Binoculars or Telescope for Bird Watching?
Here at Binocular Base we often get asked what’s better for bird watching a telescope or binoculars? So in answer to all of you who’ve asked us here goes. As with every article that gets published here, we take hours to investigate as far as we can to provide you with the most comprehensive answers to all of your questions. Read on to find out what’s best for bird watching, one lens or two.
Can You Use A Telescope For Bird Watching?
There is so much equipment on offer for bird watching. From binoculars, compasses, bird identification books, cameras, local pamphlets designed to help you to find any and all of the birds found in that area, and telescopes. Obviously they’re not those massive ones they use for stargazing, but there are telescopes for bird watching.
It turns out that not only can you use telescopes for bird watching, but there are a large number of telescopes that have been developed just for bird watching. They are commonly called spotting scopes, and they can offer you a better view of birds in their natural habitat than some binoculars.
Bird Watching Spotting Scopes Vs Astronomy Telescopes
The first thing we should point out is the size difference between these different items. Telescopes designed for stargazing are massive and weigh more than 5 spotting scopes combined. The technical term for the “non-Astronomy” telescopes is terrestrial scopes (terrestrial meaning on or relating to land) and they’re used for looking at things down here and not in the far flung reaches of the galaxy.
Astronomy telescopes send the image to our brain upside down. You don’t really notice it unless you’re a really professional astronomical expert. But if you were trying to look at a group of migratory birds flying at around 50 feet in the air, you certainly would notice it. Fortunately for us spotting scopes use a different prism arrangement so the image comes through clear and up the right way.
What Can You See?
Whether you’re considering binoculars or a spotting scope to watch the birds, you need to consider two things right from the start. They are the Field of View (FoV) and the magnification. There’s a whole lot more to consider as well but these two should be your primary concern for bird watching. Astronomy telescopes can see far further than spotting scopes but they have a terribly low FoV.
Spotting scopes have far higher fields of view than telescopes which in practical terms means you won’t be struggling to find the bird you just saw land on a branch. The image will be crisp, sharp and make it easy to follow the bird’s movements without having to take the lens from your eye.
What Is FoV?
FoV are the initials for the field of view. The field of view is how much you can see through the lens, straight ahead and to the left and right without moving your head. On optical equipment the FoV is expressed as either an angle (like 6 degrees) or as feet per 1,000 yards. For bird watching purposes anything 6 degrees (315 feet per 1,000 yards) or above is good.
I Have Binoculars, Why Do I Need A Spotting Scope?
You probably have binoculars and a smart phone with an advanced bird identification app so you’re thinking what can a spotting scope offer me that I don’t have already. Well for one thing, spotting scopes will get you nearer to the birds, far nearer than the average pair of binoculars can plus the image will be sharper too.
Some birds are almost impossible to identify male or female with the naked eye, because in some cases the only difference is a slightly larger beak, or a smaller body size (by fractions of an inch). Things that you will not often notice even with binoculars become so clear when seen through a decent spotting scope.
Low Light Viewing
As any keen bird watcher will tell you, birds are at their most active at dusk and dawn. The less common, or rarer birds only become visible when visibility is at its lowest. This is where a good spotting scope earns its keep. Spotting scopes work better under low lighting conditions than binoculars. The image you see through the spotting scope will be clearer, more true to colour, brighter and larger than the same image through regular binoculars.
Also spotting scopes can be mounted to a tripod which means the image remains stable even at really high magnification. Any magnification above 10x will exaggerate the slight shake that is common among humans. Imagine holding a scope with 30x magnification, that slight shake is magnified by thirty times, so that clear image is now just one complete blur.
Why Do Scopes Work So Well In Low Light?
It’s all to do with lens size. Telescopes, spotting scopes and binoculars share the same terminology for the lenses. So the lens closest to the eyepiece is called the ocular lens, ocular means relating to or of the eye. The larger lens at the other end is called the objective lens, objective because it is closer to the object you are viewing.
All of the above optical devices gather light through the objective lens, which means the bigger the objective lens is, the more light that enters the tube and the brighter the image you’re looking at appears through the lens. Spotting scopes can have extra large objective lenses which allow far more light to enter.
Most spotting scopes have an objective lens size of at least 50mm with many being as large as 60mm, 70mm or even 80mm. With this amount of light entering the scope, they will show an image that’s bright enough to see even at the very break of dawn, just as the birds begin their early morning activities..
What Is Zoom Magnification?
Many spotting scopes feature zoom lenses, the zoom is shown on the description something like, 20-60×60. Which indicates a starting magnification of 20x and rising to 60x. This feature can work really well for bird watching. What appears as a speck with the naked eye, will look like a bird flying with 20x magnification, but change to 60x and every detail will become clear.
Binoculars Vs Spotting Scopes
This heading is misleading in a way, why? Because there’s no competition between binoculars and spotting scopes. When it comes to bird watching, binoculars and spotting scopes compliment each other. The highest magnification you can comfortably handle with binoculars is 10x, whereas a spotting scope starts at 20x.
It’s well worth starting your viewing through the scope, then as the birds fly closer into view, swap to the binoculars. Both are needed to get the most enjoyment from a day’s bird watching. Take for example, a large group of birds feeding on mudflats along the coast. If you get too close they’ll all take off and you probably will have lost the chance of watching them for the rest of the day.
With binoculars you’ll see the group of birds, but with a spotting scope you’ll be able to pick out various species by their distinguishing marks. Another advantage of using a spotting scope, is there are adapters available that can attach a camera to the scope to get some amazing close up images.
Attaching a camera to a scope is a whole new hobby, it’s called digiscoping. If you’re interested in digiscoping you can check out our digiscoping guide here.
The Main Points For Choosing And Using Spotting Scopes
- Spotting Scopes Come In Two Shapes
Straight or with an angled eyepiece, the angled version is easier to use when mounted on a tripod.
- For Use In Low Light Conditions
You will need an objective lens diameter of 70mm or above
- If You Wear Glasses
You will need to choose a scope with at least 18 to 20mm eye relief. Adjustable eyecups are a definite advantage.
- Choose ED – Low Dispersion Glass
This will prevent colour fringing (outlines with coloured hues)
- Use a Tripod For Stability
This is because for any magnification above 10x hand held scopes will magnify the natural shake that we all have and your image will be blurry.
- Choose A Waterproofed Scope
The weather can catch you out at any time. Protect your investment by buying a waterproofed scope – IPX6 or above will be perfect for UK weather.
- Fog Proofing Is A Good Idea Too
To make a scope fog proof the air inside the tube is replaced with an inert gas that prevents the lenses from fogging up when exposed to temperature fluctuations.
- Choose Fully Multi-Coated Lenses
This means all of the lenses have been coated with multiple layers to reduce glare and improve the quality of the image.
What Binoculars Should I Buy For Bird Watching?
If you have never owned a pair of binoculars before, and want to know which pair is best suited for bird watching, read on for all you need to know to make an informed decision. There’s so many different binoculars on the market nowadays, all offering different features, but what do you actually need? Let’s go through the main points to give you an idea on what’s available.
What Type Of Binoculars To Choose For Bird Watching?
There are two types of binoculars available, they are Porro prism or roof prism. They both have good and bad points but roof prisms are more popular than Porro prisms nowadays.
Porro prisms are the classic M shape and have two sets of prisms for each eye. The prisms are offset and because of this set up, they are easy to knock out of alignment which will cause headaches, eye strain and migraines.
These look like a H with their two thin tubes joined in the centre by the focussing knob. Due to the internal design, roof prisms are smaller, more compact and more robust. The precision engineering and assembly make roof prism binoculars more expensive than Porro prisms.
What Size Binoculars Are Best For Bird Watching?
Binoculars come in three sizes which are determined by the objective lens size;
- Compact – Objective lens diameter of less than 30mm
- Midsize – Objective lens diameter of between 30 – 40mm
- Full-Size – Objective lens diameter of more than 40mm
Even full size binoculars are not really very large nowadays but, as the objective lens size increases, so does the overall weight of the binoculars. On the subject of size, when it comes to general bird watching we would recommend binoculars with an 8 times magnification and an objective lens size of at least 32mm. For watching birds that remain more stationary we would recommend 10 times magnification and an objective lens size of at least 42.
This means our recommendations for watching general garden and field birds are a pair of 8×32 and for more stationary birds like waterfowl we would recommend a pair of 10×42.
This is something we always recommend here at Binocular Base because decent optical equipment isn’t cheap and you don’t want to ruin your investment courtesy of the British weather. There is an industry standardised coding system in place when it comes to waterproofing. The details can be a bit confusing so let’s just say any binoculars with a level of IPX6 or above will be waterproof enough to keep out any weather that comes your way.
To prevent the lenses from fogging up due to rapid temperature changes (like getting out of a warm car and standing in a cold field) the manufacturers remove the air, replace it with nitrogen or argon and seal it in. This prevents the lenses from fogging up and also protects against dust, debris and mould spores.
As with the scopes, go for fully multi-coated lenses as these will have been coated with multiple layers on all lenses to reduce glare and improve colour, brightness and light transmission.
Having a protective rubber coating on your binoculars will prevent any accidental damage and also improve the chances of not misaligning the prisms if you choose Porro prisms.
If you are going to spend your bird watching in a hide, go for a large objective lens diameter that you can rest on the hide shelf. If on the other hand, you will be walking or standing for long periods of time, go for a midsize pair of binoculars with at least a 32mm diameter objective lens.
Courtesy of the camcorder industry, image stabilisers detect any movement (like shaky arms) and correct them without you noticing. This is worth investing in if you have gone for binoculars with an objective lens greater than 10x. The downside is extra weight plus the batteries will need regular charging or replacing.
What seems like a reasonable weight when you first pick them up, will be like a ton weight after walking around wood land in search of songbirds.
Frequently Asked Questions
Both have their place when it comes to bird watching, scopes are better for watching birds long distance. But binoculars are better for mobile bird watching.
There are special telescopes that are ideal for bird watching. They are called spotting scopes.
10×42 binoculars are ideal for bird watching. The 10 times magnification will show you images 10 times larger than you can see them through the naked eyes. And the 42 mm diameter objective lens will allow enough light to brighten the image you are looking at.