Binoculars are an essential piece of equipment for birders, but even beginning birders covet the top-of-the-line optics – spotting scopes. But what is a spotting scope, and is it necessary for birding?
Introducing the Spotting Scope
A spotting scope, more commonly just called a scope, is an advanced type of optics many birders desire for its higher, sharper magnification that shows exquisite details of the birds within its view. Simply defined, a spotting scope is a cross between a small telescope and a large binocular with key modifications to make it more appropriate daytime, terrestrial use. Scopes are also often used for hunting, surveillance, plane spotting and ship spotting, as well as other wildlife and landscape observation, but for birders, a spotting scope is ideal for distant birds, showing details that regular birding binoculars could never reveal.
Spotting scopes are different from birding binoculars in several ways, including…
- Magnification: Scopes generally have higher magnification than even the most advanced binns. The most common binocular magnifications are from 7-10 times the actual size of the object, while spotting scopes have magnification in the 20-60 range. This can provide superb detail for viewing birds.
- Eyepieces: Binoculars have two eyepieces so both eyes can be involved in viewing for a clearer image. Scopes, on the other hand, only have a single eyepiece, though it can be used with either eye. This also eliminates any uneven images for poor adjustments between multiple eyepieces.
- Size: Binoculars are much smaller than spotting scopes, though scopes do come in different sizes. The smallest scopes can be as light as the heaviest binoculars, though qualities will vary greatly. Scopes have longer, heavier bodies and typically require tripods for effective use, while binoculars are hand-held.
- Portability: Because of their smaller size, binoculars are more portable than spotting scopes. Small spotting scopes, however, can be quite portable, especially because tripods and other accessories can be detached for easier mobility.
- Close Focus: Scopes do not have the same close focus ability as binoculars, but they make up for that deficiency with their outstanding range and magnification. Some scopes can focus as close as 15-20 feet, however, which can be useful for watching bird feeding locations or small wildlife thickets.
- Accessories: For most binoculars, a single purchase buys ready-to-use equipment, complete with a neck strap and lens covers. Scopes, however, may require purchasing additional eyepieces for different magnifications, and cases, tripods and covers can all be extra costs.
A spotting scope may be a small telescope, but birding scopes have quite a few differences from astronomical telescopes, such as…
- Lenses: Spotting scopes have additional lenses that produce upright images, unlike astronomical telescopes that can produce upside down images (which does not matter for astronomical viewing).
- Size: Spotting scopes are generally smaller, shorter and lighter than astronomical telescopes. While this does impair the scope's distance viewing to a degree, it does not limit their versatility for birding – it only means a spotting scope is less useful for viewing the moon, stars and planets. These size changes help increase a scope's portability, making it more practical for terrestrial use.
- Magnification: Because of the changes to make a scope more useful for land than heavenly viewing, its magnification is smaller than an astronomical telescope. Because heat waves, fog, haze, smog, wind and other atmospheric conditions can impair scopes above 60 magnification, the lower magnification they have compared to astronomical telescopes, which can have magnifications greater than 120, is not significant.
- Tripods: Astronomical telescopes usually use heavier, sturdier tripods to provide much steadier views for longer observations. Spotting scopes, however, can usually be mounted to simple camera tripods, making them more versatile and portable.
- Treatments: Many scopes are treated to make them more useful for outdoor use and rugged conditions, including coatings to minimize reflections or color distortion as well as fogproof and waterproof seals. Astronomical telescopes are not used under the same conditions and typically do not have the same treatments.
- Portability: Spotting scopes, because of their smaller size and use of lighter tripods, are more portable than astronomical telescopes. They are generally lighter and easier to carry, and may even have accessories such as built in carrying handles, bags or straps to help them be moved more quickly and easily.
Birds You Can See With Spotting Scopes
Simply put, spotting scopes are a step between birding binoculars and astronomical telescopes. But do you need one to see the birds? While scopes aren't useful for every type of birding, they can be helpful for a wide range of birds and birding situations, including…
- Perched raptors and songbirds on tops of distant trees or poles
- Waterfowl floating a great distance from shore
- Shorebirds or wading birds along a distant shore
- Bird feeding areas that draw birds to the same locations repeatedly
Not every bird or birding hotspot requires the use of a spotting scope for the best views, but some locations can be ideal for the use of scopes. Furthermore, some types of birds – such as sea ducks, for example – may stay notoriously far away even from the best viewing areas, making scopes almost essential for good views and proper identifications.
Do You Need a Spotting Scope?
Understanding the differences between spotting scopes and binoculars or telescopes is the first step to deciding whether or not you need or would like one for your birding. While it is possible to thoroughly enjoy birding without a scope, the enhanced magnification that allows you to see much more distant birds with a scope can bring even more birds into your field of view.
Photo – Birder With a Scope © Rasmus Bøgeskov Larsen