Because wildlife watchers still face little information available on thermal scopes, I put this review.
Review of PULSAR Helion-2 XP50 thermal monocular
Overall, at 3100EUR in 2021 it is the most expensive birding item I ever owned. I suggest looking around for prices, since they vary by several 100s of EUR between sellers. Is this worth the money? Hard to tell, close to borderline.
It is lightweight and comfortable to hold. A short strap allows carrying it easily over the hand, and also sliding up the arm when I switch to using binoculars. However I advise to double-wrap the band as it once unwrapped itself and fell down. Luckily, it suffered no damage. Since I already dropped it twice, it is quite sturdy, and is advertised as waterproof.
The scope comes with a battery charger, and a cable to connect to a laptop. The cable has a non-standard USB plug with longer than usual connector, which is suitable to the waterproof, deep socket in the scope. Batteries deserve praise, being sufficient for at least 5 h night trip without additional loading.
Five different buttons and a complex menu are initially confusing and need some time to learn. I still find it sometimes difficult to get the correct button, and keep accidentally switching on video, which however has not much influence on watching. I also repeatedly keep pressing options which are difficult to switch back – e.g. changing color palette or creating a small split view screen.
The scope offers huge variety of options. There are different color modes of viewing heat as colors – from rainbow, to hot objects appearing red. Some options, like estimating distance to an object of pre-determined size – deer, boar and a rabbit – seem useless for nature watcher.
Overall, from the options I most often use the lowest magnification (2,5x) the lower than default contrast (ca 6), a ‘hot-white color palette’ plus the ‘forest mode’ and diamond sharpness. In practice, increasing optical zoom (up to 20x) is excessive. I see little more details on 5x, and no more on 10x and 20x. The scope allows modifying contrast. I find the lowest setting the best, because it shows warmer animals more clearly against the background, with fewer distractions.
The scope has possibility to film and take photos, and rather generous memory. In my opinion, the available memory is excessive, and I never come to even half filling it. It would be suitable for somebody documenting animals for many minutes at a time. Smaller memory, or no possibility of videoing and lower cost would be better.
Use in the field
I recommend a trial walk playing around with the scope, taking in on a test drive with the booklet, to be sure you can operate it properly. Start at daytime, trying to spot warm rocks or local sparrows. Practice is needed here.
Warning! Pointing the scope at a sun or a laser beam will damage it.
To watch wildlife an night, one behaves like during spotlighting. You walk in the field, sweeping the scope left and right. Check small hollows in the ground, turn around and scope twice the same places, to pick animals which at some angles are hidden behind a tree etc. With an IR scope, I found myself walking in complete darkness. IR scope shows the ground and surroundings well enough to orientate easily. The false colors are initially surprising, e.g. how much hotter are roads and rocks compared to tree branches, branches compared to leaves, and the latter to water.
Be quiet. Wildlife is afraid of noise. I generally walk on minor asphalt roads and dirt tracks which surface allows to move completely quietly. In the field, mammals are rather mobile and move freely near roads, tracks etc, so sticking to roads is no hindrace. Bare rocks, sand or low grass are also good to walk over. Avoid gravel roads or forest floor with dry leaves or bushes. On these surfaces, animals spook at the sound of your footsteps from far away.
Avoid tall vegetation – tall grass, bushes, tall crops, dense forest undergrowth. Animals are invisible there. IR cannot see though leaves. It also cannot see through windows, but can see quite well through fog. It may be useful to those lost in misty mountains.
If you see an animal, look at characteristic branches or rocks around it. They will allow to pick it in the binoculars. If I want to identify the species, I switch on the spotlight to the side, and slowly bring it in direction of the animal, and use binoculars. The view from the night vision scope (2x) is similar to the naked eye.
Some people find it difficult to juggle various equipment. I normally carry the night scope in the right hand. I then can slide it up the arm, and use spotlight with the left hand and binoculars with the right hand. Some people prefer to use no binoculars but a camera the telephoto lenses, to get a picture of an animal immediately. This might potentially be useful, especially that readily locating an animal in the dense vegetation could be difficult, but it could still be photographed and the photo examined later.
A side effect of using the night scope is developing a short-time night blindness in one eye,. It is an annoying, but short term effect.
The scope turned very useful and entertaining, picking huge number of wild mammals. Wild mammals normally shine brightly and are easily spotted, at surprisingly long distance. A roe deer or a fox is visible at several 100s of meters, a mouse sitting in the open at several 10s of meters. I became aware of many mammals which I missed before with spotlighting. I knew there is lots of Roe Deer on my local patch, but foxes turned to be much more numerous that I thought before. Most were passing by at night at a long distance. Wood and yellow-necked mice turned to be extremely numerous everywhere in the forest – I largely missed them before. Overall, the number of mammals seen around at night is surprising, and exceeds several times what I believed to exist. An annoying thing is that many distant animals pass by and disappear identified. Of course, without the scope, one would be unaware they were around at all.
When an animal is located, generally only large mammals can be identified with IR only. They often look quite differently in the IR. A fox looks like a dog or an African hunting dog, because the long hair on cheeks and tail does not reflect IR. Badgers also look quite confusing initially, with stripes on their faces invisible in the IR. The face of a badger looks white, because it is the least hairy and warmest part of the body. However, no other animal has similar shape and a pompom of a tail. Mice can be seen as small dots. With a spotlight, they can often be approached closely, frozen immobile in their defensive reaction, and photographed. Hunting bats are well visible. Surprisingly, flying insects are also often much brighter than surroundings and well visible.
The scope works almost equally well at a daytime, especially in a cold and cloudy weather. It turned very good at locating distant Alpine Marmots and Ibex on distant hillsides and mice in the grass. Spotting them with binoculars, however, turned difficult. I expect it would be ideal for spotting e.g. snow leopards in the Himalayas.
A trip to Ghana brought further experiences. Pulsar was very useful for finding many night mammals, including a Western Tree Hyrax (a nemesis of me), numerous Pottos, Anomalures etc. It was practical to use as a driver in a moving car, too. Many animals were picked in the distance but moved away before identification or picking in normal light – a shy antelope on a distant clearing, a chunky, large mammal crossing the road, possibly a brush-tailed porcupine, a roosting bat which escaped fast, a very fast palm civet moving across tree crowns etc.
The best part is watching normal behaviour of undisturbed mammals. I watched a badger family feeding at night. I saw many deer and foxes, often next to each other, unaware of each other presence. It is clear that animals are often practically blind in darkness, and often are unaware of things, including people and other mammals, at close distance. Their hearing and smell are of limited use. Many times I approached deer, wild boar, badgers or foxes very close. I saw a marten, which started hopping on the field track in my direction. It came as close as under my feet and sniffed my shoes. Only at that point it realised it is a human and hopped back away.
On my local patch there are few nightbirds. I saw several tawny owls, and they were well visible from large distance, when sitting at the edge of the forest or flying. A calling fledging tawny owl was very well visible in the IR scope, as it perched and then scrambled around in tree crown. Finding it between the leaves by using spotlight and binoculars would be very difficult. So far I did not locate many day birds sleeping in the bushes. Day birds flying at night, e.g. Crows flying to a roost, were well visible.
In Ghana, night scope picked many nightjars and several owls. Also, several sleeping birds were located, although they turned to be really difficult to see and identify in a spotlight – they were very well camouflaged although they shined in the IR.
Before dusk, I see many passerines. They are well visible, although sometimes less bright than similar sized mammals. Night vision turned good for locating birds in dusky weather in the open or semi-open habitats. I spotted pipits feeding on a meadow, robins in the leafless bushes and a Whinchat in the field of weeds. With binoculars, they were camouflaged and much more difficult to find. With the IR scope, they shined contrastingly.
However, IR scope has limitations. IR also cannot see very far, nor cannot identify the species. Colors are invisible in IR. So one needs to switch from the IR to binoculars, losing crucial few seconds. Second, birds landing in thick bushes often conceal themselves completely behind leaves. IR cannot see what is behind vegetation. But neither could binoculars, so this was somewhat of a lesson that warblers or tits hidden in bushes are often simply unfindable from one spot. One needs to switch the angle of view to see them. If a part of bird body is not hidden, it shines clearly in the IR. It is then, however, sometimes difficult to see it better with normal binoculars. Exceptionally, in one warm evening, the IR scope turned useless in locating nightjars resting on an old airfield. When I finally picked the nightjar in the spotlight, it turned that the bird was cooler than the tarmac.
In summary: the scope is very useful for owls and nightjars at night. The species cannot be identified other by shape and call, because the IR does not show colors, however, the bird can be picked and identified with a spotlight and binoculars. Sleeping birds are easy to see if in the open, although most sleeping birds hide in dense vegetation and puff themselves into a ball of feathers, and are surprisingly difficult to pick and identify. The scope works also at daytime, especially in the cold, damp weather in Northern Europe. It is valuable help for picking difficult birds in the relative open, for example snipes, pipits, snipes, roosting nightjars or owls, feeding chats in the gloomy forest understory etc. Usefulness is more mixed for birds hidden in dense vegetation, e.g. reeds or dense bushes. Most birds turn to be completely hidden behind leaves, which the IR cannot see through. However, the takeaway lesson is these birds would be equally unfindable with the binoculars, too. However, if a part of the bird is visible, the IR will spot it as a bright dot. However, picking and identifying the bird with binoculars is often impossible. The takeaway lesson is that many animals are picked by IR but escape before being identified. The IR fails in hot sunny day, and especially on rocky ground, and also sometimes after dusk on warm evening on rocky ground. Here the rocks are as warm as the birds.
An advice for a prospective buyer of an thermal scope
Since thermal scopes are not often stocked by binocular shops, a person wondering about buying one is stuck with a prospect of shelling a big sum of money with no possibility of testing or comparing different models beforehand.
What to look for? Most importantly, a wide field of view. You will be sweeping across the landscape, hoping to find a bright shape or at least a bright dot. Second: high pixel resolution of the viewer. This equals increased distance of view. An animal must be close enough to fill at least one pixel and make it warm. The more pixels, the further animal can be to show up.
What NOT to care about: magnification. In the field, an animal is only visible as a shape in the normal distance, and with increasing magnification you see no more. Also, forget distinguishing similar species by the IR image only. It is good for picking stuff, but not watching in the BBC documentary mode.
I hope that thermal scopes will appear on field days or bird fairs, and models could be then tested by wildlife enthusiasts in the field. An alternative would be a possibilty to rent and try before purchase. Alas, neither is available now. Currently makers of this equipment are few little companies which aim for hunters. Maybe they are even unaware of the interest among mammal and bird watchers.
It is an useful gadget, which opens a new world of possibilities. It is not a must-have for a birdwatcher, but valuable for a mammal watcher.
The scope also allows walking confidently in complete darkness. It also penetrates fog and can be surprisingly useful for orientation in the foggy mountains.
My worry is however, that there are often legal prohibitions associated with the IR equipment. For example, the item cannot be sold abroad, but curiously, it is available for sale at local shops in every country, and after purchase, the owner can legally transport it abroad. Authorities seem to be rather confused about it. From the law enforcement standpoint, an IR scope is not more potentially dangerous than many products sold freely, like telephoto lenses or binoculars. From the conservation standpoint, it is preferable and less disturbing to wildlife than watching sleeping animals at daytime or simply trashing around habitat and casually scaring animals by your presence. Nevertheless, it is better to keep the head low because there is a possibility of idiots banning it, just because they can ban something.
BTW, if anybody is interested in more formal consultations on gear used for wildlife watching, please contact me by PM: jurek-dot-birds-at-gmx-dot-de