Good quality optics are an essential tool for any birder, but which is the better choice: spotting scopes or binoculars? Both designs have pros and cons. Understanding when and where to use a spotting scope or binoculars can help you choose your best option for birding.
Why Do You Need Optics at All?
It’s easy to see different birds with your eyes alone. Many different birds are distinctive enough in coloring, size, shape, and markings that with a good view, you can identify them without any optical aids.
Binoculars and spotting scopes, however, extend your visual range, clarify fine details, and help distinguish subtle color hues. This is especially critical for birds that can be hard to identify, such as soaring raptors or birds across impassible habitat. They might on the other side of a canyon or gorge, far up a cliff face, out in a broad lake, across a river, or high in a dense tree.
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Some birds, even though they may be close in distance, have subtle markings. Optics can make their identification much easier. Gulls, sandpipers, sparrows, and other challenging birds can be much easier to identify with a good pair of binoculars or a reliable spotting scope.
Binoculars are the most common optics for birding. These two-barreled, handheld optics can be adjusted easily for different visual acuity, and are fast and easy to use. Binoculars are generally lighter, easily portable, and can even be attached to straps or harnesses so they can be carried without hands. Because of their portability, binoculars are quick to change position and refocus, allowing better viewing of moving, active birds. In general, binoculars are also less expensive than spotting scopes. There is price overlap between high-end binoculars and lower quality spotting scopes.
Binoculars aren’t always the perfect choice, however. They cover the lower end of the visual magnification spectrum, and so might not provide adequate detail when sighting birds very far away. The smaller lenses also bring less color into the eyepiece, so distant birds can seem bland and lack detail. Depending on the weight of the binoculars and how they are carried, they can lead to back and neck strain. Birders who may have less hand or arm strength could have problems keeping binoculars steady and stable for long viewing.
These are single-tube optics that are generally larger and bulkier than binoculars. Because of their larger size, however, these terrestrial telescopes can have much greater magnification than binoculars. Because birds can be viewed from further away, a spotting scope is ideal for distance viewing. Getting close to a nest, lek, or rookery is likely to stress the birds. When mounted on a tripod, a spotting scope is wonderfully stable and doesn’t strain the muscles like binoculars could.
Yet the size of a spotting scope does create some limitations. These optics have less flexibility for viewing moving, active birds. A scope is more difficult to adjust quickly and has a generally smaller field of view. If a birder needs to hike a distance to get to a birding blind or viewing area, a scope can be heavy to tote along, and a tripod or other stand is essential for these larger optics, meaning there is even more to carry.
Birders who travel can also find it difficult to bring a scope along if their transportation includes baggage limitations or restricted storage space. Overall, spotting scopes are also significantly more expensive than most binoculars. This can be a challenge for birders on a budget.
Spotting Scopes or Binoculars – Which Is Best?
Which type of optics is best really depends on the birding you prefer. If you are happiest watching birds in your backyard, visiting a local park, or walking along a woodland trail, a pair of binoculars can bring you great views with the most convenience. Prefer visiting broad vistas and large waterways? A spotting scope can be most useful. If your budget is smaller, you may be best served by spending it on higher quality binoculars. For those who prefer to save up, a spotting scope can be a great investment. If you travel extensively to see birds, binoculars can be easier to pack, but bringing a spotting scope along can ensure you don’t miss opportunities in places you may never visit again.
Ultimately, every birder has to decide which optics work best for their needs, and many birders own both binoculars and spotting scopes—sometimes more than one of each! If you’re considering a purchase, visit a wild bird store or outdoor store. You’ll find a variety of optics you can test out. When you see other birders, don’t be afraid to ask them about their optics, or even politely ask to try out a spotting scope or pair of binoculars in the field if you’re interested. By making the right ocular choice for your birding, you’ll be sure to get the best views possible.