The following information is presented not as an expert treatise, but as the lessons learned by myself as a keen amateur ornithologist. It sumarises what I have managed to glean from my various efforts in this hobby.
Where to start
One of the most common misconceptions when starting out in birdwatching may be to think you know nothing whatsoever about birds . However, this is usually far from the truth. When asked, most folk can immediately tell you the difference between a duck, a swan and a blackbird. You therefore have some base knowledge, and with a little work, this can easily be added to. Of course, it takes a while to become an expert, and after all, no-one knows everything on the subject!
It is important early on to study the birds which frequent your local area. Only when you have a good knowledge of which species occur around you, can you tell if you should happen to spot a stranger amongst them. Of course, all areas vary, for instance, if you happen to live near the coast, you will see many different species than those of us who live inland.
Get hold of a good reference book, one which will cover your local region. There is little to be gained if your book covers all species on the planet! The book should contain good colour photographs (beware those with over enthusiastic colouring), migration and breeding information. Some silhouettes are also useful for bird recognition. Here are some examples of suitable books.
As well as learning to recognise birds visually, it is very important to be able to recognise them by their song or call. This can pay dividends when actually spotting the bird is made difficult by the presence of thick undergrowth or foliage. A classic example of this occurs with the tiny goldcrest. Until I learned to recognise the its song, I'd seen very few of them in my locality. In fact, there are a great number around the place, but you need to know what to listen for, and where to listen. Again, learning birdsong is not too difficult. You will certainly have knowledge of a surprising number already. Everone will know the Cuckoo at least! There are records of birdsong and calls which are of great assistance, maybe the RSPB will stock such things. (See link to their Web Pages later)
Binoculars and Telescopes
While a lot of good birdwatching may be done without optical aid, it is almost essential to use a good pair of binoculars to get a closer view of things. Whilst almost any 'bins' are better than none, it is a good idea to get the right type to gain maximum advantage. This applies especially if you are planning to buy a new pair for the job. Here are a few simple guides to help choose what to buy.
When reading information about binoculars, you will see figures such as 10x50 and 8x40 etc. Put simply, the first figure refers to the magnification or power of the instrument. The second figure tells you the size of the object glass or lens in mm. (the one furthest from your eyes!). In general, a magnification of 7x or 8x is about optimum for our purpose. More magnification will give a narrower field of view, so the bird will be harder to find, and will cause problems in holding the things still enough without support of some kind. Another disadvantage of excessive magnification will be dark images when light is poor. The size of object glass may be important if you plan to do any viewing in poor light conditions, eg at dusk. The bigger the lens, the more light it will gather, so you'll find that the very compact binoculars give a mediocre performance as light fails, but of course will be much lighter to carry around. I guess you pay your money and take your choice! My preference would be to buy 8x40s or 7x50s.
There are a good number of telescopes on the market too. These are probably best used as an addition to your binoculars. They are more suitable for 'hide' work, where you are likely to be able to use a tripod support. This is essential for holding the 'scope' steady to avoid a wobbly image. It is sometimes a good idea to make use of a bean-bag on which you can rest your bins or telescope. I guess a 'scope' with a magnification of 20 or more would be useful, although I do not have one (yet) myself.
Apart from local clubs which are well worth joining, there are the National Societies to be considered. These are the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, (RSPB), and the British Trust for Ornithology, (BTO). Try the following web URLs:-
Here's a bit of a Challenge!
Try and see how many species you can identify from the silhouettes pictured below.
British/European readers will have an advantage here (sorry!)