Christina:
 
You can't go wrong with the Swarovski 80 HD, although there are other options out there. There are, however, a few decisions to make:
 
1. Whether to get the straight through or angled eyepiece. Straight through may have an advantage for some people when operated from a car on a window mount (although people who have angled eyepieces usually manage OK). Angled has two main advantages: (1) It is easier for people of different heights to use, and (2) The tripod does not have to be extended as high, making for greater sturdiness.
 
2. Whether you like Swarovski's a "helical" focusing -- i.e. a ring around the body of the scope -- or would prefer a scope that focuses with  one or two knobs at the top (e.g. Zeiss, Kowa, Leica). Zeiss and Leica have two knobs, one for gross focusing, the other for fine tuning.
 
3. Whether you want to spend $2600 for the top of the line Swarovski (ATM HD or STM HD), $1900 for the ordinary HD (STS or ATS) or $1600 for the non-HD version. "HD" stands for "high definition" glass. Different colors travel at different wave lengths, and HD (and other types of "low dispersion" glass) brings them together, resulting in slightly better resolution. In the case of the Swarovski, the regular model has a resolution of 8-9 seconds of arc, whereas the HD has a resolution of 6-7 seconds of arc. But here's the kicker. Swarovski's own representative will tell you that the human eye cannot distinguish the difference between 8-9 seconds of arc and 6-7 seconds of arc! So you pay $300-1,000 more for an improvement that the human eye is supposedly incapable of noticing! The standard Swarovski is a very fine scope.
 
4. The $2600 Swarovski ATM HD or STM HD may be new, and it may have features I don't know about. The "M" in "ATM" and "STM" evidently stands for magnesium -- i.e. the scope is lighter. I'd investigate before I spent an extra $700.
 
5. A magnificent scope on a mediocre tripod is a mediocre scope. All of that precise resolution is meaningless when the scope is shaking. Don't spend big bucks on a scope unless you will be using it on a first rate tripod.
 
My recommendation: If possible, go birding with folks that have both the Swarovski and Zeiss 85 mm scopes and compare them. If not, try them out at a Cabela's or Bass Pro store. That will give you an idea of the focus system issue. While in the store, focus on some distant writing. You can compare resolution by seeing how well you can read small distant print with two competing scopes. (But make sure the platform is very study for both scopes!)
 
For general information about how to test a scope, read my review of the  B & L 80 mm scope on the ASM website at http://www.mobirds.org/Articles/scope1.asp.
 
Other personal observations:
 
Swarovski has a very good reputation for customer service.
 
I believe that the Leica scopes are overpriced. I do not favor Kowas. But those are personal opinions. They are all pretty good.
 
Nikon has a new scope that I don't know about. Nikon makes very good optics. Some rated an earlier Nikon scope the best large objective lens scope of its time. Unfortunately, it did not sell because it was not waterproof. The new Nikon may be very good.
 
Most people will say nice things about the scope they bought. That's human nature.
 
You can discuss scope and tripod issues with one of Eagle Optics' very knowledgeable sales reps at 1-800-289-1132.
 
Tripods:
 
I'm not up on tripods, but the ones your dad likes appear to be specialized for photography. Most birders want the following features in a tripod package:
 
1. Sets up and down quickly.
 
2. Quick release plate on head.
 
3. "Fluid head" for moving field of view easily.
 
4. Light weight  for portability (except for old guys like me, who just bird from the car or right next to it).
 
5. Quick release plate can be used with another head on a window mount so that scope can alternate between window mount and tripod easily.
 
Sturdiness is of prime importance. Here's where compromise comes in. The sturdiest tripod and head will weigh a ton and lack the other features listed above. The trick is to get the sturdiest tripod package that includes those features.  (The less you plan to haul the scope and tripod a distance from the car, the heavier they can be and vice versa).
 
Carbon is very sturdy, lighter and more expensive. Most birders I know who have spent the extra money on carbon did so because they travel and/or hike a lot with their scopes.
 
 
Bob Fisher
Independence, MO
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