Best Binoculars for Birding in Antarctica

March 24, 2022

Bird-watching, as featured in a previous blog titled How to Enjoy Bird-Watching In Antarctica, is one of the main reasons thousands of amateur ornithologists—as well as expert ornithologists—and birders visit the Antarctic. Incredible, and often rare, species of birds lure enthusiasts to Antarctica. Quark Expeditions’ Antarctic itineraries include lots of bird-watching opportunities, including sub-Antarctic islands such as the Falkland Islands, as evident in photographer and expedition guide Acacia Johnson’s article The Falkland Islands: A Birder’s Paradise.

Birders sight a pair of black-browed albatross on West Point in the Falkland Islands on an Antarctic voyage with Quark Expeditions.

Birders sight a pair of black-browed albatross on West Point in the Falkland Islands on an Antarctic voyage
with Quark Expeditions. Photo: Acacia Johnson

The Falkland Islands are known for their diversity of bird species—not only penguins but albatrosses, as well. And of course, what birder doesn’t dream of gazing through their binoculars at Emperor penguins. Just take a few minutes to view this video Snow Hill Island, Antarctica: The Impossible Journey, which showcases one of the most sought-after birding experiences in the world, the largest colony of Emperor penguins ever discovered. 

While we’ve written a lot on how to photograph and shoot your best video in the Polar Regions, we often get asked about the best binoculars for bird watching in Antarctica.
 Bird watching binoculars

We turned to Quark Expeditions’ Ornithology Presenter and Expedition Team Guide Noah Strycker, who’s written such books as The Thing with Feathers, Among Penguins, and  Birding Without Borders. And Noah certainly knows the best binoculars for bird watching in Antarctica. After all, as a younger researcher, he spent three months in the Antarctic living with 300,000 Adelie penguins!
 
This expert information from Noah will help you determine the best binoculars for birding in Antarctica for your next polar expedition, whether it’s South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula: Penguin Safari or Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula: Explorers and Kings, where you’ll see thousands of King penguins.
 
So, let’s talk about how you can have the most unforgettable birding experience in Antarctica by choosing the best binoculars. 

Bird-watching in the Polar Regions with Quark Expeditions.

Bird-watching in the Polar Regions with Quark Expeditions. Photo: Acacia Johnson

A quick comparison of nine of the best binoculars for birding 

Before getting down to the finer details of each specific brand of binoculars, Noah Strycker shares a top-level comparison of binocular brands:

Budget: “I wouldn’t generally recommend a new pair of binoculars that costs less than $100,” says Noah, “You’re sacrificing too much in terms of field of view, clarity, ruggedness, and close focus. But you might find a serviceable pair for just a little more. The Nikon Prostaff 3S and Celestron Nature DX are among the most popular budget options for birders.”

Mid-range: “The sweet spot for most polar-traveling birders encompasses a wide range of binoculars between about $250 and $1,000. Bushnell, Vortex, and Nikon each offer excellent choices throughout this range,” says Noah.

Image Stabilized: “A special mention from me for Canon’s line of IS binoculars, which come in a variety of magnifications. Some birders find these gimmicky and heavy, while others fall in love with the rock-steady image,” says Noah.

High End: “Based on my experience birding in Antarctica, the three undisputed binocular champions are Leica, Swarovski, and Zeiss—each of which produces top-end optics with top-end price tags ($2,000 and up),” says Noah. 

 
How to choose the best binoculars for Antarctic bird-watching

It's important to consider the weather and ever-present water when choosing the best binoculars for birding in Antarctica.

It's important to consider the weather and ever-present water when choosing the best binoculars
for birding in Antarctica. Photo: Acacia Johnson

The following trips are from Noah Strycker:
 
Almost any all-around birding binocular will do nicely in Antarctica. If you’re looking to purchase a pair specifically for an Antarctic expedition, here are several things to keep in mind:
 
Weatherproofing and durability are especially important: Many Antarctic expeditions use inflatable Zodiac boats for landings and cruises, and on windy days you can end up drenched with saltwater. Some binoculars are fully waterproof; others are “water-resistant.” You want to be able to use your optics without worrying too much about water permeating inside the lenses.
 
Pack extra lens cloths: Speaking of saltwater and Zodiacs, make sure you bring extra lens cloths to keep the lenses of your binoculars clean and dry. The salt crust can be corrosive, so gently wipe it off after each excursion if your optics get wet.
 
Glove-friendly binoculars: It’s cold in Antarctica—often right around freezing on the Antarctic Peninsula, even in midsummer. This isn’t an issue for a good-quality pair of binoculars, but it means you’ll usually be using them while wearing gloves. Make sure you can hold the binoculars and turn the focus wheel easily with the gloves you pack for your polar voyage.
 
Protecting your binoculars: Outdoors, I usually keep my binoculars on a strap around my neck, tucked underneath my waterproof jacket if there is much snow, rain, or spray. You can also keep them in your bag or backpack when going ashore—but do keep them handy in any case. Even onboard the ship, I like to wear my binoculars at almost all times; I can’t count the number of times when interesting wildlife have been sighted in the middle of a dinner or a lecture, and I’ve been able to get good views while others are scurrying back to their cabins for their optics.

What to look for in the best binoculars for Antarctic birding

Next, what are the features you should look for when shopping for the best binoculars for birding in Antarctica? 

Noah recommends you keep in mind the following:

Size. According to Noah, a compact pair of binoculars, like a small 8x32 model, can be great for occasional sightings of whales, seals, and birds in Antarctica, especially because many of these animals have little fear of people and can be approached relatively closely. If, however, you plan to spend much time on deck looking at seabirds (such as albatrosses and petrels in the Drake Passage), or actively scanning for wildlife on ice floes, I’d recommend a sturdier pair of binoculars (8x42 or 10x42) that collects more light and gives a sharper image. Whether you choose 8x or 10x magnification is personal preference; 8x will give you a slightly wider, brighter field of view, while 10x will give a slightly more zoomed-in view. 

“Almost all modern, full-sized binoculars are of the ‘roof prism’ design,” says Noah. “I wouldn’t recommend ‘Porro prism’ ones (on which the barrels angle outward, rather than straight) as they are bulkier and harder to hold.”
 
Weight. Noah explains that binoculars weighing more than two pounds or so will be tiring to wear for extended periods. Many of the most popular models among birders and wildlife enthusiasts are between one and one-and-a-half pounds. Watch out for “marine” binoculars, cautions Noah, these are designed to be used by mariners on ships and not to be carried around in the field, and often have built-in features like rangefinders that birders don’t need.
 
Image clarity. The price of a binocular reflects the clarity of its optics more than anything else—in other words, how sharp the image is. The most expensive binoculars boast extremely well-crafted glass with high-tech coatings that gather and transmit light without distortion. Cheaper models usually give a blurrier, less colorful, less contrasty view. But the association isn’t linear; high-end binocular brands also charge for cachet and maybe only slightly sharper than mid-range options.
 
Try before you buy. With the rise of internet shopping, says Noah, it can be hard to “try before you buy” these days—but it’s still good advice because everyone has slightly different preferences. If you don’t have access to a well-stocked store, you might try asking your local Audubon group or birding club if you can join an upcoming field trip. Other birders will be happy to let you peek through their optics, and are usually happy to answer questions. Otherwise, read as many reviews as you can before ordering a pair of “enhanced eyeballs” for your Antarctic expedition.

Noah Strycker reviews 9 of the best binoculars for Antarctic birding

Drawing on decades of experience in the Polar Regions, Noah weighs in on the various benefits of what he considers as nine of the best binoculars for Antarctic birding.

Nikon Prostaff 3S and Celestron Nature DX
Nikon Prostaff 3S and Celestron Nature DX

Each of these models, the Nikon Prostaff 3S and the Celestron Nature DX is bright and sharp—and won’t come close to breaking the bank. They’re not as durable as spendier binoculars but will do just fine for a casual wildlife-watcher in Antarctica.

Bushnell H20

Also budget-friendly, these Bushnell binoculars are designed for watching wildlife on the water. They are fully waterproof and have an extra-grippy rubber armor that ensures the binoculars won’t slip out of your hand in wet conditions. They are perfect for taking out on Zodiacs, on deck in sleet and snow, and on slushy landings on the Antarctic continent during a polar expedition. The glass isn’t as tack-sharp as higher-end models, but the view is still excellent. As an all-around Antarctic expedition binocular, this one is hard to beat.

Vortex Viper HD and Nikon Monarch HG: Mid-range

There are too many binoculars in the mid-range to review them all, but the Vortex Viper HD and Nikon Monarch HG are representative and are popular options for birders who want excellent quality without spending top dollar. The light-gathering ability and ruggedness of these models can come very close to matching top-of-the-line options, without shelling out for the cachet of premium brands. Beyond Antarctica, these binoculars should hold up on future travels for years to come.

Canon 12x36 IS: Canon Image Stabilized Binoculars

Birders don’t typically use binoculars above 10x magnification because it’s too difficult to hand-hold higher-powered optics without image vibration. But Canon’s image-stabilized technology makes it possible to go higher if you don’t mind carrying a heavier, slightly wonky-looking set of binoculars when you’re birding in Antarctica. For several years, I used the Canon 12x36 IS and loved them; just hold the button down and the image becomes rock-solid. They’re not for everyone—and mine eventually broke, after hard use—but if the idea of stable views from a rocking boat appeals to you, these are worth investigating.

Best of the Best: Leica Noctivids, Swarovki’s NL Pure, and Zeiss Victory HT

If you want the best views possible, and be the eternal envy of your Antarctic shipmates, look no farther than the top-of-the-line offerings from Leica, Swarovski, and Zeiss. My personal favorites (and practically an extra body appendage) are my trusty pair of Leica Noctivids, which deliver a fabulously bright, crisp image from edge to edge, and are comfortable to wear all day. Virtually equal are Swarovki’s NL Pure and the Zeiss Victory HT. These models need no introduction—my only advice is to use the rain guard when they’re around your neck, so you don’t drool too much on the eyepieces!

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