Extremadura and the EL50 Swarovisions (guest post)

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by CharlieMoores on February 17, 2011 · 1 comment

in Birding Western Palearctic

Okay, a new voice here on Birding Blogs? Well, hopefully not ‘new’ as in never heard of before, but new here for sure – invited on as one-off guest blogger to write about my recent trip to Extremadura (Spain) with the brand new 10x and 12x EL50 Swarovisions courtesy of Dale Forbes (that’s both courtesy of as in ‘guest blogger’ and ‘to Extremadura’).

Why you might be asking, would Dale Forbes, who writes on here about all things Swaro already, ask me to come on to Birding Blogs to rabbit on about a product he knows better than anyone? I have two theories. Firstly, Dale is an all-round good egg and knows that I’m feeling a little ‘blog-homeless’ at the moment following my rushed departure from 10,000 Birds (actually, I do have a new blog, so perhaps a better description would be – temporarily I hope – ‘blog-audienceless’) but I still have the need to write! Secondly, if Dale were to come on here himself and tell a generally cynical world how freaking amazing the new EL50s were there might just be a little muttering as readers began to question whether Dale was suffering from over-imagination because have no doubts the EL50s (the number refers to the size of the objective lens in mm by the way) are truly amazing – bright and remarkably detailed, surprisingly lightweight, and ergonomically superior to any binocular I’ve ever used (a range of owned and reviewed models which include the superb Swarovski 7×42 SLCs I’ve carried everywhere for the last few years).

I could go on but let’s just assume I’ve used binoculars before and get back to Extremadura, a region of Spain the size of Switzerland which seems to have more birds than it does people (oodles and oodles vs 1 million to be more accurate). In fact, let’s shift things on to the first full morning of a three day trip where me and a bunch of birding greats and birding journos (not a mutually exclusive selection of descriptors of course) are spilling hurriedly out of a coach which has pulled up overlooking a muscularly craggy peak, the Peñafalcon, in the wondrous Monfragüe National Park.

We’re hurrying because the sun is rising, a mist is rolling down into the valley we’re parked up in (an uncomfortably cold mist actually – not that I’m complaining, I just don’t want anyone to read the rest of this post and think there were no bumps in the road on this magical journey of ours), and the sky in front of us is filling with literally hundreds of Griffon Vultures (and small numbers of Cinereous Vultures) leaving their roosts and rising steadily and slowly on the updraughts building all around us as heat touches the dawn air.

Unless you happen to be fortunate enough to live where vultures are still common (which is getting rarer now that they’ve been poisoned off the Indian subcontinent by a livestock inflammation treatment and are now declining hugely across Africa through baited carcasses put out to kill lions) there are fewer sights in birding more spectacular than vultures leaving a roost. To me vultures speak to our primeval souls (it wasn’t that long ago that our ancestors would have squabbled with vultures over the bodies of recent kills); they inspire awe that anything so large can float so effortlessly and silently on the slenderest of breezes; and they are slow enough even for amateur snappers like me to get a decent photograph!

extremadura feb10 08 Extremadura and the Swarovski EL50 Swarovisions: Day two

Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus

extremadura feb10 10 Extremadura and the Swarovski EL50 Swarovisions: Day two

Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus

Not, it has to be acknowledged, that our Swarovski hosts were especially interested at this point about photographic opportunities for their specially-invited guests. What they wanted (understandably of course) was for us birders to use our new EL50s instead. Quite right, too, and it really didn’t take much prompting (other than the deep furrows on Dale’s brow as he waited for the verdict) for all of us to turn the EL50s on the feathered giants drifting overhead…

I need to back up a bit here. Before going on any further I should perhaps explain that up until this moment none of us had actually used the new Swaros in anything like a full-on birding situation. We’d been given them the night before at dinner, where boxes containing either the 10×50 or the 12×50 ELs had been put on the dinner table by each place setting. Which one we’d ended up had been dependent on where we randomly sat down. After an excellent set of presentation speeches we were invited to unwrap our ‘presents’. Inside – to my gratification – was the 12x, a binocular that Dale had been waving around at the far end of the room and which looked broad but no larger than a standard 10x.

I have to say I had been really intrigued by Dale’s enthusiasm for a magnification factor rarely used on birding bins. I don’t know about you, but the last time I used a 12x binoculars mammoths still roamed frozen London and the Grand Canyon was no deeper than a ditch. I’m exaggerating, but it was a long time ago, and I’d not had a decent reason to use a pair since: the ones I’d used – a pair of East German Zeiss – had drained the sky of light like a black hole, weighed the same as a Trabant, and had a field of view so narrow you could barely see out of them. And holding them up? Arnie himself would have managed no more than a few sets of curls before putting them down and looking for something less painful.

Swaro 09feb11 02 Extremadura and the new Swarovski EL50 Swarovisions

Swaro 09feb11 01 Extremadura and the new Swarovski EL50 Swarovisions

Same story with the EL50s? Inside the dining room there had been a collective gasp as the group had pulled the new Swaros out and turned them on whatever was moving in other parts of the room. We focussed on each other, we focussed on the presentation slides, we focussed on the bread rolls, we focussed near, we focussed far – but then you know birders, give us new optics to use and if all there’d been to focus on had been paint drying we’d have watched that quite happily. I even vividly remember Dick Forsman, raptor identification expert and – it turns out – one heck of a nice guy, staring at one of the halogen lamps in the corner and exclaiming that the coatings on the lenses were so good they were filtering out the glare and he could actually see the element burning (a claim I tested and found to be absolutely true).

Perhaps the most remarkable thing was that without looking at the markings on each binocular it was impossible to tell which was the 10x and which the 12x. The dimensions were identical. And they were unexpectedly lightweight: 998 gm give or take a few milligrams. Even a newborn could use these things to watch aeroplanes going overhead…

Which brings me right back to Monfragüe (see what I did there, you need to read my stuff on Talking Naturally you know).

I might be coming over all Roberta Flack here, but I have to say that the first time ever I saw a Griffon’s face through these objects of desire I was enraptured (or should that be ‘enraptored’). No 12x binocular has the right to produce an image so sharp or so detailed as the EL50s. No 12x should be able to probe the darker crevices on a distant slab of rock like the EL50s. And no 12x – surely – should be so balanced in the hand that they seem to be equipped with stabilisers.

Switching straight from a 7x to a 12x should – I thought – surely have involved something more traumatic than finding that whatever I looked at was suddenly really BIG. Surely the massively diminished field of view must be a problem? I mean going from something with an almost limitless landscape to watching birds through the equivalent of a drinking straw must have involved some sort of period of adjustment?

Far from it. Light floods into the 50mm objective lens like that scene towards the end of ‘Silence of the Lambs’ where Agent Sparrow smashes the blacked-out windows. And while the field of view isn’t as wide as the English Channel it’s easily wide enough to fit a squadron of vultures into. The 10x is of course more panoramic, but I spent the whole three days with the 12x using them in different habitats from the altitudinal rise and falls of the mountains, to the broad sweep of the ‘false steppes’, and the more enclosed cork oak woodlands of the dehesas. In each situation the 12x performed brilliantly (far better than I could have ever imagined) and each bird I saw through them was vivid and unfiltered, real and very beautiful (even ‘garden birds’ I see every day like Chaffinches looked gorgeous through them, and at one point I found myself staring at the intense red of a Robin which flicked up onto a fence post while I was waiting for a Sardinian Warbler [which looked stunning even though it’s mostly black, grey, and white!]).

extremadura 11feb11 021 Extremadura and the Swarovski EL50 Swarovisions: Day three

Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni

Okay, about now someone must be wondering what the negatives are. Yeah, me too! Come on Swarovski, own up. You somehow spiked the bottles of agua sin gas, or sprinkled something mind-bending on the enaslada con queso didn’t you, because these things were just too amazing? Perfectly balanced, comfortable to wear (the supplied neoprene strap is a masterpiece of design, if such things can be said of a binocular strap while still avoiding accusations of hitting the cervezas too hard), the sharpness of image right to the edge, the extraordinary colour fidelity whatever the light conditions – what can you say against them…The elements combined to produce a binocular that is not just a step up from the previous class-leading EL42s but sets the EL50s far ahead of the nearest opposition.

I was going to say at this point that a) you can see now what I meant by that if Dale himself had written this there would be questions asked; and b) that perhaps the close focussing may put some potential users off. Forget a) – it hardly needed pointing out, but the close focussing ability of the EL50s is not bad at all. Swarovski have never produced a binocular with serious pretensions of taking the close focus crown (at least not the ones I’ve used) but the EL50s are actually – again – far better I was expecting. At dinner the night we were given them I think everyone of us checked the close focus almost straight away, and all of us were pleasantly surprised. I estimated the 12x were going down to about 3m, and in the field I used them to watch a Bath White nectaring – without having to walk backwards! Yes, if you’re mainly into watching beetles you might prefer the Pentax Papilios, but if you’re mainly into birds and want clarity like you’ve never seen before then the EL50s are for you…

…assuming of course you can afford them. I’m not such an unquestioning Swaro fanboy that I’m not aware that 2000GBP is a lot of money. It’s a round the world ticket in Business Class or a holiday of a lifetime. It’s a pretty decent second-hand car if you know where to look. All true, but I reckon a pair of bins like these will still be sparkling ten years down the line – my current car has gone through seven tyres in eighteen months, costs hundreds a year to service, will fall apart in the next fifty thousand miles, and have you seen the price of fuel in the UK? Dammit you could buy a top of the range pair of binoculars for what it costs to fill the tank through the year and I know which would give me more pleasure.

Oh, wow, see what I did there…almost as good as what you see when you look through the EL50s – almost, but not quite.

So, in all this talk of binoculars what about the birds? Well, the trip list was just over a hundred. Many sub-Saharan migrants hadn’t reached Europe yet, but when a list includes great views of the raptors I’ve mentioned plus Spanish Imperial and Golden Eagles, wonderful views of Great Bustard, Crested, Thekla, and Calandra Larks, and some of the regions most outstanding species no-one was heard complaining. I could go on (endlessly!) however this post is far long enough as it is, so if I may could I invite you to have a look at my posts on Talking Naturally where some photos and some more bird information may be found? Especially if in addition to the birds already listed the likes of Common Crane, White Stork, Lesser Kestrel, and Great Spotted Cuckoo are of interest? Excellent, I’ll see you there then.

Oh, and did I get to keep ‘my’ EL50s? No, that wasn’t the deal: all participants on the trip handed back the optics they’d been using on the last night. I’ve been asked since whether I’d have continued using them if I had been able to keep them: without a shadow of a doubt. They were utterly wonderful and I loved having them round my neck. It may have been a brief encounter, but like Celia Johnson the Swaros were classy and unforgettable…

extremadura feb10 12 Extremadura and the Swarovski EL50 Swarovisions: Day two

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.

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