Picking the Best Spotting Scope for Birding, What You Need to Know (2018)

If you are a true birding enthusiast, you should know for a fact that birding will never be complete without a reliable and high-quality bird watching spotting scope. In fact, this should be one of the first and most important tools that you need to invest in for an unforgettable birding experience. However, with hundreds of options offered on the market today, how will you know which one to buy?

If you are on the hunt for a new spotting scope for your next bird watching session, this article is for you. We will present you with a comprehensive buying guide to help you choose the best product that suits your needs and also review some of the best spotting scopes for birding out there.

Let’s first look at one product that just blows almost any competitor out of the water and is one of the most used tools by professional ornithologists. After that, we’ll dive into all the little details that make up a great bird watching scope.


If there is a product that ticks all your boxes in buying a spotter, it is the Swarovski one – the price is, of course, out of this world as well. Made by one of the most respected companies in the world of optics, this line of products promises nothing but sophistication and unparalleled quality. All Swarovski products are built from top of the line materials that ensures longevity. More importantly, it was carefully engineered and configured in such a way that it will be the last piece of birding optics you will ever buy.

Swarovski Optics has powerful magnification ranging from 20 to 70X depending on the model you choose and the type of eyepiece. You won’t find many competing products that make spotting your target and checking even the smallest detail as easy. Its high definition lenses also reproduce colors in the most natural way, as a result, you are getting more realistic images compared to other brands – highly important for bird watching.

Finally, Swarovski puts all their effort into engineering the best glasses for their scopes. Specifically, they use the BaK-4 glass in the conventional Porro prism layout to produce crisp and sharp images. Glasse elements are then coated carefully multiple times to prevent phase changes.

PROS

  • Superb quality, high-definition images
  • Powerful magnification up to 70X
  • Durable materials that can withstand extreme conditions
  • Multicoated glass

CONS

  • Very expensive
  • Eyepiece may be sold separately, make sure you know what you’re buying

Summary

Ask any veteran bird watching enthusiast and they surely recommend a Swarovski product. Sure it is very heavy on the pocket but there’s no doubt that it is a worthy investment if you’re serious about bird watching. Personally, I would rather spend more on a quality product instead of buying a cheap one and end up with a substandard product.

Spotting Scope Buying Guide for Birdwatchers

In case you haven’t realized, a good spotting scope makes a lot of difference during birdwatching. Aside from appreciating the birds’ beauty from a distance, you also get to spot minute details on the birds that you cannot do with a regular binocular. Hence, it is important to select the right kind of spotting scope specifically for bird watching. Below is some information that you need to know before deciding which one to go for.

Straight or Angled?

There are two types of spotting scopes that you can choose from – straight and angled. Basically, the only difference is in the configuration of the scope itself. As the name suggests, straight spotting scope has its eyepiece and the lens in the same horizontal plane while that of the angled comes at a certain angle, typically 45 degrees.

If you have a sturdy and tall tripod and no one else will use the spotting scope aside from you, then a straight spotting scope might be a perfect choice. However, if you will be using it with someone else, the angular version is more ideal. In addition, it is easier to use the angular scope if you are looking at a bird that is somewhat above you. One is not really superior to the other. It is simply a matter of purpose and functionality.

Magnification and Lens Size

I’m sure that by now, you might have a small idea of what the numbers in a scope’s description represent. Contrary to binoculars, the magnification of the scope depends greatly on the type of eyepiece you will connect to it, with the exclusion of fixed eyepieces. Instead, the number that usually comes with the name stands for the size of its lens – this should be in millimeters (mm). The rule of thumb is simple – the higher the number, the bigger the lens will be. Bigger lenses allow more light to come in and thus producing clearer and brighter images.

The downside, however, of using scopes with extremely large lenses is their weight. Huge lenses weigh more and may affect how portable they are.

You may sometimes see something like 20-60X80 in the item’s name. This means that the magnification varies from 20x to 60x (a zoomable eyepiece) and the lens size is 80mm.

Portability

Portability is one of the top consideration for buyers especially if they are always traveling. Is it small enough to fit the trunk of your car with all the other stuff or in your backpack? Is it so heavy that carrying it with you into the wilderness becomes a pain? Can you carry it anywhere you like without causing you any trouble? Or are just going to watch birds at the bird feeder in your backyard? These are just the questions that you need to have in mind before making a decision. Also, you need to ensure that no matter how good the quality and the price is, heavy and bulky spotting scopes will just be a waste of time and money.

Accessories

Another consideration in buying a scope are the accessories. Primarily, you need to check if the spotting scope needs a tripod where it will be mounted most of the time. Generally, spotting scopes need a tripod for two reasons – stability and accuracy of the viewing angle. Accessories need not be expensive. For as long as they serve their purpose, you may settle on less expensive products.

Cost

Compared to other types of spotting scopes, those that are used for bird watching are generally more expensive. The main reason is that as a birder, you’re using the optics for viewing pleasure. You want to see the minute details of the plumage and the birds’ movement etc. Your target are often small, fidgety and keep away from humans. You need much better optical quality than somebody who is trying to merely spot a big animal like a deer, for instance.

Top Choices

Here are some alternative products for bird watching to consider in addition to the one recommended above:


If you are looking for a spotter with excellent ergonomics and powerful optics ability, this might be a good option for you. Athlon Optics Ares has an Apochromatic Lens System which is responsible for the beautiful contrast and stunning sharpness in your images. In addition, its glass has undergone a dielectric coating allowing to reflect about 99% of the light towards the eyepiece. As a result, you are getting brighter and clearer images at high resolutions.

You are assured that this spotting scope can endure the most unforgiving trails that you will encounter. It is built with aluminum alloy encased in a protective rubber making it extra durable. Despite being robust, the case is very light so as not to compromise portability. With a good 15-45x magnification, spotting your target will be a piece of cake. In addition to this, its 65mm lens is more than adequate to offer you excellent images even in the scarcity of light. The best part of all is that this lens size is just enough not to add significant weight to the whole thing.

PROS

  • BAK4 prism glass for crystal clear images
  • Extra wide field of view with a decent exit pupil
  • Very compact, lightweight design with a durable enclosure
  • Argon purged for waterproofing

CONS

  • Not the most powerful magnification

Summary

If you are on a tight budget but still want a more than decent spotting scope, this product is a very good choice. Though it is not the most powerful product, you will surely not regret putting your money here. With crystal clear images and durable build, the Ares is indeed a reasonable purchase.


If you are looking for a top-notch device and willing to spend some considerable cash, the TSN-880 series from Kowa is the perfect product for you. Considered to be one of the best and most expensive high-end spotting scopes, this product promises to deliver the features and advantages that will leave you astounded.

The series has two main products: the TSN-883 with an angled eyepiece and the TSN-884 with a straight eyepiece.

For starters, it has a massive 88mm objective lens which makes it one of the top contenders for the best product for birdwatching in a low light setting. It is built with polycarbonate materials to ensure that it is strong and sturdy but light and portable at the same time. This product is very dependable even in rough and wet conditions since it is not only waterproof but it is also filled with Nitrogen gas to avoid fogging.

Another thing to love about this model is the dual focus: use fast focus to quickly focus on your subject. And then, use the fine focus: with just a few fine adjustments, even the smallest details of the bird become visible. To top it all off, it comes with a manufacturer’s limited lifetime warranty.

PROS

  • JIS Class 7 waterproof
  • 88mm lens diameter for
  • Dual focus mechanism
  • Pure fluorite glass lens: Kowa’s signature optical feature

CONS

  • Well, the price

The next item on our list is the Vanguard Endeavor 20-60×82 spotting scope. Similar to other products, the Vanguard promises to deliver sharp and bright images without putting too much weight on your back. Most people buy this product because of its price – you can enjoy the features of a good optics device without spending a fortune.

When it comes to performance, Endeavor is not lagging behind its competitors. Built with 20 to 60X magnification, spotting the bird at the distant bird feeder will be a walk in the park. In addition, its 82mm objective lens is more than enough to provide you images with superior brightness and accuracy even in low light conditions. Aside from this, its lenses are also multi-coated to provide more realistic colors.

When buying this product, you also get to avail some of the accessories that you will need such as hard case and a tripod for stability.

PROS

  • Large 82mm lens for brighter images even in dim light
  • Less expensive compared to many similar units
  • Dual focus wheel
  • Includes tripod and case
  • Better optics than many somewhat more expensive models

Cons:

  • Image quality degrades significantly at maximum zoom

Finally, we have the Diamondback line of scopes from a renowned manufacturer, Vortex. It’s not a top-of-the-line item from Vortex. For that you should check out the Viper HD and the Razor HD. But it is a solid mid-range device with excellent reputation – given its price, it is hard not to fall in love with this product.

Similar to other mid-range spotting scope, this product has a 20-60x magnification range which is perfect for bird watching. When it comes to the objective lens diameter, you have two choices: 60mm and 80mm. With the 60mm lens, you may not be able to maximize its performance in dim light, but 80mm is already very good. When it comes to the lens quality, the Diamondback hits the mark.  They are multi-coated and built with a retractable sunshade to for your convenience. Finally, the whole unit is purged with nitrogen and sealed with durable O-rings to ensure that they are water and fog proof.

PROS

  • Multicoated lens and sunshade
  • Water and fog proof
  • Very light and portable

Cons:

  • The optics are decent, but certainly not nearly as good as pricier scopes

 

Some final words

Buying the best bird watching spotting scope is never easy, let alone choosing among the hundreds of products online. However, once you are equipped with the right knowledge and know what exactly you are looking for, the process becomes a lot easier.

I hope that this buying guide was able to help you make a sound decision that you won’t regret. Just remember the very basic principle in selecting a spotting scope for birding – know what you need, figure out your budget and search for the best product that suits your requirement – and be prepared to pay a bit more than you initially planned for the perfect product.