When I was researching a camera to try bird photography, guides were all over the map. It was not clear if I could even reasonably start out below 5000 dollars. Would I regret buying a sub-2000 dollar rig because the photos would be so obviously amateur?
Super-zooms are a great choice for arguably most birders - especially new ones. I'll make an argument for and against them and then give you some recommendations on what to buy.
Why Super-zoom Bridge Cameras Excel
These cameras do not take National Geographic quality photos - most of the time. In perfect conditions, you will get some really nice shots. You'll definitely get great shots for web or social media use.
Since you can take them anywhere without special planning, they're perfect for a birder that enjoys hiking and has some interest in getting photos. Here's a rundown of the key reasons to pick one of these up:
First and definitely foremost for birding, super-zoom cameras have incredible zoom. Any of these cameras have over 1000mm zoom lenses which is practically unrivaled at any price or size in detachable lenses.
A bridge camera has a permanently attached lens which allows the camera to be significantly more compact. Furthermore, they have tiny sensors which increases the zoom power of small lenses. Most of these cameras can fit alongside your hiking gear with very little fuss, making it easy to get serendipitous shots while you're in the field.
Depending on your budget, this could be a deciding factor. A birding capable super-zoom will range from 300 to 1200 dollars brand new - not to mentioned used. A new rig that you would be happy birding with in the full camera body + lens world would generally start at 1200 and easily pass 2000.
When to go for a Full Camera Body Instead
Almost universally, it seems, birders reach for full camera bodies and advise beginners to do so as well. Unless you are flush with disposable income, I generally disagree with that advice. However, budget aside, why would you skip super-zooms?
Full camera bodies can get much more precise focus and markedly better photo quality in most cases than a super-zoom. The tradeoffs are size, zoom and budget.
A much loved combo, the Nikon D500 with either a 300 or 200-500mm lens, will cost you at least $1500 used and approaching $3000 new. This combo will perform very well on birds in trees near you, but will not capture birds across rivers or large open areas exceptionally well. Additionally, the lens alone weights nearly as much as an entire super-zoom camera.
To get the equivalent zoom, you could buy this monster lens and enjoy crisp photos even in situations that normally require a spotting scope. You'll also need 20 thousand dollars.
If you are not sensitive to the increased weight and bulk, full camera bodies will produce much more reliably high quality photos. Further, if you want to print photos on anything larger than a small notebook, you need to go with a full body.
For further reading, check out this excellent article on B&H that discusses lenses in general.
I think the vast majority of hobby birders are not going to print photos and, if anything, are going to post photos on social media where super-zoom quality is still excellent. All too common are hobby birders that pick up a reasonably priced full body setup and can't manage to get any birds close enough to get nice shots.
Recommended Super-zoom Cameras
These are the best super-zoom bridge cameras currently available at a few different price points. I really think any one of these are great starter cameras for an aspiring birder. They retain value even if you decide to later upgrade because they're quite compact - you can take these anywhere without lugging your larger rig.
Cannon Powershot SX70 HS
This is an excellent combination of value and performance. At about 600 dollars, it fits in the middle of this set of devices. The 1365mm 35m equivalent zoom will reach birds in any reasonable situation.
It is sufficient but weak in low-light situations, however, with a max ISO of 800 in auto mode you will have noticeable grain in most low light situations.
This is my go-to starter camera. It's relatively small size make it great as a backup for travel as well.
Nikon Coolpix P950
The P950 is the best super-zoom on the market, but also one of the most expensive. This is the newest in the Nikon P range, coming out after the P1000. At a lower price point, I think the P950 is a more realistic camera than the practically tech-demo P1000. A detachable lens with equivalent zoom to either may not even exist and if it did it would easily cost six figures!
At 2000mm zoom, you are very unlikely to get in a situation where you miss a shot of a bird in the field. It's the largest camera of this set by a fair amount, but still considerably smaller than a full body + lens.
Panasonic Lumix FZ80
This is a very capable camera especially at this price. I think the extra zoom and improved build quality of the SX70 is what sets the two apart, but if your primary consideration is cost then the FZ80 is a great choice.
Some advantages the Lumix seems to have over the SX70 is slightly better low-light performance and a lot more AF points.
It's great to have something at this price point that can make bird photography more accessible to almost everyone.
Where to go next
Once you've picked up a camera, you're going to want to figure out what all the settings do. Don't be afraid to go out and shoot some birds in Auto mode for a while to get a feel for your camera and tracking birds in general. I found a lot of 'magic sauce' sort of advice online but really nothing beats practice. The best thing you can do is take as many photos as you can in as many situations as you're able to.
Furthermore, whatever camera you have is 'the right camera.' Being able to take photos at all is half the battle here and you can absolutely make good, memorable, photos with almost any camera. Remember to be comfortable with whatever you get and focus on learning the ways your camera can take interesting photos.
Once you have your camera, I highly recommend this Coursera course (you can audit for free!). This course will give you an introduction to the basics of photography and explains most terms and camera features pretty simply.