Holiday Gift Guide: Binoculars the day after

Second sight: binoculars from your past might be able to see into the future.

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: Holiday gift-giving this year may have been less splendiferous than usual, but it’s a safe bet that some birders received high-quality binoculars. Maybe these were gifts from partners or parents or friends, or some birders may have decided to splurge on gifts for themselves. One way or another, right now some birders will be looking at birds through brand-new lenses.

Kim and I have some important advice for you. It’s not about what kind of binoculars you should have bought; we have our favorites, of course, but there are many great optics available today. No, this is advice about what to do AFTER you’ve tried out your new binoculars, gotten used to them, fallen in love with them. At that point, ask yourself: What are you going to do with your old binoculars?

That’s assuming that you had old ones. If these are your first, congratulations! Just file this advice away for future reference. But if your new optics represent an upgrade, then they’re replacing old ones that served you to some extent. If your old bins were just awful, you should throw them away. But if they’re in good shape, those old optics could be a tremendous help to someone who has no binoculars at all.

Maybe you know some local nature center with a limited budget that could really use "loaner" binoculars for field trips. Or a camp or a school where the nature programs would benefit from having optics available. But if not, there’s an organization that can help deliver used optics directly to the people who need them most.

The Birders' Exchange is an ingenious program that gathers used (but still useful) binoculars, telescopes, and other items of field equipment and delivers them to people who can least afford them but who can make the best use of them: biologists, naturalist guides, park rangers, students, and others in the developing countries of Latin America. Deserving individuals in no fewer than 29 countries have already received the benefit of such donations. It’s safe to say that the program is making such workers more effective throughout the American tropics, thus contributing to education and research and bird conservation in a huge way.

The Birders' Exchange was started in 1990 by the Manomet Bird Observatory (now Manomet Center for Conservation Science) and is now administered by the American Birding Association. Sharp birder and all-around wonderful person Betty Petersen has managed the program for years and has made it into a terrific success. She and her colleagues run a very economical and efficient operation, and they don’t have time to deal with repairs or replacement parts -- so we shouldn’t ever send them junk. But if you’ve got some good-quality used optics to donate, go to their website and check it out. Your old favorite bins could have a second life looking at tropical birds and helping to make a difference.


  1. Bravo for posting about this important project!

  2. I can vouch for that binoculars donated this way have come to good use. In Peru there is need of good binoculars. In fact as I point out in my recent blog, the fact that there were no decent binoculars available lead to a serious black market of stolen binoculars. As you can read about in the blog I started to import good inexpensive binoculars from the US.
    Nevertheless, when and if you travel to the neo-tropics you can be sure there is someone that will be in need of your old binoculars.
    In fact, even if you don't have second hand binoculars yourself, note that sometimes it is difficult for the Binocular Exchange to actually get the binocs to the end owner, due to customs. You can serve as courier to deliver the binocs! To Peru for instance it is allowed to to bring in two binoculars per person without paying customs(supposedly for private use and to take them with you back again - but this is never checked once the binoculars have been brought in).
    Merry Christmas to all

    Gunnar Engblom

  3. Hi Laura, Hi Gunnar, Thanks for the comments! We're honored to hear from you. For readers who don't already know this, Laura Erickson is a leader in promoting bird conservation; her book "101 Ways to Help Birds" has had a huge positive impact. And Gunnar Engblom, through his work with Kolibri Expeditions, has been doing great things to promote ecotourism and conservation in Peru. Best of New Year's wishes to you!

  4. Members from Fyke Nature Organization in NJ
    have been visiting, and establishing friendships with, the folks in Crooked Tree, Belize. Last year, the leader, Stiles Thomas and his daughter Georgie, spoke to the local school and learned about their interests in guiding but are lacking binoculars. There is not one in the entire school.
    I have just donated 2 pair for Stiles Thomas to bring on his next trip to Belize in March 2009. Here is a link to a post about this, in case anyone wants their bins delivered directly into the hands of a waiting child:
    Let me know if there is anything else I can do to help!

  5. Bravo, Kenn, for posting this. There is little doubt that Birders’ Exchange is one of the most successful and worthwhile programs ABA has and, like many things in the non-profit world, it is literally run on a shoestring and a lot of good will. I’ve been watching it pretty much from when it first came to ABA and am always amazed at what gets accomplished. In addition to the equipment, BEX arranged for the Spanish translation and then distribution of John Kricher’s classic work, A Neotropical Companion. Several thousand copies are now in the hands of Latin American birders/researchers as a result.

    As one who has acted as a courier to take BEX equipment into various countries, I can assure you that the recipients are more than appreciative and excited. The only “problem” I ever ran into was at airport security in Houston one time when the fellow scanning the luggage asked why I was carrying six binoculars. When I told him the reason, he held up the line for several minutes just to talk about how great the idea was.

    Dick Payne
    Colorado Springs


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