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Using a Spotting Scope


Whether tis nobler to miss that wolf siting altogether . . .

Article © 2006-09 by Jenna Caplette, with tips from our staff at F-11 Photographic Supplies


When winter brings prime wolf-watching to our Greater Yellowstone area, the road from Mammoth to Cooke City in Yellowstone National Park is lined with folks from all over the world who have come to watch wolves. Experienced watchers and tour guides haul along spotting scopes, and set them up to watch, creating a wall of scopes and intermingled tripod legs.


Don’t have a scope yet? Overwhelmed by the variety of options available, including prices? Think your binoculars will do just fine, thank you?


Well, spotting scopes offer a magnification that allows you to see with great clarity from distances that most binoculars can’t handle. Attach a scope to a tripod and it holds solid and steady, so its easier to look through. Ranging in price from $250 to $2000, there are some basics to choosing a scope. If you make price your prime consideration, you’ll miss out on some of the fine tunings between options. But if price will drive your choice, spend on the outer limit of your range. Steve Braun, owner of Yellowstone and Glacier Adventure Company, describes buying a scope as a lifetime investment “If you can afford it, buy a scope with waterproof features so you won’t have to worry about taking the scope out in the rain and snow, or about it fogging up when you’re out on a frosty, early morning, watching wolves on the move.”


When Braun leads classes, he lets students try out various scopes to see which they prefer. You want to be able to do the same thing. People in the field can be very generous about letting you take a peak through their scope. Go to a retail setting where you can both work with a skilled product specialist and try out several models and brands. Tell the salesperson how you want to use a scope. Be sure you can take merchandise outdoors where you can see what color and sharpness they deliver in real life situations. Try a variety of tripods and heads with the scopes. Then read product reviews.


Some of the differences between scopes relate to optics, resolution and field of view. Scope eyepieces are often interchangeable so you can choose different magnifications. Many of them are designed to zoom, giving you a range of magnifications. When you’re out in the field, start with the wide angle setting, so you can see the whole vista, and then as you find something you want to check out, you zoom in. After leading hundreds of clients on wildlife viewing tours, Braun has found that “most of the looking you do won’t be at full power, so super high magnification may not be worth investing in. Do buy the widest objective that you can. Seventy to 80 millimeters makes a big difference in what you can see.”


The “objective” lens is the one furthest from your eye when you look through the scope, the lens pointed out at the rest of the world. The lens that gathers all the light. Two scopes with similar magnifications, but different “objective” lens sizes will allow you to see very differently. In general, the greater the magnification range, the better the glass optics and the larger the “objective” lens size you’ll want.


Scope bodies come in two styles – straight or angled. The choice between those is pretty subjective – again, try both.Straight scopes can be easier on you, the viewer – simpler to see through without straining, easier to aim. Angled scopes do just that – they angle up, making it easier to see things like birds in trees. Usually angled scopes rotate on their tripod collar.The advantage to that feature is that if two people, or a group of people, of varied heights will be sharing the scope, its height can be easily adjusted.


With either type of scope, you’ll need a tripod. So budget one in – the more solid the tripod, the steadier base for your scope.If you’ll be carrying your scope while hiking, tripod weight becomes a consideration.


There are three basic ranges of spotting scopes in terms of both pricing and quality: good, better, and best. The “Sky and Earth” spotting scope outfit includes a durable scope with a zoom eyepiece, a tripod, and a window mount for your car’s windows. It’s a smaller, compact scope with less magnification but at about $300, it‘s a great introductory investment.


At the upper levels of scopes you get better glass, and better construction. There’s a distinction between “good” and “excellent” glass. “ED” is a professional kind of glass which offers better resolution, detail, and color. Pentax offers a scope with ED glass that comes in a straight or angled design; is waterproof; and has a built-in sunshade for $1049. And the best? For $1788, Zeiss offers a straight or angled scope with a 20-60x zoom eyepiece and ultra-high resolution optics.


Any genuinely waterproof scope will be nitrogen-purged to prevent condensation. Condensation in the scope isn’t something you want to experience when the Slough Creek wolf pack is on the move on a searing cold winter morning. If you don’t have a waterproof scope, you can get anti-fog sprays.


Want to use a digital camera with your scope? So you can watch and photograph wolves, and other wildlife, on the move? Well, “digi-scoping” is a whole separate topic – and deserves its own article.


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