5 Best Birding Scopes 2019 (+Beginners Guide)

Spotting scopes are an incredible tool that allows you to observe birds at great distances. Spotting scopes can range in price from $100-$3,000+. But don’t be fooled by a low price point, cheap spotting scopes almost always perform very poorly.

Below is a guide to help you better understand the features of spotting scopes and also some suggestions for spotting scopes that may fit your preferences.

We recommend

Best compact option

Vortex Razor HD
11-33×50

Editors choice

Vortex Razor
HD 16-48×65

Highest magnification

Celestron 52252
Ultima Zoom

Can a Telescope Be Used for Birding?

In short, no. Spotting scopes and telescopes are quite different. 

A telescope 

  • will often have higher magnification and a smaller field of view. This is ideal for observing stars and planets in the night sky, but not great for locating birds and other wildlife.
  • Also, telescopes often project a mirrored image of the object in view. If you use a telescope for birding, this would mean that the bird would appear the opposite of how it appears in reality, maybe even upside down. 

Spotting scopes

  • are built similarly to telescopes. However, spotting scopes typically will have less magnification, a wider field of view, and are generally more durable. Spotting scopes are also more versatile.
  • Telescopes are highly specialized and intended for astronomical observation. Spotting scopes, on the other hand, can be used for birdwatching, wildlife viewing, hunting, target shooting, and surveillance.

Are Spotting Scopes Better than Binoculars?

When it comes to portability and utility binoculars are the clear winner. But when it comes to magnification, a quality spotting scope will always outperform binoculars. 

Spotting scopes are a specialized piece of optics equipment. Although it’s quite possible to use spotting scopes for woodland birding or for hawk watches, most spotting scopes are used near shorelines or near open plains and fields. 

Using binoculars to observe birds in these locations can be difficult. There’s very little opportunities for the birds to hide and feel safe, so getting close enough to these birds to observe them through binoculars can be a challenge. That’s why using a spotting scope in open landscapes is your best option. 

Spotting scopes allow you to see incredible details without having to physically get nearer to the birds you are trying to observe. This is ideal for observing birds for long periods of time and in their native habitats.

Straight vs Angled Spotting Scopes

When it comes to spotting scopes that have either a straight eyepiece or an angled eyepiece, the question of “Which is Best?” really depends on how you plan to use it.

Straight

  • Straight spotting scopes are a fine option because they are easy to use. Finding objects is rather intuitive because the eyepiece is pointed in the same direction as the object. Many hunters and gun-enthusiasts prefer straight spotting scopes for observing long-range targets or while sighting-in a rifle.
  • One issue that arises with straight spotting scopes is the ease-of-use when sharing your finds with others. Because a straight-angled eye-piece is fixed, it can be difficult to adjust the settings to accommodate multiple users.
  • People who use a straight spotting scope may have to constantly change the height of the tripod to accommodate the varying heights of the observers.  

Angled

  • Typically, an angled spotting scope is preferred when you plan to use the scope with a group of people. This allows for multiple people to comfortably use the spotting scope without having to constantly change the height of the tripod.
  • Locating objects, particularly small energetic birds, can be difficult with an angled eyepiece. However, in due time users will become accustomed to locating objects quickly even with an angled spotting scope.
  • Another benefit to angled spotting scopes is that you can use them at a lower height making the tripod lower and more stable allowing the image to be less shaky and clearer. 

What About Digiscoping?

Digiscoping is the act of using your cell phone or digital camera to take pictures through a spotting scope. This is made easy with the proper camera mounts. Digiscoping is a great way for birders to capture photos of birds at great distances.

Most spotting scopes will be able to accommodate a universal digiscope mount specifically used for cell phones. In order to effectively take photos using a digital camera though, you’ll want to find a scope that is compatible with a more precise digiscope mount. 

Some spotting scopes only offer a fixed lens option. More high-end scopes will have interchangeable eyepieces that allow you to easily switch from a viewing eyepiece to camera eyepiece. 

The quality of digiscope photography can vary greatly. A cheaper scope will produce images that are blurry. To capture truly high-end photos you’ll have to invest in a spotting scope that features superior glass, such as fluorite crystal lenses.

How to Choose a Spotting Scope?

When shopping around for a spotting scope it’s important to be aware of the different features and to understand how those features may impact your viewing experience. Below are a few considerations to take when buying a spotting scope. 

  • Fixed vs Zoom Eyepiece Magnification – Some spotting scopes may have a fixed magnification or a zoom magnification. Fixed will only offer a single level of magnification. A zoom eyepiece will offer a range of magnifications. For wildlife viewing or birding, a zoom eyepiece is the better option.
         
  • Glass QualityExcellent glass can make or break your spotting scope experience. If you want to avoid blemishes such as chromatic aberration or graininess, you may want to invest in a higher-quality spotting scope that features lenses with HD glass or even fluorite crystal. 
         
  • Camera MountIf you plan on taking photos using a spotting scope be aware of the camera mounts that may or may not be available to you. For a quick pic with your cell phone, there are a few easy-to-use universal camera mounts. But for more serious photographers, you may want to find a spotting scope that offers a specially designed eyepiece for mounting a digital camera with an interchangeable lens.
          
  • Durability For the more adventurous birders, you may find yourself trekking into the woods with your spotting scope and tripod slung over your shoulder. For these occasions, you’ll want a scope that is weather-resistant and built strong. Look for scopes that are waterproof, shockproof, and dust-proof.
           
  • Warranty – Spotting scopes are built to endure the weather and being taken into wild places, so many companies will offer a warranty to give purchasers peace of mind. A quality spotting scope can be quite expensive, but a more expensive scope may be worth it in the long run if the manufacturer offers an excellent warranty.

Best Birding Scopes

1. Celestron 52252 Ultima Zoom (Best for High-Magnification)

The Celestron 52252 100mm Ultima Zoom  is a monster of a spotting scope. 

Offering one of the highest magnifications (66x) and a large objective lens (100mm), this spotting scope will allow you to see objects at incredible distances. 

Being one of the heavier scopes though, many may avoid taking this scope with them while hiking or trekking. 

This scope’s overall performance is fantastic at its price point

It works well in low light situations and its high-magnification is hard to come by. Experienced spotting scope users may be disappointed with the quality of the images at higher magnifications, but given the price that’s something that could be overlooked. 

The Celestron 52252 scope is perfect for the birder who plans to sit down next to a large field or lake and observe birds from a stationary position. 

Check the price of Celestron 52252 Ultima Zoom here

What we liked

  • High-Zoom
  • Good Low-Light Capabilities
  • Waterproof
  • Reasonably Priced for value

What we didn’t like

  • Physically heavy

Warranty: Limited Lifetime
Durability: Waterproof
Glass: Multi-Coated Lens
Magnification: 22-66x
Objective Lens Diameter: 100mm 
Eyepiece Position: Angled
Field of View: 94 ft at 22x / 52 ft at 66x
Close Focus: 33 ft
Eye Relief: 18 mm
Weight: 4.5 lbs
Length: 21.3 in

2. Kowa TSN-883 Spotting Scope (Best for Pros)

The Kowa TSN-883 Angled Body High-Performance Spotting Scope is a professional grade spotting scope. 

There are only a few brands on the market that can rival the quality of Kowa optics. 

The Kowa spotting scope offers incredible images using its impeccable fluorite crystal lenses. 

The 88mm objective lens captures light easily, creating exceptionally sharp images with high-resolution.

Kowa spotting scopes are ideal for photographers and other professionals who value quality images above all else. With the company’s 50-plus years of experience, Kowa has created a close to perfect spotting scope that eliminates chromatic aberration and other image imperfections.

The Kowa TSN-883 Spotting Scope is portable and durable, offering a waterproof structure and fog-resistant lenses. With its quality build and limited lifetime warranty, purchasers are guaranteed a lifetime of use.

Check the price of Kowa TSN-883 Spotting Scope here

What we liked

  • Kowa Brand Name Quality
  • Fluorite Crystal Lenses
  • Waterproof
  • High-Quality Images
  • Compatible with Digital Cameras

What we didn’t like

  • Premium price
  • Eyepiece Not Included

Warranty: Limited Lifetime Warranty
Durability: Waterproof and Fog Resistant
Glass: Fluorite Crystal Lens
Magnification: 25-60x with a compatible eyepiece
Objective Lens Diameter: 88mm
Eyepiece Position: Angled
Field of View: 138 ft at 25x/ 75 feet at 60x with a compatible eyepiece
Close Focus: 16.4 ft
Eye Relief: 17mm with a compatible eyepiece
Weight: 3.4 lbs
Length: 13.5 in

3. Creative XP HD with Tripod (Best Beginner/Budget Option)

Finding a quality spotting scope for less than $200 is not easy. Many lower-end scopes simply don’t live up to expectations. 

But the Creative XP HD Spotting Scope is an exception. This scope offers excellent clarity, color, and brightness. Overall it performs well above its price point. 

The Creative XP HD Spotting Scope kit includes a 12” tripod, a carry case, a strap, a phone adapter, and a bluetooth camera control switch–everything you need to get started to view and digiscope birds using a cell phone.

It’s unreasonable to expect flawless images from a spotting scope at this price point, but users will still be able to view the details of the objects they are viewing. 

The Creative XP HD Spotting Scope does not offer a compatible digital camera mount, so this scope may be best for those looking to casually view birds and who are only interested in using their cell phone to take pictures.

Check the price of Creative XP HD Scope + tripod here

What we liked

  • Affordable
  • Durable
  • Good Images
  • HD Glass
  • Lifetime Warranty 

What we didn’t like

  • Poor Image Quality at High Magnification

Warranty: Lifetime Warranty
Durability: Waterproof, Shock, Scratch, and Dust Resistant
Glass: Multi-Coated ED/HD Optic Glass Lens
Magnification: 20x-60x
Objective Lens Diameter: 80mm 
Eyepiece Position: Angled
Field of View: 114-60 ft at 1,000 yds
Close Focus: Unlisted
Eye Relief: 17mm
Weight: Unlisted, Advertised as Lightweight
Length: Unlisted

4. Vortex Razor HD 16-48x65 (Best Mid-Range)

Vortex is one of the most trusted optics brands with one of the best warranties on the market. 

Serious birders looking for a great mid-range spotting scope should look no further.

The lens design in this scope features premium HD extra-low dispersion glass which creates incredible images. 

The Vortex Razor HD offers a mid-range zoom, but also comes in at a lower weight, making it a great option for those needing a decent zoom range but plan on hiking with the scope. 

This is the perfect scope for serious birders interested in viewing birds in all sorts of settings: forests, fields, wetlands, lakes, etc.

Check the price of Vortex Razor HD 16-48×65 here

What we liked

  • Lifetime Warranty
  • HD Glass
  • Versatile
  • Sharp Colors

What we didn’t like

  • Lens Covers Could Be Better

Warranty: Lifetime Warranty
Durability: Waterproof
Glass: Premium HD Extra-Low Dispersion Glass
Magnification: 16x-48x
Objective Lens Diameter: 65mm 
Eyepiece Position: Angled
Field of View: 138-75 ft at 1,000 yards
Close Focus: 11.5 ft
Eye Relief: 20mm
Weight: 3 lbs
Length: 14.1 in

5. Vortex Razor HD 11-33x50 (Best Compact Spotting Scope)

If you’re looking for a spotting scope that is compact and easy to transport, the Vortex Razor HD 11-33×50 is a great choice. 

This scope comes in at only 1.6 lbs, half the weight of most spotting scopes on the market. 

With a magnification range of 11-33x, you’re still getting a much closer look at objects than you would with binoculars.

Not only is this spotting scope portable but it also offers a wider field of view, making it easier to locate objects, wildlife, and birds. 

Vortex Optics offers one of the best warranties on the market. With their lifetime warranty you can use your scope worry-free even if you plan on taking it into a wilderness setting. 

The Vortex Razor HD 11-33×50 is the best option for those looking for a lightweight, compact spotting scope

Check the price of Vortex Razor HD 11-33×50 here

What we liked

  • Compact
  • Lightweight
  • Lifetime Warranty
  • HD Glass

What we didn’t like

  • Lower Magnification
  • Eye Relief Could Be Better for Those Who Wear Glasses

Warranty: Lifetime Warranty
Durability: Waterproof
Glass: Premium HD Extra-Low Dispersion Glass
Magnification: 11x-33x
Objective Lens Diameter: 50mm 
Eyepiece Position: Angled
Field of View: 191-96 ft at 1,000 yards
Close Focus: 6.6 ft
Eye Relief: 19mm
Weight: 1.6 lbs
Length: 10.3 in

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