Spotting Scopes in the Realm of a Birder

Aug 17, 2012 |  Safari Gear
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As birders get more hooked on bird watching, they will no doubt see seasoned bird watchers using spotting scopes. This is an indispensable tool in any serious birder’s kit and is especially applicable when you start delving into the intricacies of shorebird identification, for instance. For distant bird watching, a scope can be essential for identifying distinguishing field features. Even looking at closer-range birds through a spotting scope can literally be a jaw-dropping experience when one sees up-close plumage and eye detail in a whole new light. Take a look at any African sunbird through a scope to see what I mean!

But what scope does one choose from the myriad options available out there today? What are the minimum specifications and features that one should bear in mind? And what pitfalls to avoid? As with choosing your binoculars, these decisions can be an optical ‘minefield’ to traverse.

Anyone looking for equipment of proven quality though cannot go wrong with the Swarovski spotting scopes in the ATSHD range. I recently purchased the Swarovski ATS65HD scope and what a pleasure it is to use.

Providing unbeatable value for money (some may argue there are cheaper options), these Swarovski scopes offer all the right features that you would look for in a lightweight, reliable spotting scope.

Hopefully the following guidelines will make your decision-making a bit easier should you be in the market for a scope:

Straight-through or 45° angled scope
I personally prefer an angled telescope (the eyepiece is at a 45° angle to the scope body). This allows for a more relaxed observing position when looking through the scope and the tripod can be set at a lower position. Generally speaking, angled scopes are better for viewing elevated subjects and are unquestionably easier to share amongst a group of observers. An angled scope requires a bit of experience to find subjects in the scope, although the ATM-65HD does have a nifty side-mounted peepsight to aid initial locating.

Optical Quality
Decent spotting scope optics are made with HD (high definition) or ED (extra-low dispersion) glass. The HD option (multicoated fluoride glass elements) of the ATS65 also sports SWAROVISION optimised coatings and ‘field flattener’ lenses for enhanced colour reproduction and phenomenal transmission in twilight or gloomy forest conditions. The HD Swarovski exhibits basically zero colour fringing. I personally chose the HD option of the ATS65 scope as the difference in brightness and image sharpness between the HD model and the standard glass version is particularly noticeable in low-light viewing, at high power or heat-haze (shimmer that develops over water bodies as daytime temperature increases. This is an important consideration for wader watching in Africa where conditions are generally a lot warmer).

It’s what you put it on
Your scope is also only as good as the support you put it on and a decent tripod is equally important. It must be of sufficient weight so you get a shake-free image in windy conditions and also prevents your expensive newly-acquired scope from falling over! If you intend doing a lot of walking with your scope then perhaps invest in one of the lighter medium-weight carbon-fibre models. The tripod head is equally important for a secure mount and smooth panning.

Light-gathering Capacity
The larger the objective lens at the front end of the scope, the brighter the images due to better light gathering. It also makes the scope heavier, so one does need to consider that. That said, the coatings on the Swarovski ATS65HD are that good it still delivers a very good image in compromised light conditions.

Focusing In spotting scopes, how it focuses is also an important consideration. The Swarovski scope has a large grip around the scope barrel which allows rather rapid focusing. The ATS65HD also has a focusing distance of just over two metres so is a good choice for wonderful macro photography.

Ergonomics, Build Quality and Weight
Another advantage is that the 65mm scope is far more compact and easier to travel with, particularly if you are also lugging camera gear. The ATS65HD is the perfect trade-off for me between optical quality and weight. This has to be one of the lightest, quality spotting scopes in the world at the time of writing. The rubber armouring covering the scope provides ample protection against bumps and nicks and is finished in Swarovski’s stylish green colour. The integrated retractable lens hood also shades and protects objective – handy when scoping into the sun. A weather-sealed and nitrogen purged scope is a far better bet and worth paying extra for. Then you don’t have to worry about being caught in the rain or the scope fogging up in humid conditions.   Eyepiece When buying a scope you also generally need to choose an eyepiece that goes with it. Zoom eyepieces change magnification power from 20x to as high as 60x with a single, simple adjustment. Scopes suffer from less light, narrower field of view, and more vibration at increased magnifications. On my own scope I went for the Swarovski 25-50x wide angle zoom eyepiece. The helicoid-type eyecup design, with 17mm of constant eye relief, accommodates those with and without eyeglasses alike.  Perhaps best of all, this eyepiece’s field of view is always wide and flat-field-focused. The quality of these zoom eyepieces has improved greatly in recent years giving sharpness and a clear image indistinguishable from that at low magnification.

In Closing
Try buying the highest-quality scope you can afford. Personally, I would live on bread and water for a while and get the Swarovski ATS65HD. It will probably be the only scope you buy in your birding career; it’s that good.

Martin Benadie

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By Martin Benadie

Martin is our birding expert and shares his wealth of avian knowledge with us, as well as tips on photography, safari optics and environmental news.

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