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Buying a Spotting Scope

Many serious birders own a spotting "scope" (birders don't say "telescope") in addition to binoculars. Binoculars offer magnification of 7X, 8X or 10X, while scopes range from 20X to 50X. See our discussion of binoculars to learn about magnification.

Scopes are used most frequently for observing distant birds (about 100 yards or more away) standing in open fields, perched on distant trees, or swimming on bodies of water. Tracking flying birds with a scope is difficult and requires practice to master.

When buying a scope, most times you actually buy 3 components separately:

  • Scope body - As with binoculars, a larger lens means a larger, brighter image. Durable, shock-resistant construction is an important feature as is weatherproofing that keeps the scope from fogging internally.
  • Eyepiece - Fixed magnification eyepieces are generally about 32X. Zoom eyepieces let you adjust between roughly 20X and 50X so that you can pan an area at low power, then zoom in when you find the bird. Less expensive zooms sometimes have problems with image clarity, so be cautious in what you buy. High magnification makes image distortion due to air turbulence (like heat shimmer) more obvious.
  • Tripod - A stable tripod is essential to minimizing wind-induced shaking. Unfortunately, more stability comes at the price of added weight. The tripod should permit adjusting the height of the scope easily. You may have users of different heights, or need to compensate for uneven terrain.

There are two principal styles of scopes:

  • Straight eyepiece. Your eye, the eyepiece and the lens are aligned with each other.
  • Angled eyepiece. The eyepiece points into the top of the scope. This is a better setup if the scope is to be used by more than one person in the field. If you set the height of the scope to suit the shortest user, the taller folks find it easier to lean forward towards an angled eyepiece than to crouch for a straight one. Learning to aim this type of scope takes practice, but is not unduly difficult.

Before buying, see if you can carry the complete scope and tripod package comfortably in the field. There's no use getting one so heavy

that you'll soon tire of using it. A quality compact scope with a 60mm lens will weigh about 3 pounds. A good tripod will be perhaps an additional 7 pounds. If you expect to take your scope and tripod on a plane, compactness and weight are even greater considerations. Never put your optics in checked baggage.

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