Zeiss Victory Harpia Spotting Scope Review
Posted on March 15 2019
The harpy eagle, Latin America’s largest raptor, is synonymous with size and power. It’s fitting then that this apex predator was chosen by Zeiss as the namesake for its newest spotting scope, the Harpia. The Harpia has been a long time coming for Zeiss as we’ve seen their binocular lineup evolve and expand with some impressive offerings, culminating with their Victory SF binoculars. With a complete line of contemporary and competitive binoculars being offered, the lack of a premium scope to compete with the likes of the Swarovski ATX, Kowa 883, and Leica Televid was evident. When the Harpia was being developed, Zeiss no doubt knew that their competitors had set a high bar. I was thrilled to have a chance to test this new scope, and from my initial observations, it appears as though Zeiss rose to the occasion to add another truly competitive piece—with a few noteworthy and unique features— to their Victory line of optics.
Harpia scopes are made in two sizes, with an 85mm and 95mm objective barrel. These are full-size scopes that excel for distance viewing and low light situations. The 85mm scope has a magnification range of 22-65x, while the 95mm scope magnifies from 23-70x. The scope that I reviewed for this article was the 85mm Harpia.
Shop the Zeiss Harpia 85mm Scope Body: https://redstartbirding.com/products/zeiss-victory-harpia-85-scope-body
Shop the Zeiss Harpia 95mm Scope Body: https://redstartbirding.com/products/zeiss-harpia-95-scope-body
Harpia Design Features
The Harpia is one of only two spotting scopes on the market that features a helical focus ring around the objective barrel with a separate ring directly behind it for adjusting the scope’s magnification. (The other spotting scope to employ this design is Swarovski’s modular scope.) I love this design element because I find it so intuitive to be able to adjust the focus and magnification with the same gesture and approximate location on the scope body. This makes for easy, one-handed operation while observing. One thing to note about the Harpia’s zoom mechanism is that there are no indicators on it to let the user know the magnification setting. This really isn’t critical information in the course of birding and I don’t consider it to be much of a drawback.
There is a stand-out feature of the Harpia focus mechanism: its dual speed. The Harpia’s focus has both a high gear, aka rapid-focus speed, and a fine-focus speed, integrated into one mechanism. As you turn the focus wheel to make adjustments to the image, you will feel the focus kick into high gear, making it quick and easy to focus on additional birds closer or further away than the one you’re looking at. Once the high gear is engaged, all you need to do is adjust the wheel in the opposite direction and the fine focus gear comes online. This unique focus system took a little getting used to on my part, but once I got a feel for it, it seemed intuitive and effective.
There are other design features of the Harpia that one would expect from a high-quality spotter, including waterproofing and nitrogen purging of both the scope body and the eyepiece to allow users to take advantage of the scope in virtually any weather situation. Rubber armoring covers the scope, providing a durable and tactile surface. The body of the scope can rotate on its tripod mounting foot, allowing users to put the 45-degree-angled eyepiece at multiple positions. I find this really useful when I’m birding with a diverse group of people and I need to be able to accommodate shorter users when I have a bird in my scope, which I can do by simply rotating the eyepiece to the side rather than having to lower the scope on the tripod.
An additional design element that may seem pretty simple but of which I’m a huge fan is the retractable eyecup that not only functions well but is easily removable for cleaning or replacement. Eyecups get such a workout on our optics, and having the simple feature of a replaceable eyecup makes maintenance and, if need be, replacement something simple and easy for any scope owner to do on their own. No need to send your scope for repairs if the eyecup malfunctions or wears out. It’s one of those little details that, over time, owners learn to appreciate.
Shop the Zeiss Harpia Eyepiece: https://redstartbirding.com/collections/spotting-scope-eyepieces/products/zeiss-harpia-eyepiece
Optical Features and Performance
The Harpia’s optical design incorporates a list of features and materials that we’ve come to expect at the uppermost echelons of performance, along with what I consider to be a truly innovative design element. Zeiss built the Harpia scopes with an objective lens group that functions as the zoom mechanism. So rather than having an eyepiece that works the variable magnification aspect of the scope, the scope’s objective lens group performs this function. Why does it matter? By designing the optics this way, Zeiss was able to give us birders the experience of using a scope with a spectacularly wide field of view. On the 85mm Harpia, the field of view starts at 190 feet at 1,000 yards. Every other comparable scope on the market has a field of view no wider than 130 feet at 1,000 yards. That’s a significant difference, especially when trying to track moving birds at high magnification, or getting smaller birds in dense vegetation in your scope. A wide field of view is one of those features in any binocular or scope that is always a plus for birders. It makes the equipment more user-friendly, and as a result, you end up seeing more.
Zeiss didn’t take any shortcuts with the materials used in the Harpia’s lenses. The extra-low dispersion (ED) fluoride glass and field-flatting lenses make for a high-resolution image across the scope’s entire field of view, with excellent color contrast and low light performance. I had the opportunity to experience this first hand on an early morning bird hike recently in Cape May, New Jersey. As we were gathering in the parking lot at the renowned Beanery, we spotted a falcon perched atop a distant tree. The bird was heavily backlit at a distance of about 200 yards. When I got the Harpia focused in on this bird, its face mask, color, and the patterning of a male American kestrel were clear. Given the distance and the poor lighting situation, there are few scopes that could have pulled this off as well as the Harpia did. In addition to rendering an image with high contrast, there was no chromatic aberration or color fringing present around the silhouette of this bird perched against the sky. I would rate this scope’s optical performance among the best on the market, which is exactly where it should be given its pedigree.
Eye-glass wearers are sure to be pleased with the consistent 18mm of eye relief provided by the Harpia. This means that if you’re wearing glasses, you’ll have comfortable, full-field views through this scope, even at the upper reaches of its magnification range. All of these optical features and performance point to one thing: The Harpia is a very comfortable scope to use for long periods of time. To put it most simply, it’s easy on the eyes!
Accessories and What’s Missing
Optional accessories for the Harpia include an easy-to-use smartphone adapter that fits most iPhones as well as a handful of non-Apple smartphones. The scope comes with an objective lens cover as well as a tethered eyepiece cover. I find that the scope’s rubber armoring is well suited to protecting the scope from scratches and dings, but if you’d like some additional coverage, Zeiss has developed a snug, view-thru style neoprene carrying case as an optional accessory.
There are two notable things missing from the Harpia scope line. First, prospective buyers will notice that there is no option for getting this scope with a straight eyepiece. In an interview I recently read with Zeiss’ manager of product strategy, Gerald Dobbler states that the decision to make the Harpia with an angled eyepiece exclusively was made after consideration of the fact that about 90 percent of the scopes purchased by consumers are angled. With 18 years of experience selling spotting scopes to birders, I can attest to this lopsided market preference, and I am empathetic to Zeiss’s decision in this regard.
The other thing that’s missing is a more compact model. As I stated earlier, the Harpia is produced in 85 and 95mm objective lens configurations. In other words, big and bigger. These larger sizes have quite the upside when it comes to performance, but from a practical perspective, I love the versatility and portability of a 65mm (or smaller) spotting scope. I hope this is a situation that is rectified at some point, as I think Zeiss could miss out on a large consumer base that wants spotting scopes to be more convenient to use.
With the introduction of the new Harpia scope, Zeiss is back where it belongs atop the optical food chain, if you will, keeping company with Swarovski, Leica, and Kowa. With its top-flight optics, distinctive design features, and first-in-class wide field-of-view, the Harpia is a noteworthy contender for birders who are looking for the very best spotting scope.
Ready to try the Zeiss Victory Harpia out for yourself? Your friends at Redstart Birding will be happy to help!