Best Spotting Scopes For Birding (Top 5)

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Spotting scopes are becoming more and more popular with birders, many hobbyist bird watchers are getting in on the action as well. If you want to get more up close and personal with birds than ever before, it’s hard to compete with the magnification power of a spotting scope.

This powerful magnification comes with a price tag though. Many top tier spotting scopes are well over a thousand dollars. There are some quality scopes that can be had for much less and that’s what we’re going to cover in this article, the best spotting scopes for birding if you don’t want to take out a second mortgage to be able to afford one.

Top 5 best spotting scopes for birding on a budget

*Our top picks

Best Overall Spotting Scope
Vortex Optics Razor HD Spotting Scope 11-33x50 Angled

Vortex Optics Razor HD

  • Amazing optics provide crisp, clear images perfect for birding
  • Ultra lightweight, compact, and durable with rugged feel
  • Close focus of 6.6 feet makes it perfect for watching bird feeders.

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Best Budget Spotting Scope
20-60X 80 Prism Spotting Scope- Waterproof Scope for Birdwatching Target Shooting Archery Outdoor Activities -with Tripod & Digiscoping Adapter-Get The Beauty into Screen (20-60x80 Spotting Scope)

20-60x 80 by Landlove

  • Fully multi-coated 80mm objective lens and variable 20x to 60x magnification
  • BAK4 prism transmit bright contrast-rich Images throughout the entire zoom range
  • Perfect for birding, wildlife watching, target shooting, camping, travel, hiking

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1. Vortex Optics Razor HD – 11-33×50 Spotting Scope

Best overall spotting scope for birding

Vortex Optics Razor HD Spotting Scope 11-33x50 Straight

These are some of the best spotting scopes available and they come in all different styles and magnifications. The one pictured above is a straight scope but you can also choose angled. These scopes are not only very high quality but super compact making them not as bulky to carry around as some other spotting scopes you see.

There are 3 Vortex Optics Razor HD models, each available in straight or angled style:

  1. 11-33×50 – 16mm-19mm eye relief, 6.6′ close focus, 191′-96’/3.6-1.8 degrees field of view(1000 yards/degrees), 25 oz weight, 10.3″ angled length, 11″ straight length
  2. 22-48×65 – 16.7mm-17mm eye relief, 26.2′ close focus, 138′-84’/2.7-1.6 degrees field of view(1000 yards/degrees), 56.8 oz weight, 14.8″ angled length, 15.6″ straight length
  3. 27-60×85 – 16.7mm-17mm eye relief, 16.4′ close focus, 117′-68’/2.2-1.3 degrees field of view(1000 yards/degrees), 65.6 oz weight, 15.5″ angled length, 16.2″ straight length

The Vortex HD line of scopes are the highest priced on this list, but that’s because they are far and away the best option. However you can start with the 11-33×50 which is going to be much much less than the 27-60×85. This will allow you to have the benefits of one of best spotting scopes available, without the price tag of the top model.

However if you want the best of the best then by all means consider the 27-60×85, just consider if it will actually fit in with your intended use. The close focus of the 11-33×50 may be the best model for backyard birding.

Features of the 11-33×50 Vortex HD

  • Amazing optics provide crisp, clear images perfect for birding
  • Super sharp focus at the low end of magnification and still impressive at the high end
  • Ultra lightweight, compact, and durable with rugged feel
  • Adjustable eyepiece and dual focus dials
  • Covered by the Vortex VIP Unconditional lifetime warranty
  • The 11-33×50 has a close focus of 6.6 feet making it perfect for watching bird feeders.
  • Rainproof and weatherproof
  • Highly regarded by reviewers on Amazon

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2. Gosky Skyhawk 20-60x82mm Ultra HD Spotting Scope Kit

Gosky Skyhawk 20-60x82mm Ultra HD Spotting Scope Kit- Waterproof Frogproof Zoom Telecope for Bird Watching Target Shooting Archery Range Outdoor-with Tripod Case Digiscoping Adapter

This spotting scope for Gosky is easy to set up and very high quality for the money. The BAK4 prism and multi-coated glass lenses make this scope great for watching wildlife of any type. Get closer views of wildlife than ever before at a price a fraction of some of the high dollar scopes.

At a magnification of under 45 you get crystal clear images, above that the image may start to blur a bit, which is expected.

The tripod included with this scope, while functional for tabletop use, is very small and a larger tripod is recommended like one of the the ones we suggest below. The included adapters makes getting into digiscoping super easy, however we recommend a bluetooth remote for your phone (see recommendation below).

Overall this is a great starter spotting scope if you want to test the waters before you spend big bucks on one of the high end scopes. Amazon reviewers are very happy with this scope and have gone out of their way to commend the customer service from Gosky.

Features

  • High quality lenses
  • Variable 20x to 60x zoom magnification
  • Waterproof, fogproof, dustproof
  • Comes with a digiscoping cell phone adapter
  • Covered in shock-absorbing Rubber Armor
  • Ultra Wide angle eyepiece and BaK-4 prism produce the brightest, sharpest possible high power views
  • Comes with a metal tablet tripod
  • Great for hunting, bird watching, and wildlife watching

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3. 20-60X 80 Prism Spotting Scope by Landlove

Best budget spotting scope for birding

20-60X 80 Prism Spotting Scope- Waterproof Scope for Birdwatching Target Shooting Archery Outdoor Activities -with Tripod & Digiscoping Adapter-Get The Beauty into Screen (20-60x80 Spotting Scope)

This scope has great focus and eye-relief making it great for birding and watching wildlife. Whether you are 25 feet away from a bird feeder or 300 yards away trying to identify a species of bird in the distance, this is a quality starter scope. Not to mention the price will let you spend a little extra money on the best tripod for spotting scopes you can afford.

The price point on this spotting scope by Landlove is about where we’d expect it for a nice entry level scope. It’s great for all kinds of outdoor activities and won’t break the bank to get started with. The vast majority of reviewers are very happy with this purchase, some who own multiple budget scopes put this one above the offerings in this price range by both Gosky and Celestron. Honestly when it comes to budget scopes, this one is hard to beat.

Features

  • Variable 20x to 60x magnification and 80mm objective lens
  • BAK4 prism transmit bright contrast-rich Images throughout the entire zoom range
  • Solid metal framework coated in durable rubber armor.
  • Easy to zoom with dynamic lens focusing system
  • Fully multi-coated 80mm green film objective lens, eyepiece and prism
  • Waterproof, Shockproof, Fogproof
  • Comes with a digiscoping cell phone adapter, tabletop tripod, carrying case, eyepiece and lens protection covers
  • Perfect for birding, wildlife watching, target shooting, camping, travel, hiking

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4. Celestron – Ultima 80 Straight Spotting Scope 

Celestron - Ultima 80 Straight Spotting Scope - 20 to 60x80mm Zoom Eyepiece - Multi-Coated Optics for Bird Watching, Wildlife, Scenery and Hunting - Waterproof and Forgproof - Soft Carrying Case

The Ultima from Celestron is a great entry level spotting scope that comes in a multitude of magnifications as well as straight and angled. It’s easily worth the price point that Celestron has put it at, possibly even a little more.

Keep in mind that if you are coming from a more powerful, higher quality scope like the Vortex then you might notice deficiencies in lesser quality scopes. Whether you are new to spotting scopes or are a seasoned pro with them, you’ll likely be surprised by this guy’s power, keeping the price in mind of course.

A couple of downsides to this scope are the fact that some users reported purple/blue fringing above 40x magnification that can get worse as you reach maximum magnification of 60x.

But the bottom line is, for the low cost of this scope you are really getting a lot for your money. Read the negative reviews, pay attention to them, but keep in mind the price point. People that expect the quality of a $500 scope for the price of a $200 scope are being unrealistic. Overall this is one of the best spotting scopes for the money.

Features

  • Great all-around spotting scope with an 80mm objective lens
  • Every lens surface is coated multiple times with anti-reflective coatings
  • Features a large focus dial for razor-sharp focus
  • Limited Lifetime warranty and unlimited access to technical support from experts
  • Comes with soft carrying case
  • Waterproof and weatherproof
  • High quality scope for the price range, from a trusted brand
  • Very nice scope for people on a budget or just getting started (great bang for your buck)

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5. Celestron 52304 Regal M2 65ED Spotting Scope

Celestron 52304 Regal M2 65ED Spotting Scope

Get a nice crisp view of birds at your feeder with this Celestron Regal M2, or bring your tripod and take it out in the field and do some serious birding. This scope comes in 3 configurations; the 65ED,80ED, and 100ED. All 3 are high quality spotting scopes by a serious brand in optics.

This option from Celestron is a couple of notches up from the Ultima 80 above and has some features found on high end spotting scopes like Extra Low Dispersion (ED) glass. Because of the magnesium alloy body it also weighs much less than other scopes.

But the ED glass really makes a huge difference compared to other scopes without that technology, making for crisp and clear images. Additionally if you want a spotting scope that can also do some light stargazing, then this may be the one for you. It’s an APO telescope, but with only a single lens so it won’t outperform triple lens telescopes made for astronomy but it’s great to quickly set up and look at larger planets and the moon. Yet another reason not to go cheap on the tripod and get the absolute best one you can afford, se the 3 we recommend below.

Features

  • ED Objective Lens: Minimizes chromatic aberration, accurate color reproduction, increased resolution and contrast
  • XLT Coatings (Fully Multi-Coated Optics)
  • 16-48x Zoom Eyepiece and Standard 1.25″ Eyepiece
  • Durable but lightweight magnesium alloy body
  • Rotating tripod mount

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Spotting scope accessories

Some spotting scopes, while not necessarily heavy, are very large making holding them steady difficult which is why a good tripod is always recommended. If you are already into photography and have a tripod, it’s very likely that it may work. If you don’t already have a tripod then keep in mind that to get the most out of your spotting scope, you need a high quality tripod.

In fact, most pros will tell you not to spend less than $75 – $100 on a tripod if you are serious about getting great shots.

Don’t underestimate the importance of a quality tripod when using a spotting scope. You are investing a significant amount of your hard earned money on this ocular device in order get a better glimpse at your favorite birds or wildlife, don’t ruin the experience with a crappy tripod.

Best spotting scope tripods

Other spotting scope accessories


How to choose a spotting scope

1. Consider your use

For the purposes of this article, we are assuming that you are shopping for spotting scopes for birding and bird watching. They do have other uses such as for hunting.

2. Types of spotting scopes: Angled or straight

When it comes to spotting scopes you have two options; angled or straight. This is one of the first decisions you have to make when shopping for a spotting scope. This refers to the placement of the eyepiece. Straight means the eyepiece is in line with the scope, like a binocular or monocular. Angled means the eyepiece is pointed upwards and you look down into it.

Is angled or straight spotting scope better?

The magnification or functionality is not better with either type of spotting scope, it’s simply a matter of preference.

Straight scopes are more intuitive for most people, and are easy to aim at birds on or near the horizon. You can stand up or be seated and comfortably use them without hunching over as long as your tripod is high enough. They are more similar to the way binoculars function making it easy and familiar to spot birds.

However if you are birding with other people, an angled one may work better as it’s easier for people of different heights to use. Just set it so the shortest person in the group can use it comfortably, and then everyone else just has to bend over a bit and they can see as well without having to adjust the scope again.  Angled scopes may also be a better fit if you are often viewing birds high up in the sky or in very tall trees since you can point the scope up but you will still be looking down into the eye piece and not straining your neck.

3. Magnification and lens

Spotting scopes have two lenses. The objective lens and the ocular lens (eyepiece).  The objective lens is the large lens at the end of the scope, farthest from your face. It is typically measured in millimeters. The larger the objective lens, the more light the scope can gather. This gives you brighter images and especially comes into play on cloudy days or in low light conditions such as deep woods or dusk/dawn. However the bigger the objective lens, the heavier and larger the scope is.

For birding use, an objective lens between 60 to 80 mm should be sufficient.

4. Eyepiece

Some scopes have interchangeable eye pieces while some have fixed eyepieces. A scope with the ability to change out the eyepiece will likely be more expensive, but can also offer you more options. It’s important to read carefully when purchasing your scope to see if a) an eyepiece comes with the scope and b) if that eyepiece is permanently attached and thus your only option.

In most cases, an eyepiece power of 20x to 30x will be best. You may think the higher the magnification number the better, but if you get too high you risk vibrations and atmospheric conditions (such as rising heat) blurring your image and making it hard to achieve sharp focus.

Fixed focal length eyepieces

Fixed focal lengths eyepieces won’t give you the ability to zoom in and out. Like the name suggests, they are fixed at one magnification. They actually can gather light a little better than a zoom, which gives you a brighter, crisper image. Many times, these eyepieces can cost a little less than the zoom eyepieces. If you plan to use your scope for your backyard only, or a fixed location such as a bird feeder, you may not need a zoom range and can gain a little extra clarity of image for less cost with a fixed focal length eyepiece.

As we said above, 20-30x is a safe bet for fixed focal length eyepieces. Don’t stray over 45x unless it’s a real top quality piece.

Zoom eyepieces

If you plan to travel with your scope and use it in an array of different situations, a zoom eyepiece might be your best bet. These give you a range of magnification such as 20-40x or 25-50x. Lower power can be used when you are first locating the bird and getting it in your sight, then you can zoom for closer observation. Keep in mind the high end of the range such as 50-60x will suffer a little from less light, a narrower field of view, atmospheric distortion such as haze and rising heat as well as any kind of vibration. But zoom quality is pretty good these days and generally will get more and more impressive as the price and quality of the scope increases. Beware of very low priced zoom lenses, the quality will likely suffer in brightness.

5. Focusing

When it comes times to bring your image into focus, there are two options. Some scopes have just one knob or ring to turn for focus, and this may be by turning the whole barrel of the scope. Others have a two-step focus where one knob does major adjusting from very far away to close up, while a second knob gives you the fine tuning. Some people might like the two step approach and for others it might be too frustrating or not quick enough for them. Personal preference.

Close focus

Another important thing to consider is close focus. This is how far away from a bird you need to be while still getting the scope to be able to focus on it clearly. If you’re out at the park and trying to see birds across a pond, no problem. But let’s say you want a scope to put near your back window to see close up details of birds at your bird feeder. This is a much shorter distance and you need to make sure your scope will be able to focus on images clearly within that 10-20 foot distance. Most scopes specifications should list their close focus or minimum focus range.

6. Eye Relief

If you wear glasses, pay attention to the scopes specifications for eye relief. Eye relief is usually listed in millimeters, and 12-15 mm should work for most eye glass wearers. This refers to where the focal point in the eyepiece is. Since glasses put more space between you and the eyepiece, you need the focal point moved back to get a full field of view.

7. Weatherproof

If you are sure your scope is staying indoors at all times, this may not matter. But most quality scopes these days should have some weatherproofing. This usually includes a rubber outer layer that acts as an “armor” to make the scope a bit more rugged and scratch proof. Waterproofing means rain or a splash of water won’t penetrate into the optics, but it does NOT mean you can submerge the scope. Finally, you may see “fog proof”. Sometimes the scopes are filled with a dry, inert gas such as nitrogen that acts as a barrier against building up internal moisture and fogging the lens.

 


8. Other concerns

Binoculars vs spotting scope

What’s better binoculars or spotting scope? This really depends on your usage. In general, spotting scopes can see much farther and with better light. If you need distance a scope may be a better fit for you. You can also attach your phone or a small camera to a spotting scope, so it would be a good choice for digiscoping (see below). A spotting scope on a tripod also allows you to have your hands free. Maybe you want to take notes or sketch while making observations through the scope. Or maybe you just want to be able to observe for longer periods of time and holding up binoculars just gets too tiring. The drawback is portability, binoculars are much easier to carry around while traveling.

Spotting scope vs monoculars

Think of a spotting scope as a hybrid between a monocular and a telescope. Monoculars are basically like using half of a binocular. They are going to be smaller, easier to handle and carry and don’t typically use a tripod. Monoculars are a great grab-and-go item you can throw in a backpack and use with one hand. However they are limited in their magnification capabilities. For longer distance with a bit bigger field of view, you’ll want the spotting scope. You may also find if you are planning to hang out in one area and observe birds for a longer period of time, the scope on a tripod is more comfortable because once set up you don’t have to hold it.

What else can a spotting scope be used for?

  • Hunting
  • Surveillance
  • Viewing wildlife
  • Observing airplanes or boats
  • Astronomy (limited)

Can you take pictures with a spotting scope?

Yes, this is called digiscoping. You can practice and with a good scope take some real great quality photos without having an expensive DSLR camera body and giant lens. Or just use the camera on your phone to grab some quick shots to document a rare bird or a sight through the scope you particularly want to remember. The main factors for digiscoping are having a bright enough image for your camera, holding the camera the correct distance away from the scope lens, and keeping it all steady.

To get a good bright image, you probably need a scope with an objective lens around 80-85 mm for the best light. Visit here for more digiscoping basics.


Wrap up

Using a spotting scope can be a great way to take your bird watching to the next level.  Whether that is out in the field or right in your own backyard, beginning birders or those more experienced can all enjoy the range a spotting scope can provide. They are also great for birding groups to give everyone a chance to see birds up close.

All of these spotting scopes will provide a great viewing experience at a more affordable price point. Can you get crisper optics and super high quality glass for more money? Of course! But not everyone wants to spend that kind of money. (I don’t!) These scopes will let you see your favorite birds up close without busting your budget. Happy birding!

 

 

About Jesse

Jesse enjoys bird watching and feeding birds in his backyard, learning about the different species, and sharing his knowledge and experiences.

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