Here are some tips (from twenty-five or so years of experience) for novices on how to be a better birder...
I'm not a twitcher (that obsessive birder who jumps on a plane as soon as, say, a Grey Nightjar or House Swift turns up at the limits of Australia's territories, then busts a gut hoping to 'tick' it), but I'm a keen birder who spends every hour of every day with part of him in tune with what our birds are up to. So, here are some things to contemplate when in the field (from an east coast of Australia perspective).
1. Listen, listen, listen. Most of birding is actually being alert to the various calls birds make. Familiarise yourself with a Noisy Miner's repertoire. NMs are particularly adept at emitting loud, piping, high-pitched raptor warning calls. This alarm call has helped me spot many birds of prey over the years: Pacific Bazas, Grey Goshawks, Collared Sparrowhawks, Australian Hobbies, Peregrine Falcons etc. They also make a different, more drawn out (read whiney) call which tells you there's a perched predatory bird close by (good for finding Boobook Owls). Birds make a racket for a reason, often. If cockatoos, currawongs and magpies are all carrying on, I'd bet a raptor is responsible. Try to understand the language of birds as much as you can.
2. Buy every Australian bird field guide on the market. Make sure you purchase the latest editions. They all have their benefits; they are not exactly the same. I love Pizzey & Knight for the textual detail, Simpson & Day for the clear illustrations, Slater for the info on vagrant birds, Morecombe for close detail on distinctive plumage. Debus has two great guides out, one on birds of prey, the other, recently published, on owls and frogmouths.
3. Go birding at any time of the day, not just after dawn and before dusk. Go out in light rain and mist - many birds are still active then.
4. Revisit local spots. One or two visits will not give you a true indication of what birds frequent the area. A case in point is my local swamp. I've been there many, many times. Only recently did I see my first Latham's Snipe there (a summer migrant that's flown from Honshu and Hokkaido in Japan).
5. Buy binoculars that suit you. I've never bought expensive 'bins' in case I damage them. Know how to use them. Rely on the naked eye as much as possible, then lift the bins when a bird is in a particular position. Know how to quickly focus/adjust your bins. If you lose a bird in a tree, don't try to locate it again with your bins, use your naked eye.
6. Imitate calls. This works well for Powerful Owls! Whistlers, thornbills, flycatchers, pardalotes, scrubwrens, misteletoebirds etc. may come closer to you if you call them in.
7. Predict or read up on what birds are expected to be in a habitat before you visit it. This will avoid identification confusion in the field.
8. Do a hell of a lot of birding by yourself so you can immerse yourself in the world that surrounds you. Only then will you really understand what birds are doing, why they're acting the way they do, what calls they're making etc. Birding with others, though terrific, can be distracting (saying that, I've been guilty of being too loud/enthusiastic in groups before and had certain folks tssk tssk me!).
8. Look at everything around you when you're out and about - the sky might contain needletails/swifts or eagles, the understorey may produce logrunners or quails, there could be a flock of sitellas and monarchs in the midstorey, as well as thornbills and lorikeets in the canopy.
9. Visit the websites 'Eremaea' and 'Birds in Backyards' regularly. Document any interesting sightings on the birdlines Eremaea offers. BIB is a great sight for bird calls; I often use it when trying to distinguish certain honeyeater's calls.
10. You don't have to dress like a rebel or soldier when birding. I guess camouflaged clothing helps, but I've never been fussed. Wearing bright colours from head to toe may not work in the bush, but if you're looking at waders on a beach, a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper isn't going to care too much.
11. Have fun. Laugh a bit. Birding shouldn't be a serious business. Let's celebrate the exquisite bird life we have by our sides. Humour and enthusiasm can only draw more people in.
I hope this is beneficial. May your next bird be a lifer.
LJ, February 4 2012.