First Impressions! Testing the new ZEISS Victory Harpia Spotting Scope in Panama

Melissa Penta digiscoping the Harpy Eagle with an iPhone6 and ZEISS Victory Harpia 95 mm.

In August, 2017 I traveled to the Darién province of Panama to test a new ZEISS spotting scope.

Our crew – me, four other writers, and a guide from RockJumper – arrived at Panama City on a Saturday to meet Gerold Dobler, a product specialist at ZEISS. Gerold is an avid world birder who conceives and tests all of ZEISS new birding products. After dinner at Hotel Ríande and a good night’s sleep, we headed down the Pan-American Highway toward Canopy Camp, a remote but popular ecolodge in the Darién.

At dinner that first night, our mission was laid before us: we were to set out on a week of birding that included a day-long quest to see the world’s most powerful raptor – the Harpy Eagle.  Along the way, we’d scour forests, wetlands, and grassy fields looking for Panamanian birds such as Choco Tinamou, Sapayoa, Pied Water Tyrant, Blue Cotinga, Whooping Motmot, Gray-cheeked Nunlet, Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, White-vented Plumeleteer, Spot-crowned Barbet, as well as other raptors such as Ornate Hawk-Eagle and Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle. Lucky for us, we’d also be testing the new ZEISS Victory Harpia spotting scopes, both the 85 and 95mm models and some of us would be digiscoping. 

Our ZEISS group birding in Panama

Needless to say, our group was excited. The Harpy is an apex predator that lurks in the lowland neotropical rainforest. It is a highly sought after bird, though the word “bird” doesn’t seem to do it justice. It is an eagle in the most formidable sense. It is the world’s most powerful raptor; one that has no problem taking down howler monkeys and two-toed sloths.  Visually, the bird is stunning. Adults are massive with two-inch tarsei, long claws, and a strongly hooked bill. They have a white breast and belly, gray head and neck, gray rounded wings, and a long, banded tail. Their crested head feathers, spikes of gray that poke from its crown, reflect a serious warrior attitude.

Harpy Eagle by Edison Buenano

Adult Harpy Eagle taken in South America by Edison Buenano (SwordbillExpeditions.com).

Harpies often sit for long periods on a high perch overlooking an opening, river, or salt-lick. As the bird turns to look at its prey, its crest feathers rise to attention. Monkeys, sloths, coatimundis, or even young brocket deer, are easily enveloped by its 7-foot wingspan, their bones instantly crushed by powerful talons.

The new ZEISS spotting scope is named after the Harpia, for what is now an obvious reason. It can SEE! It can see far away and with amazing detail, and with impressive clarity and brightness. See product images here.

My first look through the scope was at a Purple Gallinule, preening in the sun at mid-morning near Bayano Lake. One look and BAM! The violets, indigos, and scaly greens on this bird were positively scintillant. As the bird worked its feathers with its beak, I could see every feather detail. These seriously intimate looks made me feel seriously close to this bird, as if it was my pet, whose eyes I stare into all the time. 

Yellow-hooded-Blackbird_2876 © Melissa Penta

Yellow-hooded-Blackbird © Melissa Penta

The views of Yellow-hooded Blackbird were equally memorable. On our last day, we stood by the side of Salto road near a grassy area watching Yellow-hooded Blackbirds flit among tall reeds. The birds were far away, so looks through my binoculars were nice but not special. But when Gerry Dobler allowed me a look through his scope, I was gobsmacked. It was a hazy day but the scope brought the bird so close and collected so much light that the bird LIT UP in amazing detail and clarity. I watched it cling to a reed sideways and, just like the blackbirds from home, lift its head, puff its throat feathers, and stretch its wings out in song. I walked away with a huge smile; it was unreal!

Getting to the Harpy was an adventure, as was our trip back home. That deserves its own post. But we did see one – a juvenile of about one-and-a-half years – sitting in its natal tree. It had dismantled the nest already, as some youngsters do, but it was still using it as a perch. The guides told us that at this stage in its development, the juvie’s parents came back every 3-4 days. This young Harpy Eagle was a magnificent find all we hoped for!

Harpy Eagle digiscoped with ZEISS Harpia © Melissa Penta

Harpy Eagle digiscoped with ZEISS Harpia © Melissa Penta

We spent more than three hours snapping photos and videos of the Harpy through the Harpia.  We were all very happy, especially Markus (of Sweden) and Otaka (of Japan) who had traveled the farthest to see the species.

See product images here.

Digiscoping the Harpy Eagle through the ZEISS Harpia.

What makes the new ZEISS Victory Harpia scope(s) special?

ZEISS Victory Harpia 95 mm

The 85mm and 95mm models are the first spotting scopes in this category with a 3x wide-angle zoom. They retain a 72-degree field of view across the range of magnification, which reduces the tunneling effect as you zoom in. The large wide-angle zoom range is 22x to 65x magnification on the 85 model and 23x to 70x mag on the 95 model. The images are clear and bright  throughout the zoom range in all but the most challenging light conditions. 

Also, the zoom happens in the objective, not the eyepiece. This allows for a smaller eyepiece – which sits more comfortably near the eye.

Fast focusing with dual-speed mechanism. The zoom wheel has been relocated from the eyepiece to the scope body, just behind the focus wheel. You can zoom and focus with one hand.  This would be especially useful when training the scope on birds in flight. The focusing mechanism clicks (inaudibly) when it shifts from high to low gear, which helps you switch between rapid and find adjustment.

Near Focus: With a near focus distance of 4.5 meters on the 95 model and 3.5 meters on the 85 model, the scope is handy for butterfly and dragonfly watching.

See product images here.

****

This new, state-of-the-art ZEISS Victory Harpia spotting scope is designed for the serious bird and wildlife watcher to cover a wide range of conditions, from scanning under the forest canopy, seabirding, to watching migrating flocks and identifying odonata.

When it releases in January, 2018, it’s poised to be the most expensive birding scope on the market (>$3,500). If you can afford it, however, give it no more thought; you will be satisfied and thoroughly impressed.

***

Below are specifications of the new scopes.

ZEISS Victory Harpia 85 mm ZEISS Victory Harpia 95 mm
Magnification 22-65x 23-70x
Focal Length 162-486 mm 174-523 mm
Near focus distance 3.5 (4.8) yds 4.5 (4.9) yds
Weight w/o eyepiece 1,934 g (4.26 lb) 2,078 g (4.58 lbs)
Weight, eyepiece 220 g (0.49 lb)
Water resistant 400 mbar 400 mbar
Focal length (eyepiece) 7.48 mm 7.48 mm
Field of view m/1000 m (ft/1000 yds) 63.2 – 21.0 (189.6 – 63.0) 58.8 – 19.5 (176.4 – 58.5)
Zoom Factor 3x 3x
KEEP SCROLLING to see two great Panamanian birds digiscoped through the Harpia.

This Barred Puffbird was digiscoped with the ZEISS Victory Harpia as it lurked in the shadows. It shows a remarkable level of detail for being in dark conditions. © Melissa Penta.

 

 

This plunky Spot-crowned Barbet was showing well on the Canopy Camp grounds and was just asking to be digiscoped. © Melissa Penta.