and allows us to enjoy our sport to its fullest. I “need” a quality pair of binoculars, and my new Kowa Genesis XD 10.5×44 did not disappoint.

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My Kowa Genesis 10.5x44s got their baptism by fire — joining me on a birding trip to Honduras just 24 hrs after they arrived. They performed exceptionally well in the humid climate and often dull understories we explored. And the birds we enjoyed together?? Wow.

The key feature of the Genesis XD binoculars is that they use the same extra low dispersion glass as the Prominar scopes, resulting in a very sharp, bright and colour-correct image. The improved viewing compared to my old binoculars was amazing – and easily compared to my experiences looking through similar high-end binoculars belonging to friends and colleagues (including Swarovski and Zeiss). I chose to go with the 10.5×44 model since I was already using 10x binoculars, and prefer the higher magnification for the amount of seawtaching I tend to do. That being said, many birders prefer 8x models for various reasons (wider field of view, less visible shake, etc.) and the Genesis 8.5×44 are equally well reviewed.

Another notable feature of these binoculars is the 44mm objective lenses (vs 42mm in most similar models). The difference may seem minimal, but is actually quite significant – the additional light produces a brighter image that really adds to the overall viewing experience and makes the binoculars usable in slightly dimmer situations (dawn, dusk and foul weather) than they might otherwise be. Interestingly, the objective lenses are threaded to allow the use of 46mm filters – not something that birders tend to do, but could very useful for those who (also?) use their binoculars for viewing the night sky. Combined with the larger magnification and objective size, I imagine these are ideal binoculars for people who dabble in both birding and stargazing.

The one down-side of the increased magnification and objective lenses is that it results in a somewhat larger, heavier pair of binoculars – in fact, they are notably heavier than most similar models. To be honest, I knew this before choosing them and was expecting it to be an issue (if minor), but have to admit that it has not. Even though I still use a traditional neckstrap, I have not noticed any neck strain from long period of use (note that I use an off-brand, cushioned strap that I have loved for years, and have not actually tried the Kowa strap that came with the binoculars). They do feel a bit heavy after holding them up for long periods, but they are so well shaped and comfortable to hold that the weight becomes an after-thought. All that beings said, the additional weight might be consideration for those who prefer lightweight optics, have strength/endurance issues with their arms, or tend to experience some shaking when using binoculars (I don’t like to say it, but especially “older” birders). Like the Kowa scopes and most high-end brands, the binoculars themselves are nitrogen purged and fully water/fog-proof for use in the real world.

Focusing with these binoculars is impressively smooth and comfortable – the central focusing wheel is large, well textured for gripping your finger, and adjusts both quickly and easily. Fine adjustments are easily made, but at the same time I don’t find it “too” sensitive – which can sometimes lead to frustration as you try to get the focus just right. As a birder with interests in broader aspects of nature, I often use my binoculars to look at wildflowers, butterflies and other things during my explorations — things that are sometimes relatively close. I have been very impressed with the “close focus” of these binoculars – coming in at well under 6ft (5.5ft in the specs) and as good as any binoculars I’ve used. In my opinion, this is a very important (and often under-rated) feature that helps set the best binoculars apart from others. If you’ve never enjoyed a colourful spring warbler at full frame in your binoculars, you’re missing out!

The Genesis binoculars have sturdy twist-up eye cups, which I have found to be very useful and stay in place when I’ve set them (an issue I have had with other pairs, when I would sometimes raise them to my eyes and discover one eye cup in the wrong position – occasionally making me miss a flitting bird!). The diopter (used for individually focusing each eye) also has a locking system that prevent it from changing unexpectedly – an issue I have also had with many other pairs. The reported eye relief on this model is 16mm – just on the verge of what most manufacturers/users would consider to be “long eye relief”. This makes them quite comfortable to use with the eye cups fully extended (which I prefer to block out peripheral light), and should be fine for users wearing eyeglasses (something I’ll learn more about over the next few months as I have just started wearing my first pair).

Kowa has also put a lot of thought and effort into the field of “digiscoping” (i.e. using their high-end scopes in combination with digital cameras and phones for photography and/or video). I hope to experiment with this more in the future!

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My Kowa gear has made a huge difference not only to my birding experience, but especially to that of my many clients throughout the past year. Many dozens of birders and nature-lovers enjoyed seeing some pretty fantastic things through my scope & binoculars — including life birds & spectacular displays of nature! A huge thanks to my friends at Kowa for helping me provide them with a top-notch experience.

Finally, a quick comment on customer service with Kowa – which I’ve had opportunity to experience twice since receiving my new optics. Although they have no Canadian offices (a slight inconvenience for us Canadian customers), folks working at their North American offices in California were quick to answer my questions and help in any way. After realizing a small piece (diopter ring) on my new binoculars arrived broken, they expedited a replacement piece to me that arrived within a few days. I also had a very unfortunate incident with my scope, causing the mount to break (due to a significant impact, and not due to any defect or shortfall in the scope itself). The service department at Kowa took care of it quickly, receiving and returning the perfectly repaired scope in excellent time (considering it had to go all the way to California). They have been wonderful to deal with when I need to (although I always hope I don’t!).