Get The Best Birdwatching Telescope for you!
You’ve been birding with binoculars for a while and you see loads of other birders toting scopes. It’s obvious why. In some places, for some birds, like wetland sites or the sea, you need something to bring the birds closer and so easier to appreciate and identify.
So, how do you go about choosing the right ‘scope’ for you?
Try Before You Buy
Spotting scopes can be pricey so you need to get the right one for you. If you have friends with scopes ask for a go and see what features you like, hate or absolutely need.
Many RSPB reserves and others have ‘field days’ where optics retailers bring lots of kit for you to try out. Some hold equipment demonstration events where you can try scopes out for yourself and ask for expert guidance.
Most good retailers will be happy for you to try out scopes in the store, and some even have something good lo look out next to their premises.
Make Informed Decisions
Angled or Straight
Probably the first consideration is whether you want an ‘angled’ or ‘straight-through’ telescope. This is a personal decision (mostly) based on which you find most comfortable. People tend to believe that ‘straight-through’ makes it easier to find what you first saw with the naked eye. It can also be difficult to use an angled ‘scope in a hide.
On the other hand, some of us are not very bendy and find ‘angled’ best. They put less strain on the neck and they make it easier to follow birds in flight or look up into treetops. As the scope doesn’t need to be as high, your tripod will tend to be more stable.
Optically there is no difference.
Magnification & field of view.
Remember generally the bigger the magnification to smaller the field of view… if you want to see more detail you need more magnification, but you will be able to look at a smaller area and that can make it harder to find the bird you want to see. The compromise can be the ability to zoom. Most scopes offer interchangeable eye-pieces with fixed magnification, zoom and wide-angled lenses you can swap out.
The ‘standard’ scope size is 60mm for the objective lens (that’s the one closest to what you watch, and sets the size of your field of view) with a 20x or 22x magnification (twenty- or twenty-two-times life size). Most zoom lenses with give you a range from 20x to 60x. Remember, the higher the magnification the more that any movement is exaggerated and heat shimmer is also magnified so more distorting.
There are larger scopes offering 80mm and they have the advantage of letting in more light, but most will be heavier to carry than the 60mm. Larger objective lenses work better with zooms as they let in more light. My preference is an 80mm with a 20-60 magnification.
If you are a spectacle wearer you need to make sure that any eyecups can fold away so your glasses touch the lens. (Bear in mind, too, that its difficult to use bifocals or varifocals with optics, use single focus ones. When birding I wear what my wife calls my ‘Harry Potter’ spectacles… they are large and circular so the frames never get in the way when scoping. They are my ‘reading’ prescription, but long-distance ones work just as well.
ED & HD Glass
Lens quality is often related to price. Often when at high magnification there is a colour distortion at the edge of the lens – giving a slightly different hue. More expensive ED (Extra-low Dispersion) lenses help correct colour aberrations. HD (High Definition) coatings supposedly focus more light giving sharper images – but is sometimes just a marketing label applied to ED lenses.
Many more birders than ever take photographs. There are a range of accessories that make it possible to use your telescope as a telephoto lens. Cameras or smartphones can be used. Generally larger objective lenses are better because their extra light allows for faster shutter speeds. Lower magnification gives sharper images. So, if this sounds like its for you, make sure you have your phone or camera with you when you try out the telescopes on offer.
Its no good having the perfect spotting-scope if it’s too heavy to carry around all day. There are accessories (mules) that can allow you to carry the scope on your back attached to the tripod for quick use. Many people walk around with the tripod extended, attached to the scope and balanced on their shoulder. If it’s a short distance from car to hide or the water’s edge this may be fine. On the other hand, if you are walking all day and a fair distance you might need to lighten the load. There are light weight tripods, but they tend to be less stable. I have a small, compact scope to take overseas, the optical quality is not as high as my ‘everyday’ scope, but it is so much easier to carry around.
Tripods & Tripod Heads
I know people who have paid two thousand pounds for their scope and just ninety for their tripod – to my mind, that is a false economy.
With a tripod you need stability and manoeuvrability at the lowest carrying weight you can get. It’s not always an easy compromise and your choice will depend on how far you are going to carry the kit and what you use it for.
Sea-watching is best when the winds are high so you need maximum stability (some tripods can have counterweights attached to help that). Photographers also need rock-steady platforms in order to take crisp images. Twitchers, who may be chasing a flighty rarity, will need a tripod weight that doesn’t limit their range.
My particular compromise is to have a tripod made from carbon fibre, which is super light, but have a heavier duty ‘fluid’ tripod head that gives stability and manoeuvrability in all directions.
This is another often neglected issue.
Guarantees & Repairs
The price you pay may be reflected in the standard of aftercare. If you buy cheap equipment from a non-specialist, on-line retailer do not expect a long, guaranteed life for your telescope or the best after-sales service. The top makers (selling at the top price) may well give you a lifetime guarantee and repair or replace parts, sometimes without charge.
Keep it clean
Lenses need protection and looking after, use the dust-caps or rain-guards! Every time you finish for the day, get used to wiping lenses with a lens cloth – especially if you’ve been near salt water – and clean with a lens-cleaning fluid.
Invest in a ‘stay-on’ case; it will stop wear and tear and offer some protection if you accidentally drop the scope or the tripod is knocked over.
Every few weeks take a good look at the scope and tripod, tighten up anything that needs it. Sometimes bits can fall off at the worst possible time, and its usually because you didn’t take maintenance seriously!
A good scope is costly to replace. Most household policies will cover you IF you specify the item on the policy. There are also specialist companies that offer optics insurance.
Where to Buy
If you look at the Fatbirder telescopes review page you will see that there are some ‘click-thru’ buying opportunities. But the choice is yours.
Buying direct from the makers is sometimes an option and usually carries full guaranties and repair facilities.
Good specialist retailers abound, many with a national presence. They can give expert advice and are often a source of ‘pre-owned’ options. Top quality scopes hold their value, and some sellers offer part exchange and offer a guarantee based on their own refurbishment. You can sometimes get top-of-the-range used optics for the same price as a new mid-range scope.
On-line, non-specialist sales are cheaper for some optics (some top makers will not sell through them). If you decide to go down that route make sure they have a good returns policy and for goodness sake take advantage of a ‘demonstration day’ at a reserve and TRY BEFORE YOU BUY!