Best Spotting Scopes for Birding in 2017: Do We Have a Winner?

Vortex Optics Razor HD 11-33x50 spotting scope
Vortex Optics Razor HD 11-33×50 spotting scope

Note: I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post.

So as not to keep you in suspense, I’ll answer the question in the title about the best spotting scopes for birding straight away.

No.

But wait! That’s not a bad thing. We have several winners here – four of them to be exact.

Which one you choose will depend a lot on your personal preferences and budget. And let’s face it; that’s what many of these kinds of purchases come down to in the end anyway.

If you are in a hurry, you can click the links in the list below to check the pricing and availability of these 4 birding scopes at Amazon.

For more details on each of these bird watching spotting scopes, read on. You can click a link in the box to skip ahead to a certain section of this article.

What Are the Features of the Kowa TSN-883 Prominar 20-60×88?

Kowa Prominar spotting scope
Kowa Prominar spotting scope

Here’s a quick laundry list of the main features of the Kowa Prominar angled spotting scope touted by the manufacturer.

  • Fluorite Glass
  • Fully Multi-coated Lenses
  • BaK-4 Prisms
  • Porro Prism
  • Dual Focus
  • Adjustable Eyecup
  • Sunshade
  • Rotating Tripod Ring
  • Waterproof (depth not available)
  • Fogproof (nitrogen filled)

The most notable of these is the rotating tripod ring. This is something that not every manufacturer will give you. This makes it easy to swivel the scope to the side, should that make viewing easier for you under certain circumstances.

The close focus, which often doesn’t matter to a bird watcher, is 16.4 feet.

What often matters more is the weight of the unit. This Prominar has a large 88 millimeter objective lens, but it weighs just 54.7 ounces and measures only 13.5 inches.

Here’s why, according to Kowa.

“Kowa engineers offset the length and weight associated with a large objective lens by incorporating an inner focus system and a magnesium alloy body.”

It is important to note that you do not get an eyepiece lens with the purchase of a Kowa TSN-883 scope. You only get the body. You must purchase an eyepiece unit separately, unless you already have one available.

You can also get any of several digiscoping accessories for your SLR or cell phone camera. These make it easy to attach your camera to the spotting scope. It’s nice that Kowa offers these so you don’t have to wonder whether or not they will work with your scope.

If you prefer the straight eyepiece lens type of scope, check out the Kowa TSN-884 Prominar model.

What Do Owners Think of the Kowa Prominar?

Here is what a couple of owners had to say about using the Prominar for birding.

“I find it easy to locate birds and then dial in on them.”

“I use the scope in monitoring/observing/digiscoping (birds & mammals) for the National Park Service & Texas Audubon Society.”

Kowa refers to the Prominar as “compact”, but it’s only as “compact” as a 60 millimeter scope. Compare the Kowa’s length to the Razor just below. And then compare the length to the two truly compact spotting scopes below that.

You’ll agree that this is really a full-size spotting scope.

If this is the type you have been looking for, you can click here to check the pricing and availability of the Kowa TSN-883 at Amazon.

What Are the Features of the Vortex Razor HD 27-60×85?

Vortex Optics Razor HD 27-60x85
Vortex Optics Razor HD 27-60×85

Let’s do another quick feature list for the angled Vortex Razor.

  • APO System (Triplet Apochromatic lens combined with HD glass)
  • Fully Multi-Coated
  • Dielectric Prism Coatings
  • Porro Prism
  • Waterproof
  • Fogproof (Argon)
  • ArmorTek (Body coating)
  • Adjustable Eyecup
  • Helical Focus
  • Built-in Sunshade
  • Rotating Tripod Ring
  • Linear Field of View (FOV) – 117-68 feet at 1000 yards
  • Eye Relief – 17-16.7 mm

If you think this sounds a lot like the Kowa above, you’re right. At this stage (price point), there is very little to distinguish one spotting scope from another.

The close focus is even the same at 16.4 feet. The main differences are probably the length – 15.5 inches – the weight – 65.6 ounces – and the fact that the eyepiece lens is included. Vortex doesn’t use the same technology that allows Kowa to shrink the spotting scope tube.

Also included in your purchase are covers for the eyepiece and objective lenses and a “view-through” carry case.

What Do Users Think of the Vortex 27-60×85?

I didn’t see many owners discussing this spotting scope in reference to birding, but many hunters seem to like it. If hunters use it, birders can certainly make good use of it as well.

There is a straight version of this scope too, but it doesn’t appear to be quite as popular, based on the number of current reviews. All reviews are very positive though.

What Stands Out about the Compact Nikon Fieldscope ED50?

Nikon Fieldscope ED50
Nikon Fieldscope ED50

First, notice that the objective lens of this scope (and the other Vortex below) is 50 millimeters, compared to the 85 or 88 of the full-sized scopes above.

As I mentioned earlier, these last two are actually compact spotting scopes. The Nikon ED50 (actually, the ED50 A) measures roughly half the size of the Razor 85 at just 8.5 inches for the angled version. (The straight model is 8.2 inches long.)

With the smaller size comes less weight. The ED50 weighs just 16 ounces.

The “ED” in the model name refers to the Extra-low Dispersion glass in the objective lens. Nikon uses this (like Kowa uses the fluorite glass) to cut down on chromatic aberration.

Besides the angled versus straight options, you can also get this Nikon spotting scope in gray (charcoal grey) or green (pearlescent green). Depending on where you mainly intend to use your scope, it may be important to blend in with your surroundings as much as possible. In some cases, green may be better than black or vice versa.

The Nikon is waterproof up to 3.3 feet (1 meter) for 5 minutes. That’s quite good, but probably only significant if you’re accident-prone. The tube is also nitrogen filled making it fogproof.

For a long time, the Nikon ED50 was the “go-to” spotting scope for many bird watchers, but more recently Vortex has made a comparable scope that you’ll want to check out first. It’s the Razor HD 11-33×50 described just below.

What’s Special about the Vortex Optics Razor HD 11-33×50?

Yes, I am suggesting another spotting scope from Vortex Optics in this same article. They’re just that good.

The 11-33×50 model has all the features of its big brother that are listed above, so I won’t repeat them here. Also see the picture at the top of this article.

The important points to note about this angled scope are these.

  • Linear FOV – 191-96 feet at 1000 yards
  • Close Focus – 6.6 feet
  • Eye Relief – 19-16 mm
  • Length – 10.3 inches
  • Weight – 25 ounces

This is another great compact spotting scope, perhaps the best spotting scope for birding, that you must seriously consider before making your final decision.

It’s very light weight (though a little heavier than the Nikon), and hunters really like it as well.

Others who have compared this Vortex with the Nikon prefer the Razor in head to head competition.

Personally, if I were going to buy one today, this is the birding spotting scope I would get – the Vortex Razor HD 11-33×50.

Check out the Razor HD 11-33×50 at Amazon now.

Caveat about Less Expensive Spotting Scopes

You can easily find spotting scopes under $100 at Amazon and from other sources. If you plan to use your spotting scope for birding though, I would advise against those cheaper models.

Scopes from Firefield, Barska, etc. may be okay for other purposes and even for backyard birding, but if you are a dedicated bird watcher who likes to get out and go looking for lots of birds, you will soon find that a cheaper spotting scope is not what you should have bought.

There is too great a chance that your inexpensive spotting scope will not perform well enough, especially at higher magnifications. The scopes mentioned above (and many others, of course) are built to handle the needs of a true birder.


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