Last Updated: January 13, 2021
A quality optic device is an important tool for a birdwatcher. Spotting scopes and binoculars are two of the popular optic devices used by birders but which is better?
It is easy to confuse these devices due to the similar functions they perform but expert birders know there’s a difference. These differences are what make each standout.
Both devices excel in different areas. Therefore, a great deal of understanding of both devices is required before you decide which optic device to go for.
Fortunately, I’ve put a great deal of information on both devices into this post to help you make an informed decision. At the end of the article, you would be able to tell what goes into each one of them and decide which one’s best for your style.
Let’s get to it...
The Reasons Why You Should Use An Optic Device For Birdwatching
Our eyes are powerful optics on their own. Many distinct features of birds such as color, shape, size, etc. can be viewed with good eyesight.
Visual aids like binoculars or spotting scopes extend our visual range and hone on details which the naked eyes could miss. This would be useful in distinguishing birds that might look similar or hard to identify birds.
Sparrows, gulls, sandpipers, and other challenging birds can easily be identified with a pair of binoculars or a dependable spotting scope.
Spotting Scope: Overview
Spotting scopes are small telescopes, but they’re not as powerful because they are not made to look at the stars.
These single-tube optics are generally larger than binoculars. Due to their size, they have greater magnification and are suitable for long-distance bird viewing. When mounted on a tripod, it is incredibly stable.
High magnification power and stunning visual results mean a heavy price tag. It is also less flexible for viewing moving targets.
Overall, spotting scopes are a great choice for a variety of outdoor activities. You might as well get one of the best spotting scopes for digiscoping if that's what you intend doing.
- Lens: A bigger objective lens usually means a more detailed image as more light is allowed in. However, bigger isn’t always better as larger lenses of lower quality won’t give a high image quality. Spotting scope lenses usually range from 45 mm to 100 mm.
- Magnification: Magnification is a measure of how large a subject would appear when viewed through a device i.e. a 10x magnification would appear 10x larger when viewed through a device. Spotting scopes commonly range from 15x to 60x. Scopes are designed to be used during the day, so a large magnification like 60x will be affected by ambient conditions which could make images blurred.
- Field of View: Field of View (FOV) is the amount you can see through the optic. The higher the magnification, the lower the field of view and this is the case for spotting scopes. Most spotting scopes have a FOV of 50-150 feet at 1,000 yards. The limited FOV of the scope makes it unsuitable for viewing moving birds.
- High level of magnification to view smaller birds from a distance
- Large lenses produce high-quality images
- Handheld or tripod mounted
- Images are very stable when tripod mounted.
- It can be quite heavy
- Low field of view as magnification increases
- It is more expensive than binoculars
- Setup can be time-consuming
Binoculars are the most versatile optics not only for birding but for all manner of outdoor activities such as target practice, hunting, etc.
These handheld devices are designed to be used by both eyes and can easily be adjusted for different visuals. Most binoculars are portable and light and can easily be attached to a strap to be hung around the neck.
It is however not suitable for long-distance views due to its low magnification power. But it is a durable tool that would withstand adverse weather conditions.
- Lens: Binoculars have a range of lens sizes. Compact binoculars designed for portability usually have a lens size of 25 mm while larger binoculars can have sizes between 40 mm to 50 mm. Most binoculars have a smaller lens compared to spotting scopes.
- Magnification: Binoculars have a wide range of magnification, but they are on a low scale when compared to spotting scopes. The average range for most binoculars is 4x-10x. This makes it perfect for viewing birds at a close range. There are binoculars with higher magnification but they are heavy.
- Field of View: A bigger field of view means you can see more and this is where Binoculars shine. Since binoculars do not have a high magnification, it compensates with a wide field of view. Binoculars have a FOV of 300 – 450 feet at 1,000 yards. With a large FOV, you can view targets at a wide range, this makes following the movement of flying birds easier.
- Portability: Compact binoculars are light and portable. An ultra-portable binocular won’t be as powerful as an average spotting scope but it would be a lot easy to carry around.
- Small and Portable
- Wide field of view
- It can withstand adverse outdoor conditions
- It is versatile
- Easy to use
- It is cheaper compared to the spotting scope.
- It is not suitable for long-distance viewing
- Smaller lenses might bring less color into the eyepiece.
Which Is The Better Choice For Bird Viewing?
We’ve checked the features and weighed the pros and cons but which is the better choice? You cannot go wrong with either device. Your preference would be based on several factors. These factors include:
The purpose of use would determine which optic device you would choose. Due to its powerful magnification power, spotting scopes are better for viewing smaller birds in fine details. They can also find birds in a hidden location and you don’t have to be worried about them flying off as you can view them from a distance.
Binoculars do not have magnification as powerful as the scope but it is useful for viewing birds in your backyard. They are also more versatile due to their size and field of view.
Stationary or Moving
Binoculars have a wide field of view, so they can easily follow the flight of birds. Moving while you view through the lenses won’t affect the image quality.
While spotting scopes can be handheld (especially the smaller ones), due to its high magnification, it is best used on a tripod to provide stability or images produced would be blurry. It is also not suitable for moving birds
Weight and Size
Binoculars are portable, light, and easy to use. You can simply hang it around your neck and go bird watching and not worry about setup. Spotting scopes can be used handheld but it is better when mounted on a tripod. This means it not only heavy but would take time to set up.
If money is not an issue, you can purchase both devices to experience the best of both worlds. However, if you’re on a stringent budget, binoculars are the best to go for especially as a novice bird watcher. You can also find some of the best budget binoculars for birding, as well as spotting scopes that are budget-friendly. Having said that, finding one that would suit your needs is also a thing to keep in mind.
Which Is Which?
Ultimately, birdwatchers would choose their preferred optics based on needs. If you’re looking for a rare or small bird, a spotting scope is the best due to its magnification power. Binoculars are the best choice for generally birding because it is portable, versatile, and easy to use.
If I had to choose this debate of Binoculars vs Spotting Scope, Binoculars is the best bet for birders. It is suitable for novice bird watchers due to its short learning curve and can be bought on a budget. Expert birders also find it to be a suitable tool though they would prefer the more high-end binoculars.
Many experts who don’t mind the budget and extra weight have both binoculars and spotting scope.
Tip: If you would be using both devices, the best way to use the spotting scope is as a backup to the binoculars. Use the binoculars to find the bird and the scope to hone in on details you can’t make out with your eyes or binoculars.
An avid birder understands the importance of a quality optic device. A breathtakingly beautiful moment can be missed by the naked eye and can never be recreated.
Whichever of the optic device you go for, you would hardly miss these moments. When in doubt, seek the advice of other birders and do not be afraid to test out a variety of optic devices with different features and lens sizes.
By making the right choice, you can be sure to get the best views.