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10 best binoculars for bird watching and wildlife spotting

Invest in a good pair for exploring your local area this spring and beyond

Jon Axworthy
Thursday 11 March 2021 14:08
<p>All the models we have selected have been damp and weather-proofed to keep moisture out</p>

All the models we have selected have been damp and weather-proofed to keep moisture out

Recently, many of us have been going on a safari of sorts by simply getting out and about in our local area and looking for wildlife.

Whether that’s staking out a local park to try and catch a glimpse of some urban foxes or enjoying the birds visiting the feeder at the bottom of the garden, there’s one piece of equipment that is essential: binoculars.

If you’re not a bino buff but are looking for a pair to suit your nature-watching needs there are two numbers you need to know. The first will tell you the magnification and the second will tell you the diameter of the objective lenses – the ones at the front.

The larger the lens, the more light that will be captured by the binoculars and so the image you see will be brighter and the detail greater. But, there’s always a compromise to be made – high magnification gets you closer but can be hard to hold still without the image shaking. Similarly, a large front objective lets more light in and gives a wider field of view, but will be heavier.

Weatherproofing is also an important consideration as binoculars are always open to the elements and tend to steam up in damp conditions, which will not only ruin the view but can lead to fungus growth inside fairly quickly.

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All the binoculars in our selection have been damp-proofed, usually with nitrogen, to keep moisture out, so that you can concentrate on the bird in hand.

The best binoculars for 2021 are:

  • Best overall – Hawke nature trek 8x32: £109,
  • Best binoculars for sports events – Nikon aculon T02 8x21: £59.99,
  • Best lightweight binoculars – Olympus RC II 8x21: £49.99,
  • Best image stabilisation – Canon 14x32 IS binoculars: £1,499.99,
  • Best waterproof binoculars – Opticron traveller BGA 8x24: £189,
  • Best for low light conditions – Opticron explorer WA ED-R 8x42: £549,
  • Best for serious birdwatchers – Zeiss victory SF 10x42: £2,099,
  • Best for quick wildlife spotting – Leica ultravid 8x20 BR aqua dura: £549,
  • Best luxury binoculars – Swarovski NL pure 10x42: £2,410,
  • Best razor sharp image – Swarovski CL pocket 8x25: £649,

Hawke nature trek 8x32

Best: Overall

  • Magnification: 8x
  • Lens diameter: 32mm 
  • Weight: 521g

A good option for more general usage, or if you’re just getting into birdwatching or other kinds of wildlife field work. This pair gave a good, clear field of view and were comfortable to look through for extended periods, with twisting eyecups that can be closed down if you’re wearing glasses and raised if you’re not. For the price, the image quality, colour and sharpness is impressive and the British manufacturer has hit a sweet spot when it comes to weight, as they’re not so heavy as to cause arm ache and not so light that they can’t be held still.

Nikon aculon T02 8x21

Best: Binoculars for sport events

  • Magnification: 8x
  • Lens diameter: 21mm
  • Weight: 195g

These hinged binoculars with a slim profile fold up nice and small and are very light, so they’re barely noticeable in a pocket, meaning they would be suitable for a sporting event or festival. We got a nice bright image from the lens and dialling in the focus was made easier with a large ring that was smooth to turn.

Olympus RC II 8x21

Best: Lightweight binoculars

  • Magnification: 8x
  • Lens diameter: 21mm
  • Weight: 215g

A pocket-sized pair that’s very reasonably priced, has a good field of view and a clear image. The rubber body was easy to grasp so you could hold them steady. The binoculars were compact and lightweight, making them ideal for when you’re out walking and want some magnification to take along with you.

Canon 14x32 IS binoculars

Best: Image stabilisation

  • Magnification: 14x
  • Lens diameter: 32mm
  • Weight: 775g

When you have this much magnification at your fingertips it’s also good to have added image stabilisation because the magnification intensifies hand shake, particularly when your hands are under strain in the viewing position.

The IS system in the Canon worked well and at the flick of a switch, the powered technology steadied the bright image superbly and stopped it jumping around so that we could really study the detail. Overall, the casing moulded to the hand making the binos easy to use for extended viewing.

Opticron traveller BGA 8x24

Best: Waterproof binoculars

  • Magnification: 8x
  • Lens diameter: 24mm
  • Weight: 240g

If you’re keen on fishing or sailing these small binos are a good option as they offer 100 per cent waterproofing as well as providing a nice image that’s clearly defined. Very user-friendly, the binoculars made it easy to find moving objects quickly and focus cleanly for quick viewing.

Opticron explorer WA ED-R 8x42

Best: For low light conditions

  • Magnification: 8x
  • Lens diameter: 42mm 
  • Weight: 670g

These are well-balanced binos, which were comfortable in the hand and able to provide a bright image with good colour quality, especially in low light conditions. This makes them a good option for the more committed naturalist who might be staking out a particular area at dawn or dusk in order to capture wildlife. Magnification was good and the design makes it very easy to pull something into focus quickly, so that you don’t miss a sighting.

Zeiss victory SF 10x42

Best: For serious birdwatchers

  • Magnification: 10x
  • Lens diameter: 42mm
  • Weight: 1kg

Obviously, the price tag means that the SF is going to be suited to someone who is getting serious, with a field of view that makes it easy to locate a subject and then keep it in view, even if the animal or bird is quickly changing direction. Beautifully balanced, they feel much lighter than a kilo in the hand, largely thanks to a clever design detail, which puts the weight close to the eyepiece so you won’t end the day with aching arms. The focus wheel is smooth, fast and easily found when you’re looking through the eyepieces.

Leica ultravid 8x20 BR aqua dura

Best: For quick wildlife spotting

  • Magnification: 8x
  • Lens diameter: 20mm
  • Weight: 245g

These compact binoculars felt very robust, with the kind of build quality that you would expect from one of the big names. For such a small set the image you get is astonishingly sharp all the way to the edge and very bright. The Leicas were easy to align to the eyes with a push button adjustment underneath the focus puller. That means they won’t suffer any accidental changes when they’re bouncing around in a backpack or in your pocket, which is great for ultra quick wildlife spotting. The shock-absorbing, black rubber casing was also comfortable to use.

Swarovski NL pure 10x42

Best: Luxury binoculars

  • Magnification: 10x
  • Lens diameter: 42mm
  • Weight: 850g

Another pair with wildlife professionals in mind, as soon as you pick up the NL pures you can feel where your money is going with some superior ergonomics. Swarovski has sculpted the barrels for a natural hold and the image that you will be presented with is pin sharp, with clarity that goes all the way to the edge of the lens and won’t let you down even in low light situations. It’s a huge investment but the attention to detail is incredibly impressive and is matched by the performance in the field, which gives an immersive experience every time you look through the eye lenses.

Swarovski CL pocket 8x25

Best: Razor sharp image

  • Magnification: 8x
  • Lens diameter: 25mm 
  • Weight: 345g

Another high-end compact that offers razor sharp imagery and, for a little extra weight, you will get a broader field of view, so you can really take in a vista without having to move the binoculars. Swarovskis is always going to be an investment but these are built for life with superior optical quality that will make objects easy to target and bring details into sharp focus. In general usage, the binoculars are easy to operate and they come with a tough case and belt loop that features a quick release Velcro strap so that you can access them quickly.

Binoculars FAQs

What to consider when buying binoculars?

When looking for a new pair of binos, we suggest thinking about how much you plan on using them first of all. If you’re an avid wildlife spotter, it could be worth investing in a high end pair. However, if you’re a birdwatching beginner, you could start out with a more budget-friendly option.

Specification wise, magnification is important because it will impact how far and wide you’ll be able to see. To find out the magnification of your pair, look at the casing where you will find two numbers written like this: 8x25. The first number is the binoculars’ magnification, which tells you how many times larger an image will appear compared with that seen by the naked eye. for example, a magnification of 8x means that the object you see using the binoculars will appear eight times closer than it does in real life. It is worth noting that the more you magnify your lens, the harder it is for the image to stay still so image stabilisation is a feature to look out for too.

If you plan to use your binoculars at sunrise or sunset, take note of the objective lens diameter, which is the measurement of the lenses at the end of the binoculars. A larger objective lens diameter will let in more light, thus making the image appear brighter.

Size and weight are also factors worth considering. If you’ll be out birdwatching for long bouts of time, holding up the binoculars to your eyes can start to make your arms ache, meaning a lightweight pair could be your best bet. If you enjoy going wildlife spotting in all conditions, invest in a waterproof pair. British weather can be unpredictable at the best of times.

The verdict: Binoculars

Offering a bright image with good detail and colour at an excellent price, the Hawke nature trek 8x32 are a perfect pair of binoculars for quick and easy bird and wildlife watching. Focusing quickly and easily, they are an excellent spotting tool, whether you’re out walking or hiding away at home.   

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