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The Best Spotting Scopes (2023) - Buying a Spotting Scope for Birdwatching & Wildlife Viewing

Birdwatching with a pair of binoculars is a great experience. Spotting scopes allow for new opportunities in birdwatching: distant birds. See our favorite scopes from various price ranges!

A Rivoli's Hummingbird close up
Spotting scopes can provide amazing views of your favorite birds and other wildlife.

Enjoy our post on the top spotting scopes for birdwatchers, wildlife observers, and outdoor enthusiasts! If you want updates on our birding gear recommendations, join the flock!

If you want to jump ahead of the basics of spotting scopes, use our index:

Summary of Spotting Scope Recommendations

Want the too long; didn't read (tl;dr) version of this post? You are in the correct place! Use our quick reference table below to pick from each of our category winners. If you want more information on the recommendations provided, reach the about the category winner in its corresponding section.

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Top 3 Spotting Scope Recommendations

Our top three scope recommendations are the Celestron Ultima 80 (<$300), Vortex Viper HD (<$1000), and the Swarovski ATS (>$1000).

Spotting Scope Category


Link to Amazon

Entry-level (<$500)

Celestron Ultima 80

Mid-tier (<$1000)

Vortex Viper HD

Top-tier (>$1000)

Swarovski ATS

Small-budget spotting scopes for birding | Cheap spotting scopes (<$300)

This category is not where the top-of-the-line spotting scopes will be found. However, a quality scope can be bought for under $300 for those who are new to birdwatching. From this category, our top recommendation is the Celestron Ultima 80. If a more heavy-duty spotting scope is desired without spending big bucks, our personal recommendation is to move up to the <$1000 category, if possible. Anything above that price is for more professional or serious birdwatchers.

Best Spotting Scope Under $100: Celestron Landscout

The Celestron Landscout is a lightweight, affordable spotting scope that is great for those new to birdwatching who do not wish to spend much money on their first scope. The lenses are fully coated, and the scope comes in at a weight of 1.13 lbs.

Best Small Spotting Scope: Celestron Hummingbird

The Celestron Hummingbird is the world’s first “micro” spotting scope well suited for hikers, birders, and other wildlife watchers on the go. All air-to-glass surfaces are fully multi-coated with high transmission optical coatings. The result is maximum light transmission for bright, sharp, and contrast images. The prism is phase-coated BaK4, which increases contrast and resolution for sharper, more detailed images. The durable body of the Hummingbird works to keep the spotting scope protected against bumps and jolts both during transport and in the field. It’s also fully waterproof and nitrogen-purged, so you can use the scope worry-free in downpours, humid conditions, and other environmental challenges.

Best Overall Budget Scope Under $300: Celestron Ultima 80

Celestron’s Ultima 80mm Zoom Spotting Scope offers images that are noticeably brighter and sharper than entry-level spotting scopes. For this price range, this scope is unbeatable. The Ultima 80 is a refractor-style spotting scope with an Achromatic objective lens. Excellent light transmission is assured by multi-layer anti-reflection coatings on the objective lens as well as on the zoom eyepiece and the BAK-4 prisms. The multi-coated 80mm objective lens delivers 77% brighter views than a 60mm scope, and the built-in zoom lens produces sharp images from 20X all the way up to 60X magnification. The Ultima 80 features a sleek, waterproof design and includes a padded soft case with zippers on both ends so the scope can be protected even while mounted on a tripod. Including the eyepiece the Ultima 80 measures just over 18 inches long and weighs about 3.6 pounds.

Medium-budget spotting scopes for birding | Mid-Priced Spotting Scopes (<$1000)

Scopes in this budget category are generally the best price for the quality. Glass is usually HD or ED, bodies are shock-proof and waterproof, and glass is treated to be fog-proof. The best of class for this category is the Vortex Viper HD. Unless a professional ornithologist or a serious birder is shopping, this class of spotting scope will do just fine.

Best Budget Spotting Scope Under $1000: Vortex Diamondback HD

The Vortex Diamondback HD spotting scope is the favorite budget scope in this price category. Vortex boasts quality optics and robust protection for their scopes. The Diamondback has multiple anti-reflective coatings on all air-to-glass surfaces that allow for an increase in light transmission. Adjustable eyecups twist up and down for comfortable viewing with or without eyeglasses. The built-in sunshade reduces glare and shields the objective lens from raindrops and snow. O-ring sealed and argon purged, the scope delivers waterproof and fog-proof performance. Armortek coatings protect the lenses from oil, scratches, and dirt. Rubber armor enhances both durability and grip for the user.

Best Warranty Spotting Scope Under $1000: Maven CS.1

The Maven CS.1 spotting scope is built using the same glass as C Series Binoculars and carries the same excellent protections as the C Series Binoculars. Because of its lightweight magnesium/aluminum frame, this compact scope gets the job done without taking up much space in your pack. It is a highly recommended mid-range spotting scope for birders and wildlife viewers who require extra magnification in a minimal unit. This powerful scope features a well-balanced lightweight polymer frame, extra low-dispersion (ED) glass, and fully multi-coated lenses for an exceptionally clear, bright, high-contrast image with excellent color reproduction. The CS.1 is waterproof, fog-proof, and possesses scratch-resistant lens coatings.

Best Optics Spotting Scope Under $1000: Celestron Regal M2 80ED

The Celestron Regal M2 ED spotting scopes are optimized to provide the sharpest images available, while also keeping a lower price point. However, The Celestron Regal M2 is a heavier-bodied scope. This is Celestron’s top-of-the-line spotting scope and is an ideal choice for birdwatching, observing wildlife, long-distance viewing, and casual astronomical observing. This spotting scope includes extra-low dispersion (ED) glass, XLT lens coatings, a dual focus mechanism, and a lightweight magnesium alloy body, which is strong, durable, and weather-resistant. This model also includes a T-adapter ring for digiscoping with a DSLR. Fully waterproof and fog-proof, the Regal M2 ED features an armored magnesium alloy body that makes an ideal addition to your field gear.

Best Overall Spotting Scope Under $1000: Vortex Viper HD

Vortex optics are always quality, and the Vortex Viper HD spotting scope is no exception to this rule. The HD optical system is comprised of premium components that generate vivid high-definition images. XR anti-reflective coatings on exterior surfaces help obtain brighter views in low-light situations. This scope has a built-in sunshade that pulls out to help reduce glare. A multi-position eyecup provides proper eye relief while a locking collar allows the scope to rotate into different viewing positions. O-ring sealed and argon purged, the Viper delivers waterproof and fog-proof performance. Armortek coatings protect the lenses from oil, scratches, and dirt. Rubber armor enhances both durability and grip for the user.

Large-budget spotting scopes for birding | Top-tier Spotting Scopes ($1000+)

The spotting scopes in this budget category are top-notch. However, most bird-lovers do not need 'glass' of this quality. The HD and ED glass of the mid-tier is beyond adequate for the majority of birders. However, for those that have the budget for a better scope, this is the correct category. The top recommendation for this top-class of spotting scopes is the Swarovski ATS spotting scope.

Best Warranty Spotting Scope (Top Tier): Maven S.1A

The Maven S.1A spotting scope is backed by the Maven warranty: "All Maven optics come with an unconditional lifetime warranty. If your optic becomes damaged or is at all defective (not including deliberate or cosmetic damage that does not hinder product performance). We don't care where or when you bought it or if it was your fault - if it's Mavenbuilt, we will take care of it." The Maven S.1A features a powerful 25-50x magnification and a generous 80mm fluorite lens for superior low light performance. The larger objective lens delivers bright, crisp images with no aberration or distortion, even at maximum magnification. Edge-to-edge clarity means a fully usable field of view, and high contrast images transmit every amazing detail. The scope is heavier as it comes in at 7 lbs. However, when our crew has tested this scope at tradeshows, it did not perform as well as hoped.

Best Budget Spotting Scope (Top Tier): Vortex Razor HD

Within the top-tier spotting scopes, the Vortex Razor HD is our budget-friendly pick. It has top-quality optics for much more reasonable prices than other spotting scopes on this list. The Razor HD has a triplet apochromatic lens combined with high density, extra-low dispersion glass that delivers unparalleled resolution and color fidelity. XR-plus anti-reflective coatings were applied to the lenses to yield maximum brightness for critical low-light glassing. A smooth helical focus dials in razor-sharp resolution and keeps the scope trim for easy packing. The scope possesses a built-in sunshade pulls out to reduce glare. O-ring sealed and argon purged, the Razor HD delivers waterproof and fog-proof performance. Armortek coatings protect the lenses from oil, scratches, and dirt. Rubber armor provides extreme durability. Multi-layer prism coatings provide bright, clear, color-accurate images.

Best Optics for a Top-tier Spotting Scope: Zeiss Victory Harpia

The Zeiss Victory Harpia spotting scope has some of the best glass in a spotting scope, currently available. However, this scope does not come with an attached eyepiece, so grabbing the Zeiss Vario 22-65x/23-70x Eyepiece will be required. The large objective lens on this scope allows for extreme lowlight performance. Seabird watching and wintertime duck counts can be performed in even the stormiest conditions when there is quality glass combined with a large objective lens.

Best Overall Spotting Scope (Top-tier): Swarovski ATS

The Swarovski ATS 20-50x80 spotting scope enables comfortable observation for hours. The 80 mm objective lens diameter provides higher detail recognition, while a wider exit pupil ensures brighter images and comfortable viewing even in poor lighting conditions. This scope offers all the features that would be looked for in a spotting scope, including a tried-and-tested, lightweight design and perfect optics. As some of the lightest quality spotting scopes in the world, these Swarovskis are characterized by detailed optics with exceptional edge-to-edge sharpness and color fidelity. The Swarovksi glass, dependability, and weight of only 2 lbs make this the favorite pick of spotting scopes in this list.

Best Spotting Scope Available

There are scopes that have higher price tags with minuscule gains in performance. The Swarovski Modular ATX Objective 95 combined with the Swarovski Modular ATX Eyepiece can create a spotting scope that is unrivaled in the industry, but an unlimited budget may be necessary.

Best tripod for a spotting scope

Often the most forgotten piece of the tripod puzzle is the use of a quality tripod. If you live in an area with heavy winds, a sturdy scope can prevent shaky and unstable views. Heavy scopes require sturdy tripods, so we recommend budgeting for a name-brand tripod. Our favorite tripods are:

  1. Manfrotto 290 Xtra Aluminum 3-Section Tripod

  2. Manfrotto Compact Action Aluminum 5-Section Tripod

  3. Victiv Joilcan 80-inch Tripod

If you have questions about our recommendations, please reach out through our contact form!

How to select a spotting scope for birdwatching

Similar to our suggestions for birdwatching binoculars, use budget, optics quality, and durability as the main guidelines for spotting scope selection. However, if you do not know anything about optics, such as spotting scopes, you might be confused by the various numbers and terminology used in optics.

What do the numbers on spotting scopes mean?

A standard spotting scope has a three-number set, such as 20-60x85. These numbers give you a clue as to the optics viewing experience, indicating the strength of zoom and low-light performance. The first two numbers (20-60x85) indicate the level of zoom your optics provides. A scope with 20-60 means an object appears 20-60 times closer than your eye. A range is offered due to the adjustable zoom ability of most spotting scopes. The second number (20-60x85) tells you the diameter (length across) of the objective lens, which is the large lens. In our example, the objective lens is 85 mm across. The objective lens is the outer lens that allows light to enter the spotting scope. The larger this number is, the more light is allowed into your view allowing for crisper, optimal views of distant birds.

How much zoom should birding spotting scopes have?

When it comes to selecting a level of zoom on spotting scopes, the recommendation varies depending on the activities you are conducting. If you are watching seabirds, shorebirds, or ducks from a great distance, a scope with a zoom range that extends above 50 will benefit the viewing experience. If the primary use of the scope is to view passerines at feeders or slightly distant birds (<150 yards), a zoom power of less than 30 is likely adequate.

How large an objective lens should birding spotting scopes have?

An extremely large objective lens might seem appealing for low-light situations, but an objective lens that is too large can create a heavy, unbalanced spotting scope. If carrying excessive weight is not appealing, stick to smaller scopes. However, for extreme birdwatching conditions like seabird watching, a large objective lens is a MUST.

How to use a spotting scope

Using a spotting scope is not complicated and does not require the same effort as focusing a pair of binoculars for both eyes. Because a spotting scope is a monocular, the focus can be adjusted per situation easily, and the zoom can be tailored to the distance of the bird.

Adjusting the zoom on a spotting scope

The zoom on a spotting scope is quite simple. It is usually associated with the eyepiece and simply turns clockwise to zoom out and counter-clockwise to zoom in. However, some scopes may have this zoom style reversed, so try your zoom to get comfortable with the rotation. Set the zoom power BEFORE attempting to use the spotting scope.

Adjusting the focus on a spotting scope

Many spotting scopes have a single focus wheel, typically on the body of the scope, near the rear of the scope, and close to the eyepiece. Other types of spotting scopes may have a smaller focus wheel that sits just below the eyepiece on a raised part of the scope body. Most scopes will only have a single focus. However, some scopes will have two focus wheels, one for coarse focus and one for fine focus.

In a single focus wheel spotting scope, use the focus wheel to bring the object into focus AFTER the proper amount of zoom is set. If you adjust the zoom, you will need to readjust the focus. If the scope has TWO focus wheels, adjust the coarse focus first, bringing the object as close to focus as possible, then use the fine focus to make smaller adjustments. Again, focus AFTER the zoom power has been selected.


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