Without binoculars, we would miss so many birds, even in our own yards. With experience, a good binocular will let you identify most birds visible to the naked eye. Some think “bins” are all you need and consider a spotting scope unnecessary. That is true for backyard and forest birding. So, get binoculars first, then get a better pair of binoculars.
Eventually, most birders will experience the need for a scope. For me, that was the year I started birding. When birding winter farm fields and the New Jersey shore, a scope view was often critical to clinch an ID. An ocean horizon, waterfowl on wide bays, shorebirds spread over mudflats, and orbital raptors challenge binoculars. Even if you can identify the bird with binoculars, you may feel dissatisfied. The feeling even has a name: “BVD,” or better view desired. A scope reduces both the “too far away” category and the BVD category.
And the first view of even a common bird through a spotting scope can be a gasp-inducing “wow” moment. After birding 50 years, I find scoping a flock of winter ducks with the sun over my shoulder enjoying better-than-the-field-guide views is still heavenly. In the contemporary idiom, I am firmly on “Team scope!”
But all the brands and models daunt the new buyer. Should I select an angled or straight scope? What are the pros and cons of a small objective or a large one? Are fixed-power eyepieces better than zoom? Is an ED (Extra-low Dispersion) objective worth the extra money? In this article, I offer guidance to those who are on the fence about scopes or wonder how to select one.
We will look first at the pros and cons of straight and angled scopes.
Straight scopes are easy to aim; just point them where you are looking! At eye-level height, you can see over plants/fences and get longer looks behind wave crests. They work well with a car window mount, and in rain, it is easier to keep the eyepiece dry. Downsides are that the eyepiece must be at your eye level, and it might be less stable at that height, which may require a larger tripod. If you lower the scope for a shorter person, it becomes uncomfortable for the taller users. To view the zenith, you must raise the scope above your head, crouch down low, or both. Lastly, with both eyes looking in the same direction, the non-scope eye tries to bring the horizon into focus, so most people will close the non-scope eye. This can lead to eye fatigue if you are scoping for hours.
An advantage of angled spotting scopes is that when you set the scope for the shortest person in the group, everyone else can use it too! Set below eye level, the tripod is more stable and less prone to tipping. With the 45° angled eyepiece, 60° above the horizon is in easy reach. A key advantage is that the scope eye focuses on a distant object, while the other eye looks at the ground nearby. It intrudes less, so long-term viewing is more relaxed, good for long-term scanning. Angled scopes have some potential downsides. Objects in the foreground may obscure your view, as you lose the advantage of height. You may need to rotate the barrel to keep the eyepiece dry in rain or snow. Depending on vehicle headroom, using a car window mount may require rotating the barrel 90°, which points the scope 45° from the direction you are looking.
But angled scopes have become so popular among birders that at Cape May Bird Observatory, they are all we stock, though we happily order straight scopes when asked. Some models are only available in angled versions, which takes one decision out of the equation for shoppers.
Through the 1980s, zoom eyepieces were not particularly good. Fixed 22x or 30x wide-angle eyepieces were popular then and are still valid options today. But today’s zoom eyepieces are much better, and most scopes come with a zoom eyepiece by default. A zoom eyepiece allows easy scanning at low power and a fast increase in power when you see something of interest. Even entry-level scopes offer eyepieces that work well through the lower two-thirds of the range. Just do not expect to use the maximum magnification in any but the highest-quality optics. For most birders, an angled scope with a zoom eyepiece is the best choice: another decision down!
But what size should you get? Size, in this case, refers to the diameter of the objective lens. Spotting scopes range from 50mm to 85mm, and a few manufacturers go up to 88, 95, and even 115mm.
Astronomers know that when considering objective lens size, in terms of light-gathering ability, resolution, and high magnifications, the bigger, the better! That is true for spotting scopes for birding as well. But in astronomy, you move the telescope by car and set it up in one spot. Saturn is not going to be flushed by a Peregrine and lead you on a chase down the beach.
But birds and birders are often on the move, and as you would expect, with increased size comes increased weight. Consider the scope and tripod together as a matched set. A stable support makes the scope usable at high magnifications. Depending on objective size, a combined scope plus tripod and head weighs between 5 (travel scopes only) and 13 pounds. Carbon fiber legs are lighter and quieter than aluminum but more expensive. Keep balance in mind; do not put a massive scope on a lightweight tripod. And do not skimp! A wobbly tripod will make the world’s best scope useless. The few years that a cheap tripod lasts may seem longer as you are tormented by shaky images and stiff, jerky panning. But a good tripod and head in the $200 and up range may serve you well for 20 years or even longer.
A smooth-panning video pan head is the default for effective scope use. Birders also often put a scope on a car-window mount (an inexpensive accessory), using the car as a blind.
Scopes smaller than 60mm are promoted as “travel scopes.” They are lightweight and compact enough to fit in a carry-on for air travel or in a backpack if you are taking the subway and walking to the Central Park Reservoir. Some (e.g., the Celestron Hummingbird) can be hand-held at low power. Travel scopes can also be mounted on a monopod or a lightweight, compact tripod. While most will not provide the same brightness or resolution at high power as a “full-sized” scope, with the advantage of extreme portability, even an entry-level scope can reveal more details than the best binocular. A full-sized scope that never leaves the closet or trunk is useless. Travel scopes are a great alternative to no scope at all.
Also consider the glass quality. Better-quality glass is designated as ED, HD (High Definition), APO (Apochromatic), or other such terms. These all mean something similar: that at least one objective element has a fluoride compound in the glass and better-quality multi-coatings, though they are not all equal. ED/HD/APO all pay off at the higher end of the zoom range and are especially important if you plan on digiscoping (taking digital photos through your scope).
In deciding which size and objective quality will suit you best, be guided first by how you will use the scope and second by your stature and stamina. If you will mostly be taking it in and out of the car on an auto-tour route or walking a couple hundred feet to an overlook, then size and weight do not matter. Go full-size! If it is important for you to be able to ID storm-borne seabirds, you will be better served by a scope of 80mm or more with ED glass.
But some birders may regularly hike a mile and a half up to a mountain hawk watch with a 500-foot elevation gain, while others love trudging several miles on a beach. And maybe you also carry a DSLR with a 150-600mm lens, plus a fanny pack with a water bottle. In this situation weight will certainly be an issue and you might prefer either a 65mm or even an under-60mm travel scope.
Your guide to spotting scopes
Below is a sample of scopes at different price points — showing the minimum advertised price (MAP) — from the brands best known to birders. There are others worth your consideration. Most scopes are available in straight or 45° angled models, some (Celestron Hummingbird and Zeiss Gavia and Harpia) only as angled. Even an entry-level scope on a stable mount will show you details the best binoculars cannot.
Entry Level: Under $500
Celestron Hummingbird 56mm w/9-27x ($259.95), ED model ($429.95)
At under 21 ounces, the Celestron “Micro Spotter” scopes weigh less than many binoculars and fit in a jacket pocket. They can be hand-held at the lowest magnifications or mounted on a monopod or a lightweight, compact tripod. The ED version performs better over 20x. Angled only.
Vanguard Endeavor XF 60mm w/15-45x ($299.99), 80mm 20-60x ($399.99)
This entry-level scope offers fair value, with all the expected bells and whistles and a 30x zoom range. Expect to use it mostly from 15x to 30x, a nice added reach compared to binoculars.
Kowa Prominar TSN-501 50mm w/20-40x ($349.99)
With a polycarbonate chassis, this scope weighs in at a mere 14 ounces. It comes with a 20-40x zoom, but you will use it mostly at 20 to 25x. The body does not rotate on a collar like many scopes. The eye relief is a bit short for eyeglass wearers.
Opticron MM3 GA 50mm w/13-39x HR3 eyepiece ($375)
This is among the smallest scopes, with a rotating collar, and at about 11 inches with the eyepiece on, it is certainly very compact! Waterproof construction of polymers and alloys. It offers a dual (coarse and fine) focus knob and a close focus of just 9.5 feet.
Opticron MM3 GA 60mm w/16-48x HR3 eyepiece ($425)
This compact “travel scope” is barely a foot long, and with the 15-45x HR3 eyepiece, it weighs only 33.4 ounces — about the same as some 10×50 binoculars. Optical quality exceeds expectations.
Vortex Diamondback HD 16-48x65mm ($399.99), 20-60x85mm ($499.99)
Vortex has updated all its scopes to body-mounted helical-focusing mechanisms. The new and improved entry-level Diamondback HD scopes have the perks of pricier items and perform better than expected. Either will give you years of worry-free scoping.
Vanguard Endeavor HD 15-45x65mm ($399.99)
This is Vanguard’s premier line and offers fair value with phase-coated BAK-4 prisms, eyeglass-accommodating eye relief, and a fog-proof magnesium alloy chassis.
First Step Up: $500-$999.99
Vortex Razor HD 50mm w/11-33x ($699.99)
The smallest of the Razor family, this scope has a 25-ounce polymer body that weighs about the same as an average 42mm binocular. A fold-down rubber eyecup is old-fashioned, but generous eye relief accommodates observers with or without glasses. The field of view is comfortably wide throughout the zoom range. Waterproof, fully coated HD lenses and dual focus offer full-size performance in a petite package.
Vortex Viper HD 15-45x65mm ($649.99), 20-60x85mm ($899.99)
Identical to the Diamondback in appearance, the Viper HD (High Definition) objective lenses add superior glass to make them serious class contenders. The Arca-Swiss compatible foot fits a Manfrotto 128 RC head without a plate.
Celestron Regal M2 65mm ED ($639.95), Regal M2 80mm ED ($899.95), Regal M2 100mm ED ($1,079.95)
These are Celestron’s best spotters and deserve more attention! Bright, good resolution, and offering the option of using any 1¼” astronomical eyepiece.
Opticron MM4 GA ED 60mm w/15-45x ($945)
Offers rotating barrel, interchangeable eyepieces, dual focus knob — in short, all the benefits of bigger scopes except for an extendable sunshade. The 16-48x zoom range offers enough magnification for most situations, and the scope is still light and compact.
Opticron MM4 GA ED 77mm w/18-54x SDLv2 ($1,220)
Opticron’s largest field scope embodies its philosophy of “smaller, lighter, brighter, faster.” Just under 80mm, its size and weight barely exceed many 65mm scopes. The zoom lens offers a wide bright field; ample eye relief and a close focus of 18 feet are other features in this waterproof scope.
Vortex Razor HD 22-48x65mm ($1,199.99), 27-60x85mm ($1,599.99)
Vortex’s flagship scopes do not reach the performance level of the European Triumvirate (Swarovski, Zeiss, and Leica), but they offer excellent optical quality at close to half the price.
Nikon Monarch ED 20-60x60mm ($1,399.95), 20-60x82mm ED A ($1,599.95)
With a similar design to the Viper Razor ED but an off-set eyepiece and excellent field quality, Nikon’s flagship scope can compete against anything up to $2,000.
Kowa TSN-663 20-60x66mm ($1,400), TSN-553 15-45x ($1,799)
Kowa’s 66mm scope was the smallest in the Prominar line, but the TSN-553 now holds that title as well as being the finest under-60mm scope on the market today.
Zeiss Conquest Gavia HD 85mm w/30-60x ($1,999.99)
The 30-60x85mm angled scope is the only one in the Conquest HD line. Bright and sharp, it competes against anything in the $2,000 range. Some may prefer a lower minimum power, but given the earlier popularity of 30x eyepieces, this may be a minority viewpoint.
High End: Over $2,000
Kowa TSN-773 w/25-60x ($2,300)
Kowa’s flagship series 77mm scopes (TSN-1 to TSN-4) took the birding world by storm in the 1980s and still offer wonderful optical performance.
Swarovski ATS/STS 25-50×60 ($2,418), ATS/STS 25-50×80 ($3,128)
Once Swarovski’s flagship line, the straight (STX) and angled (ATX) HD scopes are well worth considering. Choose 25-50x wide or 20-60x zoom eyepieces.
Meopta MeoStar 82 S2 HD with 20-70x ($2,499.98)
Czech optics company Meopta deserves to be better known. Its flagship MeoStar S2 spotter can challenge all but the Swarovski, Zeiss, and Kowa flagship models. I do not see these scopes in the field often, but when I ask users about them, I usually hear, “I love it!”
Leica APO-Televid 82 w/25-50x ($3,598)
Leica’s only current scope offering is compact and has a wide, bright, flat field with crisp, color-true Leica performance.
Premier: Over $3,000
Kowa TSN-883 w/25-60x WA ($3,150), TS-99 w/30-70x ($3,999)
Kowa’s flagship TSN-883 was the reference standard for years, and its only competitors are those in this price category. Only the Zeiss Harpias have a wider field of view than Kowa’s TE II -11WZ 25-60x eyepiece.
Zeiss Victory Harpia 22-65×85 ($4,499.99), 23-70×95 ($4,799.99)
Zeiss Victory scopes are available only as angled models, both with the widest FOVs available, sharp from edge to edge and right up to maximum power.
Swarovski ATX/STX/BTX 65/85/95/115 ($3,398 to $5,798)
Swarovski reclaimed the top of the market with the ATX 85- and 96-mm modular scope models. Choose between angled (ATX) or straight (STX) zooms, or fixed power binocular (BTX) modules to mount with any of four different objectives, from a portable 65mm to a
This article was first published in the March/April 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.