The Ultimate Birding Scope! (2 of them)

Prediction: the next scope you buy will be, most likely, a 65mm.

I have argued for years that an 80mm scope is overkill in most birding situations, and simply too large to be a comfortable carry in the field, especially when you add the weight of a tripod heavy enough to adequately support the monster for the kind of views it is supposed to yield. (See How Much Scope Does a Birder Need?) For some time my favorite all-around, day-in-and-day-out, birding scope has been the little 60mm Nikon Fieldscope III ED. I put it on the lightweight Bogan (Manfrotto) Junior tripod and the whole thing hangs easily under my arm on a salvaged binocular strap when I am in the field. The combination, especially since the introduction of the new 20-60 power zoom eyepiece and the 40x wide field, provides the views I need 95% of the time—and 95% of the time I find that I am not willing to carry a larger, heavier scope just to get at that last 5%. In the real world we are going to miss more than 5% of the possible ids no matter what optics we carry (and, God willing, there will always come a better day and a better view anyway: stronger light, a closer bird, less wind, etc. etc.). The exception, of course, is those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities; if I knew I was only ever going to get to the Everglades or Alaska once, then I would probably want all the scope I could carry. Even saying that, when I find myself blessed enough to be on the occasional ABA fieldtrip to some far flung hotspot, where I know the leaders will be carrying the big scopes anyway, I often pack the Fieldscope. As I have said more than once in the pages, I never fail to have my share of the group lined up behind the Nikon, and I can’t think of a time when a larger scope would have provided a better view.

Maybe someone is listening. This year has seen the introduction of several new, high quality, 65mm spotting scopes (and rumor has it more are on the way). Why 65mm? Probably a combination of marketing and design considerations. 65mm differentiates the scope from the bad old pack of mediocre 60mm scopes many a birder owned in the past, and the extra 5mm does (all things being equal) yield more resolution (detail) and a brighter image. The theoretical improvement is not great in either case, but it is there.

The critical thing about the new scopes is that they are “high quality scopes,” state-of-the-art optics from the best names in the business. In fact, Swift has had a decent 65mm spotting scope on the market for several years in its NightHawk line, but it simply didn’t have the raw quality to make much of an impact. The Swarovski and Zeiss scopes in this test were designed— from the blank page (or CAD program), raw sand and magnesium ore—to set a new standard in compact scopes, and they easily do.

When lined up between a exceptional 60mm and an exceptional 80mm (the Nikon Fieldscope and the Pentax 80mm ED), the new 65s are clearly brighter at high powers, with and easier view of fine detail, than the 60mm—and clearly both lighter in weight and more compact than the 80mm. No, they do not equal the brightness or the resolution of the 80mm scope (especially, again, at high powers), but the question is really, do they need to? My feeling is that 65mm is a kind of threshold; that, in fact, a 65mm scope may provide all the detail and brightness the human eye can use in all but the most extreme conditions. It would have to be nearly dark for the 80mm scope to show a clear advantage. Then too, in terrestrial viewing where some combination of heat haze, fog, and dust...dirty, wet, unstable too often the real limiting factor in the view you are able to get, going from 65mm to 80mm is not going to help and may, in fact, hurt. A smaller scope, as I have pointed out before, can actually outperform a larger one in bad “seeing” conditions.

As far as compactness goes, either of these new 65s pass my “carrying” test. On the Bogan Junior tripod, which is enough support for either of them, they fit as easily under my arm as the Nikon Fieldscope. I would carry either of these scopes for an extensive day in the field. In fact, I can see no good reason, given the quality of these scopes, to ever carry an 80mm scope again. I’d take either of them to Attue (if you could go there anymore), or to Costa Rica, and not worry at all that I might miss something an 80mm scope might have shown me. These 65mm scopes provide, as far as I am concerned, the ideal compromise between a scope you can see birds through and one you are willing to carry.

That said, how do they compare?

Physically, the Zeiss scope follows recent trends in Zeiss binoculars: the sleek, modern, high tech look with more than average attention to functionality. Very space age, silver and black. Perhaps the best feature is the dual ratio focus (not unique to Zeiss, the feature was seen most recently on the Leica APO). There are two linked focus knobs. The one closer to your eye is “high ratio” (fast focusing), and the one nearer the objective is “low ratio” (slower, fine focusing). Both knobs fall comfortably under your fingers while looking through the scope, and the system works well, allowing you to reach rough focus in a minimum time and then fine tune to your heart’s content. The scope is waterproof and you can hear the comforting sound of a seal breaking when you unmount eyepieces. Eyepieces mount with bayonet half twist, easy and secure. Eyepieces have a pop-up, pop-down eyecup. The built in, slide out objective shade is quite functional.

The Swarovski also bears marked resemblance to recent Swarovski binocular designs, the ELs in particular. The 65 looks much more like an EL binocular than the AT scopes. This is fully armored scope and as such has a more “rugged” appearance than the Zeiss. The major difference is in the focus area again. Swarovski has stayed with the helical focus featured on their 80mm scopes. I have always liked helical focus, which, as far as I am concerned combines the best of fast focus with fine control when you need it, just by how you grip and twist the ring. In actual side by side testing with the Zeiss, I found the single control Swarovski to be as quick and as precise as the dual control Zeiss. Some people, however, hate helical focus. If you are one of them, the focus control could be a deciding factor between these scopes.

The Swarovski is also waterproof. Eyepieces require a firm twist to mount and there is an locking button at the bottom of the mount that pops out when the eyepiece seats, and must be depressed to release the eyepiece for unmounting. While the system inspires confidence (I have had eyepieces fall off other scopes before a day in the field was over), it is somewhat cumbersome to operate, especially while juggling the eyepiece you want to exchange. You have to start with the new eyepiece in your pocket, not in your hand, since you will need both hands to get the old one off. The Swarovski also features a slide out objective shade.
Swarovski, by the way, is targeting the angled view model of the new 65 at birders: and, in my opinion, rightly so. They have put some thought into the design, including a small “peep” sight at the base of the eyepiece mount for times when you really need it (and have the time to use it). More than that though, the undershot prism design puts the eyepiece well over the body of the scope and makes the view very natural (for this birder at least—but then I have always recommended an angled view for anything other than solitary birding. It is just way easier and more practical in a group.) Somehow the Swarovski design manages to let you get the scope up almost as high as a straight-through for those times when you have to get over brush, and, if you have a tripod that tall, you can flip the scope over on its rotating tripod mount and get really high views.

An interesting feature of the Swarovski is that the tripod mounting foot is made to exactly fit the quick release socket of the Manfrotto tripod Swarovski sells under their own label (and presumably some other Manfrotto heads as well, though it does not fit directly in the Junior head). You can do without the quick release plate on the right tripod, which is one less thing to worry about (as Forest Gump said in a very different context).

One of the limiting factors of the Zeiss 65mm design is its 85mm sibling. Sharing eyepieces with the larger scope means that the power range of the eyepieces on the 65 is somewhat lower then ideal. The wide field eyepieces, 30x and 40x on the 85, are only 23x and 30x on the 65. The zoom, 20-60x on the 85, is only 15-45x on the 65. While 45x is fine for panning flocks at a distance, it is not going to reach those for hawks on the horizon or the shorebird at the limits of conjecture.

The Swarovski eyepieces, on the other hand, were clearly designed for this 65mm scope. I had the20 and 30x widefields for testing, as well as the new 20-60x zoom. All three feature screw-in, screw-out eyecups and a tethered cap. I have, generally, no use for lens caps, but these work really well. They are easy to slip on when you are carrying the scope, easy to flick off when you want to use the scope, and the tether keeps them right where you need them while they are not in use. Good idea!

It is hard to judge the quality of eyepieces apart from the whole optical system. Suffice it to say that the wide-field fixed-focal-length eyepieces from both Swarovski and Zeiss are as good as you are going to see. Eyerelief is excellent, the views are bright and open and relaxed. I could fall in love with either of the 30x pieces in particular (though a 40x wide is really my ideal eyepiece). (Interestingly, the screw-down eyecup on the Swarovski 30x eyepiece is exactly the right diameter to fit snuggly over the lens of both my Pentax digital camera and my Canon MiniDV camcorder. Digi-scopers take note!)

When comparing the zooms there is a bit more difference. The Zeiss, again, is only 15-45x but provides excellent performance at all powers. The Swarovski is a worthy successor to the “best in the field” zoom from the AT series, providing exceptional, effortless views from 20-60x. The Zeiss zooms smoothly, the Swarovski is on the stiff side. Still, if you were buying one of these scopes on the basis of the better zoom eyepiece, I’d have to go with the Swarovski.

Which, of course, brings us to the question of overall optical quality. After extensive side by side field testing I am almost ready to say that the main difference in optical performance is in the “character” of the view, not in its quality.

For instance, the Zeiss, on first look, appears noticeably brighter than the Swarovski, which is, perhaps, as much a function of the difference in color bias as in anything else. Compared side to side the Swarovski is much “cooler” and more “neutral” than the Zeiss. Yes, you read that right! The Zeiss is warmer, with a slight yellow bias (I have included two photos that might, depending on the quality of your monitor, show the difference). Would you notice the bias without side by side comparison? No, probably not. Even with side by side comparison, you might just think the Zeiss is “brighter.” The Zeiss gives colors an extra snap. The view is vivid. It must be something Zeiss is doing with coatings or prism design, since it is a feature of the view through the new Victory binoculars as well—but where it seems slightly unnatural in the binoculars, almost too bright, it is quite effective in the scope.

On the other hand, the Swarovski has superb contrast and detail. Very fine features of plumage are definitely easier to see, and more obvious, in the Swarovski. The Swarovski seems to have just a bit more “reach” at the same powers, showing just that extra bit of detail. The detail in the image jumps right out at you. Your initial response is likely to be, “That’s sharp!!” and continued viewing is going to do nothing to lessen first impressions.
Interestingly, though in full light the Zeiss appears brighter, twilight and heavy overcast performance of the two scopes is quite similar. Both yield excellent detail in anything much short of total darkness.

So, if I had to pick one of these really fine scopes over the other, which would I pick? First let me say that, in my opinion, you can’t go wrong with either of these scopes. I applaud both Swarovski and Zeiss for introducing truly excellent, exceptional, compact scopes, scopes of such obvious quality and functionality that they just may make the 80mm scope obsolete.

Still, you can only spend your scope money once, and all in all, I favor the features and performance of the Swarovski 65. It is slightly sharper, the eyepieces are better matched to the scope and the zoom is without equal, and I like the rugged look and feel. I would be perfectly happy and confident carrying the Swarovski 65, the zoom, and the 30x eyepiece, anywhere I might go from the once-in-a-life-time opportunity to my daily beach walk to the extreme of the Christmas Bird Count. The Swarovski sets a new standard in compact scopes, and earns the Better View Desired Best All Around Birding Scope award, dethroning (after a very long and honorable reign) the Nikon 60mm Fieldscope, and edging out the Zeiss 65.

So, Leica, Nikon, Bausch & Lomb, Pentax, Swift, Tele Vue...what are you going to do about it?