today's NYTimes online featured an article and a slide show on a birding trip to belize (the only country in central and south america whose official language is english). the slide show is especially nice, because each image includes the sound of the bird's call. for you non-aficionados, a small window into the magical world of birding. all you need is a quality pair of binoculars, a decent field guide, and you're on your way. i've lived all over the country, and my life list currently stands at 360 species -- a respectable number, but modest compared to those with the time and finances to travel worldwide. my favorite regions are the desert southwest, and the atlantic coast. both regions lie along major migratory flyways, so there is lots to see.
you'll find, if you decide to dip your toes into this pastime, that as a community, birders are extraordinary welcoming and helpful. no matter where you live, the best introduction is to take an adult education class in birding, or join your local audubon society chapter. either approach will afford the opportunity to join group field trips, usually with an informed leader who can point out elusive or cryptic birds.
binoculars are categorized by a pair of numbers, e.g. 7x35, or 8x40, or 10x50. the first number tells you the degree of magnification, and the second number is the diameter of the objective lens (furthest from your eye) in millimeters. so a pair of 7x35 binoculars magnifies an image 7 times what your naked eye would see, and has a 35mm objective lens. this is an excellent size for beginners, as the larger binocs are usually heavier and harder to hold steady. here's an additional useful guideline -- the first number divided into the second number should equal five. anything with a smaller ratio (like 8x20, which yields only 2.5) means a narrower field of view, and less light-gathering capacity. such binoculars aren't much better than opera glasses for serious birding.
i also recommend buying the finest brand that you can afford. you get what you pay for, and a cheap brand is going to provide poor viewing, and a frustrating experience. optics (lenses) have come a long way since i started out, 40 years ago. i truly envy anyone who is beginning now. so what are you waiting for?