Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

The Audubon Guide to Scopes 

Whether you’re shopping for your first scope or upgrading, we’ve got excellent options for every budget. 

Sometimes binoculars just don’t cut it.

They’re splendid when birds are nearby, but when you’re after a glimpse of shorebirds pecking along a distant mudflat or a kettle of hawks circling hundreds of feet in the air, a spotting scope, with its far greater magnification, is eminently superior. As with bins, there’s a dizzying array of options available. So we recruited 35 testers, ranging from professional ornithologists to dedicated birders to enthusiastic beginners, to rate the two dozen models sent to us by 14 companies in a variety of settings, including the shores of the Great Salt Lake and the rooftop of our New York City headquarters.

Our small army of volunteers rated the models on a 1-to-10 scale for a variety of factors such as sharpness, brightness, zoom, and eye relief. (See below for a fuller explanation of our methodology.) For the sake of consistency, we reviewed scopes with eyepieces that zoomed from roughly 15-60x magnification.

All of the scopes we tested come in both angled and straight versions. To find out which is right for you, and read about other factors to consider, see the story below about choosing a scope. Ultimately, selecting a scope comes down to personal preference, and we suggest that you test-drive several models at wild-bird stores that sell optics or at birding festivals where manufacturers set up displays. That said, our top picks from each category are all waterproof and fogproof, and produce bright, crisp images, allowing you to focus on the fine details of distant quarry.

Learn how to set up and use a scope (in a minute):