The Best Affordable Spotting Scopes: Leupold SX-1 Ventana
For spotting rare avian species, the SX-1 scope simply gives you the most bird for the buck. Leupold, based in Beaverton, Oregon, was founded by a German optical genius. It delivers high-quality optics with a relatively low price tag. This scope has a magnification of 15x to 45x (compare that to your puny 10x binocs). Its objective lens (the front one) is a healthy 60 millimeters, which means it lets in a lot of light for early evening viewing. It's also digital-camera compatible.
You can get the SX-1 in either straight or angled format (an angled one is easier for people to walk up to and peer in, but the optical difference is negligible except to the experts). A weight of 1.9 pounds and a street price of around $230 makes it a good addition on treks where you really want to see stuff close up.
The Best Affordable Spotting Scopes: Bushnell Trophy XLT 15-45
The Trophy XLT is billed as a hunting accessory—and makes a good one—but for those who merely want to view nature from ultra-long distances, it makes an excellent scope for a hike. It’s 1.8-pound weight is a little bulky for stowing, but look what you get: a compact tripod, 15-45x magnification, 50 millimeter lens diameter, a waterproof housing—at a $200 street price.
The Best Affordable Spotting Scopes: Alpen 20x50 Waterproof Mini
Some will balk at including the Alpen Mini in the same lineup as quality spotting scopes like the Leupold, but if you are just getting started in birding, this is your entrée. Like any standard scope, it’s nitrogen filled to reduce fog, as well as waterproof and dustproof. It also comes with a tripod. The optics bring you 20x closer with a 50 millimeter objective lens, and it weighs just over a half pound. ($60)
The Best Affordable Spotting Scopes: Vortex Recon
The Recon is a shrunken, lightweight version of a full spotting scope, but it’s one of the best tradeoffs between optics and packability in this group. Made by Middleton, Wisconsin-based Vortex, the $549 scope weighs under a pound and offers 15x magnification and a huge 50 millimeter lens. To protect it in the wild, the lens is scratch-resistant, the housing is waterproof, and the exterior is covered in grippy rubber.