Binoculars Or Scope For Birding: Which Is Better And Why?

Sometimes when birding, the subject can be just out of view or impossible to identify without a magnification aid. When this occurs, you might wonder if getting binoculars or a spotting scope is better for birding.

Both can be powerful tools for any level of birdwatcher, but your choice can depend on how you plan to use them. Scopes tend to be better for farther away subjects in open spaces, while binoculars can help spot birds on the go.

Let’s explore all the features of scopes and binoculars to help decide which works best.

Binoculars or Spotting Scopes for Birding

The best place to start is to understand each instrument when deciding on binoculars or spotting scopes for birding. We’ll start with an overview of each and then examine their differences.

Binoculars

man and woman birding wildlife through compact binoculars

Binoculars are a familiar tool in many fields, and they’re known for using both eyes, hence the term “bi” in binoculars.

Using both eyes has a few advantages, like seeing the image in a better resolution and depth. You experience this by using a pair of identical telescopes.

When choosing a pair of binoculars for birding, there are a few crucial technical factors to consider.

Magnification 

The magnification of a binocular is usually one of the first numbers you’ll see when looking at pairs, and it’s typically written as a number with an x, such as 8x.

The higher the number, the stronger the power of the magnification, meaning you can see farther. The drawback is that any unsteadiness from your hands or other vibrations will cause extra shakiness.

Generally, this doesn’t become an issue until you reach magnifications higher than 10x. You can get tripods or other holders to help use binoculars with this power level if you prefer it.

Most birders find that a range of 7-8 works well, but it’s a personal choice.

Brightness 

A crucial factor to consider is the brightness of the binoculars for birding, and this is related to the size of the lens. Larger lenses allow more light to reach your eyes.

Typically, the lens size will be the second number after the magnification, written 8×35. In this case, 35 means a 35mm diameter lens.

Binoculars with strong magnification may not perform well if they don’t allow enough light. Additionally, it can be helpful to consider the lighting conditions you plan to use the binoculars. Darker settings like the woods can need larger lenses.

Once lenses reach more than 50mm in diameter, they may become too large to carry during large amounts of activity, which is another factor to consider.

Eye Relief 

The eye relief of a binocular is how far away you should hold the lens from your eye to see the image.

This measurement is particularly important for those with glasses, as you may need to hold the binoculars slightly farther away from the edge of your eyewear.

A sign that the eye relief is off is if you see a dark ring around the border of the binocular image.

Usually, 17-20mm is a good range for eye relief, and it’s best to test products before buying when possible or find a model that is adjustable.

Lenses 

Some binoculars may have an option for different lens coatings, which can significantly impact the experience.

For instance, lens coatings can prevent reflections from darkening the image and allow even small lenses to produce bright depictions.

Coatings can come in single layers or multiple, with more layers typically resulting in a lens that lets in more light.

Close Focus

Binoculars for birding can focus at different ranges, and many have a manual focus wheel you can use between the eyepieces.

The close focus of a pair of binoculars is a measurement that tells you how close an object can be and still be sharp.

Binoculars with higher magnifications and lens diameters may not be able to focus on subjects very close to the viewer.

Other Factors

Finally, a few other factors to consider when choosing a pair of binoculars are things like weight and weatherproofing. These depend entirely on your intended uses.

It’s still helpful to keep them in mind when choosing binoculars or scopes for birding because an object that weighs too much won’t be comfortable to carry on nature hikes.

Additionally, some binoculars can come with extra features like waterproofing that can help on boats and in the rain. Some of these features may add additional weight and girth, which could reduce how large you want the lens diameter.

Spotting Scopes

woman looking through scope for birding

Next, we can explore some features to look for when choosing a spotting scope. Luckily, scopes and binoculars for birding share some common characteristics.

Technically, a spotting scope is a smaller telescope without the power for space viewing. These devices are simple to use and range in size.

Magnification 

Magnification is that familiar measurement from binoculars and again measures how powerful the lens magnifies the image.

The magnification on scopes for birding is also a number followed by an x, such as 20x.

Scopes have much higher magnification ranges than binoculars and can deliver sharp images of birds from miles away. They’re an impressive tool for the identification of faraway subjects.

Lens Diameter 

Lens diameter is the following measurement, and you may hear it as the aperture. Again, a larger lens diameter will lead to more light and a brighter image.

You can usually expect better resolution from bright images. The lens diameter for scopes for birding can vary a lot, ranging from devices that can fit in a single hand to something closer to the size of a standard telescope.

Straight or Angled 

Scopes are unique because they can have an eyepiece that is straight or angled. This little feature partially depends on preference and partially on the intended use.

Straight spotting scope

angled spotting scope for birding

Angled spotting scope

angled spotting scope for birding

Angled scopes can be better for having a small tripod or planning to use it to look up into the sky. Usually, angled scopes can also be a bit more convenient for times that you are sitting or sharing the scope.

Straight eyepieces can be quicker to use and easier to switch between the scope and a pair of binoculars. They can also be a better option if you’re planning on standing in one spot and scanning an area at eye level.

Fixed or Zoom Lens

A fixed or zoom lens refers to the range of magnification the scope offers. Unlike binoculars, scopes can have removable lenses or lenses that can zoom in.

Fixed lenses are options that offer a single magnification, and some scopes for birding may only have a single lens. Others will allow you to swap this lens for other fixed settings to zoom in and out manually.

This method can be a bit time-consuming, and for subjects in-flight, you could miss your opportunity while switching lenses.

Zoom lenses try to solve this by allowing you to twist the lens and adjust the zoom while using the scope.

Other Factors

Finally, scopes have a few other factors to consider that are similar to binoculars. You should keep in mind the carrying size and weight, any weatherproofing you might need, and you’ll also have to consider the supports you plan to use.

Scopes are usually larger than binoculars, so finding a suitable size that is convenient to carry is crucial. When you consider the weight, add accessories like extra lenses or tripods.

Protecting your equipment from rain or other sources of water is necessary. Your scope for birding should have a grip that is comfortable and easy to hold.

Unlike binoculars, scopes are handheld and can be too shaky. You need to find a good tripod and be prepared to carry this with you. Ideally, tripods for scopes will unfold quickly and be lightweight.

Key Differences Between Binoculars and Spotting Scopes

When considering binoculars or spotting scopes for birding and determining which is better, it’s important to remember a few main differences.

Binoculars are usually easier to carry around, and the double lenses provide a sharper image that will appear more dimensional. Their smaller lenses can sometimes struggle in low light.

Scopes for birding offer a much higher magnification, allowing you to see birds farther away. They excel during times of low light such as during dusk when many birds are active.

spotting scope at dusk for birding
Spotting scope at dusk.

They might struggle in crowded areas, and you’ll usually have to carry some extra equipment like a tripod.

Best Uses for Binoculars or Spotting Scopes for Birding

Now, let’s consider when binoculars and scopes are better for birding.

Many may find combining the two is ideal, using binoculars to locate birds and then the scope to get a closer look.

Backyard birders may generally find that scopes are the best option, as they can have a dedicated spot with a sturdy setup for the scope. Switching out lenses won’t be an issue with the ample storage and space of being home.

Scopes are also great for any birder that often finds themselves in wide open spaces or spots birds that are far away.

For nature hiking, you may find binoculars a better fit. It’s easier to scan the area and quickly bring the binoculars up to your eyes. Additionally, they are comfortable carrying on the go.

Binoculars may still be better for some backyard birders who have a lot of trees and like to move around their yards as they search the skies.

Final Thoughts

Choosing between a binocular or spotting scope for birding can be a tough decision, as they both offer unique benefits that any birder will enjoy.

A scope is ideal for focusing on birds farther away when you’re in a dedicated spot. Binoculars work better while exploring a trail and searching the immediate area.

More than 25 years ago, Tammy put her first bird feeder outside her kitchen window. Since then she learned how to attract wild birds to her backyard. Studying the meaning & symbolism of wild birds is also a passion of hers.