Photography / Tips and Solutions

A Guide to Birding with Spotting Scopes

         

There is nothing that can replace the extreme close-up view of a rare bird in the wild. Binoculars can get you close but, if you want to look the bird in the eye or confirm that identification for your life list, you need a spotting scope. Spotting scopes pack incredible magnification in a generally simple and lightweight package that is durable enough for field work while boasting fantastic optical quality for birding.

In this second part of a four-part series on birding optics, we will discuss birding through the powerful magnification of the spotting scope. 

Call it a hobby. Call it a pastime. Call it a sport. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), as of 2011, more than 47,000,000 Americans are “birders.” Birding ranks as the 15th most popular outdoor recreational activity in the US. Chances are that you either know a “birder” or you see one when you look in the mirror. B&H Photo is a great place for stocking up on the best birding optics available, or for shopping for your favorite birder.

Getting Closer

The binocular is the traditional heart of the birder’s optical kit. However, the popularity of the spotting scope is growing for birders who are serious about getting closer to the action. At first glance, the spotting scope may look like a telescope, but it is more closely related to a monocular due to its image-erecting prism system. It delivers larger magnification capabilities to birders than all but the most powerful binoculars, and many spotting scope eyepieces can produce magnifications of up to 60x or higher. While some telescopes can be used to make terrestrial observations with the addition of specialized accessories, most will have optics and coatings specially designed for celestial viewing, so the viewing experience has the potential to be slightly off—especially where colors and resolution are concerned. The spotting scope—its optics, optical coatings, and housing—is designed, from the start, to be a terrestrial viewing instrument. This does not mean that you cannot admire the moon, stars, or planets with a spotting scope; it just may not present an image quite as good as a purpose-built celestial scope.

40-year birder and Director of Conservation and Community at the American Birding Association Bill Stewart says, “A good spotting scope will change your birding forever.” Using a spotting scope, he says, “is better for detailed observation and is the fastest way to advance your birding.”

Details are the key for Walker Golder, Deputy Director of Audubon North Carolina, who uses the office’s Swarovski, Vortex, Kowa, and Nikon spotting scopes to read “bands on tiny shore birds and terns.” These coastal birds may only be three or four inches tall, and the leg bands, placed on the bird’s tarsus, might measure only half an inch.

Supports

All that magnification means that handholding the device is nearly impossible, so taking a spotting scope into the field means taking a tripod and tripod head (or alternative support) into the field with you—a big consideration when it comes to how far from home, or your vehicle, you will be setting up. Also, binoculars may be lifted a few inches from your chest to your face for a quick observation. The spotting scope needs to be set up.

Spotting scopes are not often very heavy and, therefore, do not require large tripods. But, you do want to get a tripod that reaches a comfortable height for extended viewing while being heavy enough to provide needed stability for your scope. For birding, a fluid tripod head, popular for use with video cameras, works fantastically with a birding scope. When asked for spotting scope advice for beginning birders, Patrick Comins, Director of Bird Conservation at the Audubon Society’s Connecticut office, and President of the Friends of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, says simply, “Get a good tripod.”

Straight versus Angled

Spotting scopes come in two general configurations—straight viewing and angled viewing. The difference is at the rear of the scope, where the erecting prism directs the light path straight in line with the body, or at an angle, typically 45 degrees, to the body. The straight or angled configuration is one of the first considerations that a birder must evaluate when buying a spotting scope. In general, users, especially beginner birders, find it is easier to acquire and track birds with a straight scope, but the angled scope offers more viewing comfort.

Chris Wood, experienced birder and Project Leader at Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird program, spoke to us about considerations when choosing one configuration over another: “Passion can abound on the question of straight versus angled scopes. The best reason for straight is usually that it’s more intuitive to find the bird. If you bird from your car and want to use a scope, straight scopes are also easier to use.

“If you are birding with others, you almost certainly want to use an angled scope, which makes it much easier for people of different heights to use the same scope. The other advantage is that you don’t need to raise the scope as high, which means that the wind isn’t as likely to shake the scope. In most cases, people are more pleased with an angled scope after a week or two of use. It may take a little longer to get started, particularly if you have used a straight scope for your entire life. But your short friends will thank you.

“With practice, anyone should be able to find birds just as easily with either straight or angled scope.”

Bill Stewart, adds, “The only people I know [who] use straight [spotting scopes] owned them before the popularity of angled [scopes].” He uses an angled-view Leica APO 65mm Televid to see birds.

To give the best of both worlds, Swarovski’s latest modular spotting scopes can adapt an angled or straight-viewing eyepiece by simply changing out the rear module.

Walker Golder notes that, with an angled scope, the tripod can set lower than when using a straight viewing scope. As he is often “getting in and out of boats,” this has time-saving advantages for him. A shorter tripod also has stability advantages (especially in windy conditions), and, if getting a new support, the shorter height requirement might also allow you to purchase a smaller tripod, better for extended travel. But remember: small and light has its limitations, as well!

Objectives and Eyepieces

Spotting scopes are differentiated by their objective diameters and eyepiece magnifications. Those that have fixed eyepieces will, like a pair of binoculars, carry both the magnification and objective diameter in the product name. Scopes with interchangeable eyepieces will simply list the objective size. Just like with binoculars, the larger the objective, the more light-gathering power the scope has. The tradeoff is that more glass equals more weight and usually is more expense, depending on the other features. Patrick Comins told us, “You have to remember, you are going to be carrying this scope into the field. I would love a 100mm Swarovski, but it would probably be too heavy.” He finds scopes around 80mm, like his 20-year old Leica APO Televid 77, strike a good balance between light-gathering ability and portability.

Eyepiece magnification is another important consideration. This is the part of the spotting scope to which you put your eye. Many manufacturers include eyepieces with their scopes. Some of these eyepieces are not interchangeable, but many scopes offer interchangeable options and the user has the choice of fixed magnification or zoom versions.

Fixed focal length eyepieces offer slightly improved optical quality over the zoom eyepieces (however, high-quality zooms are spectacular), but this comes at the expense of flexibility. For birding, every expert we spoke to said that the zoom eyepiece is a must-have for birding, as the observer can zoom out to a wider field of view, find the bird they want to observe, and then zoom in for a closer look. “Finding a bird with a high-magnification fixed eyepiece is often difficult,” as the field of view can get incredibly small, says Eric Lind, the Audubon Constitution Marsh Center & Sanctuary’s Center Director. At their Garrison, New York location, they use a Kowa straight-viewing spotting scope with a zoom eyepiece. Lind recommends a minimum magnification of 25x.

eBird’s Chris Wood says, “It will take some practice, but start with looking for the horizon line, and then working toward what you are interested in putting in the scope. Then move onto distant trees or other large objects. Once you are good with stationary objects, you can try to find flying birds near the horizon. When trying to find the moon—at first it will be frustrating, but over time you’ll get good at it.”

Expanding their versatility, some spotting scopes accept standard-sized 1.25" telescope eyepieces that might give the user greater magnification options, as well as coatings and optics designed for improved celestial viewing.

Additional Options

Just like their binocular cousins, spotting scopes come with different levels of features. And, just like when shopping for birding binoculars, you’ll likely want to make sure your spotting scope is water and fogproof. Some spotting scopes come with rubber armoring to protect their surfaces and provide a tackier surface to grip.

Some newer spotting scopes are specially designed with mounts that accept cameras from specific manufacturers, so, if you see yourself connecting a camera to the scope (referred to as digiscoping), this might be an important purchase decision. Many companies that offer spotting scopes with interchangeable eyepieces have the ability to take a specially designed camera adapter that usually just needs a threaded T-mount to connect to a DSLR camera. Some scopes have adapters to connect to point-and-shoot cameras or smartphone cameras, as well.

Another characteristic of particular scopes to keep in mind is how they focus. Some have focus knobs while others have focus rings. Some feature dual focus, with coarse and fine adjustments available. At higher magnifications, the fine adjustment is often a nice feature to be able to access.

One term that spotting scope buyers may see pop up on the B&H Photo site while they shop for scopes is the term “apochromatic.” Many scope manufacturers offer apochromatic and non-apochromatic versions of a particular scope. The apochromatic versions contain a specially designed lens that helps remove chromatic aberrations, basically color fringing, from the image. Extra-low dispersion and achromatic lenses are designed with the same goal in mind: to ensure maximum image resolution and produce accurate color rendition so you can observe, categorize, and identify a bird confidently.

Like binoculars, spotting scopes have features that change from brand to brand and throughout a manufacturer’s product line: lens and prism coatings. Multi-coated lenses have an advantage over coated and non-coated, but for an in-depth discussion about coatings, visit Chris Witt’s binocular buying guide. The article focuses on binoculars, but the coating information is applicable to this discussion, as well.

There are also a number of ways to customize your spotting scope. Manufacturers offer hard travel cases and some sell view-through soft cases that envelope the scope to further protect its chassis in the field. Many scopes have rubber armoring and some feature flip-up lens caps to help the birder set up faster and not worry about losing lens caps to the wind or brush.

Try Before You Buy

Similar to the advice we gathered for binoculars, the experts we spoke to all said that you should not only try out the spotting scope before you purchase it, but that you should learn how to bird with a spotting scope to be certain you want to make the investment. When it comes to that investment, the advice was, again, that you should get the best spotting scope you can afford.

As we mentioned in the segment about binoculars, the optical quality of spotting scopes can be the difference between a highly enjoyable outing looking at birds and a frustrating experience that makes the day less enjoyable.

And, like binoculars, the quality of the scopes can vary greatly. Patrick Comins says that there are some really nice mid-price-range spotting scopes on the market today, but that you also need to know that “you get what you pay for.”

Conclusion

In speaking to a group of birding experts, it became apparent that the spotting scope is a great tool for birding, but not necessarily the tool with which you would want to start your birding adventures. The learning curve for the spotting scope is noticeably steeper than that for learning to use binoculars. Also, while you can get magnification past what practical binoculars offer, it comes at the expense of a relatively heavy optical device that must be accompanied by some sort of support for proper use. Mid-range-magnification binoculars can usually be carried around your neck all day long, but a spotting scope and tripod can become a logistical challenge for long hikes across rough terrain.

For the serious birder or for those wishing to get more serious about their observations, a spotting scope might be just the thing you need to get a superlative close-up of a distant bird.

Want to read more? Check out Part III of our birding series, Guide to Birding with Long Lenses.

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Dilettante and amateurish. Author never went birding or used a spotting scope.

MADagaskar,

Author has been birding and has used (and owns) a spotting scope. Thanks for reading and commenting!