Birding In The National Parks: A Look At Spotting Scopes
Sooner or later, you’re going to need a spotting scope. I’ve tried a lot of scopes and found there are some great products at every price range. Clearly, you can’t expect a $250 scope to perform like a $2,500 scope, but if your expectations are realistic, you can find some excellent quality without robbing the piggy bank. Or, as a bird blogger said recently, robbing a real bank.
In the great bang-for-your-buck category, I’m happy with the Vanguard Endeavor scope I’ve been testing recently. With models ranging from $499 to $599, these scopes are worth every penny.
Out of the box, the Endeavor scope impressed me the same way the Endeavor binoculars did. The thing is armored and sturdy. A birding friend of mine commented that he had an urge to swing the binoculars over his head into the nearest tree just because they felt like they could take it.
Vanguard’s scopes are no different. While I don’t recommend intentionally tipping over your scope or using it as a croquet mallet, I have no doubt the Endeavor could handle it just fine.
Accidents happen, and you want your optics to be prepared. The Endeavor comes in 65mm and 82mm models, with each having either a straight or angled eyepiece for a total of four different models.
I’m always going to recommend the larger objective in scopes. In binoculars you start running into weight issues with that much glass, but since you aren’t carrying the scope around your neck (I presume), I think the extra weight is worth it for the 82mm. When light is dim and the flock of sandpipers is a quarter mile away at Padre Island National Seashore, you’ll be glad for the extra width. (Just to review, a larger diameter of the objective lens results in more light entering the scope and a brighter image.)
The 65 mm models also have a zoom range of 16-48x while the 82mm are 20-60x. The wider angle of view at 16x could be an advantage when scanning fields or water, but it’s nice to have 60x when you need details on a distant bird.
The eyepiece is largely a matter of preference. Angled eyepieces are generally preferred. If several people of varying heights are using the scope, the angled eyepiece allows taller users to simply bend over a bit farther without adjusting the tripod. With a straight eyepiece, either the shorter folks will be on tip toes or the taller people will be squatting uncomfortably to look through it.
Lining up the Vanguard Endeavor 82mm beside a Nikon ED 82mm (roughly $1,800 retail) provided an interesting comparison, keeping in mind that the Nikon model is around three times the cost of the Vanguard. With the sun up, the Endeavor’s image is crisp and bright, even zoomed to 60x. The difference in clarity and brightness versus the Nikon is noticeable, but not very large if you immediately look from one to the other.
When the clouds roll in, or when you’re looking for woodcocks after dusk, the Endeavor does struggle a bit at 60x while the Nikon keeps a good, clear image. This is the trade-off with a less expensive scope, but I can tell you I haven’t found another scope anywhere near the Endeavor’s price range that performed any better in poor light. I’d say it did very well when subjected to my admittedly unfair competition against a much more expensive scope.
Speaking of sun and clouds, if the clouds burst, the Endeavor is waterproof and fog-proof. On the other hand, if the sun is overhead, there’s a sun shield that will cut direct glare from the objective. Believe me, that’s a feature you’ll want someday when you’re scanning for ducks.
The Vanguard Endeavor comes with a digital camera adapter for those interested in trying their hand at digiscoping. The adapter is designed for use with a DSLR camera. I called in my photographer buddy to test this feature. He found the adapter sturdy and easy to use.
There’s a definite learning curve with digiscoping, but the Endeavor makes it an affordable “endeavor.”
As with dimly lit conditions, adding the extra element of a camera lens makes the full zoom difficult to use effectively, but we got some shots of geese at 100 yards that turned out pretty well. You aren’t going to sell these digiscoped images for a calendar, but they are fine photographs for your album and more than serviceable for documentation of a rare bird.
Since you don’t hold a scope of this size in your hands, it’s worth mentioning that the utility of a scope is only as good as the tripod it’s mounted to. An inferior tripod will ruin your day. I used the Vanguard Endeavor on Vanguard’s Alta+ 263AGH tripod. I can’t say enough good things about this tripod. In the $200 price range, it beats everything else I’ve run into. The pistol grip got me some ribbing from friends who suggested the purchase appealed to my inner manly man, but having used it for a while, I’ll never go back. The tripod is as lightweight and as sturdy as a model in this price range gets, and it holds up to lots of abuse. The ball head has proven to be a huge advantage when following raptors in flight.
In conclusion, you can’t go wrong with an Endeavor 82A spotting scope mounted on an Alta+ series tripod. This whole package will run you around $800, which is the key number here. It will outperform other scopes in its class and put up a good fight against some more expensive models.