A GUIDE TO
BY DAVE ROSS
Lab reviewers search for the best and brightest
birding scopes currently on the market
Check out the Scope Comparison TABLE below!
A stiff breeze blew from the Northwest, and the low afternoon sun sparkled across Cayuga Lake on this warm Indian summer day. Not far from the lakeshore, six men crouched in a row, staring steely-eyed through strange cylindrical objects mounted on tripods. Grim-faced and determined, they resembled SWAT-team riflemen lined up on a rooftop during a hostage crisis. Occasionally, they would stand, switch positions, make adjustments on the cylinders, and confer with each other. But unbeknownst to suspicious passersby, these men were not awaiting an invasion or a command to open fire. They were evaluating optical equipment for birding. Assembled in front of them on a ragtag collection of aging tripods sat some of the finest spotting scopes in the world. Sleek, rugged, superb instruments (some of them decked out with all the trappings of a piece of military equipment), built to withstand the rigors of uncontrolled, combat field conditions and to perform exquisitelyto do the job at any cost.
And because most of the scope review team were either current or former members of the "Sapsuckers," the Lab's elite big-day team that competes each year in New Jersey's famed World Series of Birding, they were definitely combat veterans. Sapsuckers present included John Fitzpatrick, director of the Lab; Kevin McGowan, associate curator of the Cornell bird collection; Ken Rosenberg, captain of the Sapsuckers and assistant director of the Lab's Conservation Science program; Steve Kelling, the Lab's webmaster; and Tim Gallagher, editor-in-chief of Living Bird and a former Sapsucker captain. Also participating in the review were Steve Pantle of the Library of Natural Sounds (LNS), Ron Rohrbaugh of the Lab's Education Program, and Dave Ross of LNS.
My aim was to get the unabashed opinions of these hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool birders, whose very existence depends on their keen powers of observation and their analytical ability. Not the least quality of such people is having a sharp, discerning eye, with a visual acuity that can be magnified exponentially by the right toolsfine optics, that is.
I have to admit at this point that our review team did have certain biases. Let's face it, hard-core birders are not like normal people. They think nothing of trudging through barren, windswept arctic wastes, scorching deserts, and muddy marshes or of standing next to stinking sewage ponds or garbage dumps for hoursno matter how unpleasant the weather or how poor the lightfor the chance of glimpsing a rare or unusual bird. And they expect their optical equipment not only to be able to survive in these conditions but also to excel, providing a bright, crisp image, anyplace, anytime.
Naturally, our reviewers were drawn to the most expensive scopes becauseat least for the purposes of this reviewmoney was no object. All things being equal, what birder wouldn't rather use a $3,000 scope than a $300 model? Some of these instruments represent the creme de la creme of spotting scopes, costing well over $1,000. The point is that you should definitely evaluate your own birding needs and see what will work best for you within the constraints of your birding budget. Not everyone needs all of the special features these top-of-the-line scopes boast. If you never go birding in adverse weather conditions, for example, then it might not be worth the extra cost to you to buy one of the fully waterproof, immersion-tested scopes available.
One afternoon, the Sapsucker Scope Squad trucked all of the review scopes down the hill to Caygua Lake for side-by-side comparisons. After several hours of gazing intently at any bird, boat, or buoy that came into view, the intrepid group had managed to separate the good, the bad, as well as the ugly scopes.
Most of the scopes we looked at offer a full range of interchangeable eyepieces, which for most models are as easy to switch as lenses on a 35mm single-lens-reflex camera. To simplify this review, however, we decided to compare each of the scopes using only a 20x-60x zoom eyepiece if one was available for the particular model. Zoom eyepieces in that magnification range have become increasingly popular in recent years because of their convenience in the fieldyou just scan at low power and then zoom in when you spot something interesting. And high-quality zoom eyepieces seem to provide as good an image as fixed-magnification eyepieces. Carrying a pocketful of eyepieces of varying powers and having to switch them at crucial times is something few serious birders want to hassle with in the field, especially in a big-day competition. Some less expensive scopes may be sharper with a fixed-magnification eyepiece, but we felt it would be a fairer comparison between scopes if they all had to use a similar eyepiece. With some scopesespecially those built by companies that make astronomy telescopesthis was impossible. Either they didn't have a zoom eyepiece available or they didn't have one in the 20x-60x range, so it was difficult to compare them fairly with the other scopes. We've included these scopes in a separate section. Many of the test scopes performed well at the lower powers but, to separate the wheat from the chaff, we compared their resolution and clarity at 60x, when only the best optical instruments delivered an acceptable image.
It's interesting to trace the evolution of the birding spotting scope during the last 15 years or so. Everyone used to have Bushnell Spacemaster scopes and swore by them as field-birding tools. Then Kowa took the general Porro-prism telescope design a quantum leap forward with their TSN-2 spotting scope and its fluorite-glass cousin, the TSN-4. These scopes had whopping 77mm objective lenses in front (compared with the Spacemaster's 60mm lens), which allowed much more light to pass through the scope, brightening the image considerably in low-light conditions. These scopes were bright and sharp and could be purchased with one of the first decent 20x-60x zoom eyepieces.
The TSN-4 was a top contender in the Lab's scope reviews for many years. But it was eventually eclipsed in the scope wars by other comers, especially Swarovski, which introduced an 80mm scope (the ST-80) a few years ago and a superb 20x-60x zoom eyepiece that is great for eyeglass wearers, providing a full, bright, sharp view, even at high magnification. Our only complaint about the Swarovski scope in our last review was that it was not available in an ED (extra-low dispersion) or fluorite-glass version. The benefit of both ED and fluorite glass is that they help to bring the primary colors into focus together, thus reducing color fringing and improving the clarity of the image being viewed. They also greatly increase the price of a scope. But it's worth it if you want the best view possible. Swarovski has since come out with the ST-80 HD, which does have top-quality optical glass and is a fabulous instrument.
Many other scope manufacturers soon jumped into the fray, attempting to create ever better optical instruments. Bausch & Lomb introduced their Elite 77mm scope, available with or without ED glass; Optolyth produced their TBG-80 HD scope; Fujinon came out with their Super ED 80 scope; Nikon came out with a bigger Fieldscope; Leica designed the APO Televid 77mm scope, as sleek and attractive as a zeppelin. Many of these scopes are fully waterproof, unlike the TSN-2 and the TSN-4. As each of these products hit the streets, you could almost hear the hiss of Kowa's birding market share leaking away. Finally, Kowa fought back with their new TSN-822 and TSN-824 (the fluorite version of the scope), each of them boasting an 82mm objective lens, full waterproofing, and a vastly improved 20x-60x zoom eyepiece.
So, was this the final shot in the scope wars? No way. Apparently Optolyth got tired of all the pussy-footing around of the other scope manufacturers, making objective lenses incrementally larger and largerfirst 60mm, then 77mm, then 80mm, then 82mm. They recently unveiled a super scope with a 100mm objective lens. These paramilitary-looking behemoths will no doubt be talked about for years after their appearances in Third World villagesand, as to your chances of getting safely through military checkpoints along the Inter-American Highway, good luckbut they do provide an amazingly bright image in extremely low light.
It's really not surprising that the typical, top-of-the-line birding scope has evolved into its current style and shapea fully waterproof, Porro-prism scope with an eyeglass-friendly, 20x-60x zoom lens and a large objective lens for increased light-gathering ability. They're so convenient. You haul them to the field bolted to your tripod, set them up in an instant, and start looking for birds. You don't have to fumble for different eyepieces to find the perfect one to use at a given moment. You don't even have to worry about your scope being ruined by rainmost of the best scopes are nitrogen purged and immersion tested. The only major birding scope I can think of that has refused to follow the pack is the venerable Questar, which is not waterproof, does not have a 20x-60x zoom eyepiece (instead, you can switch easily from 54x to 87x and back with a tiny knob), and it does not use a Porro-prism, refractor design. The Questar is a catadioptric scope and has a large concave mirror at the back that magnifies the image and bounces it back to a smaller mirror in front, which in turn bounces the image back to the eyepiece. As you'll see below, being a maverick like Questar is not always a bad thing.
The Q is Still King
For all you aficionados of fine optics who will pay any price for a clear, sharp image, take note: the Questar Birder spotting scope still soars high above the competition in terms of brightness and optical clarity (and price!). This scope is amazing. When it comes to looking out over a broad expanse of water to identify a distant scoter or peering through the heat shimmer to pick out the distinguishing features of a flycatcher that you can't even see with your naked eye, nothing comes close to a Questar. It's no surprise that so many birding tour leaders take one along to give their customers a really sharp, close-up view of the interesting birds they find. Though it doesn't have a 20x-60x zoom, the scope's two-power system works well and provides a better image at 87x than many scopes do at 60x. On the down side, Questars are somewhat clunky looking, the image you see in the eyepiece is reversed (that is, when you pan to the left, for example, the image moves to the right), and they are not waterproof. In addition, standing bent over a Questar for long periods can give you a backache.
|Scope Comparison Table
The Close Runners-Up
The top manufacturers of spotting scopes have taken the state of this optical instrument to a new level, with advances in basic design and larger objective lenses for superior light-gathering ability and wider fields of view. The top dogs of our last review (after the Questar) were the Kowa TSN-4 and the Bausch & Lomb Elite 77mm with ED prime glass. Though these are still excellent scopes, they have been outdone with a capital "O" by the leaders of this review.
Although there was a lot of nice glass to look through, the Sapsuckers couldn't help hovering around a few models, drawn to them as they would be to some palearctic shorebird on a local mudflat. It was a form of natural selection, not to be influenced by the clipboard-toting, would-be data gatherer who wanted to give each scope equal time . . . arrrgh! At the head of the pack were the aforementioned Kowa TSN-824, Swarovski ST-80 HD, and Leica APO Televid 77mm, fantastic scopes the lot. It was really a toss-up here. People seemed to like whichever of the three they happened to be looking through at a given moment.
The Kowa provided a beautiful, sharp, vibrant image, perhaps slightly brighter than the Swarovski's, and its small focusing knob on the prism housing was more conveniently located. But the Swarovski had some staunch supporters in this camp, not surprisingly. The ST-80 HD had been the hands-down favorite of the Sapsuckers since its debut, and Swarovski is now the official sponsor of the team. But most of the reviewers preferred the small focusing knob of the Kowa to the large focusing collar around the Swarovski's barrel, though this was a minor consideration. Leica's APO Televid 77mm scope was the sleekest-looking instrument, its metallic finish suggestive of something you might see aboard the space shuttle. It, too, is a great scope, with a fluorite lens, a pop-up eyecup like the ones on Leica binoculars, and an interesting focusing systemtwo adjoining wheels at the top of the prism housing, one for making coarse adjustments, the other for fine-tuning. I'd be more than glad to own any of these scopes.
The Optolyth TBG 100 HD scope, with its whopping 100mm objective lens, was the largest and heaviest of them all. This army-green, rubber-armored, waterproof monster pushes the envelope of spotting scope technology in terms of light-gathering ability as well as the extremes that a birder will go to in order to see distant or poorly lit birds. This scope is so heavy that some portion of your purchase price could probably be written off against the expense of joining a gym or buying weights. One day after work, three of the reviewers took this scope and the Swarovski to Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, where they peered at shorebirds on a mudflat in drizzle until it was too dark to see anything. Interestingly, although the Optolyth scope was bright, the Swarovski seemed to provide a noticeably crisper image and capture more feather detail on the shorebirds. But later on, sometime between dusk and darkness when it was impossible to see birds with the Swarovski, the Optolyth came into its own and still provided an identifiable image of the dowitcher they were watching. So, apparently the Optolyth becomes an indispensable toolfor about 15 minutes each day.
A slight but noticeable step down, especially in their usefulness for eyeglass wearers, were the Bausch & Lomb Elite, the Fujinon Super ED 80 scope, and the Nikon 78mm ED Fieldscope.
The Bausch & Lomb Elite 77mm, a top contender in our 1994 scope review, has definitely lost some ground against the impressive array of newer scopes. The Elite has an attractive design, with a large objective lens in a slender package and a convenient focusing knob like the Kowa's. It's not quite as bright and sharp as the top three in this group, and the zoom eyepiece is definitely not very eyeglass-wearer friendly. The Fujinon Super ED 80 also didn't quite make the top echelon, but it is a good, serviceable scope that I'd be happy to find in my Christmas stocking. The new, supposedly bigger and better Nikon 78mm ED Fieldscope is a decent scope, but it was ranked lower in sharpness by our reviewers than the others in this better group.
An obvious step down from the top-of-the-line scopes in both price and quality were the Swift Nighthawk 849 and the Celestron Ultima 80. Except for some minor cosmetic differences, the body design of these two modelswhich were produced by different companiesappears to be identical. And yet, surprisingly, the Swift we looked through provided a dramatically better image than the Celestron Ultima 80. The Celestron showed severe color aberrations, including a bluish halo-like fringing around the bright white Tree Swallow box we focused on at the other side of Sapsucker Woods pond. This separation of colors was most noticeable at high magnification, rendering the upper end of the zoom ratio almost useless. In a comparison between the Bushnell Space- master and the Celestron Ultima 80 at approximately 40x magnification, the Spacemaster won, hands down. But the Swift Nighthawk 849, despite being the twin brother of the Celestron Ultima 80, beat both scopes easily in this comparison.
Other Worthy Contenders
At this point, we venture from the standard zoom-eyepiece field scopes to several less-traditional models, some with roots more firmly set in star gazing than bird watching. Because there are probably 12 birders for every astronomy buff (it's hard to believe there are that many astronomers), it should be no wonder that the makers of astronomy telescopes are trying to tap into the lucrative market we represent. The Questar scope would have appeared in this section, but it was such a good scope that we gave it a section of its own. It should be noted that none of these scopes are waterproof.
More and more Televue Prontos and Televue Rangers have been showing up at birding hotspots in the last year or two. These scopeswith their "institution green" color and somewhat clunky appearanceare not the best-looking spotting scopes around, but they are good optical tools. They are particularly sharp using the fixed-focal-length eyepieces; the view through their zoom eyepiece did not appear as crisp. The Televue Pronto and the Televue Ranger both provided nice views in our field test using wide- angle 27mm and 32mm eyepieces. The Pronto has a smooth rack-and-pinion focusing mechanism and was fairly sharp with its 8-24mm zoom eyepiece, though not nearly as sharp as the Kowa TSN-824. The smaller Televue Ranger requires a cumbersome two-step focusing processfirst you do the coarse focusing by sliding the rear barrel or focusing tube back and forth, and then you fine-tune the image using a focusing wheel.
VERNONscope, another long-time designer and builder of astronomy telescopes, has an interesting new product called the Brandon Master Birder, a rubber-armored, 80mm scope with an amazingly large eyepiece that is designed to be looked through with your eye an inch or more away from the eyepiecea real blessing for eyeglass wearers. Everyone who looked through the scope's 15x eyepiece commented on the brightness and sharpness of the scope and also on the illusion of three-dimensionality with close objects. Unfortunately, it was difficult to compare this scope with the others because they were capable of so much greater magnification. A 15x scope is fine for backyard birding and other times when maximum power isn't needed (in fact, one of our reviewers commented that this would be a fantastic scope for any nature center or refuge visitors' center), but there are times when you need more power to bird effectively. We were supplied with a 2.4x barlow, which boosted the scope's power to 36x, but we'd still like to see how it does at the supreme testlooking at shorebirds on a mudflat at 60x on a dreary fall day. The manufacturers say that they are developing a powerful zoom eyepiece for the scope, and we're eager to take another look at this product.
The Celestron C-90 has been around seemingly forever. And
it's a good scopea little on the bulky to awkward side, maybe, with a big, stiff
focusing ring the same diameter as the barrel, but it provides a sharp image at
magnifications that few of the other models could even achieve. Like the Questar, the
C-90 is a catadioptric scope, thus the short, wide barrel required to house the magnifying mirror. Though it's not in the same class as a Questar, it is a lot of scope for the price.
The susceptibility to moisture damage, the possible need to carry more than one eyepiece or combination of eyepieces and attachments, and the slow or awkward focusing mechanisms are the main drawbacks to using any of these astronomy crossover scopes as birding instruments. If you can live with their limitations, though, you can buy a decent scope for a lot less money.
The key to choosing the right scope is to determine which qualities your scope must have and how much you are willing to pay. Think about it carefully before you make your purchase. Talk to other birders. Look through as many different scopes as you can. And you'll be able to get a scope that you can live with for a long time.
Dave Ross is a sound engineer at the Lab's Library of Natural Sounds.
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