The dark days of winter lie ahead, and, pretty soon, many of us will be owl-prowling on our favorite Christmas counts. But are you ready to light up the night? If you’re still lugging around one of those basketball-sized spotlights—you know, the 40-million-candlepower kind that plugs directly to a car’s cigarette lighter—you might want to pester Santa for something different this year.
Clunky illumination is just so passé. Yes, a monster, eight-pound searchlight that includes its own stand and pistol grip might be appealing at first glance (the better to beat off zombie attacks), but it’s difficult to haul around something so large in the field while birding. If you do manage to train that many candlepower on one poor owl, the blinkered bird will probably fall off its perch thinking that the sun has engulfed the earth. And, after ten minutes of scanning, your biceps will begin to mutiny—by which time the light’s battery will be dead anyway.
But wait! Today’s lineup of bright lights offers a svelte alternative. Light emitting diode (LED) technology has become so effective in recent years that compact LED flashlights now outshine full-sized incandescent spotlights, without the hassle.
Perhaps I’m behind the curve, but I hadn’t even considered LED lights until I forgot to pack any kind of illumination on a recent birding trip to Ecuador, and found myself at a lodge famous for its Band-bellied Owls. Just when I thought I’d have to settle for hearing such a spectacular bird without seeing it, a traveling photographer loaned me his Fenix TK-15, a Snickers-bar-sized flashlight. “This thing is an extension of my manhood,” he joked, and, when I flipped the switch, I instantly understood: It was BRIGHT! The owl, accustomed to visitors, posed nicely while every guest in the lodge turned out to see it, and I went home determined to acquire my own LED flashlight.
It turns out birders aren’t the only ones who want to dazzle after dark. Bright LEDs fall under the “tactical” category, which targets a wholly different demographic. When I looked up Fenix, I was directed to a website proclaiming to supply “government agencies, military, police, professionals, and the outdoor community” in red, white, and blue. An accessory page displayed 72 photos of their lights clipped to an impressive assortment of automatic weapons. Well, why not? If these lights could stand that kind of abuse, they could surely survive nocturnal birding expeditions. I purchased my very own Fenix TK-15, and then bought a similar LED flashlight of another brand, a Surefire P2X Fury, to compare performance.
For an incandescent man like me, night turned to day. Both the Fenix and Surefire models are small enough to drop into the front pocket of my jeans, yet light up objects 100-200 yards away—the length of one or two football fields—with focused beams of brilliant white light. Their batteries each last for two or three hours on a single charge without any dimming. Because these lights are so handy, I now take them everywhere.
So, the details: If you go shopping for an LED flashlight, be prepared to invest in quality. The Fenix TK-15 sells for about $80 new, the Surefire P2X Fury is just over $100, and that doesn’t include batteries. You’ll need a set of specialized rechargeables (lithium-ion or lithium-phosphate batteries recommended) to fit whatever model you choose. Other brands, like LED Lenser, offer similar flashlights, and it probably doesn’t matter too much which one you pick; I’d go for something in the 400-500 lumens range, five or six inches long, with a focused beam for maximum range. My Fenix has three power settings, the Surefire has two, which lets these lights double as reading lights (at lowest power, enough to see where you’re walking, the battery will last 170 hours!). They also have a strobe setting designed to disorient attackers, should you find yourself in a sketchy situation. When the charge drains enough, the lights will step down to a lower power level instead of gradually dimming. They are each waterproof. Between the two of them, I’d give a slight nod to the Surefire P2X Fury, if only because my Fenix has been a bit finicky lately.
Of course, bright lights should be used judiciously on nocturnal birds. Please don’t aim them point blank at an owl’s face! (When I spent a season banding Saw-whet Owls in Maine, I worked with a tiny, dark red headlamp; anything brighter would cause the birds to sit blankly for a minute or two upon release. Their eyes really are that sensitive.) But these lights are great for long-distance scanning, picking out eyeshine, and illuminating, with caution, birds that are otherwise hard to see.
And you never know what you might encounter. The other night, when I heard branches snapping outside my bedroom window, I padded downstairs and aimed my flashlight out the window. A hundred yards away, at the edge of my backyard, a black bear was shaking an apple tree to scavenge the fruit. If I hadn’t had a good beam handy, I’d have been left in the dark.