Birding: The Complete Guide to Twitching
What Is a Twitcher?
Often, when I tell people that I am a birder, they’ll say to me something like, "Oh, so you’re a twitcher then?" However, in the world of birding, a twitcher is defined as a type of birder who seeks to add as many birds to their life list as possible. It's a highly controversial form of birding, with the perception among many that twitchers are interested solely in getting ’ticks’ rather than engaging in serious study of their subject. The desire to add a new bird to their list often means that twitchers are often associated with poor behaviour, but this is an unfair generalisation and the vast majority of twitchers are perfectly competent birders who are not only very knowledgeable but also very conscientious in terms of their impact on any given bird they happen to see.
A Legendary Twitch
The Origin of Twitching
People have been watching and observing birds for thousands of years, but birding in its modern form is less than 100 years old, and twitching only really came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. The term originated from the nervous and twitchy behaviour of British birder Howard Medhurst whose twitchiness heightened whenever an exceptionally rare bird was reported. He was also among the first birders to frequently travel long distances to iconic British twitching hotspots such as Shetland and the Scilly Isles at short notice in order to see a rarity. The rise of twitching can easily be explained by delving into the competitive nature of humanity. As birding increased in popularity, many sought to outdo one another in the listing stakes, and thus the need ‘to twitch’ was born.
The term twitching is widely known in Europe, but less so in North America where the term ’chasing’ is more commonly used. Twitching is especially well established in Britain, as the Island’s North Atlantic location means that it benefits high winds from both East and West. The Easterlies bring the promise of rarities from Eastern Europe, Siberia and maybe even Asia. The Westerlies meanwhile carry with them the hope that a rare vagrant from North America will appear on British shores.
The Habits and Behaviour of Twitchers
To be a twitcher is to be an obsessive. For many, time, money and distance are no barrier whatsoever to add that all-important bird to their life list. But how do twitchers know when a rare bird has appeared. In days gone by, they relied upon knowing the right people or by phoning up places like Nancy’s Cafe, an average-sized cafe located in Cley, Norfolk that became legendary for supplying rare bird news.
Nowadays, though, keeping up to speed with rare bird sightings has never been easier; phone lines and pagers have long since been replaced by mobile phone apps developed by the likes of Rare Bird Alert and BirdGuides, both of which send up to the minute information straight to your phone. Although it’s worth pointing out that pagers are still used by a fair number of birders. When a potential ‘lifer’ is reported then many twitchers will quite simply drop everything and race to the other end of the country if necessary in order to see the bird.
At the most extreme scale, twitchers will happily take time off work, usually in the form of a sick day in order to get that tick. Also, they are often willing to shell out a great deal of money in order to get where they want to. I’ve even heard accounts where groups of twitchers have chartered aircraft just so that they can reach their chosen destination directly. Often they will cast aside other commitments besides work, commitments such as family and social responsibilities, and once at the twitch itself the extreme behaviour does not stop.
Once a twitcher has arrived at a site, if the bird is not showing well, they will readily use a recording of the bird’s song known as playback to entice the bird out of cover. They will also beat a bush in order to deliberately flush their quarry. I’ve even heard accounts of birders actually bringing gardening tools so as to cut back vegetation where a rarity may be hiding. More common at twitches is the controversial practice of supplementary feeding. I’ve both heard about and seen for myself birders/photographers who will readily chuck a handful of mealworms onto the ground to entice a rarity out of cover into full view.
The main danger with this is that the bird will come to depend more on this artificial food source rather than devote its time to feeding naturally. Moreover, the bird’s dependence on mealworms may lead it to become tamer, putting it at great risk to threats such as Cats. I even remember reading a shocking account of how somebody had attempted to catch a rare Red-footed Falcon that had turned up near Stoke-on-Trent bundled into a van, presumably to sell. Those individuals it must be said were likely not even birders let alone twitchers, but the point is that at its most extreme twitchers will do almost anything within their power to get what they want.
The perception of a typical twitcher also implies that they typically do not spend a great deal of time actually observing the bird's behaviour, instead being content to simply identify the bird conclusively before moving onto their next target. Moreover, because they rely exclusively on bird information services, more often than not their target bird has already been identified for them, meaning that twitchers do not necessarily have to spend a great deal of time studying a bird's key identification features.
However, in my experience, only a very tiny but significant minority engage in the poor behaviour outlined above. The truth is that most twitchers are simply birders just like me. You see, the twitcher dwells inside almost every single birder, it's just that some of us are more obsessive than others. Moreover, being a twitcher doesn't necessarily mean travelling to the other end of the country to see a windblown vagrant.
If I, for example, decided to travel to somewhere like Slimbridge during the winter to see Bewicks (Tundra) Swans, then I'm twitching them. There are actually very few 'full-time' twitchers; I doubt that there are many who could afford to twitch full time. Instead, you'll find that twitchers are mainly regular birders who spend most of their time watching their local patches. But when that rarity turns up, many, including myself occasionally feel the need to go and see it, or 'go for it' and hopefully 'connect' with it to coin the accurate phrases.
Is Twitching Good or Bad?
Twitching can be both good and bad, it all depends on how you chose to look at it. Firstly the good- twitching is fun, the competitive nature of it makes very appealing to the younger generation, and birding, like all hobbies, needs to maintain interest of the young in order for it to continue. Moreover, any youngsters who do start out as competitive birders, may develop into fully fledged birders and thus devote their time to supporting conservation initiatives, which is absolutely crucial, as its the youngsters of today who will ultimately shape the future of Planet Earth in the coming decades.
Additionally, twitchers can help confirm rare bird reports, almost all are perfectly willing to share their sightings and either point out or allow you to look through their scope if you're unable to locate the bird. Their records can also enhance our overall understanding of migratory patterns and changes in the distribution and populations of certain species. Also, the presence of twitchers often helps places as varied as nature reserves, cafes, bird observatories and farms through admission fees and voluntary donations. Donation drives are common at twitches, and at some of the largest, a pledge of just £1 per birder can help raise a considerable amount of money that can often keep local businesses afloat for a fair amount of time.
Now for the bad. As well the issues outlined earlier on, the obsession with adding birds to a life list could lead to underhanded tactics such as supplying the wrong information to a potential rival. It's not unheard of for certain twitchers to add birds to their list that have yet to be accepted by a rarity committee in order to appear more successful. Some birders will even keep rejected records on their list in order to maintain a higher total.
Twitchers have been known to be rude and/or pushy to each other, local birders and members of the public, especially if they are attempting to chase multiple birds at the same time. In extreme cases, certain twitchers have even been known to willingly break the law; examples of this include trespassing onto private property, damaging private property such as fences and brick walls in order to gain a better view of their target. Moreover, twitchers have been known to flout speed laws in order to get to rarities quickly.
At the most extreme end of the spectrum, twitching obsessively has lead to certain birders experiencing financial ruin, as well as the breakdown of marriages and relationships with family members, especially children. Obsessive twitching can also put a birders job on the line, especially if they continuously phone in sick or fail to keep to important appointments.
The Time When a Rare Falcon Arrived in Staffordshire
Twitching is a paradox, both good and bad at the same time. Whichever it is, is largely down to the individual birder. It's perfectly possible to twitch birds in a responsible manner, but some forget that their 'target' is a living creature that is in many cases thousands of miles away from where they should be and not just a tick on a checklist.
My advice for new birders is yes, by all means, dip into the world of twitching, its exciting and on the social side of things you'll make plenty of friends and maybe even find a partner (for the guys, yes I can assure you that female birders do indeed exist). But, I would caution against doing it obsessively, instead, I would engage with it in an opportunistic sense. For me, its all about the right bird, in the right place at the right time. Yes, I do inevitably end up missing a fair few tickable birds, but whenever I do ’go for’ a bird and ’connect’ with it, then it makes it all the more special.
As eluded to in my previous article, the best way to get into birding is to engage with all forms of it, whether it’s garden birding, patch birding, twitching, seawatching or visible migration (looking out for passage migrants) otherwise known as vismig. Each form has its own appeal and each one offers you the chance to accumulate a lifetimes worth of memories. Variety is the spice of life, as they say.
© 2018 James Kenny