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Spotting Scope Review


The latest spotting scope review was published in the Winter 2008 issue of Living Bird magazine. The previous review, from the winter 2002 issue of Living Bird, is shown below.

From Living Bird magazine, Winter 2002

Searching for the best and brightest spotting scopes for birding

By Kenneth V. Rosenberg

Click here to view the scope comparison table

This is an exciting time to be a birder-especially if you have enough money to buy fine optics. Not too many years ago, high-quality spotting scopes were toys of the elite few; today a decent scope is standard equipment for a majority of active birders. This proliferation of high-power, high-quality optics has led to a greater appreciation of the finest details of avian shapes and plumages and contributed to a new generation of field guides that tell us what we are seeing. Simply put, better optics can create better birders. If you want to discern the tertial pattern on a juvenile dowitcher at 200 yards, turn a distant speck into an obvious Golden Eagle, or just gawk at the exquisite feather detail on birds at your feeders, a new spotting scope might be in your future.

But buying a decent scope can be a significant investment. Selecting the right model for your needs and your budget is vitally important. Fortunately, the increased demand for quality optics has led manufacturers to produce a dazzling assortment of scopes from which to choose and has kept their prices from skyrocketing. In this review, we compare and contrast the most popular scopes on the birding market, from lightweight new zoom scopes to astronomy "crossovers" that can reveal a bird's identity at incredible distances. Offering their opinions on these various models were 20 birders from in and around the Lab of Ornithology, ranging from casual observers to serious fanatics.

Spotting the right scope

In spite of variations in outward appearance, most conventional birding scopes share the same set of basic features, and choosing among them often boils down to figuring out your personal preference. To be sure that you're selecting the model that will work best for you, no substitute exists for hands-on testing-either in a birding shop or (far better) in the field with other birders. Consider the types of birding you enjoy most. If you intend to lug your scope over vast mudflats or up to your favorite hawk-watch, then weight might be a major factor; if you bird mostly from your car, this is less important. Some scopes are extremely rugged and waterproof; others (usually the less expensive models) are not. If you want to be able to sort through shorebirds on distant mudflats under any conditions, then you may not want to compromise on getting the highest-quality image at the highest magnification possible. Finally, if you wear eyeglasses, pay special attention to our ratings in that category. Our bespectacled reviewers (about half) varied greatly in how their glasses sit on their faces and how far the lens is from the eye, so beware that published values for eye relief or field of view may not indicate what you will actually see. Some scopes may offer bright, crisp images, but their poor eye relief may result in a narrow tunnel view that is unacceptable if you wear glasses.

In general, scopes with objective (front) lenses of 80mm or larger are brighter and have a wider field of view than smaller models, but they are also usually longer and heavier. Most models offer a choice of zoom or fixed-magnification eyepieces. Although some birders claim that fixed-magnification (usually 22x or 30x) wide-angle eyepieces provide the best image possible (and this may be true), I personally find that the ability to zoom to higher magnification is absolutely essential for birding with a scope. Many of the top models provide a perfectly crisp and bright image at 60x, and at this magnification it is possible to pick out and identify birds that simply can't be seen at lower magnification. And my eye cannot discern any loss of quality at the low-magnification settings, compared with an equivalent fixed-magnification eyepiece. Several models also come in a choice of standard versus fluorite-coated, high-density (HD), or extra-low dispersion glass (ED) lenses. Under normal viewing conditions and at low magnification, it's hard for most people to tell the difference between scopes with HD, ED, or fluorite glass and those without, but if you zoom to high magnification through heat waves or in dim light, the extra sharpness and color resolution produced by these higher-quality optics are readily apparent. Most scopes provide a very good image at low magnification, so if you prefer a fixed, lower-magnification eyepiece or you can tolerate the loss of crispness at higher magnification, then going with a non-HD, non-ED, or non-fluorite scope will save you some cash.

Yet another feature to consider is the choice of angled or straight-through eyepiece designs offered on many models. This is largely a matter of preference, but if you routinely share your scope with people who are taller or shorter than you-which always happens on birding tours-the angled models provide the most versatility. On the other hand, if you are the primary user of your scope, you may find it easier to find birds quickly (especially in flight) with the straight-through design.

Most of the astronomy telescopes we reviewed come with a 90-degree angled eyepiece that is less convenient than the straight-through or 45-degree-angle views offered with conventional birding scopes. If you intend to use your scope for both astronomy and birding, though, this feature should not be a major drawback.

In the comparative table on the next page, each scope was tested using a 20x-60x zoom lens or its closest available equivalent. I asked reviewers to rate the overall image in terms of sharpness and brightness at both low and high power. The reviewers then rated the overall "feel" of each scope (ease of focus, zooming, and so on). Eyeglass wearers then rated the "eyeglass friendliness" of each scope-how much tunnel vision is apparent when zooming; the usefulness of the eyecups. Finally, I asked each reviewer to rank the scopes in each category (17 zoom scopes, 6 astronomy scopes) in terms of which model they would most or least like to own.

The good, the bad, and the best

Among the conventional birding scopes, two models stood out in a virtual dead heat for the top spot: the Leica Televid 77mm APO and the Swarovski ST80 HD. Both scopes represent the pinnacle of birding optics, providing an extra-bright, crisp-from-edge-to-edge image right up to 60x. The primary difference between these scopes (besides their overall appearance) is their focusing mechanism. Our reviewers were fairly evenly split in their preference for the wide focus ring that wraps around the entire barrel of the Swarovski scope and the small, dual (coarse and fine focusing) knobs inset on top of the Leica. Some people found that the effects of hand shake were more pronounced with the Swarovski scope while panning at high magnification, whereas other people didn't notice this. Some reviewers complained about the two focusing knobs on the Leica, but others loved them. The Leica also sported the same snap-out eyecups that appear on their binoculars-a big improvement over the conventional rubber eyecups for eyeglass wearers. Obviously, personal preference was a big factor in this review, and I urge you to check out both scopes if you're in the market for the best. Not far behind these top contenders was the Kowa TSN 823, which our highly critical reviewers noted was not quite as sharp or "contrasty" at high magnification and not quite as eyeglass-friendly as the previous two models. Still, the 82mm Kowa is in a league above any scope available a decade ago.

With one clear exception, our reviewers preferred 78mm-100mm scopes to the corresponding 60mm models. In general, the smaller scopes offer a narrower and darker image at high magnification, and most of them are poor to useless if you wear glasses. Blasting this truism, and setting a new standard in scope design, is the new Swarovski ATS 65 HD. We were fortunate to get a peek at the first prototype to enter the United States. (Zeiss also promised to send a prototype of their new scope, but it never arrived.) Weighing in at only 48 ounces, the Swarovski ATS 65 features the same ergonomically molded alloy body as the company's new EL series binoculars, with wonderful eye relief and turn-and-lock eyecups for us glasses-wearers. Optically, this scope offers the same exquisite edge-to-edge crispness as its larger cousin, even at 60x. In a direct comparison made in waning light, however, the ATS 65 was noticeably darker than many of the 80mm scopes, an unfortunate consequence of physics. Surprisingly, the visible field of view of the ATS 65 at 60x was actually 20 percent wider than that of the ST80 scope. Another nice feature is the one-piece molded "foot" designed to mount directly onto a Bogen/Manfrotto fluid tripod head, without requiring a quick-release plate. This essentially eliminates any shake or wiggle associated with the tripod mount, and it shouldn't loosen with time. To top it off, this scope focuses down to eight feet. So, if you are seeking the best available optics in the friendliest package, and if extra brightness under dim conditions is not your primary concern, this may be the perfect scope for you.

In the next tier are a number of very good scopes that were ranked lower for various reasons by many of our reviewers. In terms of image quality, the less-expensive non-HD Swarovski ST80 and non-APO Leica Televid scopes compared nicely with the Nikon ED 78 Fieldscope, the Fujinon Super ED 80, and the two Optolyth models. A few reviewers ranked the Nikon as their favorite scope, but others didn't care for the overall feel or thought that the image was slightly darker or duller at the highest magnification (actually 75x). Eyeglass wearers were critical of both Nikon models, which provided unacceptably narrow views at higher magnification. The lightweight and eyeglass-friendly Fujinon held its own with the top competitors, and at the prices we've seen at discount retailers, this might be the best value of the lot. At 60x, this scope was crisp in the center of the image, but blurred toward the edges. The Optolyth scopes, which are popular in Europe, also offer fine optics, but reviewers balked at their heavy and clunky design.

The relatively new Pentax PF80 HD and the Bausch and Lomb Elite 80 ED scopes definitely represent a step down in overall performance. Both scopes have some nice features: the Bausch and Lomb is sleek and reasonably priced, and the Pentax offers a wide, bright image at low magnification. But neither scope was sharp at 60x. Also in this tier are the Kowa TSN 663 and the Nikon 60mm Fieldscope II. These smaller models are fine at low magnification, but their image darkens considerably at higher magnification. And their tiny fields of view are simply unacceptable if you wear glasses. Unfortunately, it's hard to say anything positive about the Swift Nighthawk, which provides a dull and blurry image and seems badly outmatched by many of the other scopes.

The remaining two zoom scopes in our test, the Bausch and Lomb Elite 70 and the Bushnell Spacemaster, were not intended to compete with the top guns. These are as close as you can get to an inexpensive scope. Of the two, our reviewers by far preferred the venerable Spacemaster, which provided a quite decent image at maximum magnification (45x). Virtually the only scope available to birders for decades, the trusty Spacemaster is still a good option for people on a limited budget. If you don't wear glasses and you prefer an extremely light and compact scope for traveling or backpacking, the Elite 70 is another viable option. Although the image it provides is somewhat narrow and dark at 60x, it is actually quite sharp.

Astronomy scopes for birding

Our review included six scopes that were designed primarily for astronomy but offer features that demand the attention of birders as well as birding scope manufacturers. Among these is the legendary Questar Birder scope, which for more than 30 years has set an optical standard unmatched by any conventional birding scope. But all of these scopes have drawbacks that may limit their popularity with birders. The 90-degree-angle eyepiece on most of these scopes requires you to look straight down, which makes it hard to spot birds quickly and can literally give you a pain in the neck. Furthermore, these scopes usually reverse the image in the eyepiece so that when you pan left, the image you're viewing moves to the right. This makes it more difficult to follow a bird, at least until you get used to it. Also most of these scopes are big and bulky, and they lack waterproofing.

On the positive side, though, these astronomy telescopes offer a wider variety of eyepieces, which you can change in seconds, and offer much higher magnification than conventional birding scopes.

Of the three Celestron scopes we tested, the C90 is the most familiar, with its Questar-like design, amazingly close focus capability, and very reasonable price. Its bulky size, awkward focus ring, and dull, mediocre image, however, simply don't compare with other spotting scopes. The C5 is even bigger and bulkier, and, although the image is slightly sharper than that of the C90, this scope is probably not worth a second look from birders. The third Celestron scope we tested, the 102mm Wide View, represents a genuine attempt to reach out to the birding market. With an extra mirror that circumvents the image reversal and a more conventional design, this scope provided a sharp image at low magnification but wouldn't focus sharply at 60x with a zoom eyepiece.

The biggest surprise in our scope testing came when we lined up the top-ranked Leica APO and Swarovski ST80 HD scopes against the Questar and the two Tele Vue models. The Questar we used was fitted with 40x and 60x eyepieces (unfortunately, not as powerful as the ones Questar has sent us for previous reviews), and it did not stand out at these magnifications against the Leica or Swarovski scopes. But using the equivalent of a 25x-75x zoom lens, the Tele Vue 85 attained an almost unimaginable level of brightness and edge-to-edge sharpness. As the day became more and more overcast and dusk was approaching, the Tele Vue provided a significantly superior image at 75x than either the Swarovski or Leica could muster at 60x. The Tele Vue 76, a slightly smaller and lighter version of the 85, was equally sharp but not quite as bright-its image at 60x was virtually identical to its two conventional competitors. Both Tele Vue scopes have a smooth and precise rack-and-pinion focusing system that is easy to operate with either hand-a nice feature when you're panning with your scope or trying to take a picture through it with a digital camera.

To test the capabilities of these scopes further, I lugged the Tele Vue 85 to the shore of Cayuga Lake on a sunny, calm afternoon. Weighing in at more than eight pounds, this behemoth was a challenge just to get out of the back seat of my car. But once I'd set it up and pointed it at the lake, the Tele Vue took me for one of the best birding rides of my life.

Scanning out across the lake at 75x, I spotted a whitish speck in the distant heat waves that I thought might be a loon. I then inserted a 2x Barlow lens between the zoom eyepiece and the scope, doubling its magnification to an incredible 150x. I could then clearly make out the face pattern and upturned bill of a Red-throated Loon. This local rarity was not even visible through my 10x binoculars. Continuing to play at 150x, I could discern the eye color of some immature gulls on a jetty 200 yards from the shore-ah, if only shorebird season weren't so long past!

Final words and recommendations

With more than 20 fine models available, shopping for a new scope should be as much fun as it is challenging. Overall, I believe our review has narrowed the field, with a few top contenders in each category clearly rising above the pack. If you know your budget and your bottom line, the following recommendations should help guide you to the right choice:

  • If you are looking for the best overall scope for a variety of birding conditions, and one that is easy on your back, and easy to pack on trips, I wholeheartedly recommend the new Swarovski ATS 65 HD.

    If you require the absolute brightest and sharpest image under the toughest birding conditions (say scanning a moonlit pond at 11:45 P.M. at the World Series of Birding) then I recommend either the Leica APO Televid 77 or the Swarovski ST80 HD.
  • If you are on a moderate budget (about $1,000), I recommend either the non-HD Swarovski ST80, the non-APO Leica Televid 77, or the Fujinon Super ED 80.
  • If you are looking for the most inexpensive model that will still improve your birding skills and enjoyment, I'd opt for the tried-and-true Bushnell Spacemaster.
  • But if you want to push the envelope of high-magnification birding, I'd definitely check out both of the Tele Vue models.

As a final word, I'd offer two challenges to the fine companies that brought us all this coated glass. First, I'd love to see the "extreme" birding scope, with a Tele Vue quality 75x-150x image in a truly birder-friendly and durable, waterproof package. Second, now that we have a flood of top-of-the-line, expensive scopes, I'd like to see some competition for the Spacemaster. Surely it's possible to produce a decent and user-friendly spotting scope that every birder can afford.

Click here to view the scope comparison table.