A little over a month ago, I was invited to represent the ABA at a pretty amazing gathering in Hungary. I say amazing in that it assembled quite a powerhouse of talent in the European birding industry. Editors, photographers, bloggers, from a wide variety of media outlets joined Swarovski country reps and a goodly number of Swarovksi Optik executives and staff from the home office in Austria.
North America wasn't slighted, though. In addition to me, Corey Finger of 10,000 Birds fame, Gus Axelson, Science Editor for the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, and Clay Taylor, Swarovski's US Naturalist Markets Manager all made the trip across the pond to attend.
To attend what? The invitees weren't exactly sure and Clay, who we grilled en route, wasn't telling. All I knew was that I was being invited to attend an event put on by one of the ABA's major sponsors and advertisers and that there was going to be some great birding with some great people. I was in.
We didn't have to wait long. Shortly after our arrival at the Tisza Balneum, we were shown the new ATX spotting scopes and a couple of new digiscoping adapters. Then, even better, we were given a set of of the new products to use for the next several days.
Even though we knew we would have to surrender these nifty new toys before leaving, there was a palpable Christmas morning wave of excitement surging through the crowd. These things looked really cool! But how would they perform?
What follows are some photos and thoughts about the experience both of birding and digiscoping with the ATX setup and in Hungary. I hope they'll be of value to anyone with an interest in spotting scopes and digiscoping.
First question: what's new about these scopes? I realize that in the shots so far they may not look much different from other products already on the market. Well, have a look at the shot below.
Rather than the standard spotting scope/eyepiece configuration we're all accustomed to, where the eyepiece determines the magnification and zoom, there is now a system that more closely resembles a telephoto camera lens. You choose either a straight (STX) or angled (ATX) ocular unit and then attach it by means of a bayonet mount, again very like a camera lens, to an objective unit of which there are 3: a compact 65mm, an 85mm that is in the range of most larger spotting current spotting scopes, and a stonking big 95mm unit. All can be interchanged, producing scope combinations of different magnification, weight, and brightness
The advantages of such modularity are obvious. You can choose to emphasize small and light or big and bright or split the difference.
I ended up using the angled unit with the 95mm objective almost exclusively, though I spend a bit of time with the 65mm, too.
One last product shot and we'll get back out into the field. I was also given a sample of Swarovski's new TLS APO to test, an adapter that allows you to connect these scopes to a DLSR, Micro 4/3, or other interchangeable lens camera.
They also had samples of a new swing bracket style adapter for digiscoping with smaller point and shoot cameras but I didn't evaluate that. I've done lots of bird and nature photography with DSLRs and standard camera lenses, and a fair bit of digiscoping with point and shoots. But I've never digiscoped with an SLR before though I've been curious about it. So that's what I resolved to do with my time in Hungary. I only wondered how much learning curve there would be.
The answer: not much. I found that within 10 or 15 minutes I was getting images I was quite happy with. Not to mention the fun of practicing on common European garden birds that for me were things I seldom or never see.
In the reed beds around Lake Tisza, there were less domestic species. Three times, I was treated to brief fly-by looks at Little Bittern, one of which was exciting enough that I dropped one of my own lens hoods in the lake, losing it forever.
Any sting was soon eased by the looks and the photos I was getting at and of other birds. A Great Reed Warbler cooperated well, giving its loud, multipart song recalling by turns a thrasher or a chat and perching high up in its namesake substrate.
A couple of things were obvious. One, Swarovski has really thought carefully about what birders and digiscopers experience in the field and tried to address many of the persistent issues. The TLS APO is easily the most elegant digiscoping adapter I've yet used, attaching a heavy camera body securely and easily. It also deattaches very quickly, making it possible to switch back and forth between photography and observation, which I did frequently.
For those who are not digiscopers, the ATX delivers beautiful views at the eyepiece, startlingly clear and bright and holding together very well even toward the upper end of the zoom range. With the 95mm, that's a whopping 70X. The other two front modules go to 60X.
The new arrangement of zoom and focussing rings adjacent on the barrel feels a bit novel at first but soon becomes second nature, especially if you have used larger camera lenses. And it solves another problem for digiscopers: now you can easily adjust the scope's focus and zoom with one hand while operating the camera with the other, you're not forced to make one hand switch between camera and zoom.
Ergonomically, the scopes were great. Even that giant 95mm didn't feel too heavy though my scope shoulder has carried a lot of weight over the years so your opinion might be different.
I will say, though, that the 65mm breaks new ground in portability. It's light and compact fully assembled. Break it down and it slides into an astonishingly small carrying case that looks more like it would hold a large pair of binoculars, not a scope. Traveling birders, and those who are fond of (or forced into) long hikes, take note.
Did I see any problems or weaknesses? With the caveat that this was not an exhaustive field test, no. The only obvious question in my mind was how durable and resistant to water, dust, etc that bayonet connection will be. Swarovski's specs say that the ATX will be water tight to 4 meters, so they are confindent in that regard.
And though the ATX/TLS APO combination does indeed make DSLR digiscoping easy, it's still not quite as seamless as photography with a dedicated telephoto lens: there's no autofocus, of course, and metering with my Canon 50D and 60D bodies required frequent exposure adjustment, though nothing burdensome.
On the plus side for ATX versus a big telephoto lens, the ATX is much smaller and lighter, less expensive, and offers you first rate viewing, something no camera/telephoto combo does.
Overall, I was extremely impressed with the quality and field functionality of the ATX system. I'm interested to see how popular it will prove with birders. Based on what I saw those few days in Hungary, it's likely to become among the most admired of birding optics.
I'd also recommend perusing Swarovski's site devoted to the ATX/STX system. I haven't had much time to poke around it yet, but I thought the video here featuring Clay Taylor and Dale Forbes did a very good job of explaining how the TLS APO adapter works.
The ATX will debut publicly at the British Bird Fair next month. It should be available in the US and Canada sometime in September, when I'm sure you'll start to be able to see it in action at various birding festivals and other events.
Our partners at Eagle Optics will have more info on pricing and availibility.
What follows are a few more shots from the trip, which visited the marshes and steppes of Hortobágy, as well as the wooded Buuk Hills. All the wildlife shots are digiscoped with the ATX.
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