How to Select the Perfect Birdwatching Spotting Scope
There are a lot of birdwatching tools and gadgets on the market, so we know it can feel overwhelming to find the right spotting scope for your birdwatching lifestyle. There’s no one best spotting scope for birding, but there are some factors that can help you find the perfect spotting scope for your birdwatching needs.
In this guide, we’ll go over the optical and design characteristics to consider when selecting the best spotting scope for birding.
Start here: What are spotting scopes?
Why Use a Birdwatching Spotting Scope
Beginner birdwatchers like to use binoculars for close-up birding. Binoculars have a fixed magnification, and they’re lightweight enough to easily follow nearby birds. For more advanced birdwatching scenarios, though, a spotting scope is the preferred tool.
Spotting scopes are useful for spotting and distinguishing faraway birds, whether you’re viewing pelicans on the other side of a lake or penguins across an iceberg. At closer ranges, the spotting scope allows for more intimate viewing; you can see details you’ve never before seen on your favorite birds.
P.S. You shouldn’t use an astronomy telescope for birding. The magnification is too high, it’s too heavy, and it’s likely not weatherproofed well. The spotting scope is the perfect mixture of binoculars and a telescope for birdwatching fans.
So, what factors do you need to consider when choosing the best spotting scope for birding?
- Lens size
- Glass quality
- Straight versus angled
- Eye relief
- Scoping accessories
Binoculars have a set magnification, and that’s usually how they’re described (like “7x power”). Spotting scopes aren’t described by their magnification, because most have interchangeable eyepieces to adjust the magnification. Spotting scopes are considered medium-range telescopes, and they’ll usually have a magnification between 15x and 60x.
Some spotting scopes aren’t interchangeable, but the permanent lens is zoomable. Zoom lenses are typically 20x-40x or 20x-60x, and they allow you to quickly adjust the magnification without changing the lens.
Zoom lenses change magnification power quickly and easily, so they tend to be the preferred choice for birdwatchers who are trying to capture elusive, flying birds. They allow you to use a lower power to scan an entire field, then quickly zoom in when you’ve found a bird.
However, zoom lenses don’t gather light as well as fixed lenses. This means that at higher magnification powers, there will be greater vibration, heat distortion, and haze, especially over water or flat areas. That means fixed lenses may still be the ideal choice for those who will be using their spotting scope in hot, humid, or wet areas, or for those interested in digiscoping.
While binoculars are usually differentiated by magnification, spotting scopes are distinguished by front (objective) lens size— which also refers to its light-gathering capacity. Usually, the objective lens size is between 50 and 100 millimeters. Larger lenses provide brighter images, but they’re also heavier and bulkier. You’ll want to choose the lens size based on the quality of the images and your use of the scope (hiking might require a smaller lens size, while setting up and staying put could use a larger lens).
The quality of the glass in the scope impacts the quality of the image you’ll see. The best spotting scope for birding will have fluorite-coated, high density (HD), or extra-low dispersion (ED) glass. Multi-coated lenses have become the cream-of-the-crop option to improve the transmission of light, which creates a sharper and clearer image.
You can especially tell the difference in glass quality in low-light viewing conditions, like evening or early morning, and when you’re using a higher magnification power. Don’t buy a scope that has a high magnification or zoom without ensuring the quality of the glass is high as well— otherwise, you’ll end up with a grainy or dim image.
If you’re investing in a spotting scope, you should prioritize glass quality for the ultimate viewing experience. Note that not all brands use the same terminology, so you want to see the terms and acronyms each brand uses to describe their low-dispersion lenses.
There are two main types of focusing mechanisms on a spotting scope. The first is a focus knob, or ring, on the barrel of the scope. This moves the internal elements to create a sharp picture, allowing you to fine-tune it to your field. Some scopes also have two knobs— one for fast close-ups and the second for smaller, detailed adjustments. The second type of focus mechanism works by just turning the whole barrel of the scope, which is usually rubberized for comfort.
Although the knob option is slower, knobs allow for more precise focusing than the barrel movement. There’s no right or wrong answer, though. You’ll want to choose the focusing method that feels most comfortable to you.
Remember that focusing up close is just as important as finding birds far away. You want your spotting scope to be able to focus down to 20 feet or closer so you can find those details and distinguishing marks that make each bird so unique.
Straight Versus Angled
Straight and angled are the two configurations for spotting scopes. Spotting scopes almost always require a tripod to keep them steady and get their best images, and the configuration depends on the height and use of your tripod.
If you tend to go birding alone and you have a tall tripod, the straight view is a great choice. You can set the scope at eye level and scan for hours on end with a clear picture. If you’re digiscoping, a straight configuration may also be preferred to get the best photography.
The angled option is preferred if you’re birding with friends, or you tend to look up at birds overhead (as opposed to directly in front of you). This configuration has the scope at a 45-degree angle, making it easier to view above the horizon or a straight line. You can adjust the tripod for the shortest person in your birding group, and since it will be angled up, taller people just have to bend over a little further; you won’t have to readjust the scope for each person. If you’re journaling or sketching birds, an angled configuration also lets you look away and back to the scope with minimal movement.
What’s the best tripod for bird spotting scopes? The Celestron Hummingbird is always our top pick for a sturdy-yet-lightweight option. You can also check out these recommendations, which we’re on board with: best Tripods for Spotting Scopes Reviews 2020 – Birding & Hunting.
Do you wear glasses? You’ll need to consider eye relief for your spotting scope as well. A “longer” eye relief means that the optics have a focal point that’s further back, so eyeglass wearers have a wider field of view. For most glasses wearers, 12-15mm of eye relief will work well.
The lens caps and covers make a difference, too. You want a durable canvas cover that will protect the scope when stored away. Some brands even make covers that can lift up while in use, so you can protect the tool in even the worst weather and the wackiest birding scenarios. These covers are also useful against dust, wind, and accidents. As for lens caps, make sure they attach firmly and solidly. You don’t want your lens cap popping off and your glass scratching, thus rendering your scope useless.
Popular Birding Spotting Scope Brands
The best spotting scope for birding comes from Celestron. Although we’re also fans of Vortex and Bushnell, nothing can compare to Celestron’s advanced options.
The Celestron Trailseeker is a favorite among birdwatchers. There are two objective lens models, the 80mm and the 100mm, both are high enough to allow for ideal lighting in even dawn or dusk lighting. They have XLT multi-coated glass (a high quality glass) that renders high resolution images with a sharp contrast. Both options are angled, so they can be placed on a tripod and used with ease and convenience. They’re highly durable and waterproof, so they’re ready to take with you on a trek through the great outdoors. Check out the Trailseeker 80mm and the Trailseeker 100mm if you’re looking for the absolute best birdwatching scope you can find— without breaking the bank.
If you do a lot of digiscoping (taking photos through your scope), we recommend the Celestron Regal M2 80ED. The extra-low dispersion (ED) glass creates a flawless picture, while the dual focus lets you bring the subject into focus 2x faster. It has a magnesium alloy body, so it’s significantly lighter than comparable models, which is especially useful if you’ll also be carrying your camera. Plus, you can attach your camera to the Regal with a T-Ring to create stunning pictures. Of course, it’s waterproof and fog-proof, too.
Selecting the Best Spotting Scope for Birding
You want the highest-quality spotting scope that your budget will allow. However, you don’t really know what kind of scope will work best for you until you’ve tried it for yourself.
That’s why we offer a 30-day return policy, so you can make sure the scope you purchase is the perfect scope for you. You’re always welcome to contact us directly to inquire about the best scope for your unique birdwatching needs and lifestyle. We’re happy to help you find the right solution!