Mini-Binoculars Will Travel


Disclosure: Years ago we were asked to serve on the Alpen Optics Birding Pro-Staff and periodically we receive optics to test. Following is a report on using mini-binoculars while traveling.

In October we enjoyed a 1600-mile, 12-day clockwise loop around Washington State.    After picking up our rental car at the Spokane airport our journey took us through deserts, mountain passes, the Olympic rainforest, and even across Puget Sound on a ferry.

We enjoyed spotting new bird species, sea lions, jellyfish, Roosevelt elk, and a host of other wildlife. Good thing we brought along binoculars! We wouldn’t dream of traveling without binoculars and use them constantly. Even when we trek to New York City we tote along a pair. But, for this trip, they presented a dilemma.

We wanted to avoid checking baggage on the plane to save cost and the possibility of a lost suitcase.

Hoh Rainforest

Rich with compact binoculars.

Delta Airlines limited us to a small suitcase that we could carry on the plane. Squeezing nearly two weeks’ worth of clothes and supplies into these packs was a challenge. It became obvious that we couldn’t fit in our full-size binocs. Mini Binoculars to the rescue! Our Alpen Wings ED compact binoculars easily nested into a hiking boot that we tucked in the pack.

For all around general binocular use, and when we’re traveling by car, we always use full-size binoculars. They fit our hands well, provide a bright image, even at dawn and dusk, and their field of view is wide. Their downside is bulkiness.

Many optical companies sell high-quality compact binoculars. Go for quality. Inexpensive models are nearly useless. Here are the pros and cons of mini binoculars:


Compact binoculars are handy because they are small. They easily fit in a glove compartment, purse, or jacket pocket and take little space in a suitcase. Mini’s are ideal for travel. Quality ones have clear optics.

Having a pair of mini binoculars handy is always better than not having binoculars.


Mini binoculars have a limited field of view and are rarely as good in low light situations as their full-size cousins. We find them a little harder to use and hold than full-size models and would never choose to use minis for long viewing sessions or if we went on specific birding excursions. But they are invaluable when size and weight are limited.

The best solution is to have two pairs of binoculars. One full sized model for general use and minis for travel and convenience.

Total Eclipse of the Sun 2017

Even though clouds and rain dominated the central Midwest on Monday, August 21st, we took in and enjoyed our Eclipse Trip 2017. We drove major roads to SW Iowa and cut over to smaller state and county roads where the views were more intimate and traffic less.  Rolling hills of the Iowa Southern Drift  added variety for the eye and pastures and unmowed roadsides softened the landscape, providing habitat for pollinators and birds. This is a very low population area of Iowa.  Only about 7000 people live in the entire county and Bedford, IA, has been losing population since the 1930’s.  You can buy a house there for $25,000.

Our campsite at Lake of Three Fires  near Bedford, IA was surrounded by other eclipse seekers. Set on fingers of ridges, the campground would normally have been empty on a Sunday night, but on the solar eclipse eve, campers kept streaming in.  All quiet. All intent on finding a good location to view the upcoming eclipse.  Met many folks from Minnesota had braved I-35 and I-80 traffic and a terrifically scary and strong lightning storm that blasted through southern Iowa and lit the sky all night. One fellow pulled in at 4:00 a.m. The night brought a chorus of coyotes, a lone owl hooting and an amazing lightning show to the north.
Then, the rain. But, that did not deter any of us. We scattered across NW Missouri and doggedly drove toward clearing skies, finding a small window in Maysville, MO. The rain stopped, clouds thinned and we set our chairs up on the lawn of the county courthouse along with a bunch of other folks. Eclipse watchers clustered about along gravel roads, in farms, and in small towns.
We were able to see the sun on and off through thin clouds. While we had only glimpses of the sun itself as the moon “took bites out of it”, the experience and the surrounding activities were fascinating. The day gradually darkened and then just at totality it went black!  Street lights came on.  Nighthawks appeared in the sky and chimney swifts circled chimneys. Pigeons roosted on the roofs. Bats briefly fluttered about. People donned their glasses, chatted, and “oohed” and “awed” exclaiming loudly, “I can’t believe this!”  “How cool is this?!”  And, finally, one woman joked, “Why are we all so surprised?”
After a couple of minutes it got  lighter rather quickly and we hopped in to car for the 270 mile drive back home.

It was one fun trip and a lovely diversion from the regular fare of “news” that we are subjected to daily.

More anon. Enjoy this short Splice video of our trip.

Odessa Water Trail

Canoe Front

A picture perfect day to canoe.

On a splendid late July day we packed up food, loaded the canoe, paddles and life jackets and headed out to explore the Odessa Water Trail. It’s one of Iowa’s several water trails and part of a larger system of water trails in the Midwest.  What a blast!

Two hours south of Cedar Rapids the The Odessa Trail in Louisa County offers a way to explore backwaters safely. It winds through two wildlife management areas. The map we picked up at the Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters  ensured we would not get lost in the maze of channels that form the meandering floodplain. Tucked in the inner elbow below Iowa’s bulge with the “Father of Waters” this refuge, managed for waterfowl and wildlife, encompasses 6400 acres and sports three tails ranging from an easy three mile paddle to a moderate 4.5 mile cruise to a 6.5 trek that can extend to 17 miles!

The Refuge closes from mid-September to January first to accommodate migratory waterfowl.  Other times it is open to boaters, canoeists and kayakers, fishermen, and birders. Hiking and bicycling trails line the main islands, but those adventures could be dicey in high water and just plain buggy in hot weather. A campground is conveniently located near the Odessa Wildlife Unit Headquarters. 

This day was just right.  High pressure kept winds down, the sun was warm, but the air cool, especially for July.  Sunscreen, long sleeved shirts and hats  kept the sun’s rays at bay. Mid summer is quiet for bird life after their busy nesting season. Still we heard and saw a variety of songbirds and kept annoying a Great Egret and at least two Great Blue Herons. They would nervously watch us approach then with a loud squawk lift off and wing a few hundred yards down stream. Only to be annoyed again, when we approached. We did watch a heron catch and swallow a fish.

Along the banks frogs of all sizes croaked and leapt into the murky water. Lots of fish were rising up, but Rich decided not to wet his line, and rather studied the trail map carefully as we floated and paddled. Partway down, we pulled in for lunch balancing snacks in the canoe as the day drifted by.

It was great to try out one of Iowa’s many water trails. Check out the link to the National Park’s National Water Trail System. And, enjoy the short videos and photo gallery below. Go Outside and Play!

Great Egret Flies Off Click this link to see.

Great Blue Heron fishes.

May in Northeast Iowa

May is about the most exciting month to travel and camp out in Iowa.  We took in the Driftless area of Iowa and Wisconsin where we learned more about mounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument, ate at funky Café McGregor, took in Starks and Cabelas in Prairie du Chien, and entered our favorite forest over the “Forest Road” into Yellow River State Forest.

  • Note our reviews and thoughts are independent, unpaid and unsolicited.

Enjoy this photo journal of our stay.


Cold Streams, Warm Memories

Tourne Brook

Floating boat with Gram and Gramps.

March is the perfect time for kids to slop around in puddles, intermittent streams, and small creeks.  We get filthy, soaking wet, and learn! How ice forms. How it melts. Where critters live in the deep freeze. Balance teetering on rocks. Using sticks as levers to pry up dark, dank, slimy leaves. It’s a blast!

As kids we spotted the first emerging pussy willows along streams, caught the first calls of the red-winged blackbirds heralding their return, and imagined ourselves explorers in the wild – just beyond the manicured lawns. Sometimes I do wonder why we are still alive – reenacting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” on slippery ice floes and taking the “short cut” to school over the river on the large pipe above the dam from the chip board plant to the other side.

While Winding Pathways does not advocate dangerous activities like that, we do encourage familiarizes to get outside and experience the daily wonders unfolding as spring moves north.

Our kids floated toy boats with Gram and Gramps, fished the spring waters gaining experience to fish on their own in summer, and later took up more outdoor activities as the seasons progressed.

Here is a haiku  that I’d written long ago that surfaced while I was culling old files.

“Dampness awakens.
Slow green shoots appear and grow.
Spring bursts in splendor.”

Winding Pathways folks hope you “Go outside and play!”

Spring Symphony

After an unusually mild winter we were hardly surprised by the early onset of spring’s symphony.  At Winding Pathways in Iowa it usually starts on clear cold  February days  when male cardinals begin their beeker beeker beeker call. They  were close to their normal schedule this late winter. Then red winged blackbirds arrived fully two weeks early and added their voices to roadside ditches and wetlands.

On March 7 we heard the glorious sound that truly harkens spring – Chorus Frogs and Peepers!   We were driving a dirt road through southern Iowa’s Shimek State Forest when Marion heard the voices of dozens of tiny frogs coming from a puddle the size of our car.

Chorus Frogs

To naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch singing peepers heralded a true resurrection and marked the start of the warm season. Living in Connecticut he noted that they always began singing in the period of time in which Easter can fall. In other words between March  22  and April  25 .

That’s usually true in Iowa but this year they are earlier, much earlier.

Most people have heard peepers and chorus frogs but have never seen the tiny amphibians that sing with magnificent enthusiasm. The two species often live in the same places and can be easily told apart by their calls. Chorus frogs sound like a person running his finger along the teeth of a comb, while peepers make the “peep peep peep” calls that gives them their name.   To hear recorded peepers and chorus frogs log in to Manitoba Frog and Toad Calls.

Frogs are far from the only animals that begin calling as winter transitions into spring.   Migrating birds are already beginning to appear in yards, woodlands, and wetlands across America and often they are easier to hear than see. Some of the most melodic singers are the hardest birds to spot, and identifying them by sound is often more efficient than trying to spot a bird in thick brush. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has excellent audios of bird calls for mobile apps.

Experienced birders   (and froggers for that matter) use both ears and eyes to identify species.  Like many birders we started out using printed bird guides to help us learn species. Only much later did we begin learning their calls.  It’s been a rewarding hobby that has a cruel catch.

Each  Rich  would learn  new bird calls when  history caught up with him. Probably due to intense noise of  heavy machine guns in Army training decades ago his ability to hear many sounds, particularly those of high pitches is fading.  Marion can hear birdsong he can’t.  He’s investigating hearing aids that should help him continue this fascinating means of identification.  Stay tuned.  He’ll report on hearing aids later.


For years we lugged around bird books that were either large and heavy or compact but limited in the information they provided. They were the best way to learn new species in the field.

That’s changed thanks to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. We loaded their free Merlin App into our smart phones. It makes identifying 400 bird species a snap. At the touch of a few keys  several photos of each species appear, a range map, and……best of all…… recorded sounds of  each bird.

We still carry and refer to a paper bird book but the Merlin App has become our favorite field tool for identifying birds, especially by their call.


We joined the Lab a few years ago and love its colorful and informative magazine, LIVING BIRD, and the many bird tips posted on their websiteChorus Frogs. The Lab has been a leader in bird science for decades and they’ve helped us become better birders and gain new insights into the lives of these fascinating animals.