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The Best Binoculars & Spotting Scopes for World Birding - A Review
See also: Bird Photography & Digiscoping
If you're considering new binoculars, there are more interesting options than ever before. The table below summarizes significant features of the cream of the current crop and includes deep links to the manufacturers' specification pages and to Binoculars.com, an online dealer. Binoculars may vary significantly from the published specs. Thus, for example, Twentse Vogelwerkgroep, a site with detailed binoculars reviews, measured close focus of 2.30m on Leica 10x42BR Ultravids and just 1.85m on Swarovski 8x32 ELs.
I have been using the superb Swarovski EL 8x32s since their introduction in 2003. In December 2004, Zeiss introduced the Victory 32 FL binoculars. The Victory 32FLs are lighter than the Swarovski 32ELs, with comparable close focus and longer eye relief, especially in the 10x32FL. In November 2004, Leica introduced the Ultravid 32s, one of which (8x32) is as light as the comparable Zeiss 32FL, but which lack the long eye relief of the Zeiss and Swarovski 32s.
Zeiss Victory binoculars with the updated product numbers shown above come with superior LotuTec coatings (Carat Advantage in the U.S.), introduced in late 2006 or early 2007.
The Swarovski EL 8x32 binoculars, introduced in 2003, represented the most significant advance in birding optics since Leica brought out the 8x32 BAs in 1992 and, in my personal experience (not having used the Zeiss 32s or Leica Ultravid 32s), are the finest birding binoculars produced to date. The EL 8x32s surpass the Leica 32 BNs in every respect. The Swarovskis are lighter, focus closer, and have longer eye relief than the Leicas, and their optical quality and ergonomics are superb. Furthermore, their short focusing capability obviates the need separate butterfly binoculars.
40/42 binoculars are inherently brighter than 32s and arguably provide better all-around performance, at least in the store. In the field, however, you will find the Swarovski, Zeiss and Leica 32s much easier to use than any 40/42 or the heavy Nikon 32s, particularly if you sometimes hold your binoculars with one hand (e.g., when tape recording). Moreover, heavy binoculars are known to have caused serious spinal problems in some people. Furthermore, of the available 40/42 binoculars, only the new Zeiss Victory 42FLs focus as close as the Swarovski, Zeiss and Leica 32s.
Having lived with the Swaro EL 8x32s for awhile, I would never go back to binoculars with a longer short focus. I have seen hundreds of birds over the years that came into view too close to see through older Zeiss Dialyt 10x40 bins that could have been viewed through the 8x32 ELs. For example, with the EL 8x32s, I would have been able to focus on the Friendly Warbler that came in for a look at my boots on Mt. Kinabalu or the Sulawesi Ground-Dove that I nearly ran over while carrying a venomous snake back to camp for photos. Indeed, even when watching winter sparrow flocks, Winter Wren, and Hermit Thrush in the backyard, birds frequently approach closer than the near focus of most quality binoculars, but can be followed all the way in with the Swaro 8x32s.
The most interesting larger binoculars are the new, short-focusing Zeiss Victory 42FLs (fluorite), available in 7x, 8x & 10x models. The FL 10x42s are 70g heavier than the leather covered (BL) Leica Ultravid 10x42s, but focus to 2m, 0.95m closer than the Ultravids. Wearing 765g bins isn't particularly appealing after a few days with the 610g Swarovski EL 8x32s, but there are no lighter binoculars combining the brightness of a 42 with true close focusing ability than the 42FLs. The BL Ultravids, which weigh only 695g, might be a good choice for pelagic birding, where close focusing is not important, if the leather covering can stand up to repeated salt water exposure. With the alternatives available today, however, a short focus of 2.95m is simply too long for land birding.
High quality binoculars hold their values well and can be sold easily through Winging It classifieds or eBay. Like fine bird books, they are better investments than many of the stocks and mutual funds touted by Wall Street firms, or flashy new cars that depreciate as they sit in your driveway. Indeed, I think any serious birder should consider buying several pairs for specialized purposes, for example, Swaro EL 8x32 for all-around use, Zeiss 42FL 10x42 for use on trips where a scope is not available, and Leica Ultravid BL 10x42 for use on pelagic trips.
Only Zeiss among the leading brands offers a life of binoculars, transferable warranty in the US. Leica, Swarovski and Nikon limit their US warranties to the original purchaser. For many birders, the Leica and Swarovski international warranties -- 5 years parts & labor, 30 years parts -- would be preferable, since they are transferable and defined in time and not by a person's life. (Will you be using the same bins in 15 years? 10 years? Next year?) Leica's US warranty covers some instances of owner incompetence, such as dropping, driving over, and deep submersion, but not fire or theft. Coverage of accidental damage probably is more important in respect of scopes than binoculars, as scopes frequently topple over.
The first thing you should do after acquiring new binoculars is to shorten the strap so that you can just barely get it over your head. Any extra play in the strap will result in lost time -- and sometimes lost birds -- when you raise your bins, and floppy binoculars when walking or running. Some wide straps that come with binoculars, such as Leica's, cannot be shortened sufficiently and should be replaced. Swarovski's wide strap, on the other hand, has a sufficient range of adjustment to suit anyone. After adjusting the strap, trim off any excess, stitch a fold at the loose end with button thread, and melt the end with a soldering iron to prevent unraveling.
While the vast majority of binoculars are now made by Japanese companies, the Japanese have thus far been unable or unwilling to market a product comparable to the top German models. The latest expensive bins from Japan Incorporated are the Bushnell Elite 8x43 and 10x43. (Bushnell failed to renew their 30-year license of the Bausch & Lomb name, which they devalued to the point of uselessness by placing it on mediocre products.) The Elites appear to be alternative-branded versions of the cheaper Pentax DCP SP binoculars. They look superficially like Swaro ELs, are extremely light (only 23/24 oz) thanks to a magnesium chassis, and offer very long eye relief (17.3/19.4mm). Close focus (9 feet) is too long by current industry standards and considerably longer than on the former B&L Elites or the similar Pentax bins.
Kikkert Binocular Tests (in Norwegian)
A spotting scope is not essential for foreign trips, but it certainly is helpful if somebody carries one throughout a trip. I love my Questar scope, but wouldn't recommend it for most foreign birding trips, as it's neither waterproof nor dustproof, and it may be difficult to use if you're not an experienced Questar owner. No straight spotting scope compares in optical quality to the Questar or offers the Questar's ability to toggle back and forth between a finder scope and 40x main scope, or the Questar's exceptionally long eye relief (32mm eyepiece only), which allows a full field of view even with clip-on sunglasses over eyeglasses.
I prefer fixed eyepieces of 25x or less, except on the Questar, which unlike straight scopes has a built-in 8.5x finder scope. (Don't even consider getting Questar's standard 3x finder scope.) It's often quite difficult to find birds with a 30x scope. Furthermore, zoom eyepieces always have been inferior in optical quality to fixed power eyepieces and in addition are heavier and usually offer less eye relief. IMHO, the availability of higher powers isn't worth the considerable loss of sharpness and brightness at the power most often used, which is 20x on a 20x-60x zoom. While I haven't had much success finding birds in 45-degree angle scopes, Ben Cacace points out that they can be handy when used by a group of people of varying heights.
60mm to 65mm scopes are lighter and thus easier to pack and carry than 80mm to 85mm scopes. I haven't used one that I prefer to the bright and durable B&L Balscope Sr. (discontinued in 1975 when B&L sold their optical business to Bushnell), but the new Zeiss and Swarovski 65mm scopes and the Leica 62mm scopes have been very favorably reviewed. The fixed eyepiece that yields 30x on the 85mm Zeiss Diascope yields a more useful 23x on the 65mm Diascope. If shopping for a replacement for the Balscope Sr. with 20x eyepiece, I would look first at the Zeiss Diascope 65. However, if you prefer a zoom eyepiece, the latest version of the Leica zoom eyepiece has longer eye relief throughout its range than the zoom eyepieces offered by Zeiss and Swarovski.
There have been two reports on BirdChat by birders who purchased the graphite Kowa scope, only to have the eyepiece break off when the scope fell on a hard surface. Unless and until graphite scopes can be made more rugged, it seems advisable to avoid them.
Jeff Price reports on BirdChat that Leica inadvertently used the wrong lubricant for the o-rings in the second generation zoom eyepiece for the Leica scope when the lubricant manufacturer changed the formula without informing Leica. Defective eyepieces should be sent to Leica for repair.
The world's finest tripods probably are the lightweight but very rigid Linhof tripods. The 003450 Profi-Port II (1800g) and older 003449 Profi-Port (2000g) are extremely compact and fit in the Questar case. Questar dealer Larry Balch (Attour) will set them up with a custom carrying strap and remote focusing and scope toggling contraptions. The non-portable 2-section Linhof tripod suitable for use with the Questar is Lightweight Pro Tripod 003319 (2000g, no longer available). The similar 3-section Lightweight Pro Tripod 003414 (2400 g) works well with straight scopes and can raise the scope to eye level for those taller than 6'4". The Linhof Precision Panhead with spring balance 003639 (490g, no longer available) is an excellent choice for use with scopes. The spring in 003639 is completely enclosed inside the panhead. Avoid the pre-1983 model with external spring (003640), as it is subject to premature failure. Used Linhof tripods and panheads appear frequently on eBay. The linked Linhof photos were copied from eBay auctions.
Graphite tripods are not recommended because of the possibility of breakage during hard use.
Links to additional retailers:
SierraTradingPost.com - Sometimes has Zeiss factory seconds with full warranty.