Choosing the Best Spotting Scope for Birding: 7 Great Scopes

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Owning a high-quality spotting scope is one of the simplest and most effective ways to improve your birding experience. 

Not long ago, I was using a pair of binoculars to look at some mountain goats that nearly blended in with their surroundings. Sure, the binoculars helped, but I could have seen so much more detail if I had brought a spotting scope with me!

Buying the perfect spotting scope, though–that takes some effort! When shopping for a spotting scope, you must consider your budget, how you’ll use the scope, your durability needs, and which features are essential.

Let’s take a look at some popular models of spotting scopes!

Product Name
Best Angled Design
Vortex Viper 85mm Spotting Scope
Best Straight Design
Celestron Ultima 80 Spotting Scope
Best Waterproof
Omano Spotting Scope
Image
Vortex Viper 85mm Spotting Scope Angled-HD V502
Celestron – Ultima 80 Straight Spotting Scope – 20-60x Zoom Eyepiece – Multi-coated Optics for Bird Watching, Wildlife, Scenery and Hunting – Waterproof and Fogproof – Includes Soft Carrying Case
Omano Bird Watching Spotting Scope with Tripod for Adults by Smithsonian – 20-60x60 Spotting Scope for Bird Watching, Hiking, Travel – Spotting Scope Phone Adapter and Bird-Watching Guide Included.
Customer Rating
Magnification
Magnification: 20-60x
Magnification: 20-60x
Magnification: 20-60x
Objective Lens Diameter
Objective Lens Diameter: 85mm
Objective Lens Diameter: 80mm
Objective Lens Diameter: 60mm
Field of View
Field of View: 101-50 feet
Field of View: 105-53 feet
Field of View: 131-68 feet
Weight
Weight: 4.7 pounds
Weight: 5 pounds
Weight: 4 pounds
Best Angled Design
Product Name
Vortex Viper 85mm Spotting Scope
Image
Vortex Viper 85mm Spotting Scope Angled-HD V502
Customer Rating
Magnification
Magnification: 20-60x
Objective Lens Diameter
Objective Lens Diameter: 85mm
Field of View
Field of View: 101-50 feet
Weight
Weight: 4.7 pounds
Best Straight Design
Product Name
Celestron Ultima 80 Spotting Scope
Image
Celestron – Ultima 80 Straight Spotting Scope – 20-60x Zoom Eyepiece – Multi-coated Optics for Bird Watching, Wildlife, Scenery and Hunting – Waterproof and Fogproof – Includes Soft Carrying Case
Customer Rating
Magnification
Magnification: 20-60x
Objective Lens Diameter
Objective Lens Diameter: 80mm
Field of View
Field of View: 105-53 feet
Weight
Weight: 5 pounds
Best Waterproof
Product Name
Omano Spotting Scope
Image
Omano Bird Watching Spotting Scope with Tripod for Adults by Smithsonian – 20-60x60 Spotting Scope for Bird Watching, Hiking, Travel – Spotting Scope Phone Adapter and Bird-Watching Guide Included.
Customer Rating
Magnification
Magnification: 20-60x
Objective Lens Diameter
Objective Lens Diameter: 60mm
Field of View
Field of View: 131-68 feet
Weight
Weight: 4 pounds

Last update on 2022-09-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

7 Best Spotting Scopes for Birdwatching

Note: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. 

Vortex Viper 85mm Spotting Scope Angled-HD V502

Vortex Viper 85mm Spotting Scope Angled-HD V502
  • The Viper HD 20-60x85 Angled Spotting Scope is packed with features for incredible glassing and high end optical performance.
  • The HD optical system comprised of premium components generates vivid high-definition images. XR anti-reflective coatings on...
  • The smooth helical focus helps dial in your image for ultra-sharp viewing and maintains a trim profile for ultimate packability. A...

Last update on 2022-09-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Vortex is considered a leading brand in spotting scopes and binoculars. They are known for being one of the preferred brands of hunters. They have three main models: the Diamondback, the Viper, and the Razor, and prices can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on which model and features you choose.

This Viper is an excellent choice for very serious birders, but some might find it to be “overkill” for the average hobbyist.  

Pros: 

  • You can choose an Angled or Straight design based on your personal preferences.
  • The Viper comes with anti-reflective coatings to see better in low light. Another glare-reducing feature is the built-in sunshade you can pull out as needed. 
  • The Viper is rugged, waterproof, fog proof, and durable. 

Cons: 

  • The Viper’s price range can be a bit intimidating for many new hobbyists. If you want the most budget-friendly Vortex, check out the Diamondback instead. 
  • You will need to buy a sturdy tripod separately to get a steady view. 
  • At about 4.5 pounds, you may not want to add this to your hiking backpack when lighter weight options are available. 

Vortex Optics Diamondback Spotting Scope

Vortex Optics Diamondback Spotting Scope 20-60x60 Angled
  • The Diamondback 20-60x60 Angled Spotting Scope is a superb choice when you need a heavyweight performer in a light, compact...
  • XR fully multi-coated lenses combined with a retractable, built-in sunshade give the user excellent light transmission and a clear...
  • A twist-and-lock collar allows you to move the scope for various glassing positions. The adjustable eyecup twists up and down to...

Last update on 2022-09-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The Diamondback is a great choice if you want the Vortex brand’s prestige without the Viper’s price tag. The 20-60x adjustable magnification and 60-millimeter objective lens give you great visibility in a smaller package. It weighs less than 3 pounds, significantly lighter than the 85-millimeter Viper. 

Despite being less expensive than the higher-end Vortex models, the Diamondback still does a great job. It has a twist-and-lock collar that is easy to use, even for people new to birding scopes. 

I appreciate that it also has an extendable sunshade to help reduce eye strain and improve image clarity. 

Pros: 

  • It’s more affordable than the more advanced Vortex options.
  • It weighs significantly less than the Viper. 
  • It has most of the same great features. 

Cons:

  • The smaller objective lens means your image won’t be quite as bright.
  • The focus is better at closer range; the farther your target is, the more difficult it is to focus with the Diamondback. 

Emarth 20-60x60AE 45-Degree Angled Spotting Scope with Tripod

Sale
Emarth 20-60x60AE 45 Degree Angled Spotting Scope with Tripod, Phone Adapter, Carry Bag, Scope for Target Shooting Bird Watching Hunting Wildlife
  • ✅【High Magnification】This spotting scope features a powerful zoom magnification range that adjustable 20x to 60x...
  • ✅【Fully Multi-coated Lens】The lens are all fully multi-coated and features BAK4 roof prism to increases light transmission...
  • ✅【Durable Construction】High-quality rubber armor provides non-slip grip, shock-proof grip and durable external protection....

Last update on 2022-09-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

If you want to make getting your first scope as easy as possible, consider a spotter that comes with a tripod as part of a set. That’s the most significant advantage of the Emarth 20-60x60AE, which includes the scope and tripod, a carry bag, and a phone adapter. This model is only available in an angled design, so if you prefer straight-on, you’ll want to look for something else. 

I like that this scope is accessible for new birders! 

Pros:

  • The tripod has a telescopic central post, which means you can easily adjust the height of the scope as needed.
  • At 3.5 pounds, it’s a bit lighter than some of its heavier-duty competitors. You won’t necessarily dread carrying it along, especially on shorter hikes. 

Cons:

  • Its visibility is good, up to about 300 yards. A higher-end model can give you nearly 1000 yards of visibility. 
  • The phone adapter uses suction cups, which may not hold heavier phones in the correct position. Additionally, it won’t work with a phone that has a non-smooth case. 

Omano Bird Watching Spotting Scope with Tripod for Adults by Smithsonian

Omano Bird Watching Spotting Scope with Tripod for Adults by Smithsonian – 20-60x60 Spotting Scope for Bird Watching, Hiking, Travel – Spotting Scope Phone Adapter and Bird-Watching Guide Included.
  • While many birding spotting scopes are difficult to align properly, our Smithsonian Great Outdoors Spotting Scope Set features...
  • Unlike other spotting scopes 20-60x60 that never achieve sharp focus, our set allows you to easily focus the birding spotting...
  • Waterproof, fog-proof and lightweight – Weighing only 900 grams, our lightweight long distance spotting scope is a breeze to...

Last update on 2022-09-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

If you’re a backpacker, you know how important it is to carry as little weight as possible! Adding a spotting scope to your gear is a big commitment, and you’ll likely want the lightest weight option available. That’s where the Omano scope by Smithsonian comes to the rescue!

This scope weighs less than two pounds! That makes it among the lightest scopes you can buy. It doesn’t sacrifice many features for this weight, either. However, it only has a 60-millimeter objective lens, so if you’re looking for the brightest image possible, something else will better fit your needs. 

Pros:

  • It’s extremely lightweight, which is great for backpackers and kayakers. 
  • It has a phone adapter, which lets you record photos and videos through the viewfinder. 
  • It also comes with a table-top style tripod and a birdwatching guide. 

Cons: 

  • The table-top tripod is only 9.6″ tall, potentially limiting usability in some circumstances. 
  • Like some other models, the phone adapter is not compatible with all phones. 

Celestron – Ultima 80 Straight Spotting Scope – 20-60x Zoom Eyepiece

Celestron – Ultima 80 Straight Spotting Scope – 20-60x Zoom Eyepiece – Multi-coated Optics for Bird Watching, Wildlife, Scenery and Hunting – Waterproof and Fogproof – Includes Soft Carrying Case
  • ULTIMA STRAIGHT SPOTTING SCOPE: The outdoor enthusiast’s choice is our great all-around spotting scope with an 80mm objective...
  • INCLUDES ESSENTIALS FOR BETTER VIEWING: Celestron Ultima 80 includes an extended tripod mounting plate, a zoom eyepiece with an...
  • MULTI-COATED OPTICS: Every lens surface is coated multiple times with anti-reflective coatings to improve the color and contrast...

Last update on 2022-09-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The Celestron, like most Vortex models, comes in straight and angled styles. Straight models are preferred by birders positioned uphill from where they are watching and are popular with newer birders because they tend to be easier to use. 

The Celestron uses a manual focus mechanism and has an 80-millimeter objective lens, which ensures a brighter image. Additional features include anti-reflective glass coatings, a large focus dial, a tripod mounting plate, a carrying case, and a zoom eyepiece with an integrated T-adapter for digital photography. 

It’s a great entry-level scope that you won’t regret buying.

Pros: 

  • The manual zoom feature is really smooth and easy to use on this model.
  • Straight scopes like this one are easy to pack up in a carrying sleeve and slip into a backpack or bag. 

Cons:

  • At 5 pounds, it’s one of the heavier scopes on this list.
  • It offers far more detail at lower magnifications; at higher magnifications, there are concerns about the precision of view.

KEXWAXX Spotting Scopes 100MM 25-75X HD Monocular Telescope

KEXWAXX Spotting Scopes 100MM 25-75X HD Monocular Telescope for Bird Watching & Hunting & Target Shooting with Tripod, Phone Adapter, Carrying Bag Black
  • FMC coating technology : There are many glass-air contact surfaces inside the spotting scopes, and each surface will lose light...
  • Lotus lens technology : The objective lens adopts the lotus lens technology. When water drops on the lens, it is like dripping on...
  • Precise double focusing : The spotting scopes can be used for fast focusing and precise fine-tuning. The magnification can be...

Last update on 2022-09-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

The KEXWAXX objective lens is 100 millimeters in diameter. That’s almost 4″ across, making it the biggest scope on our list! This is one of the largest objective lenses you will find on a scope designed with birdwatching in mind. 

This set comes with a carrying bag, smartphone adapter, and tripod, which you will absolutely need to steady this enormous, heavy scope, as it weighs in at nearly 7 pounds! Unfortunately, the tripod this one comes with may not be sturdy enough, and many who have bought this spotting scope have also purchased a more durable stand. 

Pros: 

  • The huge objective lens gives you bright, clear visibility and crisp images, even in low-light conditions.
  • The 25-75x magnification is a good, wide range for spotting close birds and those that are hundreds of yards away. 

Cons: 

  • It’s heavy! This is not a backpacker’s scope. 
  • The tripod may need to be replaced with something more sturdy. 

12×56 HD Monocular Telescope with Smartphone Adapter

Sale
12x56 HD Monocular Telescope with Smartphone Adapter, Upgraded Tripod, Hand Strap - High Power Monocular with Clear Low Light Vision for Star Watching - Lightweight Monocular for Bird Watching Hunting
  • 【12x56 High Power Monocular, High Definition and Super Bright View, Clear Low Light Vision】 Advanced Fully Multi-Coated...
  • 【21mm Large Eyepiece Monocular Telescope, Larger View, Clearer Details】 Equipped 21mm large eyepiece, provides more...
  • 【One-click Photography Monocular with Upgraded Strudy Tripod and Phone Adapter】 More sturdy tripod than others ensure clearer,...

Last update on 2022-09-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

You must use a tripod to get the best results with most scopes. This one, however, is designed to be handheld. It even has a convenient strap to help you hold it steady and get a clear view. It also comes with a tripod, giving you options for when you’re using the scope. 

This scope has a bracket-style phone holder, unlike the suction cup-style phone adapters that only work with smooth phones (or phone cases). In my experience, these phone holders work much more effectively. 

Pros:

  • The strap for handheld use is a really great feature that I wish more scopes would incorporate!
  • It’s small and compact, weighing less than a pound. Great for on-the-go birding.
  • It has an excellent phone adapter that is nearly universal for all phone types. 

Cons: 

  • The tripod is not very sturdy and may need additional weight to keep things steady.
  • The durability of the carrying strap leaves something to be desired. Again, it’s a great feature–but I’d like it to hold up to more use. 
  • Note that this model does not zoom; it gives you one magnification (12x) and a relatively small objective lens (56 millimeters).

Benefits of a Using a Spotting Scope

As a birder, a scope gives you much more than just the opportunity to see distant birds that are too far away for the naked eye. You also get to see shy or camouflaged birds! Not to mention, you’ll get the best views possible and improve your chances of correctly identifying each species you encounter. 

But isn’t a pair of binoculars good enough for most birdwatchers? 

Binoculars are a standard birdwatching tool, and many recreational birders enjoy using them. The benefits of using binoculars over a scope include:

  • Less eye strain
  • Great portability
  • Tons of budget-friendly options

There are drawbacks to binoculars, though. Most binoculars have a much lower magnification range than a scope (20-60x), and models with fixed power optics can’t be used to zoom into an area. You often sacrifice magnification or durability if you go with a lightweight or inexpensive pair of binoculars

On the other hand, a spotting scope offers high magnification rates. 20-40x is considered a great range for birding with a scope.

You can seriously increase image stability with a tripod or scope stand. Plus, you can zoom in and out. They are great for viewing birds from grasslands, fields, the water, or mountains. 

Importantly, they are not as useful in the woods because trees and leaves will typically block your view of anything that is very far away. Binoculars are better for the woods, whereas a scope is better for wide-open birding. 

What Makes a Scope a Scope? 

A spotting scope is a high-powered telescope that allows users to observe distant objects. 

They aren’t just used for birding, though. People also use scopes for hunting, target shooting, viewing special events like concerts and performances, and even stargazing. The military and police also utilize them for tactical surveillance.  

Scopes are almost always used with a stabilizing stand or tripod. With a very steady hand, you may be able to use a scope without a stand, but almost all scopes are recommended for use with a tripod. 

Angled vs. Straight Spotting Scopes

One of the most important decisions when buying a scope is whether to go with an angled or straight design

The eyepiece of a straight spotting scope is on the same plane as the objective lens. Think of the telescope you may have used growing up or a pirate’s spyglass. That’s the basic design of a straight scope. 

Benefits of a straight scope:

  • They’re very easy to use, even if you’re new to scoping
  • The eyepiece is well protected because it is shielded from the elements while in use.
  • They’re easy to pack in just about any carrying case.

Drawbacks of a straight scope:

  • They’re not easy to trade back and forth with other birders; once you have one set up, it’s basically only set up for you and your view.
  • A straight eyepiece must be placed at eye level, meaning the higher your eye level, the higher the tripod needs to go, and the less stability you have.
  • It’s pretty uncomfortable to use if you find yourself looking up toward your targets, such as in the trees or mountains.

On the other hand, an angled scope places the angled eyepiece at a 45 to 90-degree angle to the objective lens. Higher-end scopes are almost always angled. 

Benefits of an angled scope:

  • It’s much easier to view birds above eye level.
  • They provide much more comfortable viewing, with a greater visibility range.
  • More features are typically available on these scopes.

Drawbacks of an angled scope:

  • They can be more expensive.
  • There’s a greater learning curve, and it’s more difficult for newer users to master.
  • The eyepiece is more exposed to the elements while the scope is in use.

Understanding Scope Spotting Numbers

When shopping for a scope, have you noticed just how many numbers there are? It can be overwhelming to look at all these numbers and try to differentiate between them. 

This webinar from Victor Emanuel Nature Tours gives an incredibly detailed overview of how scopes work. If you’re looking for an in-depth exploration of spotting scopes, be sure to check out the webinar. Not interested in watching an hour-long video?

That’s okay! Skip ahead to 14:47 to get to the details about scope numbers. 

Magnification Numbers

The magnification numbers on a pair of binoculars look like this: Number x Number. The first number is image magnification, and the second is the objective lens size. So when you see a scope that says it’s 12×50, you know that the magnification is 12x, and the objective lens is 50 millimeters wide. 

However, a scope zooms in and out. That means you’ll see a range of numbers instead of a static number. If the scope can range from 25x to 60x, then the magnification will be listed as 25-60x, followed by the objective lens diameter. 

25-60×65 magnifies from 25 to 60 times, and the objective lens is 65 millimeters in diameter.

The diameter of the objective lens determines the brightness, as well as the size of the scope. An extremely large objective lens would be 115 millimeters wide, far bigger, and heavier than a scope with a 65-millimeter lens. 

65mm vs. 82mm Objective Lens: Which Is Better?

When you look through your spotting scope, the objective lens is at the end farthest away from your eye. This objective lens is what determines how much light the scope will receive. Thus, determining how bright the image will be through the scope.  

A 65-millimeter objective lens is smaller than an 85-millimeter lens. While both will help you see objects at a distance, the 85-millimeter lens will be significantly brighter than the 65-millimeter objective.

The larger the objective lens is, the larger the overall equipment size. The smaller option is likely better if you are worried about equipment size. Backpackers and kayakers often need smaller, lighter gear, so they would benefit from the 65-millimeter objective lens.

If you are not concerned about size, go with the larger lens. 

Answers to Your Spotting Scope Questions!

Now that we’ve looked at some of the best spotting scopes on the market, I want to answer some of the most common questions people ask about using a scope for birding. 

How Far Can You See with a 60x Spotting Scope?

Spotting scopes come in a variety of magnification options. You can usually find options ranging from 15 to 60x, although high-end scopes can go much higher. 

You will be able to see 100 yards away with a 60x magnification. Depending on the model, you’ll likely be able to get into the 200-500 yard range. Most people aren’t trying to spot birds at 1000 yards, but if you want to use your scope for multiple purposes, you will need to get one nearer 85x magnification. 

Be sure to look at the specs of any model you are considering to see what they recommend and what other birders have said in their reviews. 

Can a Scope Be Used for Multiple Purposes?

Most spotting scopes aren’t labeled for one specific purpose. Typically, you will see them identified as serving multiple purposes, with birding among them. A spotting scope can be used for birding, hunting, wildlife photography, stargazing, etc. 

If you find a great spotting scope marketed to hunters, not birders, you need to ensure the specifications are also useful for birding. For example, a hunter might be more willing to carry a heavy scope along with their other heavy gear, whereas a birder may prefer a lightweight scope that they can easily carry on a nature hike. 

Is a Big Scope or Small Scope Better for Birding?

As a quick review, smaller scopes are lighter and easier to pack because their objective lens is smaller. Larger scopes are heavier, with a bigger objective lens. 

In short, a larger scope provides higher resolution, greater magnification, and more detailed views. If your goal is to get the most detailed images possible, larger is definitely bigger. However, if your goal is to identify birds while hiking, canoeing, kayaking, or backpacking, a smaller scope will likely do the job and be easier to carry. 

My Pick: the Celestron Ultima 80

Of the ones listed in this article, my favorite scope is the Celestron Ultima 80. It’s not as expensive as the highest quality scopes, but it’s far more advanced than the basic models. 

You can buy the straight or angled format, depending on your preferences. For the reasons listed earlier in this article, I recommend the angled model for more experienced scope users and the straight one for newer birders.

I appreciate that all the versions of this spotting scope come with a soft case, and some come with a phone adapter. 

An 80-millimeter objective lens is pretty big but not so massive that the scope is difficult to carry. If you want the absolute best magnification possible, you could always upgrade to the Celestron Ultima 100, but I think the 80 is sufficient for most birding hobbyists. 

Check out more of the Celestron Ultima 80’s impressive specs to see if it’s the right spotting scope for you! 

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Liz Ranfeld

Liz Boltz Ranfeld is an independent educator and writer from Indiana. She lives on the edge of the woods with her husband, 2 kids, dogs, chickens, and hedgehog. One of the best things of living in rural Indiana is spotting hawks, pileated woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and other wild creatures. She enjoys hiking, canoeing, and gardening, and one of her personal heroes is the conservationist and birdwatcher Rosalie Barrow Edge, who paved the way for the protection of birds around the globe.