Spotting scopes for birdwatching: 4 tips for choosing the best one

Birdwatching is a popular activity among nature lovers. A spotting scope is indispensable when a binocular doesn't provide enough magnification, especially for birds in inaccessible areas or elusive species. A powerful spotting scope on a stable tripod is the ideal solution. What should you consider when choosing a spotting scope?

Spotting scopes - What magnification do you need?

For birding at short distances, such as in forests, shrubs or for low flying birds, a binocular with a magnification of 8x or 10x is the best choice. If the birds are located at greater distances, a magnification of at least 20x is needed. Think of birds located in inaccessible areas such as rivers, tidal flats, sea, open terrain, and heathland. Additionally, some bird species are very elusive, making them difficult to observe up close even in accessible terrain.

"At 60x magnification, the herring gull's head fills the image."

At a 20x magnification, details become visible that remain hidden to the naked eye or binoculars. This makes it much easier to identify bird species, and with the help of a tripod, prolonged observation and behavioral studies become possible. For example, even the weakest 20x magnification brings a herring gull into view at a distance of 70-80 meters. Scopes are also available with a maximum magnification of 60x. At a 60x magnification, the head of the herring gull fills the frame, and you can observe small details in its plumage, the color of its eyes, and even dirt on its beak.

Terns on an island

Visible to the naked eye

20x magnification spotting scope

20x magnification with spotting scope

Bushnell Spotting scopes

Using four different Bushnell spotting scopes, we discuss what to look out for when making a choice. These various models of spotting scopes are excellent for birding, nature and wildlife observation. Currently, each series has a scope with both a straight and a 45-degree viewing variant.

The scopes bear the same names as the binoculars, and range from the top-of-the-range Bushnell Forge 20-60x80 ED, the Bushnell Nitro 20-60x65 ED, the Bushnell Engage DX 20-60x80, to the entry-level Bushnell Prime 20-60x65. With these different models and price ranges, there is a suitable Bushnell spotting scope available for everyone, regardless of your budget or observation needs.

three spotting scopes
Bushnell Nitro spotting scope

What to look out for when choosing a spotting scope

When choosing the right spotting scope, there are a number of other important aspects to consider besides the obvious good image quality. Here are the four most essential considerations:

1. The view of the spotting scope

The view of the spotting scope is an important aspect to consider when making your choice. Most birders prefer a model with a 45-degree view, as this is most comfortable when viewing standing or sitting in the field. In addition, a 45-degree view ensures that the centre column of the tripod does not need to be raised as high, resulting in a more stable image.

If you mainly observe from a fixed hide or bird-watching hut, however, a spotting scope with a straight view may be more comfortable. This depends on your personal preference and observation style. It is important to think about this carefully and determine which viewing variant best suits your needs. By choosing the right scope variant, you can significantly improve the comfort and stability of your observation sessions.

2. The diameter of the front lens

The diameter of the front lens is another important consideration when choosing a spotting scope. It depends on the conditions and bird species you want to observe. Bushnell offers several options, ranging from compact spotting scopes with a diameter of 65mm to larger and lighter models with a diameter of 80mm.

A spotting scope with a larger front lens of 80mm can offer advantages in situations where zooming to 40x or even 60x magnification is common, or when observing birds under dark light conditions at 20x magnification. The extra brightness ensures that the image remains clear even at higher magnifications or in low light conditions.

Oculair Bushnell Prime


Oculair Bushnell Nitro


Oculair Bushnell Engage


Oculair Bushnell Forge


3. The construction and quality of the eyepiece

A spotting scope is often used for long-term observation of birds, whether sitting or standing. You scan a bird area looking for different species, or you study in detail the natural behaviour of a particular species. It is vital to be able to look through the eyepiece comfortably, without feeling like you have to peer through to survey the full image.

This is particularly important if you are an eyeglass wearer or often use sunglasses. A large eyepiece and a wide viewing distance are the perfect combination for a pleasant observing experience.

"A large eyepiece and a wide viewing distance are the perfect combination for an enjoyable observing experience."

For example, the viewing experience and comfort of the Bushnell Forge 20-60x80 ED is exceptionally pleasant. It almost seems like you can look through the eyepiece with both eyes. Even with glasses or sunglasses on, you can observe for long periods without having to push your eye against the eyepiece to survey the entire image.

dual focus knob
Single focus knob

4. Method of focusing

Focusing a spotting scope requires not only speed, but also extremely precise adjustment. The higher the magnification, the greater the difference between sharp and out of focus in the spotting scope's image.

Some scopes have a focusing ring on the front of the scope, just in front of the front lens. Although this ring is often great, it can be less convenient in practice because you have to reach forward each time to adjust the distance. That's why all Bushnell spotting scopes have the focus knobs placed right close to the eyepiece, so you can quickly switch between zooming and focusing

For example, the Bushnell Prime 20-60x65 and the Engage DX 20-60x80 have a single focusing knob to set the distance, while the Nitro and Forge models also have an additional dial for fine-tuning the distance. This allows you to first turn the "coarse" distance knob to go from far to close, for example, and then use the fine adjustment knob to get the bird in exact focus.

Bushnell Forge spotting scope on tripod
Bushnell Prime spotting scope on tripod

General advice

By considering these four aspects - the scope's field of view, front lens diameter, ocular design and focusing system - you can choose the spotting scope best suited to your observing needs. It is important to consider your personal preferences and observation style when making your choice.

Don't forget the tripod

When choosing a spotting scope, it is wise to already consider a tripod as well. Placing your spotting scope on a tripod is necessary because scopes are quite heavy and a tripod ensures comfortable and prolonged observation without fatigue or muscle cramps from holding the scope. In addition and you with because of the stability it provides, minimising vibrations. Moreover, a tripod can come in handy when digiscoping, where you connect a camera or smartphone to the spotting scope to take photos or videos.


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