Better Bins or Spotting Scope? That Is the Question.

Sarah Clark

Posted on November 18 2019

This article by New Jersey Audubon Ambassador for Birding Pete Dunne first appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Bird Watcher's Digest.

There comes the day in every birder’s development that they are brought to ask, “New binoculars or spotting scope?”

Although there is no universally correct answer, there is one that fits you and your particular needs. If your question is prompted by binoculars that are not offering the superior image your birding friends are getting or by a general dissatisfaction with your glass’s overall performance, a spotting scope is not going to fix those problems.

A spotting scope is a specialty tool, designed to study quite distant, often unapproachable objects (like distant waterfowl) or to allow you to see fine field marks on mostly stationary birds whose distinguishing characteristics are beyond the capacity of hand-held optics—for example, many shorebird species.

So, if you, in your development as a birder, have progressed to the study of shorebirds or pelagic birds (from shore), or if you simply want the supernatural intimacy that higher magnification provides, by all means, buy a spotting scope. Just bear in mind that 80 to 90 percent of birding is conducted with binoculars. Spotting scopes, in most birding situations, get credit for an assist.

How to decide if you need a spotting scope or premium binoculars.

I’m guessing that nearly half the people who step into the Cape May Bird Observatory store with the intent of buying a spotting scope go out the door with new premium binoculars instead and money still in their pockets. Don’t forget: Buying a spotting scope also means buying a tripod.

And, yes, toting a spotting scope into the field does signal your serious intent, but it does not automatically make you a better birder. Only time and dedication to that ideal will increase your avocational acumen. Equipment is a means, not an end.

So, a scope or premium binoculars? It’s up to you, but approach the question with an accurate assessment of your needs and what you hope to achieve.

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