Long before dawn I drove through the little town, its lone traffic light at the main intersection blinking orange. A few kilometres further on I turned into a pasture and eased down a narrow lane alongside a forest, following the headlights and mindful that deer and other animals would be active.
The lane terminated at a wetland hidden behind the forest. I parked and flicked off the lights and it was several minutes before my eyes grew accustomed to the blackness. When I stepped into the chill air, refreshing and pleasant, dry leaves crunched under my knee-high boots.
From the backseat I retrieved my spotting scope, mounted for the first time on the new Gitzo two way fluid head specifically designed for birders, supported by a Gitzo Series1 6X Carbon Fiber Safari tripod. First impressions resonate – socially, in business, everywhere – and shouldering the tripod I thought, “Man, this thing’s really light.”
I splashed noisily into shallow water and extended the tripod legs so I could set up my scope beside cattails, natural camouflage to break my silhouette. The legs on the Safari line of tripods are made from a carbon fiber and basalt composite and engineered using aerospace technology. Lightweight, impressively rigid, they feature quick-adjusting G-Lock and Ocean-Lock mechanisms with unique seals to minimize the likelihood of water, grit or anything else messing with the legs or leg locks. Gitzo acknowledges the system isn’t absolutely watertight, but I figured I might as well test this at the get-go and from my limited experience everything worked brilliantly.
In the shimmery, early morning light a great egret appeared and I put the scope on the big bird and tracked it flying over the water. This is where the two way fluid head triumphs. Unlike traditional pan-and-tilt type heads, which have one button or leaver to control the pan function and another the tilt, the new Gitzo birdwatching head has one large knob that controls both actions. With a simple twist of the knob I switched from rock-solid lockdown to pan, tilt and critically, to adjusting the friction so I could comfortably track the relatively slow-flying egret – the ne plus ultra for birders!
I next scoped a flock of American Pipets, tiny tundra nesters on migration. They were hopscotching along the pasture’s fence line and after a slight adjustment of the knob it was a cinch to follow their jinking, fluttery progress. Brilliant.
I’m no engineer, but what Gitzo has produced here is a tiny, mostly magnesium masterpiece. Using proprietary design and technology, size and weight have been reduced. Part of the secret, so I’m told, is the unique two way fluid cartridge. It’s hollow, saving weight and trimming the size while still retaining the necessary robustness. For mounting and removing the scope there’s a double-action quick-release safety system matched to a supplied ‘arca style’ quick release plate. The whole thing exudes Gitzo’s industry-leading reputation for quality and precision engineering.
The two way fluid head is available in two sizes. One supports up to 4 kilograms (8.82 pounds), which should be enough for all but the heaviest scopes and the one I had, and a slightly larger model to support up to 6 kilograms (13.22 pounds) for birders who may wish to use a lens up to say 300mm in 35mm equivalent. The smaller of the two heads weighs .46 kilograms (1.01 pounds) and the larger one is .7 kilograms (1.54 pounds). The pan bar is reversible to accommodate right or left-hand use.
Mated with the Gitzo Safari GT1540F tripod, a four-section model that collapses to 54 centimeters (21.3 inches without the head) and extends to 159 centimeters (60 inches, plus a bit more if you raise the centre column) the combined weight of the head and tripod (1.12 kilograms or 2.46 pounds) is barely 1.58 kilograms or 3.48 pounds. With my 65mm scope it was a joy to shoulder while tramping through all kinds of terrain. Other Safari models with different configurations are available.
I digiscope with a point-and-shoot camera, using my scope as a powerful f11 lens. The two way fluid head speeds the process of getting onto a bird, though manually focusing the scope – particularly on flying birds – remains the real digiscoping challenge along with having sufficient light for a reasonably fast shutter speed. I found the rig worked splendidly on stationary birds, the normal target for digiscopers. The head locked firmly and the tripod held steady until a gusty wind kicked up.
The two way fluid head is a technological breakthrough, competitively priced and it dramatically simplifies the task of tracking flying birds with a scope. The tripod quickly adjusts and the price reflects the high-tech materials and innovative design. My overall impression after several days’ use in wetlands, forests, on a sandy beach and in rain is that for sheer portability and light weight, the combination is unbeatable.
Article by Lionel Gould
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