The Birdist’s Rules of Birding

Birdist Rule #29: Buy a Scope...Or Don't

You don’t need a massive lens to find birds, but it sure makes things more fun.

Sometimes birds are really far away—farther than the eye (or binoculars) can see. It happens at the beach or at the lake, when you’re sure those specks out there are rarities. It’s frustrating when birds are impossible to identify. Birders identify birds . . . it’s what we do!

That’s why some birders get optics that are way more powerful than binoculars. Some birders get telescopes.

Birding with a ”scope” (sorry Galileo) can be incredible. You can finally see the field marks on those shorebirds without flushing them. You can spot pelagic seabirds without jumping on a boat. You can make out little birds hiding in the marsh that would otherwise be invisible. No doubt, you’ll see a lot more with a scope.

But it ain’t all peaches and cream. In a hobby that requires comparatively little financial investment, a birding scope is an incredible splurge. Scopes let you zoom in a lot closer than binoculars, but they’re also less portable and about ten times the price. (Cameras are expensive, too, but at least they let you bring the bird home with you.) You’ll need to drop at least $1,000 for a quality scope, and top-of-the-line models can be several times that price.

There’s a reason why they’re so expensive. Scopes don’t have a lot of moving parts to worry about; they’re basically just tubes with fancy glass inside—so with proper care they’ll last forever. That’s great if you’ve already got one, but not so helpful for anyone looking for a cheap, used one, given that they don’t lose much value over time.

Plus, like I said before, they’re a real pain to lug around. If you have a scope you have to have a tripod for it to sit on. There’s no elegant way to hike around with that thing. Most birders extend the tripod legs a bit to act as a counterweight to the scope, and balance the whole thing on one shoulder. While the shoulder method might be fine for carrying buckets of water, it can be painful if you’re walking a long ways, and it makes it much harder to use your binoculars if you see a bird en route.

It’s also a hard sell to put all that money into buying a gadget you might not use very much. I could take that extra cash and travel somewhere and see way more birds! I could pay rent/buy food/start a retirement account/literally anything else!

My own history with scopes is pretty complicated. I had always wanted one, but the expense was too high to justify. The general wisdom is that if you’re going to get a scope, you should get a good one. If you buy a low-quality scope you’ll be disappointed with the optical quality and upset that you still spent a couple hundred dollars. Trust me, I’ve been there: The first scope I ever bought was some $200 piece of Internet junk that turned out to be the equivalent of looking through a paper-towel roll.

I did treat myself to a nicer scope when I graduated law school in 2010. I found the thing on sale, and opened up a company credit card to get the price down to a flat $1,000. I walked out of that store clutching that scope and tripod like it was the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Then I put it in my trunk and didn’t really use it that much. I was living in Mississippi for a year and used it a few times to look for ducks on the big reservoirs down there, and a few more times down on the coast, maybe. But overall my giant investment didn't really pay off with good birds. When the scope was stolen out of my car a year later (lesson: don’t keep your scope in the car), I used the insurance money to buy a new lens for my camera instead.

Male Masked Tityra. Photo: Camilla Cerea

I recently rejoined the ranks of the scoped (another grand spent on a used model from a friend), but the point of this column is: I birded without a scope for five years and did just fine, thanks. If I couldn’t see a bird, I’d get closer, or let it go. I made friends with birders with scopes. I did a lot of birding that didn’t require a scope. In fact, most birding's like that.

I didn’t need a scope, and neither do you. If you can afford a scope, great; it’s a fantastic tool. Just be sure to share the goods and give the rest of us charity cases a look.

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