As someone who started birding later in life, I was fortunate to have among my birding mentors professional guides, authors, biologists, and naturalists. Growing up as more of an “indoor girl,” this was intimidating for me, to say the least. I was not only intimidated by their knowledge and experience, I was also terrified by the equipment they used. There were strange things on their shoulders and around their necks. There were straps and harnesses wrapping and enveloping their bodies in ways that possibly required an engineering degree to maneuver. There were unusual hats in shades of green and beige that I had previously seen only in movies and in National Geographic.
They carried weirdly shaped bags and backpacks that housed myriad little gadgets and birding doodads. If I verbalized the slightest hunger or thirst, out came a wondrous array of ultra-hydrating drinks and fulfilling snackage. If I got a cut or a blister, a first-aid station appeared on command. If I needed rest or became overheated, a sitting stool with a cooling rag appeared like magic. Mosquitoes? No problem, here’s your handy-dandy-eco-skeeter-spray to keep the biting monsters at bay. (I learned early on that most birders are helpful and generous, always willing to share what they have.) They had all the necessary tools and thingamabobs for successful bird watching. I was in awe.
But by far, the most intimidating pieces of equipment were their spotting scopes.
All of the top-notch birders seemed to have one. These spotting scopes appeared large and in charge. They were sleek, sexy, and had European brand names that I couldn’t pronounce. There were lenses, buttons, and mystery knobs galore, and the long, adjustable legs attached to them were constantly being adjusted. These “scope people” used spotting scopes with the effortless grace and ease of a well-trained ballet dancer. Birds I could neither hear nor see were being spotted, identified, and put into view through these scopes in a matter of seconds. SECONDS! Compared to the scope people I felt slow and inept. I developed a rather unhealthy dependency on the scope people, convinced that I would see the special birds only if the scope people were right there with me to find them for me.
As I continued to develop my birding skills, I became a bird guiding assistant who specialized in birding by ear. I’m a natural musician and have been an audial learner all my life. I spent time birding with some of the best birding-by-ear experts in the world—Tom Stephenson, Michael O’Brien, Pete Dunne, and the incomparable Bill Thompson, III. Meanwhile, my visual ID skills did improve, but not at the same rapid speed as my ears.
I’d love to tell you that the reason my birding improved so dramatically was due to my keen ability to ID birds by ear. That may be partly true. But the real reason is thanks to spotting scopes. Because I had been intimidated by spotting scopes, I relied on my ears to compensate. This felt a bit like cheating on a test. I just memorized the answers without actually reading the questions.
This worked very well for me until fall migration rolled around each year, when birds don’t sing like they do during spring migration. If I was serious about becoming a good, all-around birder, I could avoid the scope no longer. I needed to take the plunge. It was time.
My First Scope
Because I worked for Bird Watcher’s Digest, I was fortunate to have been offered a spotting scope from an optics company, Vanguard. Receiving a free scope and tripod from this optics company was perfect for my limited budget. This particular scope was an entry-level scope with average reviews, and it retailed for around $600. If I happened to break it with my lack of ability, at least I wouldn’t be damaging an expensive, high-end scope that might be deserving of a more proficient owner. However, I was determined to learn. With an entry-level spotting scope, I could dip my toes in the water and tread ever so gingerly into the wonderful world of birds seen through my own spotting scope. (Vanguard no longer serves the birding market, but I still have my Vanguard spotting scope and often use it as a backup/shared scope on birding tours.)
Foolishly, I decided to take my brand spanking new, just-from-the–box spotting scope to Spain in 2015. This was a birding and culture tour I had been invited to join as a journalist, and it was the trip of a lifetime. I felt like such a big-girl-birder as I carefully packed my scope and tripod, placing them carefully into my carry-on optics bag like I’d seen Bill do so many times before. I knew exactly how to pack it properly, how to get it to Spain safely, and how to bustle around a foreign country without damaging the contents. “I’ve got this,” I thought.
What I didn’t know, however, was how to put the scope together properly. I didn’t even know how to attach the scope to the tripod.
The scope and tripod were both brand-new, just out of the box, and arrived at my house just in time to pack for my trip. I literally pulled them from the packaging and put them in my suitcase. I can feel your eyes rolling right now, and you’re right. Big mistake.
The scope and tripod did make it safely to Spain. People on the plane asked me what was in the mystery bag, and I proudly replied, “It’s a spotting scope for bird watching. I’m going to Spain to see beautiful birds!” After a frustrating, jet-lag-foggy hour of trying to attach the scope to the tripod in my hotel room, I had to call in the big guns for help. Even the expert guides on my tour could not figure out how to attach my scope to its tripod. This scope and tripod were eventually passed around at breakfast, and not a single person could figure it out. So, I carried my spotting scope all over Extremadura, Spain, and never even used it once. Zero Spanish birds were seen through that scope because I didn’t know how to assemble it. Epic fail.
When I got home, I called the manufacturer, who walked me through the process of removing the plate on the bottom of the scope and replacing it with the tripod plate that allows the scope to attach to the tripod. This is not intuitive for someone who is a first-time scope owner. There were no instructions included about how to do this. I remember thinking to myself, “If I owned an optics company, I’d make sure that every single customer understood how to put their new scope on their new tripod!” Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I actually would own an optics company one day!
In the months that followed, I wisely decided to begin using my scope while no one was watching. I was not optimistic about becoming quick-on-the-draw with birds in the scope. It still intimidated me, but I kept it in the trunk of my car and made myself use it at every birdy opportunity. I just wanted to learn how the thing worked, what all of the dials and buttons were for, and to see if I could actually get a bird in the scope before it flew away. Baby steps.
I started by looking at really big birds that didn’t move a lot. Great blue herons, green herons, double-crested cormorants in trees, egrets, and bald eagles were my first scoped birds. But oh, what a glorious thing to look at a bird—any bird—through my own scope. I began to understand why all those veteran birders chose to drag their big ol’ scopes around the prairies, forests, and jungles of the world. I could see much better, much farther, and much more clearly than I could with my binoculars. A whole new world opened for me. I was falling in love with scoping birds!
I remember the first time I brought my scope on a birding tour I was helping with. We were in Tawas, Michigan, during spring migration, and it was a fallout day. Birds were dripping from the skies and trees, and it was nearly impossible not to get a bird in my scope that day! I found myself inviting others in our group to see the birds I had put in the scope—scarlet tanagers, orioles, bobolinks, plovers, even fast-moving warblers. I was doing it! I wasn’t fast, I wasn’t great at it, but I did it. And I could see the faces of other folks light up the same way mine did when the scope people had shown me those same birds in their spotting scopes years before. It somehow felt even more rewarding to show the birds to others than to see them myself. This was a joy I had not experienced before and would never have known if I hadn’t given the spotting scope a reluctant try.
Something else happened that day that I did not expect. I was using my $600 Vanguard scope, and Bill Thompson, III, was using his tried-and-true Leica scope, considered to be the best scope on the market when he had begun using it years before. As we were birding along the shores of the Saginaw Bay, a gust of wind knocked Bill’s scope to the ground and broke it. He was rightfully upset about this since we were guiding a group of 25 people who were relying on him to show them birds through his scope throughout the weekend. (I was just a co-pilot and had brought my scope as backup.) My entry-level Vanguard scope was his only option. He begrudgingly took it, cursing under his breath, his heart broken as he looked at the pieces of his beloved Leica scope.
It took him a few minutes to figure out how to maneuver my basic scope and tripod. It was not as agile as his, nor as optically excellent. It was sort of like trading in your top-of-the-line Mercedes Benz for a no-frills Ford Escort. But being a pro, within a few minutes he had mastered it and was showing everyone birds again. Because our group had been looking at birds through Bill’s high-end Leica scope all morning, we discussed the differences in these scopes, their performance, and their prices throughout the day.
The most amazing thing was, we had eight people in our group return home the following week and order the exact Vanguard scope I had brought with me! Like me, they had been intimidated by spotting scopes in general, but they were willing to invest $600 in a scope they could learn with. I had shared my story about being so intimidated, and I assured them that if I could learn to use a scope, anyone could. I also explained that not all scopes are in the $2,000-and-above range. There are good, affordable scopes in the optics universe.
Of course, this was long before Redstart Birding was born, and our eight guests had purchased their Vanguard scopes from a variety of retailers. We had no skin in the game at that point—we were not there to sell optics, but to show people great birds. Each person who purchased a scope had told their retailer about having used a Vanguard scope on our birding trip to Tawas. The Vanguard rep who had given me the scope called me the following week to thank me for selling so many scopes on his behalf. Our weekend in Michigan had prompted his biggest scope sales day ever! I even received a handwritten thank-you note from the owner of the company. I think that’s where my passion for birding optics was born. I loved the feeling of successfully matching people with a scope that fit their budget and lifestyle.
Graduating to the Next Level
I’ve been birding for 12 years now, and I’ve been using a spotting scope consistently for the past five. I now use a high-end spotting scope and a mid-range tripod: the Kowa TSN-883 Prominar Angled Scope Body ($2,400) with a Kowa TE-11WZ 25-60x Prominar Wide Angle Eyepiece ($700), mounted on a Benro TAD27A Adventure Tripid with Aluminum Legs ($124.95) with a Benro S4 Video Head ($149.95). This is Kowa’s top-tier scope and has received outstanding reviews. I love this wonderful rig that has grown to feel like a natural extension of my body rather than an intimidating piece of birding equipment.
I’ve had my Kowa scope since January and am getting quite comfortable with it. It’s a phenomenal scope that’s easy to use, durable, and provides a clear, crisp view even in low-light. My eyes seem always to benefit from an extra boost of light, and this scope is the bees-knees! I highly recommend this scope if you’re looking for a high-end scope on a more limited budget.
Are you someone who can relate to my story? Are you considering taking the next step in your birding adventure? Well, you’re in luck! The September/October 2020 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest arrives in mailboxes in mid-August, and it features a helpful and informative review of entry-level spotting scopes. Diane and Michael Porter have systematically compared spotting scopes that cost less than $1,000—their prices, sizes, performance, and feel. This objective, unbiased review will tell you everything you need to know about entry-level spotting scopes. We hope to provide all the tools you need to make the best-informed decision regarding the right scope for you.
After you’ve narrowed your selection and have a clear idea of your optical needs and budget, our consultants at Redstart Birding are standing by to receive your call or email. We would be honored to work with you and answer any questions you may have, and address any concerns as you compare apples to apples and figure out the best scope for you. Redstart consultants don’t earn a commission; our only goal is to find your perfect match. We realize that purchasing birding optics is a personal decision. We live in the golden age of birding optics, and there are great options available for every budget, skill level, and lifestyle. Redstart’s return policy is also the best in the business: Try it for 30 days; if you don’t like it, send it back for a full refund.
I still don’t consider myself to be one of the scope people. I’m still not lightning fast at getting the scope on the bird, and I’ll never be a hotshot at bird identification. My ears are still better than my eyes. But learning to see birds through the lens of a spotting scope—MY scope—has brought new joy to my life, and allowed me to experience birds on my terms, at my own pace, with my own equipment, with my own eyes, and to easily share great, closeup views of birds with others.
So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to take the plunge! Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
About the Author
Wendy Clark is the president and publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, a career communications specialist, and an avid birder. She has three children and two grandchildren, and lives in Marietta, Ohio.