Optics Review: Zeiss Gavia Spotting Scope

Without a doubt, birders first and foremost turn to binoculars to get a closer look at a bird. It’s easy to understand why. When you’re paired with the right binocular, you’ve got a tool that’s easy to use, portable, and effective. It’s the optic every birder must have. If you’re a veteran birder, though, you have probably found yourself in situations where a binocular just can’t get the job done. Enter the Zeiss Gavia spotting scope.

Loons and Scopes

At some point during fall migration, I’ll find myself visiting the lakes around Madison, Wisconsin, searching for a red-throated or Pacific loon among the common loons. These less-common loons can present an identification challenge under any circumstances (particularly when they are in their nonbreeding plumage). Given that they are generally floating 100 yards or more offshore, most birders equipped with just binoculars will feel under-equipped as they try to make out subtle plumage variations on the back of the neck or to detect a slight upturn in a bird’s bill each time the bird emerges from below the surface. This situation exemplifies one of the many occasions when I find a spotting scope to be indispensable. Mounted on a tripod, a scope can be used hands-free when observing a bird, which allows me to have a field guide in hand for refreshing my knowledge of field marks. Most important, though, the scope will provide me with much more detailed views of the bird, with the aid of significantly more magnification (up to 7x more). Whether you’re scanning open grasslands for bobolinks, mudflats for pectoral sandpipers, or open water for ducks and loons, you’ll find that a spotting scope can turn a frustrating situation into an observational delight.

What’s in a Name?

I’m assuming the fine folks at Zeiss felt the same way when they named their newest spotting scope Gavia, which is the genus of loons. Historically (and to this day), the German brand Zeiss has been affiliated with cutting-edge optical design and performance in their sport optics, manufacturing gear that provides users with a visual “wow” factor generally accompanied by a degree of financial anxiety when considering the price. It has been refreshing to see Zeiss introduce some new product lines to their catalog over the past three years that cater to the increasing consumer demand for high-quality optics at price points lower than those of premium optics. That was the idea behind Zeiss’ lower-cost Terra ED and Conquest HD optics lines. Zeiss pricing and quality tiers consist of Terra, Conquest, and Victory optics lines as good, better, and best. The new Gavia scope is part of the Conquest series, putting it in a higher-quality tier, but not top-end, which is reflected in its retail price of $2,000.

The Zeiss Gavia spotting scope.

Measuring Quality

Compare a binocular you can get for $400 and one costing $2,400, and although you’ll see some obvious and notable differences in their performance, you’ll also see that with $400 binoculars, you can get high-quality views of most birds in most viewing conditions. Spotting scopes tell a different story. Scopes are optical devices engineered for high-power viewing. As you increase the magnification in optics, you not only magnify the bird you’re looking at, but you’re also magnifying all the optical defects that occur when light passes through glass. As a result, you can more easily detect the drop in the optical quality offered by a mid-priced scope relative to that of a higher-end scope. Birders often find that entry-level and mid-priced scopes leave much to be desired in terms of image quality. At maximum magnification, in overcast lighting, or when viewing a bird at a great distance, it’s likely that the field marks you’re looking for just won’t be apparent with mid-priced scopes. That doesn’t mean the only alternative is to get the very best. The Zeiss Gavia does a nice job of bringing a whole lot of quality to the market, making it a highly usable scope under any circumstances, without pushing consumers into the $4,000 price range.

The Gavia’s specifications are all on target to meet or exceed the needs of birders. It’s no featherweight, but at 59.9 ounces, the Gavia is comfortable to haul for an 85mm scope. The 10-foot close focus is a nice feature to have when you need it (although I wouldn’t consider it an essential for good birding). The eye relief is consistently greater than 15mm, making it easy to use for eyeglass wearers or for birding with sunglasses on—regardless of the magnification you’re using. Another essential specification if you’re an active birder is the Gavia’s waterproof and internally fog-proof construction. Zeiss’ LotuTec lens coating is an added benefit, ensuring that when water does hit the lens, it rolls right off—like water off a loon’s back.

Gavia Features

Zeiss designed the Gavia with a helical focus mechanism, which is a large focus ring encompassing the circumference of the scope body. It’s easy to access quickly, and the operation is both smooth and precise. I tend to prefer this style of focus on a scope, because it allows for easy use while wearing gloves, and the integration of the wheel into the body makes for a clean and streamlined look. The tripod mounting foot on the scope is designed to directly drop into some of the more popular quick-release tripod heads, negating the need of a quick-release plate. This is a great feature if you can take advantage of it (works with Manfrotto 128RC heads and Swarovski tripod heads) because it solves the recurring problem of the scope twisting loose on the tripod quick-release plate. Well done, Zeiss!

Another nice touch is the twist lock mechanism that secures the eyepiece to the scope, thus assuring that it won’t accidentally fall out. This same feature also accommodates the use of some astronomical eyepieces with the Gavia. Other noteworthy (though increasingly standard) features are rubber armoring, a tethered eyepiece cover, and a body that can rotate 360 degrees while mounted to a tripod, making it easy to share scope views with anyone too short to look down into the eyepiece.

Optical Performance

The optical system of the Zeiss Gavia consists of a 30 to 60x zoom eyepiece coupled with an 85mm scope body. I found the zoom mechanism to be a little stiff for my liking, but I anticipate that with repeated use it will break in nicely. I’ll take that over a loose zoom mechanism any day. Although it has been common for most scope manufacturers to introduce models with both a straight and an angled eyepiece orientation, Zeiss choose to bring the Gavia to the market with just the angled design, which, over the past 10 years, has proven to be the more popular of the two styles. I spent some time comparing the Gavia to some of the best 85mm scopes on the market just to see where the Gavia shines and where it falls short of perfection.

The Gavia exceeded my expectations in terms of resolution and clarity. Looking at print on a distant power pole or cones on a pine tree a quarter-mile away revealed almost as much detail as do the best scopes out there, particularly from 30x to 45x, which is where scope users will have their power set most of the time. The Gavia started to lag behind the alpha scopes when I began to push the optics up to 60x. At high power, there is noticeable chromatic aberration with the Gavia that will obscure some fine detail. Chromatic aberration displays as a slight purple or green color fringing the margins of objects, particularly where there is high contrast, such as a black wire against the sky. This is to be expected in a scope at this price, and I wouldn’t consider the effect to be excessive in this case. When I bring the zoom back down to 30x, almost all traces of chromatic aberration begin to abate. Some birders will find this sort of effect objectionable, but the cost savings between the Gavia and the very best scopes on the market will surely win over birders looking for a mix of performance and value. Another optical trait in which the Gavia’s lower price is evident is the edge sharpness. The image is sharp and clear across the center 75 to 80 percent of the scope’s field of view. This makes it perfectly usable, although I did find myself missing that full edge-to-edge clarity that the best scopes provide.

Zeiss hit the mark with the Gavia scope, finding just the right ratio of performance to cost for bird watchers looking for a scope that won’t limit their birding opportunities while saving hundreds or even thousands of dollars—if they are willing to overlook some of the optical shortcomings that accompany those savings. In terms of features, specifications, and design, the Gavia is fully satisfying. Although I can’t promise that the Gavia is going to make identification of nonbreeding loons at 400 yards easy, I do feel confident saying that this scope won’t be a limiting factor.