There are basically two types of optical equipment used for bird watching: binoculars and spotting scopes.
Most bird watching magazines carry advertisements for binoculars and other equipment and often have regular reviews too.
Remember to try the spotting scope for yourself before you buy it, because only you know what is best for your hands and eyes.
All scopes have the same main features, an eyepiece, objective lens and focussing wheel.
How the eyepiece fits to the scope body gives rise to their description as either straight scopes or angled scopes (see photograph below). The straight eyepiece variety are common and often easier to use because the eyepiece is in line with the body of the scope and pointing in the direction that you are looking. Straight scopes are best suited to observing birds that are at or below eye level. The angled eyepieces are fitted at 45° to the body, and if the body is rotated it can become disorientating, though with practice this becomes less of a problem. Angled scopes are best suited to observing birds that are high up, for example in trees or in flight. If you are going to use a tripod, then the tripod will be lower and more stable with an angled scope (because you are looking downwards in to the eyepiece) than with a straight scope.
The size of the objective lens influences the clarity of the image. The bigger the lens, the more light is gathered and the better the image, but also the heavier and bulkier the scope which are important considerations on field trips. Common objective lens diameters include 50 mm, 60 mm, 66 mm, 77 mm, 80 mm and 85 mm.
The eyepiece sets the magnification. As with binoculars, a high magnification is not necessarily the best, because high magnification decreases the field of view, which makes targeting more difficult, decreases image brightness, decreases steadiness, and heat haze can become a problem. Common magnifications are 25x to 32x.
Also remember that the cost of the scope usually reflects build quality, optical quality, but also the manufacturer's name and reputation.
I purchased my Opticron HR66 GA angled scope with 28x WHDF eyepiece in 1998. This is a mid-priced scope and the eyepiece has long eye relief for use with spectacles. I also bought a Cullman 3100 tripod in 1998.
Fantastic! I started to watch garden birds as I had never watched them before.
Out in the field though, and in particular in hides, the tripod became a real nightmare to set up and use, so I bought a Cullman Clamp Magic hide clamp. Unfortunately, I never found this easy to use in hides, it was either too low for the scope to see through the window or too high and the scope had to be rotated thus making targeting difficult.
In October 2001, I part exchanged the scope, tripod and clamp for an Opticron HR66 ED angled scope and Velbon Delta III tripod and hide clamp (from In Focus).
The centre column of the tripod can be used with the hide clamp and is very easy to use in hides - I can look down into the angled eyepiece without rotating the body - and it is much lighter than the Cullman Clamp Magic.
The HR66 ED uses ED or "extra low dispersion" glass for better light transmission, this provides better colour saturation, higher resolution and practically no colour fringing. The reason for exchanging the scope was to fit a 18-54x zoom eyepiece, so that I can locate birds more easily using the low magnification and then observe them in detail at higher magnification (without too much loss of brightness).
I have also fitted a Hoya HMC 72mm UV Haze filter to the objective lens to protect it from dust, scratches, etc.
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