Jerry Connolly is among the luckiest of people. He has had two careers, both arising from avocations that he loved. Connolly nudged his boyhood passion for playing drums into a full-time occupation as a professional musician, playing up and down the east coast of the United States and Canada at colleges, outdoor festivals and clubs, such as New Haven’s Toad’s Place. After getting hooked on birding, Jerry and his wife Janet he opened The Audubon Shop, in Madison in 1986. The shop offers just about everything a birder needs for his or her hobby, including an endless supply of advice and tips from which even the most skilled birders benefit.
Connolly is a font of information on all aspects of birding, from what seed attracts which birds to choosing the best birding tour – he’s led more than fifty international tours worldwide from Central and South America to Africa and Asia. When it comes to optics for birding, Connolly is nationally recognized as an expert, a long-term advisor to Swarovski Optik North America, a branch of an Austria-based group of companies that produces high-end optical instruments. He was the company’s 2014 Dealer of the Year, an honor based on sales volume and customer service.
Along with an array of seed, feeders, books, CDs and other birding essentials, The Audubon Shop maintains an exceptionally diverse stock of high-quality binoculars and spotting scopes, plus accessories. Prices range from $95 to thousands of dollars. Few brick-and-mortar stores offer such a variety, says Connolly. Moreover, customers at his shop are buying from experts who know and can explain, “the nuts and bolts of how they work,” says Connolly. “There’s no magic, just understanding the principles of how to use the equipment and we provide that,” he adds.
A smart consumer does not simply pick a pair of binoculars off the shelf. Are the binoculars for watching birds on the backyard feeder or will you be carrying them while trekking, observing birds at long distances?
Connolly dispels some of the misconceptions many people have about optics. “Many people think the higher the magnification the better the binoculars, he says, “but this is not so and most always is not.” In fact, the more magnification, the more the dreaded “handshake”, which jiggles the image, is visible. The effectiveness of binoculars hinges on the quality of the objective lens, in the front of the binoculars, and its ability to transmit light efficiently through the prisms, and out the ocular lens, at the end that meets the eye.
Even the most experienced birder is vulnerable to handshake, however, which is why many use a tripod to keep binoculars – or a scope or camera, for that matter — steady. The Audubon Shop sells its own trademarked tripod, The Birder Tripod, which it sends to customers worldwide. The Birder® Tripod is the only one on the market today with just two leg sections, providing more stability than the typical three or four. Its 23-inch center column is longer than most, making it easier to view birds in overhead tree canopies or, for astronomy. The tripod is built of aluminum alloy, lightweight but strong.
Connolly can also explain the nuances of bird feeders, including what is needed to thwart the backyard birder’s bane – squirrels that gobble seed and even damage the feeders. “There is a whole industry devoted to outwitting squirrels at the feeder,” he says. It is also smart to use a feeder that is easier to clean, protecting birds against disease spread by deteriorating seed.
Besides bird feeding, the shop features a huge array of decorative, but highly functional bird houses. Some of them, says Connolly, are truly works of art.