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This photo gear is for the birds -- really

Pro bird watchers haul around $10,000 camera lenses, but you can start with $140 binoculars. Our in-house birder field-tests a few options.

The massive objective lens at the business end of Canon's 600mm supertelephoto lens will draw stares from curious passerby.
The massive objective lens at the business end of Canon's 600mm supertelephoto lens will draw stares from curious passersby.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

This is part of our Road Trip 2017 summer series "The Smartest Stuff," about how innovators are thinking up new ways to make you — and the world around you — smarter.

Well before sunrise, I pull my SLR, a super-sturdy carbon-fiber tripod and a gargantuan $11,500 camera lens out of my car's trunk. I'd driven two hours through the night to reach Point Reyes National Seashore to catch the morning light for photographing birds in the rolling hills north of San Francisco.

I'm testing some very high-end photo gear that makes it vastly easier to nail the shot. I wanted to see firsthand how the digital age has transformed birdwatching — or birding, as enthusiasts call it.

I've been birding since I was a kid back in the analog age. Now apps and optics make it much easier, with birding expertise a few taps away on your phone and cameras that can freeze birds at the perfect angle so you can look at them at your leisure.

It's fine to start with a modest budget if you're interested in birding. A couple of free apps and binoculars costing less than $200 are plenty. But just as with cycling, model trains and video games, serious enthusiasts often invest a pile of money in their passion. The trick is knowing how far to push it.

"With traveling and many other things in life, the farther you go, the less you need," says Noah Strycker, a 31-year-old professional bird guide. He should know: He birded every day of 2015 around the world for a 6,042-species record, carrying everything he needed in a modestly sized backpack.

App options

That handy field guide can be on your phone. A $20 mobile app may seem expensive when most of us think twice about spending $5 at an app store, but bird guides are packed with carefully prepared data. That includes high-resolution photos or illustrations, range maps showing where birds live and migrate, and recordings of songs and calls.

Here are some options worth considering, all available on iOS and Android:

Merlin Bird ID: This free app from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology is a great starting point. Many bird books begin with daunting plumage diagrams — quick, what's the difference between a bird's tertials and its greater secondary coverts? Merlin begins with "Where did you see the bird?" and offers your phone's current location as the top option. A few other simple questions about the bird's color and size, and Merlin will present a list of possibilities along with photos, descriptions and recorded songs.

The Merlin Bird ID app, from Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology, asks easy questions to zero in on a particular bird. It's helpful and instructive, too.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

More impressively, Merlin Bird ID also can identify a photo, either freshly taken or uploaded from your phone's archive. It's nearly impossible to get a good bird photo directly with a phone camera, but you can take a photo of your camera's screen or even the view through your binoculars. It worked well with my own photos, including blurred images.

Audubon Bird Guide: A good companion to Merlin, this free guide lets you drill down a bit more or search for information on a particular species. It's got the basics — bird descriptions, photos, songs and range maps — though you have to scroll through an alphabetic list instead of typing the bird's name. There's an option to look at similar species, which is handy if you're not sure whether you're looking at a Brandt's or a double-crested cormorant.

Integration with Cornell's online eBird site gets you some perks, too, like a list of birds narrowed down to those spotted in your area.

eBird: This app isn't so much for identifying birds as for logging what you've seen. Many birders keep life lists and other records of their sightings, and eBird is a widely used tool for that.

Equally important, your bird checklists go into a vast database of global sightings that helps scientists and other birders.

"With eBird, you can map out the hot spots," says Shailesh Pinto, a birder from Columbus, Ohio, I met at the Biggest Week in American Birding event in northern Ohio, where thousands come to see migrating warblers. But be warned: The eBird app feels more like a database interface built by researchers than a polished consumer app. For the time being, you'll have to stick with the website if you want to find out what month a Baltimore oriole is likely to migrate through your state.

The $20 Sibley eGuide to Birds app brings David Sibley's highly regarded paper bird book to iOS and Android devices.

Stephen Shankland

Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America: Ornithologist and illustrator David Sibley rose to fame when his printed bird guide provided details like seasonal differences in plumage, images of juvenile birds and images of birds in flight. The $20 app version of his book is just as authoritative, and it adds audio recordings and checklists, too. It'll be familiar to those who own the paper version of the book.

Sibley also lets you pare down the ID possibilities by setting your location and offers a smart search tool to try to zero in on what you're seeing, but I find Merlin's search tool offers better results.

iBird: A limited version is free, but iBird Pro costs $15 with descriptions, photos, illustrations, range and songs for 944 species. In-app upgrades or the $20 iBird Ultimate version add features like "birds around me" and the Percevia online search engine to winnow down likely suspects. The app also is integrated with the WhatBird online forum where other birders can help you with IDs.

iBird's developers soon will add a photo ID technology that, like Merlin's, uses AI to tell you which species you just photographed. "This neural network is so incredible that you don't even have to have a good photograph. It can be fuzzy, tiny, and it'll figure it out," promises Chief Executive Mitch Waite.

Living large

Good bird photography benefits from patience, careful planning and knowledge of birds. But high-end gear helps, too, and I got to live a bird photographer's fantasy by borrowing a huge, expensive lens. Even with cheaper options, photography costs can quickly add up, and it's not easy to get National Geographic-caliber shots.

I branched out from my own Canon gear that includes the $3,300 5D Mark IV, a high-end "full-frame" SLR popular among pros and enthusiasts. I also own Canon's $2,200 EF 100-400mm f4.5-6.3/L IS II telephoto zoom lens and a 1.4x teleconverter that brings my telephoto reach to 560mm.

CNET reporter Stephen Shankland photographing birds on San Francisco Bay with a Canon 5D Mark IV camera, Canon EF 1.4x III teleconverter, Canon EF 600mm F4/L IS II lens, Gitzo tripod, and Wimberley WH200 tripod head.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

On top of that, I borrowed Canon's midrange $1,350 7D Mark II SLR and the stunning $11,500 EF 600mm f4/L IS II supertelephoto lens. The lens is more than 2 feet long, and everywhere I took it, people gawked.

I'm a serious photographer, but for years I've been frustrated by birds that are small, fast-moving and easily spooked. Even a 560mm telephoto doesn't get you much when you're 50 feet away from a 6-inch snowy plover. But 840mm — the 600mm lens and 1.4x extender — was a huge improvement, especially since the lens lets through more than twice as much light as my own to better freeze the action.

It's almost impossible to hold the 600mm lens steady even if you spend a lot of time at the gym. So I used a sturdy Gitzo G1325 Mark 2 carbon fiber tripod that could handle the lens' 8.6 pounds and the marvelous Wimberley WH-200 II gimbal tripod head, which puts the lens' center of gravity below the pivot point to make it easy to move around.

On an 8-hour boat trip from San Francisco to the Farallon Islands, I used a monopod since deck space was hard to come by — and a pitching deck undoes a tripod's stability advantage, anyway. The monopod was good, but I learned the limits of my photo skills: The longer the telephoto lens, the harder it is to frame a subject. The combination of moving boat and moving birds made sure that the vast majority of my shots were duds.

A killdeer with a distinctive red-ringed eye stands reflected in the San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Canon's EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens, still huge but more portable and less expensive than the 600mm, is a fixture among birders. Undeterred by its $9,000 price, dozens of photographers haul these around to capture those twitchy but beautiful warblers migrating through Ohio.

Zooming in

Serious photographers still gravitate toward Canon and Nikon SLR cameras. They're bulky and expensive, but they offer better image quality than smaller alternatives. The ability to change lenses, which lets you adapt to different shooting needs, is critical. Fast autofocus also helps tremendously.

Other options are attractive to birders, too — such as the more compact $2,000 Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II camera paired with the company's $2,500 300mm f/4.0 IS Pro ED lens. Those with Canon or Nikon SLRs also can use Sigma's $2,000 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports lens, which has good telephoto reach for bird photos. In Ohio, I see quite a few Nikon AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR lenses, a good competitor to Canon's 100-400mm lens for those who need something more portable than the biggest telephoto lenses.

If you're interested, consider renting gear from companies like BorrowLenses or Lensrentals to test the waters.

The 7D Mark II is what's known as a crop-frame SLR, which means it has a smaller, cheaper "APS-C" sensor than the one in my full-frame 5D Mark IV. The smaller sensor impairs low-light performance, color, and the ability to capture both bright and shadowy areas. But the smaller sensor also has the effect of multiplying telephoto range by a factor of 1.6. On a 7D Mark II, that 600mm lens works like a 960mm model. (Nikon's crop-frame sensors are a bit larger, giving a multiplier factor of only 1.5.)

My mix-and-match approach gave me two good options: the 7D Mark II with my 100-400mm lens for good portability or my 5D Mark IV with the 600mm lens for the best photos. I use the former at the Biggest Week event, and the latter when a car trunk is available. The 7D Mark II image quality is a big step down, especially when shooting at high sensitivity settings to freeze the action, and its autofocus and brightness metering are also in need of an update.

A brown pelican plunges bill-first into San Francisco Bay.

A brown pelican plunges bill-first into San Francisco Bay, trying to catch a fish.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

For even more reach, some birders use spotting scopes — small rugged telescopes that can handle being banged around and rained on. The digital age has changed these, too, with a technology called digiscoping that lets you use them as a camera lens.

Scope makers like Swarovski, Leica, and Zeiss offer adapters that let you mount your SLR, point-and-shoot or even smartphone to the scope. There are sacrifices compared to traditional camera lenses: autofocus doesn't work, and scopes don't let through as much light. Still, if you want to zoom in on that black-crowned night heron's piercingly red eye, scopes are a good technology.

All of this can sound daunting, I know, but If you're interested in birding, start small.

"Birding is very basic," Strycker says. "It's just about going outside and looking at birds. You can start with a pair of binoculars and a field guide."

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