The sight of birds in the wild is always a joy to bird watchers or even a random Joe.
It even gets better when you capture these mostly shy birds without scurrying them off.
Now, it’s easy to think binoculars for birding are ideal instruments to use here, but not always. While binoculars can get you close, sometimes they just don’t cut it.
See, binoculars are splendid when birds are nearby, but when you’re after a kettle of hawks circling hundreds of feet in the air or a glimpse of shorebirds along a distant mudflat, you need an instrument with far more magnification.
Enter the best spotting scopes.
With a magnification power of anywhere from 20x to 60x, spotting scopes pack an incredible power. They allow you to see the details that would otherwise not be possible on a simple bin.
Alongside the higher magnification, spotting scopes solve the weight issue.
Unlike your regular telescope or binoculars, spotting scopes are nifty, portable, and generally lightweight instruments that are durable enough for fieldwork while boasting fantastic optical quality for birding.
But in as much as the spotting scopes have some great qualities, it’s also worth thinking just about how much magnification power you need.
Their high magnification means they’re always almost impossible to hold steady with your hands unless they’re set on a tripod. This makes lugging them challenging.
Secondly, some of these spotting scopes can be expensive at the higher end.
But are these sufficient deal breakers?
For day-to-day birding, I would recommend the best binoculars for birding. Bins are great for those who want to look at birds in their backyard or park.
On the other hand, if you’re chasing after details and need an instrument that can discover a waterfowl out across the lake or hawks perched in precarious positions and with greater clarity, I would suggest that you stick to the best spotting scopes.
But as with bins, however, there’re hundreds, if not thousands, of spotting scopes on the market.
It can be challenging to select the right spotting scope for your needs, but we’re here to help.
In our comprehensive guide below, we’ll share the top 5 spotting scopes in the market with you. I’ve also included a handy spotting scope buying guide to help with the selection process.
Table of Contents
The Best Spotting Scopes for Birding For The Money
#1 Vanguard Endeavor HD 82A - EDITOR'S CHOICE
I’ve known Vanguard for many years now- mainly as a brand focused on manufacturing camera accessories, bags, and tripods.
But it wasn’t until recently that I came across the Chinese’s range of sports multi-coated optics. I’m referring to their spotting scopes.
One particular option that blew me away with its quality view and high-end build quality was Vanguard Endeavor HD 82A spotting scope.
It’s part of Vanguard’s flagship bird watching scopes range, the Endeavor Series.
One aspect that invariably stands out on all models on the Endeavor series is the top-end optical components and features.
Yet, true to form, these scopes still cost somewhat less than most competitors.
The Endeavor 82A isn’t cheap, but its performance does surpass its price tag. The reason is, this spotting scope is all about precise color rendition and versatility.
Features and Benefits
First Impression-Shape and Body Design
The Vanguard comes in a surprisingly small box- and when you unpack it, the first thing you’ll notice is how compact it looks for such a full-size scope for birding.
At 63.8oz, it’s reasonably heavy, but understand it’s a full-sized option, constructed from unique materials.
Speaking of materials, Vanguard’s main chassis is made from magnesium. It’s not the cheapest material but generally superior to standard aluminum. It’s also not as light but is superior in strength to most polycarbonates found in many cheap scores.
The Endeavor also differs slightly from the typical rubber-armored spotting scopes. It lacks rubber armor covering most of the body. Instead, the chassis is exposed for the most part, and while it probably offers the multi-coated optics less protection, it does make for a high-quality finish.
Handling and Balance
Endeavor is well-balanced at the point of tripod attachment, and you can get away with any decent tripod and head.
Keep in mind the cheap $30 tripods from BestBuy are not quite adequate; even the best scope is rubbish if you try to get away with a cheap wobbly mount.
I’ve tried the cheap photographic tripods before, and while I can support the Endeavor effortlessly, a slight tapping or my partner walking across the deck transfers the vibrations to the scope.
Instead, I would recommend the Vortex Pro GT– it’s an absolute rock of Gibraltar at a reasonable price.
When it comes to focusing, the Vanguard has a dual-focus wheel system with differently geared focus wheels.
The wheels are centrally located on top of the scope, making them equally accessible with either hand, and the wheels themselves make focusing easy and smooth.
The most important thing about any spotting scope is its performance out in the field.
The good news is, Vanguard Endeavour doesn’t fail in this department, the reason being the suite of optical system technologies that don’t disappoint, even at lower magnifications.
Let’s start with the 82mm objective lens.
As you might expect, the 82mm objective lens is big enough to gather light and deliver dividends as the lights fade away.
What it means is you should have no problem observing the chimney swifts, American woodcocks, and even owls.
The best part is even at lower magnifications, the images stay bright and sharp, and the scope is well usable into twilight.
Another amazing optical feature is the ED front objective, consisting of a more expensive optical glass for controlling dispersion eliminating chromatic aberration.
But how well does the scope do it?
I would give it an 8.0+ out of ten.
First, the scope eliminates the perpetual purple halo fringing images even at focus. It improves color correction and cuts down on excess color.
Images at the low end of its magnification (16x) are impressive, sharp, and with negligible falsa color. At the end of the magnification (45x), there’s a hint of color, but certainly acceptable- certainly not below Zeiss, Kowa, and Leica.
Vanguard’s 20x-60x eyepieces are “true” zoom lenses.
What it means is if you focus at 60x and then zoom out, the focus doesn’t change. You don’t have to re-focus as with most para-focal eyepieces.
Additionally, these eyepieces are versatile and compatible with the 65mm and 82mm spotting scopes.
Alongside observing a small bird in a tree halfway down your garden, you can also zoom in on a deer on a distant field.
Performance in the field
The Vanguard is fully waterproof and fog proof, and robust.
It’s ring-sealed and can easily take on whatever conditions you put it through including a drop in the water. It’s also nitrogen-purged, so you should have no issues coping with the constantly changing conditions of the Irish spring.
Vanguard’s eye relief is extremely sensitive.
At the lowest magnification, it works perfectly, but it rapidly diminishes and couldn’t get close enough to the eyepiece at maximum magnification.
#2 Kowa TSN-883 Prominar - Best for Low Light Performance
I’ve never owned a good spotting scope, but I’ve always wanted one.
Having owned high-end photographic lenses and a high-end 8″ Schmidt Cassegrain telescope in the past, I clearly know the difference between excellent, good, fair, and poor optics.
So, when I came across the Kowa TSN-883, I knew I had struck a bargain.
The reason being the scope is sharp, the optics are great, and the overall construction is simply amazing.
But how is Kowa TSN-883 good as a birding spotting scope?
Let’s find out on our best Kowa TSN-883 review.
Features and Benefits
First Impressions- Shape and Body Design
One thing that struck me as I took this scope out of the box was just how light it was.
With a modest weight of 53.6 oz, it’s incredible how featherlight it is, especially considering it has a large 88mm objective lens. For an objective this size, that weight is impressive-it’s actually lighter than some of the 77-82mm scopes on the market.
One of the reasons contributing to the lightweight design is the magnesium alloy construction.It reduces the overall weight without compromising the scope’s strength.
The only quibble I had with Kowa’s design was the lack of rubber armor. While it benefits from keeping the weight down, it doesn’t protect the scope well and offers less grip than a rubber-coated scope.
An exposed metal finish also “magnifies” sounds when grabbing the scope, which could scare away the birds.
Handling and Balance
Kowa is an angled spotting scope, and there’re numerous benefits to this profile.
I love it for its flexibility- I can always set the scope at a lower level and use it for sharing with my friends of different heights.
Most birders can also agree that the angled scopes are, in general, more comfortable and result in less neck strain when using the scope for extended periods.
The other feature we loved with the Kowa is the dual focusing mechanism.
It’s not a unique feature in spotting scopes, but we loved how well it has been executed on these scopes.
First, the central focusing wheel is large and well-textured, so you shouldn’t have any problem gripping it with your fingers.
The mechanism has two knobs and adjusts quickly and easily. Making the fine adjustments is a breeze, and the scope goes from minimum close focus to infinity in just two full turns of the rough focus knobs.
As a birder interested in broader aspects of nature, I can use the close focus for observing butterflies, wildflowers, and other things during my explorations.
Optical Performance- Prominar Optics
All the Kowa Prominar line scopes have one thing in common- a pure fluorite crystal objective lens.
The lenses are made from environmentally friendly eco-glass and fully multi-coated with Kowa’s proprietary prism coatings for those who care.
According to Kowa, the objective lens light transmission rate is 99%.
We’re yet to substantiate that, but from the user reviews, the 80mm objective lens has a wonderful viewing experience- ultra-bright, sharp, and with clear color resolution.
Compared to the standard scopes, the image brightness stands out, and you should have no problem spotting birds at dusk and dawn when other scopes would have been useless.
The birds and details appear sharp, while the depth of the field is wide enough for decent honing but narrow enough not to distract the background.
I love Kowa’s flexibility, especially with the choice of eyepieces.
Kowa has three different eyepieces that will work on the TSN-880.
I’m a big fan of the 20-60x eyepieces. Other options include the TE-17W 30x WIDE Eyepiece and the TE-20H25x LER.
The 20-60x, these eyepieces have a respectable field of view, coming in at 115m at 1000 yards. The ability to scan an area and look for birds at low magnification but zoom in on a distant target is useful, especially for birders who spend a lot of their time watching seabirds and shorebirds.
Also, with a newly developed optical design and optical prism coatings, these lenses reduce the deterioration of the image at high magnifications.
Of course, the image loses a little brightness at high magnifications but still retains its sharpness even at 60x magnification.
The 20-60x also enhances Kowa’s versatility, and beyond bird spotting, Kowa is also ideal for general nature, wildlife observation, and target shooting. The 88mm large objective lens also makes it suitable for casual astronomy.
#3 Celestron Regal M2 65ED Spotting Scope - Value Scope
Third, on our list of the best bird scopes, the Celestron Regal M2 is a value option and perfect pick for those looking to spot distant objects.
Hunters can also use M2 to locate wildlife from a distance, while birders will find the M2 pretty handy to explore nature using instant focus.
While this scope is made in Taiwan, you should make no bones about it; you’ll hardly find a reason that goes against the scope’s performance.
Keep in mind it comes with a high price point, but using a high-quality ED lens and XLT coatings gives you full value for money.
Features and Benefits
First Impressions- Design and Body Shape
The Regal M2 sports a magnesium alloy construction.
It’s a nice choice of material as it’s robust and will take on a beating, including drops and hits like a champ. It’s also ring sealed and waterproof, so a drop in water isn’t game over.
Despite an alloy construction, it’s not as light as we would have hoped, and many customers complain of how bulky and heavy this scope feels.
Handling and Balance
With such a weighty spotting scope, you would think handing would be an issue.
We also thought so, but to our surprise, M2 feels well balanced and is easier to handle.
The integrated tripod mount lets you place the scope in a tripod or even a window mount comfortably.
A dual focus mechanism helps you zero in even on a moving target when it comes to focusing.
Regal’s focus system works pretty smoothly, and the pretty ergonomic wheel means you can conveniently use the scope with your gloves on, even on rainy days.
Additionally, the focus system is so smooth that you won’t have to deal with choppy images during the transition.
Image definition on the Regal is impressive.
The 65mm objective lens gathers as much light as possible, and alongside optical technologies such as XLT coatings, it reduces chromatic aberrations, increases the resolution and contrast.
This is not to mention it helps with color reproduction.
To give you an idea of how well it performs, one user could identify a swallow and even discern the tawny underpants at one mile.
Night performance is equally impressive, and the Regal M2 can handle the low light use well.
It makes it easy to identify and observe the nocturnal birds, thanks to the ED glass that minimizes light interference, making them perfect for nighttime use.
The M2 is a flexible and adaptable scope, as it can accommodate different eyepieces with varying magnifications.
But it comes complete with a 16-48x zoom multi-coated eyepiece.
It’s a nice eyepiece with varying magnification levels and a wider field of view.
Also, the eyepiece is a nice selection as it lets you change the eyepiece according to your viewing requirements. More importantly, it has a wider field of view (131-68), so you can always see the birds even in motion.
#4 Vortex Optics Razor HD - Great Mid-Range Birding Scope
Vortex is among the trusted optic brands in the market.
And today, we’ll look at one of its popular offerings, the Vortex Razor.
It’s an ideal pick for serious birders looking for a great mid-range spotting scope.
The Razor offers you the best bang for the buck, and it’s the best birding scope you can get right now.
We love what it has to offer, especially the premium HD extra-low dispersion glass that creates incredibly sharp images.
But how does Razor stack up against the competition, an excel as a birding scope?
Features and Benefits
First Impressions-Shape and Body Design
The Vortex Razor has received a facelift, and we love the new color scheme and layout.
From the first glance, this scope is appealing, and I’ve some users saying it resembles the Swarovski scope.
Another upgrade we love on this birding spotting scope is the full rubber-armored coating. It’s a nice finish and an upgrade from the previous metal finish.
I love it because it shields the other components from damage while at the same time providing sufficient grip. I can comfortably hold the scope even in rainy/wet conditions without feeling slippery.
Handling and Balance
Using the Razor is a breeze.
First, the scope has an angled body, helping birders reduce the height of the tripod base. It’s quite a useful addition, especially when birding in windy conditions or sitting in a chair at the range.
The scope is also straightforward to use, and it’s easy to adjust the magnification and focus using the rings located just below the eyecup and in front of the tripod mount.
Another incredible feature that comes in handy for the early morning or late evening birding is the built-in pull-out sunshade.
It’s a nice addition that allows you to view the targets when the sun’s angle would be causing a glare.
Right off the bat, we loved the Razor’s brilliant optical precision.
With a magnification of 22 to 48x, Razor offers an easy and hassle-free way to identify and magnify objects at far distances.
While the 48x is comparatively lower than other competing models on our list, it’s still ideal for those who don’t want to sacrifice portability and compactness. If hauling a bulky spotter isn’t your cup of tea, then you can count on this scope and enjoy a relaxed glassing.
The other thing I should mention is the large 65 mm objective lens.
It’s built to endure the harsh conditions while producing razor-sharp images.
Whether you’re birding at dawn or dusk, the large objective lens gathers sufficient light and will provide you with astounding bright imagery.
The lens light-gathering abilities and the exclusive ArmorTek and EX with anti-reflective coating enhance this practicality.
Based on the customer reviews, Razor eyepieces and optical performance aren’t disappointing.
The 27-60mm zoom multi-coated eyepieces offer a decent image quality. In particular, the edge-to-edge quality is excellent, and only the tiniest amounts of chromatic aberrations are visible.
Additionally, they’ve a nice field of view, varying from 138ft to 84ft depending upon the magnification in action.
Either way, the FOV is decent and will allow you to view birds in motion or even scan a large swath, looking for birds.
#5 Celestron Ultima 100 - Budget Pick
For birds far away or poor light observing, nothing beats a large aperture scope. And for large aperture scopes, nothing comes close to the Celestron Ultima 100.
With a 100mm aperture lens, Celestron is the real deal in low light conditions.
Even better, it comes at a fraction of the price range of most of the units on our list of the best birding scopes.
But does the affordability compromise the birding performance?
Let’s see that in our Celestron Ultima review.
Features and Benefits
First Impression-Design and Body Shape
Ultima has an angled body, offering the best in terms of convenience and ease of use. It’s easy to adjust the scope, and you won’t have any issues if you plan to share with a friend.
Its biggest selling point, however, is the seal-proof and waterproof design.
See, rain and humidity don’t keep nature from springing a rare sighting, and neither should it hold you back.
Fortunately, you don’t have to shy away from using it in the rain or the damp and humid conditions with the Ultima. The lens is fully waterproof and won’t allow the weather to water down your spotting adventure.
Balance and Handling
As we mentioned earlier, Ultima is an angled scope with a 45-degree viewing angle.
How is this helpful?
From an angled view, spotting or even taking photographs of birds at height gets easier without unnecessarily straining your neck. It also allows users of varying heights to use the lens simultaneously, without the hassle of a readjustment.
Another feature we love is the built-in T-mount threading.
It’s a feature that gives you the option of using zoom scope as a telephoto lens for your camera.
You simply need to attach a T-mount adapter suited to the camera, and voila, you just transformed the scope into a lens with enhanced zooming capacity.
One of Ultima’s signature features is the large aperture.
The 100mm range of Celestron Ultima with a 4″ diameter offers a large diameter that can be readjusted to your light requirements.
It gathers plenty of light at its maximum setting and will make spotting animals and birds around dusk or even stargazing at night super easy.
In addition to that, the multi-coated optics have a decent magnification of between 22x and 60x magnification with 4 levels of adjustment.
While the large aperture lets you clearly see low light conditions, the magnification brings the images closer for detailed viewing.
Ultimate has an excellent 22-66X Zoom multi-coated Eyepiece zoom capacity that makes all the difference during bird sighting.
The angled eyepiece keeps the image clarity intact throughout the zoom range and provides you with sharp picture results.
Best Spotting Scopes for Birding Buying Guide
The best scope will make it much easier to enjoy and identify birds around you. This is not to mention; they give you insights into details you would otherwise never see with the naked eyes or other vision instruments.
But with a lot to choose from, picking the right binocular for your needs can feel a bit intimidating.
And this is why we’ve compiled the below guide.
Here, we look at everything you should consider in your next spotting scope purchase.
Angled or Straight Body?
Bird watching scopes are available in two main configurations: straight body and angled body.
The straight spotting scopes have their eyepiece in line with the objective lenses, while the angled body scopes have their scopes set at a 45-to-90-degree angle from the objective lens.
While each design has its benefits and cons, I would recommend the angled spotting scopes for birding.
Birds tend to spend a lot of the time high up in the trees and sky. An angled scope makes looking up much easier for prolonged periods makes them a great choice.
Spotting Scope Magnification Range
A spotting scope’s magnification starts where the binocular magnification stops.
Most of the spotting scopes for birding have a magnification range of between 15-60x.
Don’t go for bird-watching scopes with a lower range limit under 5x. This is what binoculars are for.
At the same time, high magnifications aren’t always the best. Don’t choose a scope with a limit of anything above 60x.
The reason is your field of view will grow increasingly narrow, the images will become dimmer, and this will result in all kinds of trouble in low-light conditions.
The 20-40x or 20-60x range should give you the optimal quality of the picture.
Another thing you should consider is the lens size.
Greater magnification ranges require larger lenses to keep the image within the necessary parameters, both in quality and brightness.
I would recommend purchasing a spotting scope with an exit pupil of 1.3mm at the very least. Any lesser size is of no use in low light conditions or even in extreme brightness.
For example, a scope with an 80mm objective lens is ideal, especially if it has a magnification of 20-60x. It’ll allow you to bird, both in high and low-light conditions.
As we’ve mentioned above, larger objective lenses translate to more detail, especially at higher magnifications.
Remember that a larger lens of mediocre quality, no matter how large, will never equal a smaller, quality lens performance. When in doubt, always go for quality oversize.
Secondly, a larger lens is bulky and adds volume to the overall scope’s build.
You can also improve the lens performance of any spotting scope with special quality glass.
While incorporating extra-low dispersion glass, ED glass, APO glass, HD glass, or fluorite crystal glass will cost you more; it delivers image quality on par with a larger objective made of standard glass.
Field of View (FOV)
FOV is measured in relation to the width a birder can see at a distance of 1,000 meters.
The rule of thumb is the more you zoom in, the more lessen your field of view.
If your object of observation is moving at great speeds, such as a bird in flight, the best way to observe is through a wide field of view.
A wide FOV is also useful in scanning and finding the particular bird you wish to observe.
Eyepiece glass is critical as it influences the overall quality of the picture; the higher the quality of artistry, the higher the image quality.
When selecting a spotting scope, ensure you pick high-quality lenses to avoid potential issues with sharp image quality.
If you’re planning to do birding in the open air, I recommend picking a wide-angle eyepiece for better FOV.
The two basic types of optical designs are refractive and catadioptric.
Most of the optical designs are refractive, and the reason is the catadioptric scopes are fragile.
The refractive scope picture quality is slightly lesser, but not a surprise, considering they’re far less expensive than the catadioptric.
Fixed vs. Zoom Eyepieces
In some cases, a spotting scope comes with an eyepiece attached permanently, while others have detachable eyepieces for more choice.
If you choose a fixed eyepiece, don’t always assume that the higher magnifications are automatically better because vibrations and heat can obscure the view.
Also, in most cases, you’ll find those looking for birds will find the 20x and 30x eyepieces effective.
On the other hand, a zoom eyepiece is the best choice you can make. Bidrescan use the lowest magnification for finding and centering a bird before zooming in for closer study.
Focusing and Close Focusing
In most spotting scopes, you’ll find that you simply need to turn a knob or ring to focus and create a sharper picture.
But there’re other models with a two-step focus mechanism, using one knob for shifting close-up to far away and another knob for making adjustments to fine-tune the viewing experience.
Sometimes, the close focusing is critical because you’re not always looking for birds’ specks away; sometimes, you need the extra details on a bird nearby.
Compact Versus Full-Size Models
Bird Watching scopes are available in different lengths and weights.
While a high-powered scope will let you see farther, it comes at the expense of extra weight and bulk.
Many birders find the compact option just fine, and you don’t have to lug around as much weight to your favorite bird watching location.
Waterproof and Fog Proof
When selecting a scope, always ensure it can stand up to the weather conditions.
The lenses, in particular, should be waterproof to ensure they’re not affected by water or moisture.
They should also be nitrogen-purged or fog-proof to prevent fog from accommodating and obstructing your view.
Remember to Factor in a Tripod
When considering your budget for a birdwatching scope, you should also consider factoring in a high-quality tripod.
Of course, you don’t need a tripod quite as solid as the one you would use for photography; you still want to ensure your tripod stays steady even in windy conditions.
Additionally, check whether it’s adjustable, and see how long it is extendable to be sure it’ll be comfortable to use, especially if you’ll spend a lot of your time birding.
Best Spotting Scope Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q: What is the best spotting scope for birding?
A: The best bird-watching scope should have decent magnification, and more importantly, a large aperture, especially if you plan to observe the birds in low light conditions.
Q: Is a spotting scope good for bird watching?
A: Yes, a spotting scope is a handy bird-watching instrument, especially if the birds are far away. Generally, these scopes have greater magnification than a traditional binocular and will let you see for distances where a bin can’t.
Q: What is the best spotting scope for wildlife viewing?
A: The best spotting scopes for wildlife have a decent magnification-not necessarily the highest because it’s easy to spot a wild animal at a distance, even with naked eyes.
Q: What magnification is best for bird watching?
The best magnification for a bird-watching scope is an adjustable magnification between 20x-60x. It’s the sweet spot for bird watching, and anything less than that can be handled by binoculars.
Wrap Up: Our Choice
Our winner for the best spotting scopes is the Vanguard Endeavor HD 82A.
We choose this option because it has a host of features and details supporting bird watching.
From the eyepiece choice, magnification to the build, Endeavor 82A has everything you would want to observe a duck in the far distant shoreline or a woodpecker across your garden lawn.