I am interesting in birding and want to buy a camera. I am new to photography and am on a pretty low budget (between $500-1,000). I was wondering if there were any suggestions on how I can balance quality photographs, ease of use for a beginner, and a small budget.
I wrote about this on my blog recently: http://www.chuqui.com/2013/06/getting-started-in-bird-photography-choose-your-weapons/
For someone getting started, it's not really true that you need a big, heavy, expensive camera set any more. There are some really nice, moderately priced cameras with what are called "superzoom" lenses. There are limitations to this gear, but they can turn out really nice images under many circumstances.
the one I currently like is the Canon SX50. Its lens zooms in as far as the equivalent of about 1000mm (on a 35mm SLR). The sensor is good, image quality is good in good light. It's not going to replace my big, heavy, expensive birding rig, but I bought one to keep in the car and to use when I don't want to haul around my big, heavy, expensive birding rig. It's about $400 US right now, and it's a pretty good beginner to intermediate birding camera.
It does have limitations: Auto-focus isn't as capable as more expensive cameras, but still decent. When you zoom it up to 1000mm, hand holding is twitchy, but with 1000mm (equivalent) of lens, you should expect that. With some care and practice, you can get good images fully zoomed in. Its ability to handle a wide dynamic range is more limited than more expensive cameras, so heavy light/shadow situations will challenge it. You can't expect to to do high speed burst modes, and it won't be as good at following a bird in flight and maintaining focus lock as more expensive cameras.
So no, it won't do everything a $5000 birding rig will do, but it does a lot pretty well for $400. I've been recommending it to friends and birders who've been looking for a "carry around" birding camera, and so far, everyone who's tried one has been happy with it.
A crop camera (1.6x) and Sigma's "Bigma" lens (50-500mm), would get you a respectable 800mm reach and value.
In the end, learning bird behavior, approach techniques, and perfecting your patience are probably going to be the best benefit no matter your gear.
You're not going to get quality and reach at a low price, choose one or the other.
IOW you're either going to have to spend serious money on long lenses and heavy tripods and/or have to learn to get really close to the birds without disturbing them.
Buying a ticket to a zoo also helps, the animals there are used to having people around and are far less skittish.
Took these at a zoo several years ago, semi-free flying enclosure (free flying enclosure of about a hectare in size)
70-200mm f/2.8 with monopod and 2x teleconverter on a Nikon D200. Heavy tripod would have been preferable, but the added weight and size makes it impractical to use in a potentially crowded area.