Binoculars vs spotting scopes for birdwatching

binoculars vs spotting scopes for birdwatching

In birdwatching, having binoculars and/or spotting scopes are totally two different things with two different results. Both of the optical devices are widely used in birdwatching and observing wildlife, and have their own advantages and disadvantages.

What should I have for birdwatching, binoculars or spotting scope? With binoculars you can see with both of your eyes, are more portable than spotting scopes and can offer a great experience up to a medium of magnification where spotting scopes are very high-powered terrestrial telescopes, not as portable as binoculars and may require a tripod. Use binoculars for portability or spotting scope for power.

Although the concept of choosing either a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope for observing wildlife or birdwatching is simple, the idea may be a lot more complex, therefore, I would recommend you to keep reading in order to achieve the best information.

Binoculars vs spotting scopes for birdwatching

Spotting scopes is a general term used for terrestrial small high-powered telescopes as is not to be confused with scopes and monoculars, as sometimes scopes are same as rifle scopes which can be mounted on a rifle and monoculars are the “half side” of binoculars, to say in different terms.

The binoculars are great tools to use when birdwatching, and with honesty, when the weather was nice here in the UK (rarely, though) I enjoyed my nature walkings with the binoculars, to observe different types and species of birds in their natural habitat.

I am very bad at identifying species of birds, as can count on my fingers how many I know. But I do enjoy it. You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy something and furthermore, to birdwatch. The simplest but rewarding part is to have a pair of binoculars with you.

But if you are like a more serious observer, a spotting scope can make a huge difference. Some people prefer spotting scopes over binoculars while some others binoculars over spotting scopes.

In the next section, let’s talk a bit more about and to try to identify when and why you should choose binoculars over spotting scopes for birdwatching or the other way around.

When to choose binoculars over spotting scopes for birdwatching.

binoculars for birdwatching

As I did mention above, having a pair of binoculars is simple, they are portable and can be used by any age, both adults and kids, does not require any technical setup and can be very enjoyable when you are birdwatching through both of your eyes. It’s like bringing the whole nature at your feet.

It is a good practice to use binoculars when you are walking through nature, you are there and the birds and wildlife are close enough that they can be seen very well through the binoculars.

Having a pair of binoculars with an 8x or 10x magnification for birdwatching as following those simple guidelines to get the best out of it (check my other post “how to choose binoculars for birdwatching”), does not mean you can see everything across mountains. You will see everything magnified 8 or 10 times. If the birds are a couple of hundred meters away, you may not be able to see much, unless is a flock of birds you are following.

Also, you may have to think about portability. Binoculars are very portable, you can carry them around your neck all day if they are not heavy, can be easily shared between your family members and friends if you have a walk in nature with them and is very easy to follow around.

Binoculars for birdwatching are also cheaper than the spotting scopes. The binoculars can cost you even a fraction of the price for the approximately same glass quality as the spotting scopes and they can be safe to use even in the most difficult weather conditions, as long as they are weatherproof, waterproof & fog-proof, where the spotting scopes may hardly benefit of the same advantages.

You may want to use binoculars over spotting scopes for birdwatching if:

  • If you are there in nature relatively close to your subjects.
  • Portability is important for you. Binoculars are very portable compared to spotting scopes.
  • You enjoy watching through both of your eyes rather than a single eyepiece.
  • You are just starting in birdwatching.
  • Price is a matter to you
  • You may encounter harsh weather on your sessions
  • You need to keep things simple and not over-complicate yourself with ‘setupping’ a spotting scope

When to choose spotting scopes over binoculars for birdwatching

Reflecting on the spotting scopes for birdwatching, those are high-powered optical devices which can magnify a lot more than the binoculars. But the spotting scopes for birdwatching are not that portable.

A spotting scope can easily magnify 50x -75x or even more. A good practice is to use them when you are going to be afar from nature, wildlife and birds, as in a controlled-environment natural reserve. In those places, you are going to be “behind the fences” or in a specific spotting location.

With binoculars, you may not be able to see much as the wildlife and birds are going to be far from you, but a spotting scope may work charmingly and offer a great experience.

As the spotting scopes are high-powered and their magnification is way much above 10x, a tripod or a mount is always needed in order to perform any observations. This makes the birdwatching spotting scopes to be a bit (more) less portable than the binoculars and it may take time to set up, making the spotting scopes harder to be moved around.

You may want to use spotting scopes over binoculars for birdwatching if:

  • You are afar from the birds or wildlife, where you may not be able to see through binoculars as much as you can through a spotting scope.
  • The portability is not an issue for you
  • Most of the times, you have a fixed location
  • You are observing a controlled-environment nature reserve (related to the first point)
  • You want to take photographs with a DSLR camera, as some of the spotting scopes may come with some accessories or allow for you to do this.

Should I focus on having both binoculars and spotting scopes for birdwatching?

This is just a matter of personal preference and financial situation. If you can afford this, to have both binoculars and have good usage of both, there is no reason why you should not.

But if you cannot have good usage of both spotting scopes or binoculars when only one may meet your needs but the other won’t, you should not buy both.

As an instance, I live by the seaside and it takes me a while to drive to the closest nature reserve. I can have use binoculars in this instance but only to observe seagulls around here. A spotting scope may not be a good investment for me as the seagulls are flying relatively close to the human population, but if I would live in the mountains, this would be a different story, where both binoculars and spotting scope can be extremely useful.

One another key point to underline is that if you have a limited budget, I would say DO NOT buy both a spotting scope and a pair of binoculars. You will give up quality and performance in order to have both devices. Think about what you can have better use from and invest in that one. Believe me, to invest in a good pair of binoculars or spotting scope makes a huge difference than into two lower quality ones. It’s the same as you have money to buy a good laptop but instead, you decide to buy two lower performance laptops.

The price difference between the two of them.

You will often find that binoculars are way much cheaper than spotting scopes. Some of the binoculars you can find even under $50, even cheaper, where rarely you can find spotting scopes under $100. The prices are fluctuating and sometimes you may find some products cheaper, but my advice, don’t go for the cheapest ones.

As an instance that I’ve seen on sale spotting scopes as cheap as $30. You won’t find any quality behind and you will have a hard time doing any observations with this, same as for very cheap binoculars.

Just as an approximate, I would recommend binoculars above the $50-$70 in order to get a good pair with some quality behind and for a spotting scope over $100-$120. This won’t necessarily mean that whatever you are going to buy is going to be a top-quality optical device, therefore I recommend you to do some research and watch some youtube videos or reviews over a product before you buy it.

My happy binoculars acquisition among a few others is my Nikon Prostaff 7s 10×42 binoculars (link to my review post). With these ones you cannot go wrong in birdwatching. If you need more information, check our review above.

You may be able to buy a very good spotting scope with the same price or even less. Now is really up to you what to focus on.

There are a lot of things you have to look behind in special if you cannot test a product before you buy it, you don’t know what you are about to buy.

Furthermore, I would recommend you to check our recommended binoculars page or binoculars buying guide, further follow our blog for more information about spotting scopes.

Portability or magnification? The differences between binoculars and spotting scopes.

Portability is related to the binoculars where magnification is related to a spotting scope. You may be able to find binoculars with high magnification but in this case, you will need a tripod as handheld observations are not going to work, as well you can get into some lighting issues due to the small exit pupils on high-magnification binoculars, where on spotting scopes there is another story.

Most of the spotting scopes have an eyepiece which you can change it or a zoom eyepiece, with an objective lens diameter of relatively higher than binoculars.

I am going below to compare two products, the Nikon Prostaff 7s 10×42 binoculars as the one I have and Celestron 20-60×80 spotting scope. The reason I am choosing to compare those two is because of the price similarity.

The 10×42 binoculars are very portable, weatherproof and waterproof, have rugged armour and are filled with nitrogen gas. You can use them in any type of environment and with a magnification of 10x you are able to see much details, with a good field of view and exit pupils of 4.2mm which during the day in birdwatching, the binoculars gives you bright and contrasty results.

The Celestron 20-60×80 have a zoom eyeglass which allows you to zoom between 20x and 60x magnification. The objective lens diameter is 80mm which is double as compared to the above binoculars. You need a tripod and the spotting scope is not as portable as the binoculars, however, with the given magnification you can observe a lot MORE than you will ever with the binoculars. But only with one eye. One another advantages on spotting scopes like the one above, is that they may come with a DSLR adaptor, allowing you to attach a DSLR camera for photography. The mentioned spotting scope is having rugged armour, multi-coated and waterproof as well.

The disadvantage(s) with spotting scopes is that, as taking the same example as above, you may have a lower light performance than the binoculars. As an instance, at 20x you have an exit pupil of 4mm, which is very good for daylight observations, where at 60x magnification the exit pupils is of 1.16mm, where you have a very poor light performance. The more you zoom, the darker is the image.

I’m sorry that I forgot to mention what is the exit pupils, have a read here on our other article.

The conclusion.

Binoculars and spotting scopes for birdwatching are two very different things and before you are going to buy any, make sure you gonna have good use of them, covering all the aspects you need and if there are any other fields of observations than birdwatching

As an instance, I love birdwatching but many times I love stargazing with my binoculars, watching ships on the sea or spotting the town I live from the hill, the traffic etc.

In the end is just up to you what most fit your needs, if you can afford both of them go for it but in any other cases, balance the pros and cons before making a decision, or you will find yourself like me buying the whole marketplace…

Thank you for sticking up to the end of the post and wish you the best in the future and to take the right decision. Hope to see you around.

Gabriel Mihalcea

Passionate about binoculars, photography and blogging with years experience behind, I love to split my time and observe the beauty of this world with different eyes.

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