When you start getting serious about birding you will want to get a telescope. If you want to look at waders (shorebirds, in North American parlance) and see more than just grey dots you will need a ‘scope, and it’s also the only way of getting the close-in views you need to confirm your identification of difficult birds. On a recent trip to Cyprus we were able to identify several sub-species of yellow wagtail because we could “grill” them at length from far enough away that we didn’t spook them.
There’s a direct relationship between price and quality, so as the birding mania bites deeply you may start thinking about one of the top-end telescopes. I had a decent mid-range ‘scope that served me well for several years, but there were many times I had to look through my mates’ Leicas, Swarovskis, Zeiss’s and Kowas to see things that the good old Opticron was missing. The issue with upgrading is that the really good telescopes are eye-wateringly expensive. Buy a new top of the line Swaro and you won’t get much change back from £3000. The best ‘scopes are clearly superior equipment, but they are priced like other kinds of man toys (e.g. golf clubs) – you pay a significant premium for the bragging rights of owning the best.
There was a niche to be filled for a ‘scope with optical quality to match the best, but without the same level of greedy mark-up. Enter the Vortex Razor HD.
The Razor has received glowing reviews in North America, but has very few sales outlets in the UK. About a year ago the distributor (Newpro) shipped one at my request to my favourite optics shop, Bath Camera. I tried it side-by-side with a Kowa 883, looking up at an optics test chart and a stuffed buzzard high up in the steeple of the church. To my eye the quality was nearly identical. At minimum magnification the field of view of the Kowa was a hair wider, but otherwise (brightness, accuracy, true representation of colour and ergonomics) they were in a dead heat. So I bought it. And haven’t regretted it for a moment. It’s a quantum step up from the Opticron in every way. I have thoroughly tested it in a wide range of conditions from freezing sleet in Norfolk to the dust and heat of the Sahara desert (pictured). The moment of truth came on an Army Ornithological Society trip to Morocco, when we were looking at a falcon way up on a cliff face, trying to determine by subtle clues whether it was barbary or a peregrine. I looked through everyone else’s scope and could not see any difference in the picture.
The price was about £1400: not cheap, but the delta between that and a Swaro, Leica or Kowa paid for most of my trip to Morocco. Vortex has a no-questions-asked full replacement warranty which I have not tested, though they do advertise that they replaced a set of binoculars that was chewed by a bear!
In fairness, Vortex still has a ways to go to match the quality and ease of use of the stay-on case, but I don’t doubt that they will have that sorted out soon. All in all, a fine example of “the great things people create”.
 Curiously, prices vary significantly by country. Example: list price for a Kowa 883 with a 25-60 zoom eyepiece in Canada (Ontario) is $3874 including tax. In the UK the price is £2859, or $5146 at current exchange rates.