Like many people who like to observe birds, I'm largely self-taught. Identifying birds takes a rather complex skill set, and it is the rare individual who grasps them in the first instance. Often bird watching or birding grows from encounters with birds, be it at a feeder or on a walk, and the question "Hmm, I wonder what kind of bird that is?"
Once the desire to identify the birds starts, just where does one begin to learn the skills you need to put a name to the myriad and often confusing different species of bird? For me, apart from an early curiosity in all things natural, it began with the gift of a Peterson Field Guide to the Birds (Eastern) from my Grandfather. It is still the guide I most often reach for, I love its familiarity. Thumbing through the book at the illustrations I gradually learned to narrow down my choices by family, to look for the field marks, those subtle differences in a bird that help identify it, that help to put a name to it. As my skill sets grew I got better and better at confusing species, at the differences that are found in individuals.
I didn't have a mentor, someone who could pass on their knowledge and skills. A mentor (or mentors) is probably the best way to learn these skills, and I know I made a lot of mistakes along the way. Early on I relied too heavily on illustrations alone, and not things like range maps, species descriptions and the like. It could prove to be embarrassing. On a trip to the tropics our guide noticed that I was keeping a list and asked to see it. When he looked it over he asked where I saw a particular bird I had listed, and smiled when I told him. The bird I thought I'd seen high in the mountains was a particularly secretive bird of the lowland rainforest, and much larger than the bird I thought I'd seen. Relying too much on an illustration I made an error that I vowed I wouldn't again.
So, again, apart from a mentor or teaching yourself through trial and error, what can the beginning birder or bird watcher do to learn the skills they need to put a name on that bird in the binoculars. There is a new tool available. Finding Your Wings (A workbook for beginning Bird Watchers) by Burton Guttman (published by Houghton Mifflin Books) is a great new tool for, primarily, beginning bird watchers, although I'd suggest it would be a help for all but expert birders. The book is set up as a course in learning bird identification, complete with exercises designed for doing at home and in the field. It is designed to be used in conjunction with the Peterson Field Guide to Birds, either Eastern or Western version.
The book is well thought out and logically organized, and the exercises take one through from the basics right through to problematic groups of birds, such as raptors, gulls, warblers and sparrows. It is an excellent resource, one I wish I had when I was starting out. Mr. Guttman has done an excellent job, and I like the way he approaches bird watching, for instance his admonishment that knowing a birds name is only a start, not the most important thing about bird watching...
"... the belief that knowing the name of something gives you power over it, and that you know something important about a thing - a bird, for instance - when you know its name. But all you know is a word. The real importance of knowing a bird's name is that you can start to learn something significant about it - its life, its habits, where it lives, how it lives, and so on. Please don't be satisfied with just knowing its name."