If you’re looking for a new hobby that doesn’t involve the couch, all you really have to do is step outside and open your eyes—there are plenty of animals and plants to observe at your local park, nature trail, or even in your own backyard. But if you really want to get the most out of being a birdwatcher or naturalist in your spare time, you’ll need some basic equipment. From binoculars and cameras to a field guide and notebook, here are some staff picks of the essentials to start with.

1. Leupold Acadia Roof Prism 8x42 Binoculars; $239

Leupold/Amazon

As a longtime user of a similar pair of Leupold binoculars, I can vouch for this brand’s clear visuals, ease of use, and durability. Affordable for the beginning birder without sacrificing quality, this waterproof 8x42 pair gives you a magnification power of eight (suitable for backyard wildlife watching) with an objective lens diameter of 42mm (allowing for sufficient light to enter the roof prism and illuminate what you’re looking at). Leupold binoculars tend to be a bit heavier than other brands, but with a comfortable neoprene neck strap included, you’ll get used to it. This pair also comes with lens caps and a protective neoprene case. There's also a 10x42 model here—Kat Long, Science Editor

Buy it: Amazon

2. The Naturalist's Notebook; $12

Storey Publishing, LLC/Amazon

A notebook for recording your backyard observations is an essential tool in a naturalist’s kit. This hardcover journal not only gives you a seasonal five-year calendar in which to write down a species list or sketch a wildflower; it also offers instructions for observing nature en plein air and inspires you with illustrations of birds, trees, butterflies, and more. Just grab a pencil to get started. —K.L.

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3. Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest and others; $18

Houghton Mifflin/Amazon

One of the most exciting aspects of backyard nature-watching is identifying, and then learning more about, the organisms you find. There are hundreds of field guides dedicated to IDing birds, trees, rocks, shells, butterflies, mushrooms, and much more, but naturalist Kenn Kaufman’s regional guides to nature are a great place for a beginner to start. In volumes covering the Northeast U.S. and the Midwest, Kaufman illustrates and explains the native mammals, reptiles, plants, fungi, and other members of the ecosystems. Readers in other parts of the country can check out Kaufman’s many guides to flora and fauna of North America. —K.L.

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4. Droll Yankee platform bird feeder; $44

Droll Yankees/Amazon

Birding purists might consider feeding birds “cheating,” but I am in favor of bribing avian visitors into your line of sight with food. This nice-looking hanging platform feeder comes with an adjustable cover that can be lowered to keep out large birds (like crows or pigeons), or removed to allow an all-bird buffet. The feed tray holds one pound of sunflower seeds, peanuts, fruit, or other tempting treats, and the cover’s spherical shape is guaranteed to confound squirrels. —K.L.

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5. Trail Camera; $50

Meidase/Amazon

You can’t keep your eyes glued to your yard 24/7, so it’s helpful to have a camera snap footage of any animals you may miss. The motion-activated Meidase Trail Camera has excellent night vision, letting you see what critters come creeping through your yard without having to sit through an all-night stakeout. The camera’s so sensitive, it’ll even pick up a tiny mouse scurrying around in the darkness. There’s also no flash or shutter sounds, so you won’t have to worry about sudden lights or noises scaring any wildlife away. The camera captures both still images and videos, and you can fiddle around with the settings to customize how often it records footage or how long each video clip should be. You’ll also need an SD card, eight AA batteries, and a stand—Kerry Wolfe, Staff Editor

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6. Smartphone Telephoto Lens Attachment; $112

Moment/Amazon

A smartphone’s built-in camera will only take your photos so far. The Moment 58mm telephoto lens snaps onto a Moment phone case to take your trusty mobile device to the next level. It’ll give you twice the optical zoom if you put it over a single lens camera, and if you pop it in front of the iPhone’s telephoto (portrait) lens, you’ll get four times the optical zoom. Use the lens with the Moment Pro Camera app (available on Apple store and Google Play), and you’ll be able to control your camera’s settings like it’s a DSLR camera. If you’d rather capture close-up shots of flowers, try their macro lens—K.W.

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