One of the things I like about watching and identifying birds (birding) is the simple birding equipment requirements. You can start your birding with nothing more than a suitable birding binocular and a good bird field guide. This is all some birders will ever need. On the other hand, many birders, especially serious birders, also add a birding spotting scope to the equipment list. So, what exactly is a spotting scope? Where and when do I use a spotting scope? What features make for a good birding spotting scope? What else do I need with a birding scope? That's what we will answer in this article.
A spotting scope is a small telescope designed to be used by day. A Spotting scope differs from an astronomical telescope in a number of important ways. First, a spotting scope always produces an upright and correct image, whereas a telescope used in astronomy may produce a reversed image or even an upside down image (not a problem for astronomy). Second, bird spotting scopes are much smaller in size than an astronomy telescope, mainly for the sake of portability, but also because we will be using it by day and generally have plenty of light. Size works against in a bird scope, since we will often be carrying a spotting scope over our shoulder, mounted on a tripod, while hiking out in the field. Third, a spotting scope is a lower magnification instrument than a telescope, since atmospheric turbulence by day does not allow the high magnifications used in astronomy. In other words, an astronomy telescope will deliver much more magnification, but most of that magnification cannot be used by day due to atmospheric issues. Fourth, a spotting scope is mounted on an ordinary photo tripod, but a telescope for astronomy requires a very specialized mount, often unsuitable for daytime use. Lastly, many, if not most, spotting scopes are waterproof and fog proof, a rare feature in an astronomical telescope since we don't do astronomy in the rain, but we sometimes use a spotting scope when the weather is rough and unpredictable.
You may do fine as a birder without a spotting scope, depending on the type of birds you observe and where you observe, but if you want to become good at learning ALL the different bird groups, not just some of the bird groups, and plan to look for birds in all types of habitats, a spotting scope is essential and, for some bird groups, you may actually use a spotting scope more than a binocular. In general, you use a spotting scope anytime you need more magnification than your binocular provides. This can be a case of birds at distances beyond the reach of your binocular or a case of small birds with very fine, subtle detail not easily seen at binocular magnifications or a combination of both. Let's look at specific bird groups and see how and when a spotting scope is used for birding.
Wildlife Sanctuaries and Preserves
Most wildlife refuges and sanctuaries do not permit travel off established trails for the sake of habitat preservation and the welfare of wildlife and rightly so. However, these restrictions can sometimes put even songbirds beyond the range of a binocular, since you do not have the option of stepping off the trail. A spotting scope can be very useful, here, for any type or species of bird.