So, what do I need to be a birdwatcher?
Technically, nothing. You can watch birds in a garden or a park with absolutely no special equipment. You go somewhere, you pay attention, you look, you listen, you learn. You need patience.
But while you may well do fine on the ‘spotting’ and ‘watching’ that way, you may struggle on ‘identifying’. So you’ll need a bird book.
My biggest tip here is ‘avoid photographic guides’. This may sound crazy, as surely a photo is the clearest way of showing what a bird looks like? But the variations in colour, light, pose, in a photo can make the image misleading. A good, well-illustrated book will give a better general impression of the species.
I’m a big fan of the Collins Bird Guide, and you can get a second-hand paperback of the first edition for well under ten pounds. It might be too weighty at first though, so something like the RSPB Pocket Guide (available for under £2 online) is pretty good for carrying with you.
Now, you can easily spend thousands on a pair of binoculars, and as a beginner you may feel you need £100 or more just to get started. You don’t. For the first 15 years or so, I managed just fine with a pair from a local second-hand shop. You’ll easily get a sturdy pair of ‘bins’ for £10-20.
You can get bamboozled by all the references to lenses, optics, coatings, field of view, magnification and so on. Again, for now, don’t worry about it. Any pair of binoculars will be labelled with two numbers, such as 6×24, 7×32, 10×40. The first number is magnification. For birding, I’d suggest 7x or 8x. That will do you well in most circumstances.
The second refers to the ‘objective lens’, which is the bit at the end where the light comes in. The bigger the number, the more light comes in. This is important, especially as you increase magnification, as more light means a better image. There’s little point in buying something with high magnification that lets little light in, e.g. 10×25, as when you are looking at something distant it will be little more than a dull blob. 7×32 or 8×32 from a charity shop will do you fine. Before you buy, take them outside, have a look at a distant tree. Is the image clear and sharp? Does everything turn, but within your control? Is anything loose or squeaky? As long as it’s all okay, you have your starting kit.
Oh, and avoid anything with ‘zoom’ as this will add cost and take away from performance.
*edit* It was pointed out (thanks Pete) that the Nikon Aculon A211 range is currently available online at quite knocked-down prices. I use these, they are very good. They are more expensive than the £10-20 I’m talking about here, but if you have a little extra and are keen, they are not a bad buy at all.