A Guide to Birding with Spotting Scopes

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 the best tripod for spotting scope birding. Spotting scopes pack incredible magnification in a generally simple and lightweight package that is durable enough for fieldwork while boasting fantastic optical quality for birding.

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 shorebirds 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.


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 say 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.

“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.”

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 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!

Judd Cole