Gifts for Bird Watchers: Lenses, Binoculars, Scopes, and Supports
No matter how experienced the bird watcher in your life may be, there is almost certainly something missing from that person’s rig. Whether it’s a new set of compact glass or an accessory to round out their bag of tricks, this is a gift opportunity that should not to be missed. This year, instead of giving your friend or family member a gigantic tin of flavored popcorn, give them a gift that will enhance their birding experience for years to come.
We have compiled a list that includes some of our favorite optics and accessories. Below, you will find a range of gear including tried-and-trusted binoculars and scopes, as well as specialized binoculars, digiscoping adapters, and a few accessories that will complete any birder's kit.
A Word on Optics
Before you purchase any item on the B&H list, let’s talk about the features and specs you should have in mind when looking for a gift for your bird watcher. What kind of birder do you have in mind? Novice? Hobbyist? Seasoned vet, who packs a lunch and is in the field from dawn to dusk? Obviously, this is going to make a world of difference when choosing a gift. The optics on this list are suitable for those who fall within the aforementioned boundaries.
"More is better when it comes to apparent angle of view (AAOV) and eye relief; less is more for minimum focus distance."
Important factors to consider when purchasing binoculars include image quality, form factor, and build quality. Although several variables influence the overall performance of an optic, this guide focuses on key features that will help you find a set of glasses that is well suited for the birder. In the sections below, we will leave most of the optics jargon behind and focus on the features that will help you find the best optic for your loved one this holiday season.
In terms of specs, the magnification and objective lens diameter will always be listed as part of the product name. This is true for binoculars and most spotting scopes. For example, a 10x42 binocular has 10x magnification and 42mm objective lens or lenses. Magnification and objective size aside, the most important optical specs to keep in mind are apparent viewing angle, eye relief, and minimum focus distance.
More is better when it comes to apparent angle of view (AAOV) and eye relief; less is more for minimum focus distance. Apparent viewing angle measures the field of view visible to the observer. An AAOV of 45 degrees is adequate for most observations, 60 degree or wider will offer an immersive visual scene that will be greatly appreciated in any viewing situation. Eye relief is the distance from the eye to the eyepiece; an eye relief greater than 15mm will be especially valued by eyeglass wearers.
Glass makes the optic. Its composition and coatings are the difference between a sub-par image and a good image and the difference between a good image and a stunning image.
Birders, and pretty much anyone using a binocular or spotting scope, want an image that is bright, clear, sharp, wide angle, and color faithful. To achieve those qualities, optics manufacturers use various types of glass and coatings to allow the maximum amount of light to reach the viewer’s eye. For example, extra-low dispersion (ED) glass and fluoride-containing glass excel at light transmission and minimizing distortions such as color fringing at the edge of subjects within the field of view.
Another feature to look for is optical coatings. On this list, you will see terms like “fully multicoated” and “multicoated.” No need to go into details—fully multicoated optics will have more clarity and contrast than comparable multicoated optics. Some manufacturers will also finish the prisms of the optic with a highly-reflective (“dielectric”) coating, which helps to preserve accurate color transmission, as well as enhance the sharpness, contrast, and saturation of the transmitted image.
Form Factor and Build Quality
A great image is obviously important, but an often-overlooked aspect of an optic is how it feels and performs. Qualities that affect the durability and viewing comfort of binoculars can be almost as important as their optical performance.
Most of today’s binoculars have at least some weatherproofing. For additional protection against rain and humidity, look for binoculars that have a waterproof or fog-proof housing. Waterproof binoculars include seals that prevent light rain and humidity from entering the optical housing. Some waterproof bargain optics will stand up to rain in most conditions, but they fail to maintain their seal in extreme humidity, driving rain, or snow.
Fog-proof binoculars prevent moisture from condensing on internal lens surfaces. Fog-proof optics also have waterproof seals, but the housing is filled with a dry gas, such as argon, nitrogen, or a combination of the two, to provide internal pressure against the seal. Internal pressure holds the o-rings into seams and actively prevents moisture from creeping into the housing. To put it simply, all fogproof optics are also waterproof, but not all waterproof optics are fog proof.
Another aspect of weatherproofing is how easy an optic is to operate in wet or cold conditions. Look for textured rubber armoring and deep ridges on the focus wheel, which can assist focus accuracy and enhance tactile feedback while wearing gloves. In terms of viewing comfort, twist-up eyecups allow an adjustable viewing distance that is preferable for most observers. Open-bridge designs tend to be slightly lighter, feel more balanced in your hand, and are relatively easy to focus one-handed.
Compared to compact binoculars, standard-size binoculars are equipped with larger objective lenses and a comfortable handheld form factor. For birding and general purpose use, magnifications of 8x and 10x represent a good balance of power and usability. Binoculars with magnification of 12x and greater can appear shaky without a support like a tripod, monopod, or shoulder harness (see below). Higher magnification is the province of the spotting scope—we’ll get to that below.
Mojave-series binoculars feature ergonomic handling and fully multicoated optics, creating a budget-friendly, general-purpose set of glasses. Leupold uses proprietary anti-reflective lens coatings to maximize light transmission and enhance image contrast. A 50mm objective diameter allows these glasses to really gather the light, which will be useful to birders in place at dawn, and lingering in the field at dusk. Complementing the lens system are phase-corrected prisms that render lifelike colors and impressive sharpness. Twist-up rubber eyecups and 16mm eye relief outfit the binocular for a comfortable viewing experience, even while wearing eyeglasses.
The BX-3 Mojave binocular features a fog-proof housing that is nitrogen filled and built to perform in humid and wet conditions. Textured rubber armoring and rubberized ridges on the focus wheel make the binocular easier to use when weather conditions take a nasty turn. An open-bridge design also helps to balance these glasses in the observer's hand. If you’ve got a steady hand, they can be handheld, but the high magnification might seem shaky to many people, so consider some kind of stabilizing system to go with it.
Nikon combines fully multicoated optics with a rubber-armored nitrogen-filled housing to deliver the image quality and handling that is characteristic of Monarch-series binoculars. This version of the Monarch 5 features extra-low dispersion (ED) lens elements that transmit bright images with enhanced color fidelity and contrast. To preserve the image quality of these high-transmission lenses, Nikon also outfitted this Monarch 5 with phase-corrected roof prisms. Using dielectric coatings, these prisms align incoming wavelengths of light and render well-defined edges with lifelike color with virtually no light loss. The Monarch 5 is also available in an 8x42 configuration.
A fog-proof housing, 64-degree wide viewing angle, 18mm eye relief, and budget-friendly cost make this one of the best values on the birding market. The Diamondback series also features textured-rubber armor and sculpted contours that help the binocular fit comfortably in the hand. Additionally, the five-foot minimum focus distance enables close-up observation of butterflies and other natural beauties within your field of view.
Although these should technically be listed among the other “standard” binoculars, nothing about them is remotely standard. Swarovski is known to produce virtually flawless glass and unmatched build quality, making just about any of their optics instant family heirlooms.
The SwaroVision optical path comprises high-definition glass elements and field-flattener lenses, each fully multicoated with Swarovski’s proprietary SWAROTOP and SWARODUR anti-reflective coatings that enhance image brightness and contrast. Exposed lens surfaces are then finished with SWAROCLEAN non-stick protective coating that helps prevent moisture and dirt from adhering to the lenses. Images rendered by the EL binocular have lifelike colors, rich contrast, and impressive detail that extend across the expansive 65° field of view. Complementing their image quality, EL binoculars boast a five-foot close focus distance, as well as 20mm eye relief and twist-up eyecups made of hypoallergenic rubber.
The EL 8.5x42 is also engineered for extremes. This nitrogen-filled, fog-proof binocular will maintain its seal in subzero temperatures and even when submerged to a depth of 13 feet. Just as impressive, this set weighs only 29 ounces. As multicoating on the cake, these glasses include Swarovski’s Snap Shot digiscoping adapter and a lifetime warranty.
Canon’s IS (Image Stabilized) binocular series includes configurations for both recreational and professional users. The 10x42 IS L WP Binocular features Canon’s fully multicoated premium L lenses, a 65-degree AAOV, 16mm eye relief, and a waterproof housing, making this optic ready for low-light performance in virtually any environment.
When the adventurer in your life steps away from stable ground, a set of stabilized binoculars may be a convenient solution to the problem of glassing from a moving platform. The same electronic image-stabilization technology used in today’s popular camera lenses is used to assist observation from an unstable location in the air, on land, or at sea.
If wet or low-light conditions are not part of the adventure, the 10x30 IS Binocular model is a lightweight cost-effective alternative, ready to get the shake out of the view.
The DEV-50 is a binocular-camera hybrid that combines true 3D image capture and a wide zoom range. The DEV-50 is capable of recording 2D and 3D video in Full HD 1080p and has a 0.8-12x optical zoom range. Featuring two 20.4MP CMOS image sensors, simultaneous zoom-autofocus, and a water-sealed housing, this multi-purpose imager will be useful to a birder in a national park, family at a theme park, or a fan at a ballpark.
Sony also incorporated three-axis image stabilization, which will come in handy at the high end of the zoom range. Since the DEV-50 is capable of up to 25x magnification using digital zoom, three-axis stabilization will be useful for high-powered viewing on dry land and at sea.
Compact binoculars fuse portability and functionality. These glasses are lightweight and small enough for birding on the move, hikes, and family vacations. Each of the following compact binoculars will make great travel companion; many will even fit in a cargo pocket or side pocket of a day pack.
Keep in mind that compact binoculars are convenient for general purposes, but they aren’t likely to transmit enough light to be useful to bird watchers during twilight hours when birds surface to sing their evening song. When choosing the right tool for the job, form must complement function.
This compact binocular features phase-correction-coated prisms to produce great optical performance and delivers brilliantly detailed images. Its multi-layered, highly reflective aluminum prism coating further enhances sharpness and color accuracy. These glasses focuses as close as 5.9 feet, and offer a very comfortable 15mm eye relief. Additionally, this binocular has a waterproof, slim body design configured with a smooth one-axis center focus, and its fine ergonomic design offers comfort and easy handling.
Nikon's proprietary aspherical lenses reduce field curvature that can distort the field of view. The results are flat images that display lifelike color and consistent center-to-edge sharpness. Travelite VI series binoculars feature an Eco-Glass optical system that contains no lead or arsenic. With its 10-foot close-focus distance, this 8x25 binocular is ready for almost any close- to mid-range birding task.
This multi-purpose option combines a fixed-power optic with a 5-megapixel CMOS camera sensor, allowing operators to capture photos or video of the observed image. Multicoated optics and a 30mm objective equip the ImageView binocular with adequate optical performance. JPEG photos and AVI video files are recorded either to the ImageView's 16MB internal memory or an external SD card, with up to 32GB capacity.
Spotting scopes offer practical advantages over binoculars. They tend to have a broad zoom range and greater magnification power than a binocular; many birders also find scopes to be more comfortable to use over extended periods of time. Spotting scopes will also usually have a wider objective lens, which allows the optic to gather more light and produce a relatively bright image at the highest magnification setting.
Most spotters come in both straight and angled versions. This refers to the position of the eyepiece relative to the optical tube. Choosing one or the other is largely based on personal preference. Simply put, using a straight-view makes it easier to find and track your subject, since the eyepiece is in the same orientation in which you’re sighting. An angled view is generally more comfortable—no matter if you’re standing, sitting, or lying down—however, it does take some practice to be able to quickly find that songbird in the boughs or follow a fox bounding across a brook.
Compared to binoculars, spotting scopes are heavier and require a tripod to stabilize the optic, making a spotting scope more cumbersome. So, if the birder you have in mind is likely to post up in a location for a while, then a spotting scope may be a better option. To help overcome some of these potential disadvantages, we’ve only listed scopes that are bundled with a support system like a tripod or steady stock (see below).
Leupold produces one of the few compact spotting scopes on the market—without compromising on image quality. Leupold's HD lenses use high-transmission, calcium-fluoride glass elements that produce saturated colors and superb clarity. Additionally, the HD elements are lead-free and weigh less than comparably sized standard glass elements. Phase-corrected prism glass and index-matched lens coatings further enhance the image transmitted by this Gold Ring series scope. The resulting images are detail rich, with vivid and color faithful views—from a scope that is half the size of most spotting scopes on the market.
Rampage series scopes have a fully multicoated optical path and BAK4 prism glass. This configuration also has an 80mm objective lens to maximize image brightness and clarity. A nitrogen-filled weather- and fog-proof housing makes the Rampage scope both lightweight and ready to endure the elements. Complementing the durable housing is rubber armoring and slip-resistant ridges that are especially useful when mounting or focusing this optic while wearing winter gloves. Further enhancing the user-friendly features of the Rampage scope is a twist-up eyecup offering up to 19mm eye relief that helps to provide a comfortable viewing experience for eyeglass wearers.
This kit is an all-in-one glassing setup that comes with a compact tripod, carrying case, and view-thru case. The Ravage Spotting Scope Kit is also available in a 20-60x60 configuration.
Vortex pulled out all the stops on this one. The Razor HD features high-quality glass with specialized optical coatings to provide clear, bright images. The apochromatic lens elements are made of High Density (HD) Extra-low Dispersion (ED) glass to increase light transmission, minimize distortion and virtually eliminate color fringing. To ensure accurate color across the entire visible spectrum, the prisms are dielectric coated. This combination of coatings and optics creates a spotting scope that produces bright, crisp, high-contrast images with accurate color transmission.
Additionally, this scope has a lightweight magnesium-alloy body, scratch-resistant coating, and fog-proof weather seals. Another unique feature of this scope is a built-in lens shade that will help cut down on the stray light that can degrade image quality.
The PhotoScope 85 T* FL from Zeiss combines a 7-megapixel digital camera seamlessly with a Victory T* series 85mm spotting scope. The PhotoScope enables you to capture photos or record video while continuing to view the image through the eyepiece. Victory T* optics feature a high-transmission optical path that delivers exceptional brightness, clarity, color fidelity, and contrast—yes, all of that, and more—the optics and electronics are housed within a rubber-armored waterproof body.
The PhotoScope has a fold-out, 2.75-inch OLED color screen that displays the transmitted image and provides access to a range of manual camera settings. The lens system boasts an f/2.4 maximum aperture that rivals the speed of today’s finest extreme telephoto lenses. This scope is bundled with a wireless shutter release and a Zeiss 3-section aluminum tripod.
This simple yet useful hinge lock maintains the interpupillary distance of a binocular, preventing the need to readjust your glasses each time you pull them out of bag. Set it and forget it.
Speaks for itself; everyone needs one and everyone can use a spare. This cleaning cloth boasts a belt clip and an attached neoprene pouch for additional convenience.
Make a set of binoculars tripod mountable. This is an essential piece of gear for birders using 12x or higher binoculars; this accessory is also useful for long-duration viewing like birding or other nature observations. The adapter mounts to any standard tripod 1/4"-20 socket.
For binoculars that don’t have a 1/4"-20 threaded socket, this universal mount will do the trick. Two elastic straps hold the binocular firmly in place; the mount threads onto a standard tripod. It’s a quick, easy, budget-friendly solution.
Capture a photo or video of the image seen through the optics—that's digiscoping in a nutshell. Digiscoping began as a niche of enthusiasts using their point-and-shoot cameras to snap images using their spotting scopes. Thanks to a wave of user-friendly adapters, digiscoping is accessible to anyone with a smartphone and an optic. Adapters abound for iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 users. Sorry Androids, the best option for you is the HookUpz Universal Optics Adapter from Carson. For the Apples out there, here are a couple of options…
This adapter aligns the iPhone camera lens with the eyepiece of a binocular or spotting scope. With it, birders can record video or capture photos of their latest sighting and instantly share it using their iPhone, or simply use the MeoPix iScoping adapter as a viewfinder on the trail or when scanning the tree limbs within view. A MeoPix adapter offers durable construction and is available for a wide range of eyepiece sizes.
This adapter comes with an iPhone case and eyepiece adapter that connects to one of the binocular eyepieces or spotting scope. A removable rubber ring inside the adapter enables the HookUpz to fit a wide range of eyepiece diameters; the IB-542 is designed to fit binoculars with 32mm to 50mm objectives. Whether birding in your local park or visiting landmarks during your vacation, the HookUpz adapter gives you the ability to capture the view from your optic and share photos or video using your iPhone.