Naturalists carry a lot of expensive toys out into the wilderness. We’ve got our binoculars to see the details and field marks of distant animals. We carry bulky DSLR cameras with telephoto lenses in case any photo ops present themselves, or in case we stumble upon something rare. Sometimes we carry a portable spotting scope with a collapsible tripod for distant viewing of wildlife on the ocean or on a mudflat, and books or cell phones to help identify what we see. But it wasn’t until I played with the Swarovski monocular that I wondered whether I could ditch all of the bulk. It let me spot birds, took decent pictures of them, and identified them all at the same time.
You probably know Swarovski for its glass crystal products, but it also produces optics like binoculars and spotting scopes that serve as status symbols among nature lovers—proof that they’re willing to throw money at top-of-the-line optics to see things clearer than anyone else. On April 1, the company will release the dG monocular (like a binocular with a single eyepiece) with a built-in camera that automatically sends photos to Cornell University’s AI-powered Merlin Bird ID app on your phone. While I still found myself turning to my binoculars and camera during my time playing with it, I could easily see myself enjoying a day in the field with nothing but the dG in tow.
Recently I met up with New York City naturalist Gabriel Willow, who I’ve known for a long time but never in a professional capacity. We’ve cut work to chase rare birds together and once shared a plate of goat head at a small wild game dinner, for example. Willow also moonlights as a brand ambassador for Swarovski. He’d gotten the dG to post about on his own social media, but when he told me about it in passing I asked to come along to try it out too. So we cut work again to go birding in Central Park, which is regarded by birders as a top birdwatching spot for its convenience, wide diversity of visiting species, and how the peculiarities of the habitat allow you to see otherwise hard-to-spot birds up close.
We strolled first along the reservoir, looking at nearby waterfowl including the park’s large flocks of Canada geese, northern shovelers, and an adorable pied-billed grebe. Operating the monocular is the same as using binoculars: You look at the subject through the eyepiece and focus with a focusing knob. Once the bird is centered and clear, you press the dG’s large button to snap a photo with the built-in camera positioned slightly below and beside the viewfinder. The dG automatically sends the photo via WiFi to your phone.
There, the monocular integrates with Merlin Bird ID, a free and popular bird identification app created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Typical use of the app lets users describe a bird from lists of traits plus the date and location of the sighting, which an algorithm uses to suggest likely species. But the app also has a powerful AI tool that can suggest IDs based on pictures and is often accurate even on blurry or grainy photos. While I typically use the AI tool by taking a picture of my camera’s viewfinder or taking a picture of a bird with my iPhone camera held up to my binoculars, the dG’s photos instantly appear in the Merlin app. The monocular’s photos should also work on any other nature-identifying AI app, like iNaturalist, in case you’re more interested in identifying non-avian animals or plants.
The dG’s pictures were clear enough for Merlin to nail the IDs, with any mistakes attributed to poor focus or bad angles (faults of Merlin or our own, not really of the monocular). We walked slowly through the park, looking at robins, blue jays, cardinals, and a song sparrow skittering around the undergrowth. There, Gabriel showed me another feature—the dG will be able to stream to five other phones within wifi range, for times when you’re out with friends and want to show them what you’re seeing too.
We wondered who might want such a device if money wasn’t an issue. The camera image was good, but still somewhat grainy, comparable in quality to an iPhone held up to binoculars (see examples here). Personally, I like my binocular-plus-camera setup because I like to see birds with both eyes, and I treat photography itself as a hobby. But it’s clear that anyone into nature watching would find use from such a product, especially if they didn’t want to lug a camera with them. I’ve heard plenty of stories of birders frustrated that they couldn’t take a picture of something rare that had appeared because they left their camera home. And if I were to go to another country where all of the wildlife was new, I bet I’d love to have a tool that serves both to magnify images and identify animals for me.
The monocular is an 8x25. That means it has the same 8x magnification considered standard for birdwatching binoculars and has a 25mm objective lens, the lens closest to whatever you’re looking at. Magnification power is how close the object appears—8x means the object looks eight times larger than it would otherwise. The objective lens determines the light-gathering power, so images from larger objective lenses will generally be brighter and clearer. Most naturalists opt for a wider objective lens for the binoculars they use most often; the standard is 42mm.
As for the cost, the system will go for around $2,310. This might sound expensive, but top-of-the-line binoculars, including the Swarovski binoculars popular with veteran (or wealthy) birders, can cost $2,000 to $3,000—and no other binoculars can identify the bird for you as easily. But there are also high-quality binoculars that cost less: I have few complaints with my $100 Celestron Nature DX 8x42 binoculars and am considering an upgrade to the popular Nikon Monarch 7s or Zeiss Terra binoculars, both around $500. Meanwhile, the Merlin Bird ID app is free, and a bracket to mount your smartphone camera to your binoculars can get you the same functionality as the Swarovski dG for $50—but far slower and less streamlined, which could be the difference between photographing a rare bird and missing it without ever knowing what it was.
I’m not sure I used the device long enough to decide whether it felt gimmicky or not—or to decide whether I’d ever ditch my own setup for optics with a built-in camera. With no autofocus and no way to change the shutter speed or the aperture size of the camera lens, the quality of photos generally can’t beat a dedicated camera. But there are plenty of times I go out without a camera and then regret not having a quick way to take photos of the things I’m seeing. Like quick lunchtime walks in Central Park or work trips where I don’t have room to carry a heavy lens. I’m sure others would get a lot of use out of it too, be it newer birders who need help with identifying species, or even casual nature lovers who don’t feel like memorizing hundreds of species prior to every nature walk.
Perhaps most importantly, if this technology becomes more affordable and widespread, I think binoculars with built-in cameras that integrate with identification apps have the power to make more people enjoy nature than any other piece of technology ever has.