Reviews

I'm a Leica fan

It's customary to declare an interest before you begin a review of a product, and I'll say right from the outset I'm a big fan of Leica binoculars. Prior to buying the Ultravids this year I'd been using a pair of Leica Trinovid 8x42 BAs since 1991, and though the exteriors showed the wear picked up from 14 years of regular birding all over the world they were still optically excellent and didn't have a speck of dirt inside the barrels. In fact I would still happily be using them today if I hadn't left them hanging on the back of a washroom door in Rio de Janeiro airport....

When I bought the Trinovids all those years ago choosing what to buy was much simpler than it is now: if you wanted the best binoculars (and I did), then you would be looking at roof-prism models from either Leica or from Zeiss. There were no Swarovski ELs, Nikon binoculars were not in the same league then, Canon hadn't launched their image-stabilised models, and no serious birder that I knew was looking at binoculars from the US.

I preferred the Leica Trinovids over the Zeiss Dialytes because I thought that the colours were more accurate (I find Zeiss seem to have a slight bluish cast) and didn't like the way Zeiss binoculars caused "barrelling" when panning along a horizon. The Leicas were heavy but they were rugged, felt good in the hand, and were excellent in low light.

I have never regretted the decision to buy them, but, almost fifteen years later, how would I want to spend my money now?

When I first headed to China in 1985, the only guide to the country's birds was a (then) recently published volume by museum man Rudolphe Meyer de Schauensee, who reportedly figured he could learn all he needed about the country's birds from his specimens (in the US), without visiting China. This had a fine introductory chapter on the history of ornithology, including tales of derring-do by Russian ornithologists risking and occasionally succumbing to bandits and diseases to collect specimens including species new to science. Yet, the field descriptions were sadly wanting (honey buzzard has feathers on the head and throat "which are short, stiff, scalelike and very dense"!) The plates were poor, omitting many key Chinese species - presumably as the artist could only portray available specimens.

Against this, A Field Guide to the Birds of China by John MacKinnon, with illustrations by Karen Phillipps (Oxford University Press, 2000), is a major improvement - as it should be, given John MacKinnon has extensive field experience in China; Karen Philllipps lived in Hong Kong. Notably, most of the over 1300 species are illustrated in colour (some only in black and white, accompanying the text).

But here too, the descriptions are often casual and cursory. We're not quite at the level of having to touch the heads of passing raptors, but some of the tough birds like warblers might not be described with too much more than "medium-sized, brown": works for readily separated species, but when the identification gets tough, well, Birds of China doesn't get going.