Guide to the Best Spotting Scope for Birding: Two Features Are Enough

There are many good reasons to get a spotting scope. One of the most common is for use in bird watching – birding, to those who regularly participate. Bird watchers who are at all serious about their hobby are always on the lookout for the best scope for birding.

And, if you’re looking for the ultimate spot to use your scope in the Midwest, check out these articles for these several states.

In this article, I’ll help you sort out what makes a great spotting scope – and by extension, the best spotting scope for birding – from those features that really don’t matter all that much. If you still have questions after reading this, you can ask me for further advice or suggestions.

The Number 1 Reason to Get a Scope for Birding

Vortex Diamondback spotting scope
Vortex Diamondback spotting scope

If you’ve never had the opportunity to peer through a spotting scope, you really can’t imagine what you’re missing. If you go bird watching, binoculars (or possibly a monocular) have likely been your vehicle for getting up close and friendly with your feathered friends.

And that’s fine, but binoculars – even the big ones – can only get you just so close.

Any decent spotting scope will make you feel like you can reach out and touch that cardinal or warbler or heron. (Though I’m not sure you’d really want to touch a heron.)

Spotting scopes that I would recommend will almost completely fill your circle of vision with your target bird. You’ll see details you may have only seen in your guide book before. Actually, your guide book will make much more sense now because you’ll be able to see those fine points that all those arrows are trying to point out to you in the diagrams and drawings.

Bill Stewart, Director of Conservation and Community at the American Birding Association, says,

“A good spotting scope will change your birding forever.”


He’s right, of course. Once you’ve experienced birding with a spotting scope, you’ll (probably) never want to go back to using only your wimpy pair of binos.

The 2 Features of the Best Spotting Scope for Birding That Matter

You’re likely already quite familiar with the features and specs of your binoculars – field of view, close focus, lens size, weight, protective features, and more.

Celestron Ultima 80
Celestron Ultima 80

Spotting scopes have pretty much all those same things, but I contend that only 2 of them are really worth evaluating when deciding which scope you want to buy.

The first feature (or specification really) is objective lens size. An objective lens with a diameter in the vicinity of 80 millimeters is the best spotting scope to start with. If you want to move to a different size in the future, fine. But start at 80mm.

80mm spotting scopes will get you as close as you want to your birds – closer than those 42 or 50mm binos – but (especially if you combine this size with a zoom feature) you will still be able to find your bird easily enough. It won’t take you all day to spot him; that is, he’ll still actually be on the same perch when you find him.

The second feature is that the eyepiece lens is angled. Many moons ago, you could only get straight scopes. Now that angled scopes are common, there’s only one reason you might opt for a straight scope – that’s if you only spot your birds from inside a car with the scope balance on an open window.

An angled scope has so much more to say for itself compared to its straight cousin. You don’t have to raise your tripod (see below) so high or bend down so low and crick your neck at an awkward angle when you have an angled spotting scope.

If more than one person is using the same scope, an angled eyepiece makes viewing easier for all. You set it at a height that works best for the shortest person. Then others only need to bend at the waist a bit more to get a great view. No deep knee bends required.

Supporting Your Scope with a Tripod

Since a scope is heavier and requires more precision, you absolutely will need a tripod. In most circumstances, not even a monopod will suffice; it just doesn’t give the stability that you get with a tripod.

There are as many, if not more, varieties of tripods in the market as there are scopes. So how do you decide which one is the best spotting scope tripod to get?

Easy. Get this one and be done with it. It’s the best tripod for a spotting scope that I’ve found. To be fair, there are many others that work just fine, but this is a great one to get started with.

More Scope Options to Consider

The rest of these options are…well…optional. If the scope you like doesn’t have them, don’t worry. As long as it matches the qualifications above, you’re fine.

SvBony SV46
SvBony SV46

That said, I really, really think you should get one with a zoom lens. That way, you’ll always be able to have the bird right there, filling your whole field of vision.

Zoom lenses also have the advantage of letting you zoom out to find the bird initially and then zoom in to pick up all those tiny details. Remember those arrows I mentioned in your guide book?

But if that adds more to the cost than you can afford right now, just skip it. Save up for a zoom scope and make another purchase another day.

I also suggest you look for a scope that has two focus methods – coarse and fine. At these high magnification powers, you first will focus coarsely, roughly, with the one dial. Then you’ll get picky about the finer points while bird watching and dial in for the perfect view with the other adjustment knob.

The glass in your scope probably has at least a couple of special coatings to let more light pass through or to give you a clearer picture of your target. The more coatings, the better. But the more coatings, the higher the cost too.

All but the cheapest scopes will be waterproof and fogproof. Unless you insist on doing some birding every single day, this probably won’t matter to you much. If the weather isn’t suitable, you just stay inside, warm and dry.

Virtually all of them have some sort of protective outer coating as a hedge against your accidentally dropping it. Still, try really hard not to let your scope fall. Its insides will thank you.

If you’re into digiscoping and already have a camera you love, you’ll want to get the scope that will work with that model. Not every spotting scope works and plays well with every camera.

Time to Go Shopping for Your Scope

Now that you know all you really need to know about your first (or next) scope, it’s time to go shopping for one.

You’ll still find many models that fit the main qualifications, so I can’t point you to just one particular brand to get – though the pictures above give you a hint at what I consider some of the best. In the end, it will probably come down to how much is in your pocketbook or bank account.

Assuming you’re serious about your birding avocation, you should consider this an investment that will reward you for many years to come. Spending a little extra will absolutely be worth it in the long run.

Browse spotting scopes at Amazon to find one that’s up to snuff.

Gary Sonnenberg

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