Birders and wildlife watchers are starting to get used to the fact that gear manufacturers recognize us and want to make equipment specifically for us. So it wasn’t a surprise, but definitely great news, when Lowepro came out with their Optics Series for wildlife viewing.
Lowepro has long been a respected source for camera-carrying packs of all varieties, so I was particularly excited to receive two samples from the Optics Series to put to work on my birding outings.
My first trial was with the Field Station (MSRP $99.99) Keep in mind, I’m not a fanny pack kind of guy and this bag is essentially a large optics-toting fanny pack. That said, Lowepro obviously spent some time watching people watch wildlife when designing this thing.
Birders tend to carry books and notepads into the field. Identifying a bird, recording the observation, and continuing to keep a grip on the binoculars makes us look like circus jugglers performing for an audience of chickadees. That “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call they make isn’t a warning, it’s them laughing at us.
The Field Station solves this by bringing a work desk into the field. Swivel the pack around front, unzip the top, and pull out the tray that has your field guide already strapped into place. If you’re living in the year 2011, it accommodates tablet computers such as the iPad quite nicely, I hear. I still use the archaic paper, pencil, and book method, which works just fine.
When I used this feature in the field I thought the chickadees were still laughing at me, but it turned out to be my photographer friend whom I brought along for consultation. I guess the pull-out desk was a little too geeky for him, but as someone who watches birds as a hobby I’ve never been called the hippest cat in the woods and that’s fine with me.
For things like Audubon’s Christmas bird count or actual scientific field study, this feature would be very useful. Thinking back to my college days of biodiversity sampling in forests, the Field Station would have been a welcome tool.
Despite having a whole desk in there, the Field Station still has room for binoculars, a compact camera, a granola bar or two, and a water bottle on the side.
As with most Lowepro bags, there are zippered compartments and nooks and crannies all over the thing that are begging to be used to hold all sorts of trivial things that you’d want to keep close, things such as car keys, wallets, passports, and (depending on where you’re birding) bribe money.
Speaking of money, the zipper opens from the back of the bag against your body, making pick-pocket theft pretty difficult if you keep it zipped.
My only complaint about the Field Station is that it’s a large fanny pack and if you wear it in the front, bending at the waist is awkward. It’s also difficult to wear it on the side, which I tend to like to do with things like this. It’s comfortable to wear on the back while hiking to your destination, but the same padding that makes it comfortable also traps some heat and I wasn’t real thrilled with the sweaty lower back. Of course, it’s not 90 degrees everywhere or every day, and this wouldn’t be an issue most of the time.
The second bag I test drove was the Lowepro Optics Series Scope Travel 200 (MSRP $179.99) and I’m positively giddy about this thing. When you want to see birds or bears at a distance a spotting scope is a necessity. This means carrying a heavy piece of glass and a tripod to mount it on.
That’s not a big deal if you pull up at the Precipice Trail parking lot in Acadia National Park to look at Peregrine Falcons from right beside your car. But picture yourself heading up to Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park to scout for hawks and eagles from the top. Do you want to be balancing a scope and tripod on your shoulder?
I’m guessing the answer is no, although being afraid of heights, I tend to not think about that trail much at all. I didn’t carry a scope on a long walk of Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park because I didn’t want the hassle. Some nifty water birds offshore went unidentified on that hike.
The Scope Travel 200 makes the scope a no-brainer on the beach hike and an easy choice at Angel’s Landing for the birder that wouldn’t be clutching the chains and crying like a little girl. (Yes, I’ve been terrified at certain cliff edges and had little girls skip past singing as they went. I’m not proud of this.)
The scope itself fits snugly inside the pack while the tripod sits in a foot cup outside the pack and gets secured with compression straps. Put a compact camera, digiscoping mount, snacks, field guide, and your lucky hacky sack in there and you’re ready to go. A water bottle slides into a side pocket as with any traditional daypack.
Slip all of this on your back and you won’t even know it’s there. Well, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration, but this is as comfortable of a pack as I’ve ever had on, even with the tripod strapped in place.
As with most Lowepro bags, the innards are adjustable, with all the dividers and pouches attached by Velcro. The back flap reveals an area that is a dream for organization freaks, full of compartments for personal items.
Two particularly awesome uses for the Scope Travel 200 have come to mind that I haven’t had the pleasure of trying yet.
The first is cycling. A lot of birders are taking up carbon-free challenges and recording how many birds they can spot without using a car. You’re certainly not going to balance a scope over your shoulder while biking out to the lakeshore, but this backpack will make that seamless.
The second idea is flying. I want my optics with me at all times and would rather the airline didn’t have the stuff under its control in my checked bags. The Scope Travel 200 is a great carry-on bag that holds most everything you’d want on a flight.
If you’re a serious wildlife watcher and you carry a scope, the Scope Travel 200 would still be a steal at twice the price. For a birder in the field, the Field Station is worth a shot as well. Both bags are impeccably well-constructed as you’d expect from Lowepro. They’re also a nice earthy olive green, and while backpackers might like primary colors, birders love their earth tones!